Muslin, Paint and Light

by Michael Eddy

Leading backdrop companies suggest ways to put your backdrop in the best light

So, you decide to rent some backdrops for your next production. A good backdrop can really tie a scene design together and lighting can help—or hinder—the overall design. Good lighting paired with the scenic artist’s work will really make the drop come to life. You spent a lot of time on the different backdrop company’s websites and catalogs picking the just right drops to make your production stand out. You did all that planning and research; shouldn’t you spend a little time thinking about how you’re going to light these drops to get the most out of them?

Stage Directions spoke with a range of backdrop companies to share some of their expertise on lighting a backdrop to get the most depth and range out of drops. Ilana Goldstone, CEO, Founder and Creative Director of Backdrops Beautiful, offers this advice: “Lighting can be a backdrops best friend or worst enemy.”

What key advice should customers consider when lighting a drop to get the best depth and color rendering out of the drop?

“The main advice that we could give is simply understanding how colors of light react to colors of paint,” explains Tammy Modica, Creative and Operations Manager of TheatreWorld Backdrops. “The key idea is that red lights enhance red paints, blue lights enhance blue paints. In order to really create a dynamic and stunning effect when lighting a backdrop, see what color palette is used (cool tones vs warm tones) and accentuate it. Conversely, if you want to create a dulling effect or a muted color palette, then light the backdrop with a complimentary color. Utilizing creative lighting allows a single backdrop to be used for a number of scenes and emotions.” 

“When customers rent backdrops from us, they have more than likely seen the photo of that backdrop on our website,” says Greg Christo, President of Backdrops by Charles H. Stewart. “They like what they see and expect to get that look when they hang it for their shows.  So, the best way to get that look is to light it with the natural stage whites from striplights as we did when photographing the backdrops. Of course, adding a red hint or blue hint of light can change the mood of or mute the backdrop, so you do have to consider the colors on the backdrop when you start adding colored lighting. Too much red or blue could wash out some details in the backdrop.”

Tony Tambasco, Assistant Production Manager and Rentals Manager with Gateway Set Rentals comments, “It depends on the drop as well as depending on what they have available in terms of lights. In general, it’s the same good practices of lighting design. Think about where the light is coming is from in the scene. Think about what the color temperature of the light is. To a degree, I think, whenever you have any kind of painted backdrop it’s going to inform those choices for you because it’s already painted in the scenery. If, say, you have a sun rising in a morning sky, then obviously we know where the primary source of the light should be coming from. Then it’s up to the lighting designer to try to enhance the colors in the painting, not necessarily literally blinding the audience. On the flip side, if you have say a night sky scene, you’re going to want to try to be careful to do a little bit more sculpting. I’m for some reason imagining a backdrop of a balcony. You’ve got an interior and an exterior. An LD might want to consider lighting that, so that they’ve got some warmer lights landing on the interior parts and a cooler light landing on the night sky parts.” 

Jamie Clausius, Resident Scenic Artist of Tobins Lake Studios, urges lighting designers to “not be afraid to use color when you light backdrops. By adding in color to your lighting on the drop, you can make the colors in the drop pop and stand out. The color in the lights should interact well with the colors in the drop.” Modica agrees with adding color to light drops. “TheatreWorld’s backdrops are hand-painted with vivid designs and, at times, super-saturated colors. This means that even if general wash lighting is used, the backdrop will still look stunning on stage. They really come alive, though, when focused lights with beautifully mixed colors illuminate them.”

“Consider lighting as important as the backdrop you are renting,” says Elyse Kirmaci, Director of Business Development with Backdrops Beautiful. To create an ideal scene, be sure to adjust the color temperatures that will enhance and transform the color palette within the backdrop. Lighting designers can easily change our backdrops from day to night with the right colors and saturation. Many of our backdrops are painted with a 3D perspective, so utilizing lighting to intensify the colors and details within the background will create a realistic and visually satisfying experience for your audience.” 

Modica has found the best lighting for a drop “is using similar color palettes from the front at an angle, rather than straight down from the nearest electrics.” Being too close sometimes creates hotspots or uneven lighting across the top of the backdrop. Kirmaci agrees, adding that lighting designers should “place the lighting units at the correct angle thereby avoiding unwanted shadows behind actors and other props on stage. Proper front lighting is the key.” Tambasco comments that end-users “are going to want to make sure that they have even light on the drop. You wouldn’t want any ugly hot spots near where you’re hanging the drop.”

What lighting effects are beneficial to use with backdrops?

Modica offers that “gobos are great to use in conjunction with backdrops. For example, does the backdrop have prison bars or a stained-glass window? Try using a gobo or LED’s to shine a bar or window pattern onto the stage. Does the backdrop feature a jungle or forest? Use a gobo with various shapes and patterns and shine it on the backdrop, the stage, and the cast to create the feel of walking through a forest where the light shines through the leaves. Anything you can do to set the scene and make the entire stage look seamless is ideal.”

With many people using LEDs for the theatrical lighting, it’s a lot easier to play with color temperature balancing, which is something that Kirmaci recommends. “It’s best to use lighting with color temperature control features to shift the background lighting from warm to cool to create the look you want to achieve for your performance,” she says. “Additionally, for backdrops with a high level of detail, avoid over saturation of color as this will ultimately prevent the true colors of the defining details to shine through.”

What are some common lighting mistakes that end users should avoid when lighting a backdrop?

“A common mistake might be hitting the backdrop with too much lighting especially from spotlights as opposed to striplights,” says Christo. “Spotlights are typically brighter and can be muted with gels, but spotlights can also create unwanted shadowing. The standard, overhead striplighting is the best way to light the backdrops because it gives an even dispersal of the light.” Tambasco maintains that “the biggest thing to be careful of is any sidelighting or even top lighting that’s going to be near the drop where you can see the beam of the light hitting the drop directly because it doesn’t look good. If you have, let’s say a Monte Carlo cliff backdrop. If you add visible light beams on this kind of drop, you’re going to ruin the effect of it.”

