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Introduction to lighting

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LINCOLN GIDNEY: Hi, my name's Lincoln Gidney. Today I've got a short lesson for you on the basics of lighting design. You won't need anything for the lesson apart from a critical eye ready to think about the things we're going to see on stage and how you might apply them in your own work.

Lighting design affects almost everything we do on stage. Through interacting with our actors and other elements of design, like set and costume, it's a mechanism through which we can develop mood, atmosphere, focus, rhythm, energy, and so much more. It almost acts as another character on stage, driving meaning and engaging the audience.

Today we're going to talk about three small areas of lighting design, focus and direction of our lights, the use of colour, and shape and shadow. These are fundamentals in lighting design but are incredibly powerful tools when creating theatre.

The first question we ask as lighting designers is, what do we want to see? Usually, the answer to that question is the stage itself. And so we turn off the house lights, plunge the theatre into darkness, and bring up some lights onstage. The act of plunging the audience into darkness and then bringing up light on stage draws the audience into the world of the play.

Similarly, we can use these sort of techniques in our design to draw audiences' attention to different parts within the stage space. If we highlight the door, what happens? Well, we expect something to come through the door. Similarly, if we just make this part of the stage bright, we expect some action to occur in that part of the stage. This is one of the most simple and most powerful ways to play with lighting design, by manipulating focus.

Also, the direction of our light is incredibly important. This is an old cliche. Sitting around the campfire, telling scary stories with a torch shining up on your face like this. But it's important to know, what does the direction of light do? Well, it highlights parts of the face, which are normally in shadow, and so makes our face seem unusual and appear in a new way.

Similarly, if I move this torch to the side, this half of my face is completely in light and the other ones in darkness. We can use these directions of light to change how we look.

Thinking with these ideas of focus and direction, what happens when I put a tight spotlight on this specific part of the stage? Suddenly, the flowers in the chair become important and are endowed with power and status. We feel like they're integral to the scene.

Similarly, if we return to the stage space and light the scene naturally with even lights from above, the scene feels natural and normal. However, if we change the lights and get them to be lit from the side, the atmosphere changes significantly. These elements interplay with each other. And we can take a simple scene and transform it into a variety of different worlds.

Another fundamental aspect of lighting design is how we use colour. Colour holds a really special place in our minds. And everyone has mental associations with Colour. Colour is an immensely powerful tool in eliciting emotions and highlighting themes within a production.

Our first step in understanding how we can use Colour is understanding the spectrum of colours from cold to warm. Cold colours are closer to blue, whereas warms are closer to reds and yellows.

Let's start thinking about some of the associations these colours might impart onto a scene. When this scene gets enveloped in a deep blue, what do we feel? Suddenly, everything becomes less welcoming. There could be elements of nighttime, sadness, slowness. And the space doesn't feel like it's been lived in. We might even say it could be occurring underwater.

If we change that to a warm yellow Colour, how is the space changed? All we've done is change the Colour. But suddenly the scene feels homely, bright, possibly in an afternoon setting. In this way, we can use these colours to start to transport our audience into new worlds created through light.

We can also be subtle or overt with our usage of Colour on stage. We might put a small touch of red in a scene to signal a sense of rage or passion. We might make an exterior scene lit with a cool light to indicate a nighttime scene. On the other hand, many musicals and concerts use an abundance of bright, vibrant, dynamic coloured lights to add excitement and energy to a performance.

We've talked about some of the more general Colour associations we have ingrained within ourselves. But it's important to note that the more specific you get, the more interesting these associations can be. Think about how this shade of blue creates a different effect to this one. Maybe one is more wintery or snowy than the other.

Trying to express how a lighting effect makes you think or feel is a great way to practise being a designer. Linking these concrete things we can see onstage to the emotions and ideas they evoke is a powerful process.

Also, it's important to note that culture and heritage can affect perceptions and Colour associations. For instance, in most Western cultures, red is the Colour of passion and anger. Where in Chinese culture, red is a Colour of celebration.

It is important to know your audiences and how they might associate with certain colours to make sure you're adding all the possible meanings into a scene. I would encourage you to look up some photos of theatrical productions and ask yourself what colours and lights are being used. Try to describe them as specifically as possible. And then ask yourself, what does this effect make me think or feel?

