So why do we need lighting?
It seems like a simple question to ask, but how does one really answer that question? Perhaps a better way to phrase the question is:
What are the goals of the lighting design?
What do I need to accomplish in my lighting design?
These questions are best answered by considering the following concepts:
The primary function that the lighting designer must keep in mind is Visibility. Without light, the elements of the production cannot be seen. This seems self evident, but in actuality, it is one of the more difficult areas of lighting design to master. It may seem odd, but the ability to SEE the actors has a significant impact on being able to UNDERSTAND their words! We sometimes do not realize how much lip-reading we actually do without thinking about it.
The simplest way to make sure the actors are visible is simply to turn on all of the lights as bright as possible, right? Well- that IS a strategy that will provide visibility. However, that tactic sometimes sacrifices some of the other functions of stage lighting. So in essence, the Visibility function is slightly more complicated than that. Most often, the lighting designer uses what might better be described as selective visibility. There is almost always a balance between what the audience can see and what they cannot see. The contrast between light and shadow (or the presence and absence of light) does a couple of different things:
So, Visibility is primarily a function of Intensity, but also of Direction, in order to provide light and shadow.
Focus is the ability for the lighting designer to help the audience to know where to look. It is sometimes useful for a lighting designer to think a little like a camera operator on a film or television show. There are some shots which are very wide and show lots of elements- think of the helicopter shot flying over the hill to reveal thousands of orcs ready to destroy the good inhabitants of Middle Earth. There is a lot to look at, and there is not really a specific emphasis on one particular area. But if the camera then zooms in to focus on the leader who is about to storm the gate, the audience is able to focus on this character who is important to the telling of the story.
The lighting designer acts in much the same way. When there is less importance for the audience to focus on individual characters, or an individual area of the stage, the production is lit more evenly across the whole space. But when it is important to emphasize on one particular character or conversation or scenic element, we can adjust the elements of light in the areas of the stage that have less importance, and/or add emphasis to the important parts by adjusting the elements.
Intensity is one element of light that helps to provide focus. The eye is naturally drawn to whatever is the brightest element in the field of vision. One way to test that the intensity is properly set in order to provide the correct focus during cueing sessions is to look at the stage and squint your eyes. This will lessen your visual accuity and blur out a lot of the details, allowing your brain to focus specifically on the relative brightness of the elements on stage. If the brightest part of the stage is not what the audience is supposed to be looking at, you'd better adjust some levels!
However, focus is really a function of contrast. The eye is drawn naturally to the thing that is different. It is also very possible to provide focus through the use of color. If the whole stage is washed in red, a character lit in blue will also stand out, even though red is a much more dominant color to our eye.
It is also possible to completely counter the 'natural' idea that the brightest object provides focus. One of the most focus drawing strategies is to use a silhouette. Even though the character or object that is being silhouetted is not lit at all, the audience is easily drawn to that point of emphasis on the stage.
A subset of focus and intensity is composition. If you have studied set design, you are probably well aware of the idea that the arrangement of objects on the stage is just as important as the objects themselves. Likewise, the director must place the actors in position on stage in order to create the intended 'stage picture'. The same is true in lighting. By adjusting the intensity on actors and areas of the stage, the lighting designer has a large amount of influence on the composition of the physical environment.
The varied intensity in this photo shows how the lighting can support the balance of the blocking and the set design in order to present a pleasant composition. The focal point is on the middle platform and down on the floor, clearly shown by the intensity of light on these two areas. However, the rest of the characters and scenery are also lit, therefore part of the composition, but not necessarily the focal point. This is very related to focus, discussed in the the functions section.
Lighting has the ability to help the audience know where and when we are. It has the ability to show time of day, location, whether we are inside or outside, the weather, and all kinds of different circumstances. Here are some examples of how a lighting designer might use the elements of light to help to visually describe the given circumstances:
These 'realistic' given circumstances are not always important, but when they are it is crucial that the lighting designer support this part of the storytelling by making choices that are congruent with the setting.
Perhaps the greatest area of influence that the lighting design has over the moment is the ability to affect the mood or the emotional reality of the scene. By using the elements of light, the lighting design can display how the play feels in a way that is much harder for scenery and costumes can. In this way, the lighting design must be much more related to what the actors are doing, rather than the physical environment.
One of the pioneers of modern lighting design theory and practice was a Swiss designer named Adophe Appia. In a time when lighting was purely practical, providing little more to the play than visibility, Appia believed that lighting, along with music, had a particular and unique power to reinforce the emotion of the moment.
Scenery, costumes, makeup and other design areas can be changed to suit the moment in the play, but not to the quick extent that lighting can. Imagine a scene in which there is a party going on. Lots of people are milling about laughing and having a good time. But then something happens to a particular character in this crowded room that makes him or her feel totally isolated and alone.If you've ever done something embarrassing in a crowd of people, and felt like the world has suddenly stopped to focus directly on you and you only, you know how this feels emotionally. In this moment, the lighting design could decide to quickly change the look, so that the rest of the people in the room seem to lose emphasis, while the character who is going through this sudden shift in emotion is suddenly isolated by a tight special. This major lighting change might not be 'realistic', but in the moment of the play, the stark lighting change quickly helps to tell the story. The choices made by the lighting design truly reflects the emotional reality of the moment.
Photos on this page: Reefer Madness, University of Iowa; Hair, Michigan Barn Theatre; Akarui, University of Iowa New Play Festival; Flyin' West, College of Charleston; Eurydice, University of Iowa.