Having the lights too close is a mistake that Modica warns about. “The most common mistake we’ve seen is when a simple wash is used with lights that are too close to the backdrop,” she says. “Light proximity has a twofold effect on the backdrops. One is that the light angle determines whether there is a hot spot or wash effect on the backdrop. Second is a huge safety factor in the heat emitting properties of the lamp. LED’s have very low heat-emission while incandescent lights have a very high heat-emission and can detrimentally affect the backdrop.”

LED-based strip and cyc lights are a technology that the backdrop companies embrace as it cuts down on the possibility of damaging effects from tungsten-sourced lights. “Staying up to date with the latest lighting technologies is imperative,” says Kirmaci. “Utilizing incandescent uplights with different colored gels are dangerous when placed too close to the fabric and are one of the major causes of damage to our backdrops. Any kind of LED lighting units are better than the outdated heat-emitting uplights as they are cumbersome, create excessive heat, and cause unnecessary accidents.”

Safety and not setting the drop on fire is a concern that should be kept in mind. “For safety reasons, make sure you’re not hanging it near any worklights because you wouldn’t want them to set it on fire,” comments Tambasco. “That’s honestly a valid concern even for being close to certain stage lights. If you are trying to backlight the drop trying to get a certain effect of a light appearing behind the drop—if that light is too close, then it could create burns, so always something to be avoided.”

Clausius recommends to light from the top and the bottom. “Most people light the just top of the drop with cyc lights, but many forget to light the drop from the bottom,” she says. “It’s important to use a striplight to uplight the drop properly; to give an even wash of light over the drop.”

Kirmaci cautions against backlighting the drop. “We generally suggest that people avoid backlighting the backdrop as this may reduce the vibrancy and detail of the backdrop,” explains Kirmaci. “However, if you’re looking to change the brighter colors to a darker scene, backlighting can be used to achieve a muted look.” Christo agrees, and adds that “too much of a certain color of light can wash out the details of a backdrop depending on the colors of the backdrop.”

When is it beneficial to backlight portions of a backdrop or portals?

“For cut drops or a drop with a door, backlight the opening to make people look like they are coming in from the outside or another room with more scenery behind it,” suggests Clausius.  You also should design your backlighting of the rest of the scene that relates to the painting and lighting of the backdrop. “We have received positive feedback from many of our customers who together with their design team have achieved phenomenal results using different backlighting techniques for the rest of the scene,” comments Kirmaci. “For best results in creating depth perception, light your subject and create levels of shadows in the distance.” 

Tambasco adds, “For the rest of the lighting for the scene, or show trying to pick a color palette that’s going to bring the cast and the other pieces of scenery into that world that the scenic artist has created to tie it altogether.”

Christo has had some customers backlight traditional, non-translucent drops to get interesting effects. “They wanted to make a quick, bold statement of color,” he comments. “I once rented our Tangled Forest # 0688 to a local rock band for a show.  At the end of their show that they just blasted the backdrop with a lot of light from behind and that really lit it up and the colors in the drop just became brighter. It’s not a common practice, of course, but it was an interesting application of backlighting.”

How do you use lighting to enhance translucent portions of the drop?

If there are candles or lights painted on the drop, be sure to add some specials from behind to make those painted effects ‘pop out’,” says Clausius. “For translucent drops with windows you can backlight those areas to make them look lit during nighttime scenes. Be sure to speak with the backdrop rental person about the drop that you want to rent. You might not know what’s translucent or not translucent by just looking at a drop on a website or in a catalog picture. When you speak with them prior to renting, they can tell you more information about the drop that can help with your lighting design decisions.”

“Some of our backdrops are translucent where you can backlight the backdrop and the windows on a building “light up” while the building stays dark or a moon can shine brighter for a more dramatic look,” explains Christo. “For this to happen, the back side of the backdrop will have to be painted or have some sort of contact paper applied that mirrors the design on the front that you want to remain dark.  Then, you just backlight it. Whatever isn’t covered on the back will light up.  You can create a daytime/nighttime scene using the same backdrop or just create a more dramatic look with the backlighting as opposed to no back lighting.”

Any other thoughts on lighting for backdrops?

Clausius from Tobins Lake comments, “Don’t be afraid to use color.” Charles H. Stewart’s Christo says, “Don’t overthink the lighting of the backdrop too much. When the scenes are designed and painted, they are painted as they are intended to be viewed. You can certainly mute the backdrop by changing the hue or brightness of the lighting, but it should not be something that keeps you up at night!” 

Modica sums up with a recommendation for designers “to think about the mood and emotion that the scene is trying to evoke. Using a backdrop with blue and purple lights will have a more soothing or magical effect than using red and green lights which will evoke angst or fear. However, remember that the backdrop itself already has dramatic colors in it, so you’ll want to choose a backdrop and matching lights that help accentuate the scene’s emotion and the artistic vision of the director.”

“One of the great things about a nicely painted backdrop is that it will enhance just about any set,” says Tambasco. “It will make everything pop and bring everything to life. I would say that to a large degree, the scenic artist is going to have done a lot of the lighting work for you in determining the colors and the textures. The LD should look at what that scenic artistry is and take their cues for how to light it from that. I think in a lot of cases it’s how do you highlight the work that the painter has already done to light the drop with their colors. Put on it as nice and even a light as possible that’s going to accentuate what’s there. It sounds a little bit like I’m saying in those cases the lighting designer is a little subservient to what the scene designer has done. I guess that’s correct, but it’s a lot easier to change a color of gel in the light than it is to change a shade of amber on a painted drop!”