Sightlines: What’s a Channel? The Good Old Days

Article by Paul Brown

I have known Paul for many years.  We first met at Penumbra Theatre in the early 90s when he was doing set design for them.  He is a man of many talents, set and lighting designer for theater and television, and a longtime member of IATSE local 13 here. He brings a story about what may not have been so good about the “good old days” but, also, what we can value from those days.  - Mike Wangen

Photo by Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo by Megan Engeseth Photography

When asked, with a pressed schedule, to put together something for this edition, one of the themes suggested was practices no longer in play – experiences of “older” designers. Well as a scenographer/technical director, this theme found resonance while multitasking on a lift - the veil of past technologies and materials leading to forgotten time-consuming routines resurfaced.

I recall visiting a facility where a two story slider patch panel that was not complete due to a copper shortage – 500 receptacles funneling into I don’t remember how many dimmers and non-dims for projector fans. There was a library ladder attached that rolled along the face of the unit and I was reminded that I don’t really miss the geeky pre-memory board wonder of plodding through how a show is going to eventually be run once the cues were recorded. You know, finding where you plug and replug circuits into a limited number of dimmers that go up and down by clutching, or not, onto a master shaft. Don’t even think about channels in the tens being’ in one sides’, etc. Channels were not; a concept to come later. It was dimmers that needed to have an interface to patch to. There were sliders where circuits engaged, telephone operator switchboard-like patching with weights that kept slack cable under control, plugs from circuits to patch to dimmers, and other patentable solutions to the dimmers – operator run auto-transformers (hopefully not round dials) or resistance dimmers…

Yes, I said resistance; a scenario I walked into when a famous summer theater proclaimed, “Come, we have new light boards.” They turned out to be reconditioned forty year old resistance piano boards from a NYC rental house – two, each with 12 - 3000 watt dimmer plates – with added 500w, six dimmer preset cabinets to be patched into the individual 3000watt dimmers. – all big toasters. And yes, one evening I actually cried, working in a sea of wire and heat, with my handy custom made sticks that would engage varied numbers of dimmer handles at once. They were labeled by cue and dimmer range. There were two of us – my assistant had to park cars until the 5 minute call. He looked snappy in his white pith helmet and red cone flashlight and was not allowed to be ill. The board, btw, melted down the day after we left the building.

The deal in making art with these boards was to tell the lighting designer, who had hopefully spent some time thinking about this in advance – guest designers were difficult to train to local conditions - where the bottlenecks were in execution, large cross-fades being particularly tough. (This is why many moons ago, two scene crossfading consoles were so the rage!) The Master Electrician had to figure out repatching and sometimes ghost loading, and reconfiguring the initial dimmer hook-ups to put dimmers that moved in like patterns or levels near each other. Staffing might be based, for show runs, on how many hands it took to bring each “six or twelve” pack of dimmers up and down. Turning the handles of dimmers on the way to engage or disengage them from the shaft on the master handles at the appropriate level. Cues and patterns of movement had to be notated for each cue as levels moved up and down. So the strategy was to stare at your cue sheets for patterns…make the physical sheets look like a grid…levels for each dimmer were written down by cue, levels changing for each cue were written down, ways to physically read these things were formulated in a fractional notation system…overnight homework the designer also got involved in and had to respond to when the words, “It can’t be done!” were uttered, a defeat no one wanted. Oh, to be a union house and only have operators having to use two hands, vs.having to utilize your feet as well.

I do not miss the older lighting instruments. Resident designers and MEs in the days pre-quartz lamps, had to deal with the decrease in lumens with the aging of lamps, no TD wanted to replace them until they failed.Really large wattage lamps, like followspot lamps, often had scouring particles – like sand – in the lamp housing.When carbon from the filament built up on the interior of the glass housing, one could remove the lamp and swish around the sand to clean the carbon off. That did not, of course, redeposit the carbon on the filament. The lamp died a slow death, getting weaker and weaker as there was less filament to glow. In conventional units, one became very aware of which units had the weakest lamps, as the hang had to take into account what units got the most saturated colors, the degree of saturation, and where the brightest and weakest units would be deployed - also imagining the values each unit would be run at. Hell could be, as it still is, having an even stage wash in lumens and tonality on the satin dresses of a period piece, or musical chorus.

