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Getting Theatrical

State-of-the-art illumination engines have created new applications that allow designers, architects and consultants to use moving lights in places not considered before.

By Dan Daley   •  September 8, 2017 1:56 pm EDT

Tags: avl design, integration, led, moving lights, technology, theatrical lighting, worship space,

It’s not news that many house-of-worship theatrical productions have achieved parity, and perhaps then some, with their secular counterparts, at least in terms of their technical virtuosity. That’s clearly evident when it comes to theatrical lighting, much of the inventory of which has become more accessible and affordable in recent years thanks to the shift to LED-based light sources.

However, churches and other houses of worship are not necessarily first and foremost “performance spaces.” They have budget and technical-competency concerns that most performing arts centers do not. As a result, they need to carefully manage how they acquire, assemble and manage their theatrical lighting complements.

Rigid architecture

A typical theatrical environment is designed in large part around its AVL systems; even seating can be designed to be rearranged when grids need to be lowered for maintenance or expansion. Churches, on the other hand, are locked into a more rigid architectural interior relationship between audience and stage. Churches whose theatrical lighting systems predate LED and which rely, for instance, on staple fixtures such as the Electronic Theatre Control (ETC) Source Four ellipsoidal reflector spotlight, may find maintenance more difficult because the lighting grid may be harder to reach, and more often, because those types of fixtures will need maintenance, such as light-source changes every 300 hours.

“LED lights will give churches a more easily maintainable theatrical lighting system,” says Norman Wright, vice president of Group One, which distributes lighting manufacturers ElektraLite and DTS. “But you still can’t just stick lights up there—you have to create the same kind of thought-out plots that conventional theaters use.”

Those plots generally consist of a base layer of wash lighting, with layers of spotlights and effects lighting atop it. That last layer will include moving-head fixtures, which Wright says some less-experienced lighting operators at churches often overuse. “Having moving heads spinning at 90 miles per hour isn’t the way to build a theatrical lighting system,” he says. Instead, he recommends starting with a basic array of foundational lights, such as ellipsiodals, but to use LED versions both because they will be less expensive to purchase and easier for volunteer staff to maintain. “We’re really just relatively recently gotten to the point where LEDs are bright enough for this type of fixture, and LED makes it much more affordable.”

Under control

Lighting control systems are also helping bring more sophisticated theatrical lighting capabilities into houses of worship. Wright points to the MA Lighting grandMA2 and the Avolites Arena and Sapphire Touch consoles as examples of control systems that make greater control over more complex lighting possibilities more accessible to operators without deep theatrical backgrounds. This generation of consoles utilizes the Remote Device Management (RDM) protocol, which allows bi-directional communication between a lighting or system controller and attached RDM-compliant devices over a standard DMX line. That, Wright says, lets users pick colors from a visible spectrum on a touchscreen, instead of having to mix them with a series of faders and rotary controllers. “Boards today are designed to be much more intuitive,” he says. “If you can work an iPhone, you can work a lighting console. From an architectural perspective, that means a church can go deeper into theatrical lighting than they could have even five years ago.”

Mixing theatrical & broadcast lighting

One major lighting consideration that houses of worship have that their secular counterparts can worry less about is how to integrate theatrical lighting with the need to light the same spaces for broadcast and, more recently, for streaming. Broadcast and live performances can use many of the same lighting fixtures, but each application also has a deep array of its own specialized products and systems. Broadcast often requires close-in illumination for faces, such as the Mac Tech LED LS and Slimline Series studio lights, which would be too intense for most theatrical applications.

Randy Read, lighting specifications sales manager at Arnold & Richter Cine Technik (Arri), says lighting designers working on houses of worship need to look for fixtures that can address both domains in a single unit. He points to Arri’s L10-C, a 10-inch Fresnel lens fixture that’s color-tunable, able to adjust the color temperature from 2,800K to 10,000K.

“That kind of flexibility will let a church go from a concert or theatrical production on Saturday night to a church service on Sunday morning with the right kind of lighting for each,” he says. As important is the fact that this can be done with a single fixture, which reduces cost and maintenance requirements, and lessens the possibility that a fixture that has to be physically adjusted for each type of use could be knocked out of focus in the process. “That’s something you might not discover happened until Sunday morning,” he cautions. “Instead of moving a fixture, you’re simple changing its mode, something that can be done remotely, from a console or on a network.”

However, churches will still need to acquire certain highly specific fixtures for the separate applications of theatrical performances and broadcasts. Richard Cadena, a noted lighting designer and educator based in Austin, Texas, points to fixtures like ETC Source 4 profile lights as a widely used bright, white light used as a foundation for stage illumination, and the Arri L7-C as one used for close-up facial illumination for broadcast. But these lights and others will often be used together in both applications, with the balance between them changing as the church’s needs shift.

“In a theatrical environment, you’re lighting for color and effect perceived by the eye, while for broadcast, you’re lighting for the camera,” Cadena explains. “The naked eye, which looks at color, can tolerate greater contrasts than a camera—which looks at color temperature. That’s why we can better tolerate seeing bags under the eyes or jowls in person than on video.” (And why the camera really does add 10 pounds.)

More locations

Daryl Sutton, senior business development manager for the HOW market at Martin by Harman, agrees that the need to light both theatrical and liturgical productions in the same space, often simultaneously, is one of the key things that sets this sector apart. But he goes one further. “They also have to scale their lighting from a main sanctuary across different types of satellite locations,” he explains. “And each space might have a different budget and level of operational capability—the main space may have a true lighting professional on duty, but other locations may only have volunteer operators. So you need to be able to scale systems, fixtures and complexity.”

Sutton points to Martin by Harman Professional’s RUSH line, which is one tier down from the company’s flagship MAC series, and which he says offers better budget options for churches that need to illuminate a diversity of spaces at different cost levels. It can be controlled by platforms ranging from an MH6 console to a PC device. “The hardware can vary but you’re using the same software on every platform and device,” he says. “So you can effectively scale the lighting and control systems.”

Pete Borchetta, product innovation manager at Altman Lighting, brings up two key points: the audience areas of churches and performing arts centers have critically different lighting requirements, and video as a source of illumination can radically change a lighting equation.

In the first case, Borchetta points out that HOW seating areas will need darkness or near-darkness for theatrical performances, as a typical performing arts center would. But during services they will need varying levels of illumination, as congregations read Bibles and other religious texts as part of the service. Sunday morning services may not be a problem—most churches will have some level of natural light coming in through windows that can be helped along by conventional lighting in shaded and covered areas. But evening services will need illumination that can come from a combination of conventional and theatrical fixtures.

“This kind of lighting is often looked at last, if at all, by architects,” says Borchetta, a former theatrical consultant. He recommends spending time with worship pastors to determine how much light the audience areas may need during regular services.

He makes one other point: Video tends to be taken at face value—moving images that complement a service and that can be integrated into theatrical performances if desired; however, video—especially very high-resolution formats like 4K—produce a significant amount of ambient light in the spaces where they’re used. Placement of projection screens, displays and video walls need to be calculated when figuring both the conventional and theatrical lighting needs of a space.

The takeaway for church architects and designers is to understand about theatrical lighting is that it’s increasingly a part of everyday lighting in churches. And that churches have a unique challenge because they will often need to light for live and broadcast performances and events. The good news is that there are more and more fixtures out there that can do that, and do so at affordable prices, thanks to LED.


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