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Rob Halliday: What next for lighting consoles?

Backstage workers face "age discrmination" because of the new National Living Wage, according to BECTU. Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock
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It must be so frustrating, being a manufacturer of lighting consoles. Just when they think they’ve solved the problems of fading lights up and down, the people who make the lights throw new complications at them.

This has always happened, of course. New developments meant lights were able to change colour, then change position. The console’s model – one ‘channel’ identifier representing one thing – was able to deal with those advances by adding extra parameters collected under the same channel number.

Even LED fixtures offering red-green-blue colour mixing – with no overall control of level – could be made to work the same way. The console people created ‘virtual’ intensities giving control of the three LEDs, so you could fade these lights, as with a traditional light.

The next challenge for the consoles was handling the array of lighting effects that LEDs made possible. The makers tackled this issue with onscreen grids with images. Underneath was a channel for each light but programmers had a better tool to manipulate them.

This year’s conundrum: multi-part lighting fixtures. This is a single physical light, which may be able to move. But within that fixture are separate cells of light, over which there is control of intensity, colour and other criteria.

This can make for some tremendous lighting effects: a dramatic moving train backlight in Harry Potter; a heartbeat trace in Rent, ever-shifting rays in the Sigur Ros tour, corpuscles of light in Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography.

But it’s a pain to manage in the one-channel-is-one-light model. Programmers invent tricks to deal with it – channel numbering, groups, macros to automate repetitive keystrokes, magic sheets that give an on screen representation of the rig. That still leaves a lot of juggling: where are channels two to six pointing? Ah, they’re cells so their position is controlled by the master channel. Channel one is up but there’s no light? You need to turn on the cell channels. If your programmer is a little slower and tetchier than they used to be, you can bet there are multi-part fixtures.

Various consoles have taken different approaches. Some offer sub-channels for each cell: channel one then 1.1, 1.2, 1.3. Some give versions of the same parameter (‘red1’, ‘red2’, ‘red3’). Neither is ideal. It feels like there’s a good solution, but no one’s found it.

Will this be the final straw that moves mainstream consoles from the keyboard/command-line model? There are reasons programmers work like this: you can drive the console ‘heads-up’, looking at the stage rather than at a screen, which – if nothing else – means you’re the first to notice a mistake.

Maybe these complex fixtures are the tipping point in an evolution that began with pixel arrays and continued with magic sheets. Maybe they require a graphical interface that, though it demands your attention, will let you shift back to the stage sooner. If creating that interface is half the challenge, the other is being able to work heads-up. After all, looking at the stage is what makes the role interesting. If you’re looking at the screen all the time, you might as well be working in a bank.

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