Finally, consider the influence of shape and shadow on the design. Colour an abundant light of fun. But often minimalism is equally powerful. And moment of darkness can often be incredibly profound. And a single light in an otherwise dark stage, incredibly engaging to look at.

Most often a silhouette or a shadow on an actor can convey a character trait or an internal conflict. And there are hundreds ways you could use these effects to influence your design. They will always work in tandem with the performances to highlight parts of significance and drive meaning.

Let's try and apply some of these ideas to a real world lighting design. This is a photo from a production of 'Copenhagen' by Michael Frayn. Pause the video, and ask yourself those questions we were talking about before. What can I see? What effects are being used? And what do they make me feel or think?

The first thing I notice is that these two characters are clearly the focus of the scene. They are what the audience is supposed to be looking for. And therefore, they are lit fairly well. You can see their faces and their bodies. And they stand out from the background.

Also, because they are lit and the wall behind them isn't, they seem to pop out from the rest of the stage space or exist in some sort of void. They don't feel like they're enclosed in the theatre, rather they are in a more open space.

The other big thing about this particular scene is the really strong directional light coming from behind the two actors. This warm yellow light is shining directly onto their backs and onto the floor behind them with really crisp, straight edges.

What does this warmth evoke? To me, it feels like a threshold or a doorway. Mixed with the cool light facing the actors, it makes me feel like they are standing just outside a door facing into the night outside.

This works as, at this point in the play, the two characters are standing outside their front door. And the set design wasn't able to accommodate a full threshold. And so we transported the audience and the actors into that world through the lighting design.

Let's apply these same ideas to another photo. Here's a still from a production of 'The Birthday Party' by Harold Pinter. I'll give you a moment to pause and do the same thing. Ask yourself those questions of what's happening and what effects does it make.

First of all, it's clear from the staging that the two foreground characters are where the focus should be. We have the standing Goldberg and the sitting Stanley. Now, what's interesting about this particular moment is the power dynamic. Goldberg is standing confidently and orating, whereas Stanley is sitting in a sheltered and almost cowardly pose.

Now, the designer has to highlight moments of the play, which are particularly significant. And so we can see that Goldberg is lit with much brighter light and is clearly visible, whereas Stanley is sitting down, shrugged in a much darker, colder, bluer hue of light.

This contrast gives us an idea of the different emotional states and the power imbalance between these two characters. Furthermore, the entire room is well lit in what we call a wash. There is even light from all directions, so we can see the entire scene.

By setting up this relationship between Goldberg and Stanley through the lighting, we can see that there is a conflict occurring and that the power and status of these individuals is at odds with one another.

Here are a few more photos from various productions. See if you can do the same thing. Try and break down what's occurring in the image and what effect does it make. If you get stuck after a few seconds, a few captions will come up with ideas for things to think about.

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There are hundreds more examples of photos of live productions online. And you can ask these questions to yourself for any one of them. Building a repertoire of lighting effects and meanings is a really, really important part of being a designer.

Here's a few more activities for you. Take a moment or a scene from a text you've been working on and ask yourself how you might add meaning to it through a lighting design. Is there a moment of particular importance? Are there parts of the stage where the audience needs to be looking? Is there a prevailing emotion or atmosphere that needs to be imparted? Think about all the things we've been talking about and how you might create a design that incorporates all of these ideas.

As another activity, choose three contrasting moods or emotions and see if you can express them through your lighting choices. For instance, you might use lots of shadows, deep reds, and silhouettes to create an atmosphere of menace. How might you do other emotions? Maybe joy or grief or anything in the spectrum in between.

If you really want to get hands-on, with your parents help, grab some lamps around the house and darken one of the rooms. See if you can use the lamps, some thin material, or even some coloured cellophane to create different lighting colours and effects and shades.

If you can't find any of those things, even just some baking paper with some texta over it can give an element of light. This one is a really, really light red colour. It's an easy way to start playing with how we might make familiar things appear in new and interesting ways.

In this lesson, we've learnt about some of the basic elements of lighting design. We've talked about focus and direction of our lights to add meaning and direct attention, Colour to add themes ideas and emotions, and shape and shadow to drive that meaning. Next lesson, we'll be focused on how to achieve some of these effects and understand these effects on a more technical level. My name's been Lincoln. And I hope you've enjoyed the lesson.


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