TJ Gerckens overcomes show challenges with the VL3500 Wash & Spot Luminaires
Published Tuesday, April 14, 2009
by Bryan Matthews

As La Sonnambula opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday March 2, 2009, lighting designer T.J. Gerckens was pleased with the show challenges that the design team had overcome. When director Mary Zimmerman chose to take the production setting out of the traditional Swiss village and place it into a contemporary New York City rehearsal hall, Gerckens was faced with lighting obstacles from both the scenery and the challenges of working within the MET’s rotating repertory system. To overcome these challenges, Gerckens chose the VL3500™ Wash and the VL3500™ Spot luminaires, provided by Barbizon Lighting Company and PRG.

“There are two key items that steer the lighting of the show,” began Gerckens. “Both come from the scenery for the production, and design-wise, I start taking my cues for the lighting design from the scenery.”

“The first key to the lighting design is that the production is set non-traditionally within a modern New York City rehearsal room, so the look is much more realistic and it’s more of a white light world than the colorful realm of a traditional opera.”

Onstage in the rehearsal room setting for La Sonnambula, set designer Daniel Ostling had created windows lining the upstage and stage left walls towering approximately 25 ‘ tall. In this design element, it was evident to Gerckens that the lighting changes through the windows were going to be a key element to the overall feel of the show.

Gerckens continued, “The director told me that the one thing she wanted on this show lighting-wise was to have at least a moment, if not several moments, where the light through the windows moves across the floor like you would see in a jet plane as it banks to the right and left and the light through the windows arcs across the cabin.”

Gerckens and Zimmerman had spoken of this type of design element in the past while working together on another production, but at the time they did not have the lighting technology to accomplish it as desired.

“It was very clear from the discussions we had that Mary did not want the traditional hang of three systems with cross-fades between them. She wanted to see the pattern of the window on the floor physically move across the floor in a sweeping arc, and perhaps changing colors as it moves. So we knew from the get-go that it would be an interesting technical challenge, but it was to be a key to the look of the show and I knew it was not going to be created by normal static fixtures.”

As Gerckens began researching the various automated luminaires on the market, he had three distinctive characteristics he was searching for - intensity, color-mixing, and reliability. It was these three characteristics that led him to the VL3500 Wash luminaire.

“I was chatting with resident lighting designer Wayne Chouinard and he suggested the VL3500 Wash fixtures. I was a little concerned because I thought we might need to do some shuttering on the windows as they moved to make sure the spill from one window didn’t wash out the imaging from the other window. But when I saw a VL3500 Wash demo I was incredibly impressed by the sheer intensity that they put out. I was able to watch them in motion and watch them work and I was totally sold on them. We then decided that given the throw distance, the zoom capabilities, and the distance between the windows, we’d go with the wash fixtures to be sure we had the punch to make the image work. You don’t want to get this great image going and then find out you’re a couple of hundred foot-candles short of something wonderful.”

Working with Chouinard and the MET lighting team, Gerckens was able to create a rig for the effect that consisted of a ladder outside of the windows with two VL3500 Wash fixtures on each ladder. The ladders were then mounted onto motorized tracks. But once the lights were programmed for their tracking movements, Gerckens was a bit concerned that they might not track properly to create a seamless movement although his concerns were quickly put to rest.

“We only had a short period of time to work on tech for the lights and we thought that it might be a bit of a nightmare if the systems didn’t track together or if the zooms would need to be zooming at a different rate to maintain the proper size to cover the windows. How were we going to make sure the lights track the windows, the zooms are appropriate, and that they’re all moving at the same rate as the motor sequence? But from the first shot, they were all in sync, and it turned out beautifully.”

Another design challenge for Gerckens was that the majority of the production was going to be a white-light show. The director specified that she did not wish for a large number of obvious light cues, so, the design needed to be about modulations of a white-light realistic look. And that’s where Gerckens started with the VL3500 Spot luminaires.

“In this opera, the lighting specials were mostly used to punch people out because it was a white-light show. So I often needed to pull an actor out with a change of intensity or with an edge light. I like using the VL3500 Spot for a strong diagonal to put an edge on someone, or to bring in light from the opposite side of the stage as a very strong side light.”

Although the production did not use an abundance of color, it would be necessary for Gerckens to match the colors being used in the static fixtures of the rig. For this, he found himself relying upon the CTO features of the luminaires.

“To match the stage lighting, I’d dial up the colors and then take it just a little bit cooler to give it that pop, so they’d stand out just a little bit, and highlight the rest of the color palette. Because of the HMI source I was a little worried about getting the color match right. In the past, I’ve also had situations where by the time I balanced the color, I’ve lost the intensity. But with the CTO of the VL3500 Spot, I was able to get a great color-matching without losing intensity.”

With the lighting design challenges now successfully overcome, Gerckens was very pleased with how his design for La Sonnambula fell into place.

“It was great to be able to use the versatility of a moving light fixture in an environment where, hopefully, no one really knows they’re moving lights. It was also beneficial to be able to reap the benefits of having the equivalent of 50 specials up in the air with only eight VL3500 Spots. Plus, I just can’t emphasize how easy the programming sequence was for the time lapses. I don’t know if that was the fact that the VARI*LITE® automated luminaires have a very accurate and reliable timing mechanism, or if the stars were just aligned properly that week in New York City, but to me, VARI*LITE is the go-to brand.”

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