One of the best books I’ve ever read about show lighting has nothing to do with lighting at all.
In The Blink of an Eye is an attempt by the pioneering film editor Walter Murch to explain how and why he does what he does. It’s relevant because just as film editing is not really about chopping up pieces of celluloid, so show lighting is not really about illumination: both are about control, emotion, storytelling and psychology as tools to take an audience on a journey. Very early in the book you recognise the link; then you enjoy learning about your craft from the master of another.
A similar recognition struck me recently on stumbling across an article about film composers. It was talking about the impact of technology on the field. In the ‘olden days’ – up to sometime in the 1990s, the ‘John Williams era’ as the piece had it – while the composer could play melodies, they had no way of demonstrating what those would sound like in the hands of a full orchestra until that (expensive) moment when the orchestra got its hands on the writing.
As a result, there had to be an enormous bond of trust between director and composer – and the producer paying for it all. Part of the skill of being a movie composer was earning that trust. Once they did, you saw directors work with the same composer again and again.
Now – the ‘Hans Zimmer era’ – a composer writing an orchestral score can, and is expected to, create an electronic mock-up of the full orchestral sound for all to hear in advance, leaving more time for opinions, feedback and changes.
This, too, feels familiar to the world of show lighting. While set designers can show models in advance and costume designers can show clothes – lighting designers have traditionally only been able to show what they planned when everyone is assembled in the theatre. Until then it was largely words – open to wide interpretation. You had to trust them. When that trust was repaid, the same bond would form.
Of course, starting your work in full view of everyone is scary for a lighting designer; not knowing what you’ll get until the tech rehearsal is scary for the director. As in film scores, all kinds of tools have been tried over the years to help, from scale model lights to sophisticated computer renderings, sometimes even in a complete virtual-reality world. In the right circumstances, these are useful tools. As starting points…
Because, just as no synthesiser matches a real orchestra, none of these technologies can match the precise way the light grazes across a textured wall, or catches the delicate colours of a costume, or shapes the haze in the air. Chances are the lighting designer had pictured this in their head. If you trust them, what they sculpt with light will look better than any computer-generated render. So sit back, relax and let them take your audience on an incredible journey.
Rob Halliday is a lighting designer and programmer. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/Rob-Halliday