Documenting Lighting Design, Then and Now

by Justin Lang

Jules Fisher’s light plot for the 1968 Broadway production of Hair
Virtuality has led to better paperwork—and a better chance to study and learn from the pre-digital

Paperwork is important in almost every aspect of one’s personal and professional life.  Starting from the beginning—our birth certificate—paperwork just keeps adding up in our lives. In our professional lives—specifically in lighting design—paperwork is the key to one’s success in doing their job quickly and efficiently. Without a paper trail, we would get lost in the numbers and information needed to stay organized and perform our jobs well.

A Cue Sheet from the 1968 production of Hair
Lighting designers have been using paperwork to convey how things are laid out, connected and executed on stage since the first light was focused. In the beginning, paperwork was simple only because sophisticated lighting and control systems just didn’t exist. Laying out a lighting plot consisted of putting a pencil to paper and drafting simple lighting symbols that referenced where lights should be hung in the space. Before the modern era channel hook-ups, cue sheets, shop orders  and all the associated paperwork, were completed by hand. Need to make multiple copies for hang and focus? Get that pad of paper back out and make more copies.

Then came photocopiers. Creating a master cue sheet with channels numbers, the show name, and the designer’s information allowed for a cleaner and more efficient design process. As cues came up, rather than breaking out a blank piece of paper and ruler, a designer could simply pencil in the channel levels on a reproduced copy of the typed cue sheet.

And now computers have changed the way we work and deal with paperwork and communicate our ideas. No longer do we need to draft a plot, or create a simple magic sheet or any other piece of paperwork we might need by hand—that is, unless want to.  Keeping track of fixture counts, channel assignments, hook-ups and all of the other vital information that is required to operate your lighting can quickly and easily be tracked, edited, updated, saved, distributed and printed out as many times as we need.

There are a number of applications that produce, track and organize information for us in the lighting industry. Some of them include: Capture Polar (Windows- and Mac-based), Cast Software’s WYSIWYG (Windows-based), LD Assistant (Windows-based, available as a stand-alone program or as an AutoCAD plug-in), Light Converse, (Windows-based) and the cross-platform CAD program, Vectorworks. Each of these programs produces high quality light plots.

But what about the numbers we need to track and organize the overwhelming amounts of information associated with hook-ups, patch and so forth? Well, in addition to CAD capabilities, some lighting design software programs, including WYSIWYG, contain lighting paperwork functions within the program itself. For others, like Vectorworks, you’ll need to purchase additional software. The latest version of Lightwright, from John McKernon and distributed by City Theatrical, will interface with Vectorworks for real-time updates back and forth between each of the programs as well as handle practically every conceivable lighting paperwork need.

These are all powerful, professional-grade programs, and their price tag reflects this. A less-expensive option is a free drafting program called LXFree from Claudie Heintz Design.  LXFree is a Mac-based program that has the ability to create light plots and produce all of the necessary paperwork for a design. It may not be as feature-packed as the aforementioned programs, but seeing as it is a free program, I am not one to complain.

The last page of Fisher’s focus chart for Hair
Archiving the Records
Computers have certainly advanced the lighting design process, but they have also revolutionized the archiving process as well. As any good designer knows, archiving paperwork is a must. Who knows if some day down the line a design created for a particular show will come to life once again? Having the ability to save work, and access the original paperwork of other designers saves us the huge headache of recreating a show from scratch and helps us develop as designers.

Plus, to fully appreciate where we are as an industry today, we must look at history and learn from industry legends. Thanks to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the New York Public Library Digital Experience Group and the Lighting Archive, this is easier than ever. They created the Theatrical Lighting Database to digitally archive the original lighting designs of our industry’s greatest designers.

A detail drawing of how Jules Fisher wanted strobe lights sunk into the deck, from the collection of his Hair paperwork available at the Theatrical Lighting Database
It used to be that if you wanted to study these designs, you would have to travel to the lighting archive, which is currently at the New York Public Library, get permission to view the original paperwork and then hunt for it. The goal of the new database is to make the work of early lighting designers available online for everyone to study. Eventually anyone, anywhere in the world, will be able to search the database and review the original paperwork of early designers without the fear of getting yelled at by the librarian for touching the documents.

Currently in beta testing, the Theatrical Lighting Database offers four designs for public study. At the time of this writing, paperwork from Jules Fisher’s design for the 1968 production of Hair, Tharon Musser’s 1975 design for A Chorus Line, Richard Nelson’s design for the 1984 production of Sunday in the Park with George and Thomas Skelton’s design for the 1991 production of Fall River Legend have been made available on the database. As time goes on, more and more historical documents and paperwork from industry legends will be added.

Page 2 of Jules Fisher’s board hookup for Hair
Though it had some glitches at launch, the Theatrical Lighting Database is fully functional with high resolution scans of designers’ original paperwork and hand-drawn lighting plots. In addition to the designs and supplemental paperwork, the database also includes video and audio interviews (when available) with the designers themselves.

The Theatrical Lighting Database serves as a way to protect and preserve part of theatrical lighting history. It provides young designers with a chance to step into history and see how industry legends produced such magical designs with technology that was simple, but innovative and cutting-edge for the time.

Technology plays a huge part of our lives and makes our production schedules shorter and more efficient. Today we think nothing of printing out a couple of plots on “E size” paper on a plotter, or creating several versions of a design. What takes a couple of minutes today, would have taken hours to do at the drafting table some 40 or 50 years ago.

As we move forward with technology and adapt it to our needs, let’s not forget where we came from and the innovators that helped to shape our industry into what it is today. I applaud the New York Public Library and the Lighting Archive for their dedication and hard work in bringing the Theatrical Lighting Database online and their efforts to make such important documents available to the masses. As lighting designers, we can only grow in our industry by understanding and learning from our past.

Be sure to visit the Theatrical Lighting Database at http://lightingdb.nypl.org.

Justin Lang is lead writer and editor of iSquint.net, an  entertainment lighting and technology blog. Lang has more than over 15 years of experience in the industry working as a salesman for an international lighting company,and is also a well-respected freelance designer and photographer in the Washington, D.C. area.