SMU and Philips Vari-Lite offer students a unique opportunity to design with automated luminaires
Published Thursday, May 19, 2011
by Philips Vari-Lite

At colleges and universities around the world, the next great doctors, lawyers, and teachers are being given the opportunity to learn in both the classroom and out in the field gaining valuable experience that will serve them well upon graduation. Unfortunately, there are also talented and dedicated lighting designers who are working just as hard to fine tune their craft at the university level, but who may not have the same opportunities to put their knowledge to work until after graduation. Today, through a cooperative program launched by Philips Vari-Lite and the Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, 2nd-year Grad students Joshua Cutler and Maxwell Bowman are being given that opportunity and the experience they have gained is something they will never forget.

“SMU has a long history with Vari-Lite,” said Steve Woods, Head of Stage Design at SMU Meadows School of the Arts. “Vari-Lite was originally founded by former SMU students and previously we had held discussions about the possibility of doing something together. When I was approached again by Alan Kibbe and then Leonard Miller of Philips Vari-Lite, we felt the time was right so we began discussing how we could work together along with George Masek. We all felt it was important that we try to offer the students an opportunity to work with a large number of automated luminaires as their experience up to this point consisted only of working with two or three at a time. Once they leave the University, they will indeed encounter lighting rigs that have a significantly larger number of moving lights at some point in the careers, and we wanted to give that experience now so they will be better prepared.”

“I am actually an Alumnus of SMU as well so it made it especially rewarding for me to give something back to the school and the program,” said George Masek, Philips Vari-Lite Product Manager. “It was a real pleasure to work Steve and his students who were so talented, and who also showed quite a bit of savvy regarding moving lights. Their sense of cueing, timing, and movement was really strong. All of us at Philips Vari-Lite are looking forward to continuing our work with Steve and his program to add an even greater learning environment for all his students.”

As the program got under way, both Cutler and Bowman, 2012 MFA candidates in Stage Design, would be given the opportunity to work in the Vari-Lite demo room with a rig that consisted of over 60 VARI*LITE automated luminaires using a Light Palette VL console from Strand Lighting. They would have their choice of which lights to use in the design and would also be tasked with completing a full design that could be showcased at the end of the semester. While both Cutler and Bowman had some minor experience with automated lights, neither fully understood the complexity of the assignment, but their enthusiasm to succeed could not be denied.

“I think they came into the room supremely confident in their abilities, thinking they would knock out five songs in a few sessions,” added Woods. “What they have found is how complicated it actually is to design and program a rig of movers and how much time it actually takes. But to their credit, they have been very open to accepting the benefits of all the knowledge around them at Vari-Lite and they got right to work.”

“I have designed using a small number of moving fixtures, but have never designed a rig exclusively made up of moving lights,” began Cutler. “It was a little overwhelming at first, but I was ready to jump in.”

“I have also worked with some moving lights during our undergraduate productions, such as the VL3500Q Spot,” added Bowman. “But since that work was primarily in a theatrical setting, I was excited to get my hands on an all automated rig that I could use in a rock-n-roll atmosphere.”

As both designers got to work, Cutler chose to design his rig around the song Firework by Katy Perry, while Bowman decided to go with Tick-Tick-Boom by The Hives. While each designer would have the same choices in lights to use for their design, they both had a different idea of how they wanted their showcase to look and feel. While Cutler would focus on a single artist for Firework, Bowman used a four-piece band staging to complete his design.

Cutler continued, “Firework was a bit challenging in that there is a lot of imagery in the words and so I wanted to make the lights act as the fireworks themselves giving a sort of pyrotechnic vibe. Then I had the idea of that the piece takes place in a ‘blue’ world. I took most of my lighting cues from the song to find where to really hit with all the gobos, strobe effects, and color changes. It was a long process with several revisions, but I am really happy with the way it all turned out.”

“In my song, Tick-Tick-Boom, I was really going for a true rock show with deep reds and hard strobe effects,” said Bowman. “I really wanted a fun yet strong piece that would allow me to break free from the theatrical side of design. I wanted the lights to have an out-of-control yet organic feel, sort of like they have a life of their own but are still working together. The music for this song is very in-your-face, so I wanted the lighting to have the same appeal, but I had to find layers within the design to make it flow, so that it was not over-the-top at all times.”

Once immersed inside their designs, the value of the program began to show its true colors as both Cutler and Bowman began to experience the subtle nuances of designing a rig of automated luminaires that they would not have been able to experience without this program. While all lighting design has its challenges, one in particular stood out to both designers.

