Playing with Light

A couple of months ago, I picked up a copy of Faszination Licht (called “Light fantastic” in the English version) by Max Keller who is the Head of Lighting at the Munich Kammerspiele. The 85,00 EUR price tag is a bit off-putting at first, but the book is well-worth the investment.

This book is like the ultimate stage lighting book, covering everything from the early history of stage lighting, the technical basics (such as types of lamps, connectors and cables), to the artistic aspects of stage lighting, e.g. what kind of colors help convey what kind of emotions and how different lighting can present the same stage in many different ways.

Having a several years of experience in the basics stage lighting from my high school days, it was the latter part that made me get the book. A good part of the book is dedicated to pictures that showcase what can be done by a professional on a big stage with the right kind of equipment (a couple of these pictures are on his website as well, so go check out the gallery there). But for those of us that have to work with less, it’s still a great source of inspiration. The only downside is that it gives the director ideas. Ideas that can be extremely difficult to implement on a school stage that lacks the proper facilities.

Hands on

So in order to find out what’s possible on our stage, I spent a Saturday afternoon with the dedicated individuals from the stage crew at my old school. Over the years, the school has accumulated nice stable of equipment. Although some of it is a bit dated, some 30 fixtures of the 1KW class with a nice mix of PCs, PARs, Fresnels and spot lights gives one something to work with.

Historically, we have avoided using color gels, because while color can be used to help convey certain emotions and set the mood for a particular scene, color is very easy to get wrong leaving one with an effect that would be OK in a cheap disco but look ridiculous in a serious theater. Also, as the number of fixtures is limited, having gels in some of them reduces one’s flexibility as this makes it impossible to re-use the fixtures in other scenes that don’t use that particular color.

One interesting use of color that we experimented with yesterday is that of lighting with complementary colors. For instance, having one spot in blue and one in yellow will produce white light where they overlap and a blue-yellow gradient at the fringe of the light cones. As the two lights produce two shadows, one of the shadows will be blue and the other yellow (see page 57 in the book or this article for more details).

This can produce quite an interesting effect in the right kind scenes. While it looks OK on a black background, the effect will be even greater on a white one. Essentially, all color effects work much better on white than on black. However, we learned that it is important to get exactly the right kinds of gels or else one will end up with a weird, slightly off, non-white color. Also, the angle between the two fixtures is important. If it is too big, parts of a person’s face will be hit by only blue or only yellow, creating yellow and blue shadows that can look a bit creepy. Although this can of course be part of the design if the scene calls for this kind of effect.


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