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LE-DIY

Darin Kuehler • Feature • September 1, 2016
For a production of The Whipping Man at the Omaha Community Playhouse, Darrin Kuehler made LED “lanterns” that were dimmed using RC4 Wireless dimmers.
For a production of The Whipping Man at the Omaha Community Playhouse, Darrin Kuehler made LED “lanterns” that were dimmed using RC4 Wireless dimmers.

Incorporating LEDs into your props is easier than you think

Being a properties master comes with a variety of challenges. LEDs are just one of the newest ways to address these challenges, but learning about their construction, how to control them, and the requirements to power them is a necessary step to make sure that the answer is not more complicated than the question. Once you have some basic knowledge, you will be able to not only solve your prop problems but to insert a little magic into your work as well.

Choosing LEDs

The interior of the lightsaber handle showing how the LEDs, batteries and electronics were put together.
The interior of the lightsaber handle showing how the LEDs, batteries and electronics were put together.

When choosing LEDs for your project, there are a few things you have to consider. Are you looking for a focused light or more of a wash? Do you need it super bright, or is subtlety the key? Is size a factor? With these things in mind, you’ll be able to start narrowing down your material list. Unlike a traditional incandescent bulb, LEDs have viewing angles—the smaller the angle, the narrower the beam. An example of this would be that 1.8mm­-10mm round LEDs tend to have viewing angles from 30°­-65°. These are great when you want pinpoint light. Last year I needed to build some lightsabers for our theatre’s production of Enron. I used five, 5mm green LEDs mounted on a piece of mirrored plexiglass to illuminate the lightsabers. I placed them at the base of an 1/8-inch-wall acrylic tube that had a diffusion sleeve, and they provided even light throughout the “blade.” 

 Darin Kuehler's LED lightsabers for a production of Enron.
Darin Kuehler’s LED lightsabers for a production of Enron.

If you’re looking for a wider viewing angle, a straw hat LED will provide a greater wash of light (typically with a 90°-160° viewing angle) and allow for more current. These make great sources for lanterns. Couple them with an RC4 wireless unit (more on them later) and let the flicker effects engine do the work. 

These LEDs are great because they don’t need a whole lot of power to run. A single LED can usually be powered by an AA battery. Be careful, though, as some colors require lower or higher voltages and you don’t want to find this out the hard way. Make sure you pay attention to the forward voltage of your particular LED. (I may or may not be speaking from experience.)

 If you need something a little brighter, or just simply need a larger amount of light, you’re probably looking for high power LEDs. These tend to be surface mount (SMD) so they’ll have much smaller leads to solder to. You’ll need a steady hand for most, and maybe even a magnifying glass. High power LEDs deliver higher lumens, but at the cost of potentially needing a heat sink as well as a larger power source. 

Another resource to keep in mind is LED tape. It’s available in a variety of colors where the entire tape is one color (“Linear Tape”) or where you can individually address the color of each LED (“Pixel Tape”). Being a flexible circuit, LED tape is great for organic shapes or tight spaces. When choosing which tape to buy you’ll normally see three descriptive words: normal, super and ultra. Used to describe the intensity of the light, you must be aware that this is achieved by packing more LEDs per meter. The more per meter, the more battery and amperage you’re going to need to keep it running. This is especially important if you plan on working it into a costume piece, as you could end up having to hide a substantial battery. 

When looking for individual LEDs, I highly recommend Adafruit.com and EvilMadScientist.com. Both have an amazing selection and are always willing to help answer questions, should they arise. Many entertainment industry stalwarts—City Theatrical, Elation, Enttec, GLP, Martin, Rosco—make a variety of LED tape options, with more variety coming out weekly it seems like. Check your favorite suppliers for what they have available.

Control

With the proper source acquired, focus shifts to how your prop will be controlled. Does it light up when it’s opened or interacted with? Does the actor flip a switch or is it controlled from the light board? These answers will determine the rest of your build. Although there are many options available to you, not all of them are going to be cost-­effective, and some may not physically fit within your prop. 

Sometimes simple is better, as was the case for our touring production of A Christmas Carol. With venues across the country banning live fire altogether, we made the choice to switch to only electric candles. Instead of using a commercial electric candle we built a cost­-effective version with a vacuformed plastic shell for the base and holder, PVC pipe, a toggle switch, resistor, a 9v battery and a 5mm yellow flicker LED from Evil Mad Scientist. Overall cost for each candle was under $4 with the most expensive part being the switch, which was sourced through Digikey. 

