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Teaching lighting: the basics

5:45, 31st January 2020

Lucy Ellen Rix imparts some helpful advice on how to get the budding technicians in your class started via some basic lighting techniques.

It’s possible that many teachers are finding more students becoming interested in lighting as an option for assessment in some components of GCSE and A level courses. There’s no need to panic if you’re not an expert on lighting – a little useful knowledge is all you need to teach your students about the basics. It’s also useful for teachers to know a little themselves, should they need to do a basic design for a school production or exam piece.

Purpose of lighting
Remember that theatre lighting is used for the following reasons:

  • Making sure your actors can be seen by the audience
  • Concentrating attention on specific areas of the stage when required
  • Creating an atmosphere or mood, perhaps using colour
  • Special effects, such as strobe lighting or patterns

What do I need to know?

  • As with photography, lighting is about angles, so you need to think about where you want to hang your lights, and how much light you want to come from them
  • It’s useful to think about how you can use colour – this can be for symbolic purposes (such as red for danger) or for creating warm or cold environments
  • What kind of shape do I want my light beam to create? Some lanterns have
    adjustable beams, and others take accessories where the beam can be broken up into a pattern for a specific effect, such as a leafy floor or a church window

What about angles?
The best way to see how lighting angles work is by playing around with some large torches and a wig on a chair or box.This will show you how light hits the face and body. Here are some key things to know:

  • If lit from directly overhead, the eyes and mouth will be in shadow
  • If lit from behind, the body will be in shadow
  • If lit from the side, the profile will be highlighted
  • If lit from below, the face will be distorted – this is useful for dramatic
  • If lit from the front, the features of the face will be emphasised

The best lighting for the face is to use three sources of light: one from the front
at 45 degrees, and two from either side, 90 degrees apart. The lights at the side
will fill in, with the main source of light coming from the front.

Types of lantern
There are 4 basic types of lantern which are commonly found in schools or
colleges. These are:

  • Fresnel spot: a really useful lantern which gives a nice soft edge to the
    light. It’s good for using in a general wash across the acting space. A barn
    door can be fitted to a Fresnel to stop the main beam scattering onto bits of
    scenery. The size of the beam can be adjusted with a screw mechanism
  • Profile spot: this lantern can produce a beam of light that has a hard or soft
    edge. It has shutters which let you control the edge of the beam, so you
    can focus it onto a smaller area. This lantern is good for spotlighting. A gobo
    can be fitted to this lantern to shape the beam of light, and an iris can be
    used to reduce size of the beam.
  • Flood: this is a very simple type of lantern which is a lamp and a
    reflector in a box with no lens. Floods are good for a general wash or for
    lighting a back cloth, but they cannot be adjusted or focussed. These can be
    useful for dance events where lighting of facial expression is not always as
  • PAR-can: these lanterns are very good for using strong colours but not great for general wash lighting as they are too powerful. Par-cans are effective for special effects or for a very stylised moment within a play. Deep colours might burn out quickly with a par-can so be careful when choosing shades
  • LED lanterns: If there’s a little bit more money in your budget then a good investment for students to work with would be LED lanterns, which eliminate the need for sheets of coloured gel as they have built in colour options, allowing you to mix shades. Lighting hire and sales company ETC produce Colour Source PAR (LED) and Colour Source Spot (LED). These lanterns have red, green, blue and lime as their fixed colours which can be used in different combinations. The beauty of these lanterns are that they can also be used with or without a lighting desk. The Colour Source Spot has the added bonus that the colour will remain strong and powerful throughout a performance without the burning out that can happen with regular lanterns.

A few basic accessories will really widen what you can do with your lanterns. Here are some recommendations for your lighting cupboard:

  • Coloured gels to create atmosphere and mood; these are transparent and go in the path of the beam, held by a metal frame
  • Barn doors fit onto the front of a Fresnel lantern, allowing the beam of  light to be shaped, and for light spill to be reduced
  • Iris – this fits inside the profile spot and reduces the diameter of the beam.
    They can be very useful for tightly focussed areas.
  • Gobos, which are shaped metal slates that fit into profile spots to shape the
    beam into a pattern – there are lots of different designs, and you can even
    make your own

This is a section of an article which originally appeared in the 2015 Spring 1 issue of Teaching Drama. To access older issues of Drama & Theatre (previously known as Teaching Drama) subscribe to the digital version of the magazine: http://bit.ly/2MWf9SK

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