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Lighting at Your Fingertips

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Software sets the scene and saves money

By Jim Hollborn

With recital production costs increasing, many studio owners are looking for ways to cut back—ideally, without sacrificing the quality of the show. Fortunately, technology is making it easier to produce recitals of the quality your customers expect while saving you a great deal of money and, in some cases, reducing the time needed for tech rehearsals at the theater. One such technological advance is the vast amount of lighting software available for theatrical productions.

Using a 3-D image of the stage, lighting software users can begin devising a lighting scheme months before the dress rehearsal.(Photo courtesy of Jim Hollborn)

Using a 3-D image of the stage, lighting software users can begin devising a lighting scheme months before the dress rehearsal.(Photo courtesy of Jim Hollborn)

Purchasing lighting software became a necessity for me while organizing this year’s recital for my wife’s dance school, Performer’s Edge Dance Center in Davenport, Florida. In past years we were able to rent the theater for our technical/move-in day at a discounted rate, which allowed us to set up the sound and lighting prior to dress rehearsal. However, this year the theater was going to charge us the full rental rate, putting a tech day out of our budget.

This left me with a problem: The only chance I’d have to light the show would be during the dress rehearsal, which would be impossible. Since I was already running the sound, I decided this was the perfect time to take the plunge into lighting control software. With the software, you control the lights with your computer instead of a traditional light board, and much of the work can be done without setting foot in the theater.

The goods
I wanted to find a product that would allow me to control the lighting in sequence with the music and provide a 3-D view so that I could set the lighting prior to dress rehearsal. Also, it needed to be cost effective and easy to use. With that in mind I came across a program from Chauvet lighting, called ShowXpress, that fit the bill.

Since I tend to purchase my sound equipment from online vendors that sell lighting equipment for DJs and bands, the logical first step was to look at software that was created by the same companies. I narrowed down the field first by price, then eliminated those without a timeline feature (which plays the lighting scenes in sync with the audio) or that seemed difficult to use.

The most important feature for me was the ease of use of the timeline feature, and ShowXpress stood out in that respect. Also, I wanted a system that could run with and without a computer. I always like to have a backup plan in case of computer problems.

Chauvet permits you to download a full version of the software to try, although to actually control the lighting you must purchase a USB-to-DMX interface, which can be a cable or a device, depending on the model. All work with the same software, which is free to download or comes on a CD when you purchase the interface.

After testing the software for several weeks and reading all the reviews available, I felt confident enough last March to purchase one of the three USB-to-DMX interfaces: the Xpress 100 ($300), X-Factor ($500), and Xpress Plus ($950). I chose the Plus interface, which has the most features, enabling you to control up to 512 channels, along with the ability to store lighting scenes for standalone playback in the event of a computer crash. (Check current prices on planetdj.com and look for deals on used equipment on eBay or other sites.)

With the software, you control the lights with your computer instead of a traditional light board, and much of the work can be done without setting foot in the theater.

Make sure to read the fine print about computer system requirements before you make a purchase. And don’t forget to consider customer service. I had a question on where to store the audio files so the timeline feature could access them, so I contacted Chauvet via email and someone quickly responded. Also, their site has a discussion board that covers a wide range of topics.

Basic steps
There are a few basic steps to using this software: assigning DMX channels to the light fixtures, building light scenes, creating timelines, and adding timelines to the Live screen. But before you begin you must obtain your theater’s lighting plot, which tells you the types and locations of the lighting fixtures as well as each one’s DMX address (if already assigned).

Assigning the channels
Using the software’s fixture screen, match the DMX channels to the theater’s lighting fixtures as shown on the light plot. If you plan to rent lights to install in the theater, this would be the time to set an address for those fixtures.

I found one limitation with this software while setting the channels. Since the software uses a one-to-one patch (meaning channel 1 controls circuit 1 in the theater), it is difficult to make circuit/channel changes. Keep this in mind when talking to the theater’s technical manager and discussing the light plot. The theater personnel should know what you expect when you walk into the theater and connect your computer to their lighting system.