To make the candle we glued a piece of 1⁄8-inch by 1/8-inch by 1/2-inch plexiglass to the top of the LED, then dipped that construction in thick cyanoacrylate glue (super glue) and then rolled it in reflective glass beads from colesafety.com. (These are the same beads that cause reflectivity in street surface paint.) We mounted that to the top of the PVC pipe and hid the battery and electronics inside the plastic shell. The toggle switch was placed near the finger hole of the candle base so the actor could easily “light” the candle without having to twist the candle itself or search for a small slide switch. 

While some prop challenges can be simply solved with a LED and a switch, there are times when you need a little more action or control. There are two control options I recommend: An Arduino microcontroller or an RC4 Wireless dimming product. The Arduino is very cost-effective, but will require learning software coding as well as the time and patience necessary to program (and debug) your effects. An RC4 wireless dimmer is a more expensive up front (though you can rent) but is very easy to implement. 

 Arduino is an open­-sourced programmable circuit board with easy-­to­-use software. The boards themselves come in a variety of sizes, and with the software and hardware being open­-source there’s a wide assortment of compatible boards from companies like SparkFun and Adafruit. There are small boards such as the Pro Micro from Sparkfun, which is 1.3 inches by x 0.7 inches, and there are large boards like the Arduino Mega, which is 4 inches by 2.1 inches, and commonly found as the control board in desktop CNCs and 3D printers. 

In our shop, we use the Arduino Uno. It is relatively compact at 2.96 inches by 2.1 inches and, unlike the Pro Micro, has female headers in which to connect leads. This makes it easier to repurpose the board after each show. The board itself is great for LEDs but is also aptly capable of controlling stepper and servo motors. The required voltage for an Uno is 5v, but 7­12v is recommended. 

An Arduino uses loops to execute code. In our case, we can use this to turn LEDs on and off, to fade them up and down, or have them react to a button or switch. Coding an Arduino is relatively simple and the language is pretty easy to grasp, although it is easy to get frustrated when the code doesn’t work the way you thought it would. Bear in mind, when the LED or motor isn’t doing what you intended, 90% of the time the error is in the code. The Arduino can only do what you tell it to. The issue usually lies in the syntax, often something simple like a semicolon in the wrong spot. 

For the purpose of fading, pulsing or flickering a LED with an Arduino, I use an analogWrite command and a PWM pin on the Arduino. PWM stands for Pulse Width Modulation, which is a digital signal that allows the LED to change intensity without a visual “stepping.” I used this in another production of A Christmas Carol. The Ghost of Christmas Present appeared alongside a table of delicious food and treats. Throughout the abundance of food were cool white 3mm LED strands dipped in reflective beads. Each of the three strands was made up of four LEDs wired in series. Using the analogWrite command and three of the PWM pins on the board, we could have each strand fade up and down independently in a loop, creating a glimmering effect. Once you understand the syntax and the limitation of the loop programming, the Arduino boards can be used in a lot of different situations. The main drawback, however, is that the program cannot be changed on the fly during a production without plugging a computer into the board to upload the new code. 

For changes on the fly and versatility in controlling LEDs, there is nothing like the RC4 Wireless units. When using battery power and wireless DMX you are able to give control to the light board technician. This was extremely useful in our production of The Whipping Man. With lanterns strewn about the stage and hanging from walls, there were three that would not be able to have wires running to them. Two were downstage of the action and one was carried on by an actor. Each of these lanterns had two amber 5mm straw hat LEDs, a two-channel RC4 Wireless receiver, a resistor to bring the voltage down for the LEDs and was powered by two rechargeable 9v batteries in parallel. The candle flicker was created using the RC4’s Flicker Engine. The advantage to this setup is that the lantern can be dimmed along with the wired lanterns to help draw focus to a scene, or to have them all go out together at the end of the act. If we had had them wired with a simple switch, we would not have been able to do either. 

 Learning how to code an Arduino, or wiring up a simple LED circuit adds a whole new element of magic to your work. If you plan on adding RC4 units to your inventory, don’t let the sticker price shock you. You have to look at the units as an investment for your theatre and not something that is simply going to be thrown in a box at the end of the show. Once you have the tool, you’ll find a use for it in every production.  

Darin Kuehler is the props master at the Omaha Community Playhouse. 

 
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