Seriously, this was a really difficult undertaking, which could consume many hours of tweaking and rehanging, sometimes interfacing with the topic above in the solution to dimmer values and intensity changes. Watching a costume parade and realizing you had to rehang the front light because of lamp life and color temp. was such a bummer! A famous early author of a lighting book was being honored at a USITT annual Conference. A seminar attendee asked him how it was possible to obtain such even lighting with primitive units. He laughed and confessed that his hobby was photography and all the black and whites he took that were in his book that we admired, involved countless hours of dodging and burning prints in the darkroom to achieve the look he wished he could have put on stage.

A student who had taken all the lighting offerings, at that first college I taught at, traveled to The City to sit In on a week of lighting classes at NYU. He came back to report that the most important theme in his time with Professor Gleason was the notion of knowing what the purpose of each instrument’s use was and what it could be. That was a lesson of additional import when the color medium was roscolene, brigham, or cinemoid and mixing for mood and tonality was an important conversation had before the set was painted with the scene designer, especially as unit set details might require warms or cools to radically change the nature of the environment onstage. With lower lumens and fewer color choices, dimming levels, changing color temp. and various combos of color could turn everything onstage to mud quickly. Jean Rosenthal’s The Magic of Light was a conversation of practical import in discussing techniques for insuring sparkle and handling the rigors of musical theater and the balcony rail position, moving away from the theories laid down by Stanley McCandless.

While we are touching on color that we are reflecting upon, it started as a set design student made paint with cooking flake glue, diluting it into a binder medium, and creating paint with powder pigments. Shadow and highlight washes were painted in, as were the tonalities the lighting designer was expected to light for after collaborative consultation with the director in playing the tonality of the scene. I found myself designing in value vs. color often, props needing to be borrowed, the costume designer limited in fabric choices, and the opportunity to catch a rehearsal in which the actors might inspire and/or confirm emotional tone in their readings. Casein paints were a treat when their price became affordable. Woe was the time during the mid-70’s energy crisis, when it became too expensive to have casein bussed and latex became a default necessity. And how wonderful the Rosco concentrates, solving some of that shipping cost issue and singing with colorful beauty of the super toxic aniline dyes of yesteryear and drop painting.

There were several other themes that could have served, but, deserving greater development, in this essay, mindfulness in collaboration and methodology raise their heads. The joy of collaboration is something to pursue fiercely; making the creative endeavor – insistence that the creative endeavor - be respectful and nurture ideas fostering the discovery of the better idea – truth applied to the immediate performance problem – new work is so rewarding for this. At an LDI in Vegas, the LD of “O,” was presented with the four feet of pipe he had not hung a lighting instrument on during the three month investigation of the piece in development.A choreographer, when presented with my lights for one of his pieces, asked me to tear it up, lose the clichés, and re-imagine. I have always been better for remembering his words (and never ever again showed him my first work.)

I was a radio lighting designer; btw, the best opening line to break the ice in a job interview I have yet found. The discipline of leading reaction on a live stage with a live audience and a live listening audience was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done, imagine an audience of millions unseen. Oddly, working with such incredible talent, loose with systems of light set-up to be a win-win in real-time was great fun with little in the way of heavy intellectual art-making but joy in the moment of communal sharing. And as a lighting director for TV (TPT), there is joy in creating in the round…trying to give directors and videographers images and opportunities to make pictures foreseen in the mind’s eye…communicating how the set is going to work, sweating the details of specular light, exposure ranges, depth-of-field, framing with color…ideas from photography and ever-shifting points of view. Personally, it has proved a great outlet for a life-long interest in making pictures in a cross-over industry.

Our quiver is rich with thousands of years of practice and techniques, machines and magic.How wonderful it is to fall into a group of explorers who speak a language that shapes ideas and adds to them…where you can say,“I would have done that if I’d thought of it, thanks for adding value and a point of view making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. “Lighting,” Lee Watson said, “is planned darkness.” When someone asks what I do as a designer, I ask them to close their eyes in a world of darkness as this is where it starts usually. Darkness…a choice of reveal and the way to reveal it in time - add script, score, movement and imagine. We begin to sculpt…to shape our perceptions… and finding the language by which we tell our part in the story…trying to discover truth in the tale and the telling.