Setting the scenes
With the fixtures assigned, I created a 3-D replica of the stage at the theater, even down to the backdrops. This function is one of the better features of the software; it allows you to go into the classroom months before dress rehearsal and begin creating lighting scenes. In each lighting scene, a specific group of lights is controlled for a specific time; for example, having the side fills illuminated at 50 percent for 2 minutes. You then name and save each light scene. Use the name of the dance or any other name that’s easy for you to remember; these will be recalled in the timeline portion of the program.

You create a light scene by using the Builder screen, controlling each lighting channel individually; your adjustments are displayed immediately in the 3-D stage view. The number of light scenes you can create (for each dance and for the entire recital) is unlimited.

Creating timelines
Using the Timeline feature, you can drag and drop media files (such as the music for each class as well as the saved lighting scenes) into a timeline. If there are multiple lighting scenes, they can be added at specific points in the timeline, wherever you want them to occur in the dance and corresponding to the music.

A digital counter at the top of the Timeline screen helps you sync the lighting scenes with the music. Again, you can test your lighting using the 3-D view. If the lighting scene does not occur when you want it to, simply go back to the timeline and shift the scene to the left or right. At this point, it is useful to sit in the classroom and watch the students dance; as the timeline plays back in 3-D view, you can ensure that the lighting cues match the movement.

Configuring the Live screen
Once you have created timelines for all the dances, you can play them back by using the software’s Live screen. You create a button for each dance by recalling the timelines and organizing them in the order of the show, which is very easy and takes only about 10 minutes. If the show order changes, simply move the buttons to correspond to the new show order. No more wasting time by re-burning CDs every time the show order changes.

Keep in mind that both the Timeline and Live screens must be open in order to recall each saved timeline during the show. The Live function is the easiest and most rewarding part of using this kind of software to run your show. It acts as a CD player during the show. With the Live and Timeline screens open, you press the button in the Live screen that corresponds to the dance you want to run, which calls up the timeline that corresponds to the button you pressed. This function makes running the show very easy.

At the theater
With the pre-production work done, you will need to take care of a few things during the move-in and before the dress rehearsal. The USB-to-DMX interface must properly be connected to the theater’s lighting system. The sound output from your computer should also be connected to the house sound board. Then you can focus the lighting fixtures and begin testing the scenes and timelines.

If scene adjustments are needed, you can make and save the changes using the Builder screen. Most likely you will need to modify the channel levels for the lights; typically the stage will be darker than the 3-D view on your computer. Once you have saved any adjustments, use the Live screen to recall your timelines—simply press the button that corresponds to each dance and you have perfectly timed lighting.

Preparation and payoff
There is quite a bit of preparation, but it is worth it in the end. I spent about two weeks watching the dances and taking notes. I then worked on the preliminary lighting at home for about a week, for roughly an hour a day, and made adjustments during in-studio rehearsals (three nights, for approximately four hours each night). Then, during move-in prior to the start of dress rehearsal, I fine-tuned it all, which took about three hours, and made adjustments during the breaks.

Even having had little experience with stage lighting, I found that using this software made the recital weekend less stressful. The software gives you precise control over the show, in turn creating a shorter, more visually pleasing production—and for less than $1,000. It saved me more than $4,000 in rental and personnel fees this year. You don’t need special computer expertise to use the program, and once it’s set up, anyone can run it. I say it is an investment well made.

Tips for First-Time Lighting Designers
  • Talk to the technicians at the theater. Most are helpful and can answer any questions.
  • Be prepared. When adjusting the lighting, have a cue sheet for each dance handy. You might want to create a “Magic Sheet”—a cheat sheet that lists each channel and the lighting fixture it controls. Usually you would group the channels by color, area of the stage, or function.
  • If you rent additional lighting fixtures, make sure you know the electrical capacity of the theater as well as of the fixtures. Ask the theater’s technical manager before you rent!
  • Keep it simple. The software allows you to control “intelligent” lighting as well as many LED fixtures. You might be tempted to fill every DMX channel with these types of fixtures, which will not only complicate your job but also increase the amount of time needed to set the lighting.
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