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Making the Movers Into Followers

Matt DeMascolo • Answer Box • August 1, 2010

Hempfield High School student Ryan Stewart, operating a modified Mac 2000 Performance as a “followspot.”

Turns out you can use moving lights as followspots—with a little modification…

I was moved to write this Answer Box piece after reading the interview with LD Joseph Oshry in the March issue of Stage Directions. In that interview, Oshry says “I would like to point out that a moving light is not an effective substitute for a good followspot with a good operator…Moving lights are simply not followspots.” With all due respect (and an acknowledgement that I agree with Oshry’s larger point), I would like to suggest that moving lights can make great followspots—but you still do need great ops.

I am the Lighting Systems Manager for Production Express, Inc., a certified Martin repair technician, programmer, ME, up and down rigger and freelance lighting designer, among other things. I also love lighting high school musicals. I love the educational aspect of getting the kids involved and teaching them the correct way to hang a fixture or read a plot, as well as teaching them how to understand lighting paperwork and program a console.

The most recent musical I lit was for the local high school production of The Secret Garden. I have lit many shows at this school and am familiar with the space’s limitations. One of these limitations is the followspot position. It is all the way at the back of the house at a horribly low angle. Low enough that you get the “circle of death” on backdrops.

For most of the shows that I have lit in this space I could work around this problem by using some specials, or movers—or just moving the actor. Unfortunately, due to the set and the nature of this show, those solutions wouldn’t work this time. Alternate positions for the followspots wouldn’t work either—putting followspots in the box boom position still resulted in a bad angle and limited room, and there was no room (or money) to modify the front of house catwalk to place them there. The only way that I could make followspots work from the front of house catwalk was to use moving lights—only slightly modified.

The makeshift handle yoked to the fixture lets the “followspot” op aim the light while the color, gobo and intensity of the fixture are all programmable at the lighting console.

I disabled the pan and tilt motors on Martin MAC 2000 Performance fixtures and hung them at the same elevation at the rest of the FOH fixtures. Then I made a custom handle for the fixture and strapped it to the yoke. I placed a high school tech behind the unit to act as a “followspot” operator, and voila! Yes, the handle could have been a little more aesthetically pleasing, but results could not have been any more pleasing.

The location gave me a great angle for the spot, I had full CMY color mixing, shuttering, gobos for texture on the actors—it was a thing of beauty. The one danger was cueing the spots. What if the spot was not where it was supposed to be when the light came on? To prevent this I had all my spot ops write down all of the standard cueing notes as if they were running the spot without any automation, and I let them know that when the spot was not on, it needed to be pointed to the sky. They did a great job, and I didn’t even see the one cue they missed. 

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