“My biggest challenge was simply keeping track of everything,” admitted Bowman. “I have never used this many moving lights before and keeping track of what light was doing what and when was a little difficult. It gave me great respect for what rock-n-roll lighting designers do.”

“I totally agree,” added Cutler. “My song has 126 cues in a 3.5 minute timeframe. Each cue executes so quickly after the last, it was challenging to remember what cue is happening, and then remember which lights in the rig are free at a particular time in the design. It’s not something either of us expected but it’s something that we definitely needed to learn.”

Woods explained further, “During this whole process something really amazing started to happen. While we were working in the demo room Vari-Lite programmers, engineers, sales executives, software developers would all pop in to see how it was going and to offer the kids advice when needed. All these talented professionals were freely willing to give their time to our students to help them identify what it was they were thinking and then relating how to make it work back to them in their vocabulary. It was fantastic to have that support.”

As the two designs came to life, both Cutler and Bowman began to find themselves being attracted to certain automated luminaires within the VARI*LITE family, and also began to find out what each light could truly do.

“I absolutely loved working with the VL550 Wash,” said Cutler. “It’s so fast with beautifully timed and smooth color fades. Plus, I really enjoyed working with the VL2500 Spot. It turned out to be much more versatile that I thought with its speed and fast color changes. I really enjoyed being able to use these two lights the most.”

“I would have to say the VL550 Wash is my favorite light as well,” agreed Bowman. “I love the color temperature and the strong and defined beam that comes from a wash. But the thing I like most about all the VARI*LITE luminaires is that it is not hard at all to have color-matching between the various lamp sources in a design. I was going for small club setting and I really liked using the deep, dirty reds. And no matter what fixture I chose, I could find the exact red I needed.”

As the semester draws to an end, and with both designs nearing completion, Cutler and Bowman not only have a greater confidence in their abilities as designers, they also feel a greater understanding of how automated luminaires can work together in a design. But before they finish the semester, they have a bit of advice for those students who will follow them next year.

“My simple advice to those that follow would be to have somewhat of a plan going in, but understand the plan will definitely change,” said Bowman.

“And don’t get frustrated,” added Cutler. “It was the mistakes that helped in the discovery of what was possible. I remember one time when George Masek stopped in to help us; he was watching my demo and quietly passed a note to me that read ‘Light the Money’. I had been so busy incorporating all the various strobes, color changes, and everything else, that I had gotten away from the fundamental aspect of lighting; lighting the talent."

And for educators who may be looking to find an avenue for their students to explore what is available in lighting design prior to graduation, Woods offered a bit of advice as well.

“What I have known to happen at the collegiate level, is that educators often look inward to the University for all their needs. You can also look outward to the professional community. While you may not have a Philips Vari-Lite in your town, you could have dealer or distributor that would love to help. I have found that many professionals are very willing to open their doors and share their knowledge."

Like all technology-based careers, lighting design is an evolving entity. New products and technologies continue to enhance and better lighting designs around the world. And just as with other professions that train their newcomers on the latest advancements, SMU and Philips Vari-Lite stand proud of the work of both Cutler and Bowman. As these two designers begin their promising careers outside of the University, they both feel that this semester at Philips Vari-Lite has provided them confidence, knowledge, and the practical application of all the tools needed to succeed.

“This was a great experience,” said Bowman. “Learning how to track all the lights. Learning what each light can do and what it can bring to a design. Learning how to layout the programming for a complete show. This project has allowed me to grow so much as a designer. And you cannot learn this from a book.”

Added Woods, “At the University, these guys wear their student designer hats. But here, with the overwhelming support and cooperation from Philips Vari-Lite, they have been welcomed as equals and have turned into real lighting designers. I am so proud of them. This is our second year of the program. Last year was fantastic. This year was spectacular. And I can’t wait to find out what word we’ll use to describe the next year.”

“This whole experience really gives me an idea of what products are out there and how they perform,” concluded Cutler. “It’s something that otherwise I may not have been able to learn until I was out of the University atmosphere, so now I am even better prepared. While all my past experience has been in a theatrical setting, I really think this allowed me to see how concert design is done and how I can now incorporate those techniques into my designs for theatre and dance. But what I will take most from this is that it has helped me to think faster on my feet when it comes to design. Plus, I know now when I am looking for automated lighting in a design, I have a good idea of what each type of VARI*LITE luminaire can do and can make educated decisions on which lights to choose for my rigs. This semester has given us both a great head start.”

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