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Controls for theatrical lighting

Advanced control systems are revolutionizing the lighting industry across applications, from skyscrapers to streetscapes. But much of the technology that makes the modern landscape so compelling is rooted in the theatrical business – an institution that has existed for thousands of years.  

“Theater has been around for a very long time, and its purpose has always been twofold – to present a show and create an experience,” said David Catterall, general manager of Eaton’s Zero 88 entertainment lighting control solutions business. “The modern theatrical business is all about dynamic lighting control systems, but lighting designers have been shaping the way we experience performances for well over 100 years.”

Early theatrical lighting

Throughout history, theatrical lighting mirrored lighting’s general evolutionary track. Stage companies in the age of Shakespeare and earlier times put on productions by natural light, firelight or candlelight; later, crews turned to oil lamps and gas stage-lighting systems to light their shows.

The first electric lighting systems for the stage were built with a small number of lighting circuits, and this continued until near the end of the 20th century.

“We didn’t even have moving lights when I started my career,” said Catterall, who broke into the theatrical lighting business in the early 1980s. “But a lot can change in 30 years.”

When theatrical lighting control shifted from analog to digital, it exploded.

Controls and other advances in modern theatrical lighting

Today, theatrical lighting employs many types of lights and light sources – ranging from the more traditional tungsten white light with colored filters, to the latest LED color-changing and moving lights in spot, wash, beam, strip and matrix formats. Each has its own characteristics that can be manipulated and adjusted including brightness, beam angle, shape and color; these lights can even deploy rotating images and patterns. Not surprisingly, the control of each demands an increasing level of sophistication.

“Lighting designers now have a huge number of instruments available to create a show,” said Catterall. “And with all of these tools, interoperability makes perfect sense. Our industry wasted no time creating a common protocol (DMX512) that makes everything interchangeable. The result is a universal standard that benefits everyone, within and outside the theatrical business.” 

The entertainment industry isn’t the only example of the impact of advanced lighting controls, but it’s a logical nursery for the evolving technology.

“Because we have many light fittings and many different scenes, we have to be able to change a lot of parameters, sometimes extremely quickly,” said Catterall. “We use moving lights, color-changing lights and color-mixing lights to support the story onstage. Today’s high-speed, digital entertainment lighting control systems don’t hold back the use of these tools – rather, they embrace them.”

High-tech lighting isn’t limited to the big stage. In fact, Catterall says the magic happening in stadium shows, West End musicals and on Broadway tends to trickle down through the rest of the marketplace – from live music venues and semiprofessional theaters to schools. While these venues may not use comparable quantity or power, the equipment and techniques are essentially the same.

“What we’re seeing at school Christmas productions now is a subset of what’s happening on Broadway,” said Catterall. “Many schools are using color-changing or even moving lights in their auditoriums. Today’s control systems have allowed lighting technology to trickle down rapidly to midsized and small users.”

Advanced controls provide another advantage: the capacity to transport large amounts of data, bringing increased wiring flexibility and controls information. Now, complex shows incorporate thousands of lights and many devices that all work together to create an experience.

“The boundaries of control are fairly mind-boggling,” said Catterall. “You may have thousands of control channels for one show and tens of control channels for a single light.

“Of course, you need a fast network capable of scooping all of that into a more simplified wiring setup,” he said. “And that’s where Ethernet comes in.”

Larger venues now transport DMX – the stage industry’s digital communication system – over Ethernet.

“We’re now positioned to transport multiple strings of DMX in an Ethernet protocol and split it back out to DMX locally,” said Catterall. “If you see a large DMX installation in a Broadway or West End theater, it’s likely being transported via Ethernet from the control room, to all the areas of the building where it’s needed and finally breaking out to DMX only locally at the fittings. We’re now able to use many different types of equipment from many different manufacturers together, and the result can be pretty special.”

LED technology, too, is changing what’s possible in theatrical lighting and elsewhere. Color-changing LEDs are becoming more affordable, minus the need for specialized power supplies, and make it easy to mix almost any color. LEDs can also be easily hid, run in a linear arrangement and used for projection.

“Modern LEDs have allowed us to expand our imaginations when it comes to lighting design, and they really free our visual creativity,” said Catterall.

Other applications

Catterall draws a direct line from theatrical lighting to other applications, from building facades and landscape architecture to hotel ballrooms.

“When we go to a shopping center, we’re not just going to the physical space – we’re going to the experience,” he said. “Advanced controls help us create dynamic lighting and, in turn, experiences in a vast range of interior and exterior environments.”

City skylines, too, are made more memorable using lighting control systems. Iconic structures like the Empire State Building and Freedom Tower use lights to tell a story and make a statement.

“The ability to deploy variations of color across all or some of a building comes from entertainment,” said Catterall. “From plays to rock and roll shows, we’ve pioneered the rapid, precise control of large numbers of lights.”

Indeed, equipment born onstage now lives everywhere from fashion shows and new car launches to Christmas parties and landscaped gardens. It’s becoming more accessible, too: today the average consumer can buy color-changing lights, derived from technology based in theater, at his or her local big box store.

Catterall says that in the future, our ability to control light will find its way into more and more corners that have traditionally stuck to static or white lighting. 

The entertainment industry is changing how we light the world.