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History Lesson

Discussion in 'Lighting and Electrics' started by gafftaper, Mar 21, 2007.

  1. gafftaper

    gafftaper Senior Team Senior Team Fight Leukemia

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    Recently there was a thread about old lights. I recently picked up Ricard Cadena's new book "Automated Lighting". The book starts out telling the history of automated lights which I found really interesting. So I thought I would share a recap of his first chapter... Pick up the book for $45 on the PLSN bookshelf, it's pretty good.

    The first remotely controllable light was patented in 1906. (No way!) "The fixture had a carbon-arc source, an electromechanical color changer, and a series of cords and pulleys that allowed an operator to remotely change the pan, tilt, and zoom by manually adjusting the cords." They put this light in the balcony and an operator could be somewhere way up in the back of the house pulling cables.

    By the 1960's Century was producing electrically remotely controlled pan and tilt Leko and Fresnels. You could also get your Leko with a remote motorized Iris and Fresnels could have a remote motorized focus screw.

    In the Early 1970's Grand Funk Railroad was touring and they were doing a new house every night. This was before flying truss was invented so the show was basicly all follow spots. They got really frustrated with retraining local spot operators every night. And someone go the idea to motorize the follow spots so they could control them remotely themselves. They built a unit that looks sort of like a technobeam on steroids. It was essentially a followspot pointed up with a moving mirror on top. These were called the "Cycklops".

    By the late 70's the PAR was the instrument of choice for touring concerts. A company called Showco was doing the lights for some of the biggest acts around (Zeppelin, the Who, Stones, Clapton, Genesis). Showco was cutting edge and built and designed a lot of their own equipment. They decided they could really increase their business and impress their customers if they could develop a color changing PAR. They tried a pneumatic powered semaphore system where gel frames were rapidly moved in and out of the light. They also tried a crazy liquid dye system where the light was shot through three chambers of water that they could vary the amount of dye in the water. Eventually they someone came up with the idea of dichroic filters which were used in photographic enlargers. After much experimenting they came up with two different systems of using dichroic filters with great success.

    A group of Showco employees went out to lunch at a barbecue place. They were discussing the great success they had with the dichroics. As a random part of the conversation, one of the owners said, "You know, if we can make it change color, we should also make it move." The conversation stopped dead and everyone froze in a great "ah ha moment". Before lunch was over they decided the light would not only change color, but it would have a pan and tilt moving yoke, dimming, and iris, all computer controlled. In 12 weeks they had a working prototype, the VL0. They built their own control unit, that used a mic cable to carry the signal and wrote their own software. The console was capable of remembering 16 cues.

    The band Genesis always liked to have the latest high tech gadgets in their shows and they were about 6 months away from the release of their newest album (Abacab... which is a great one by the way). The Showco crew flew to England to demo the VL0. They arrived at the studio which was located on a farm. Someone suggested they set up out in the barn for the demo. It was so cold in the barn that when they first fired it up none of the parts would work. Gradually the lamp warmed the instrument and it began to work.
    They programmed 4 cues, simply pointing at each wall in a different color. They brought the band out and everyone was stunned. Mike Rutherford (guitarist) said, "By Jove, I didn't know it was going to move!" They signed a deal for 55 lights on the spot. As they were signing the deal, they mentioned they still didn't have a name for it. Genesis manager Tony Smith said, "How about Vari-Lite?"

    The Showco guys went back to Texas with a problem. They had to build 55 lights, a control console and software to control it. Remember they didn't have Hogs running multiple DMX universes back then. They had to design and build it all from scratch... and they had about 8 months before rehearsals for the tour began.

    In July they assembled the system for the first time and turned it all on. The effect they saw stunned them. Showco co-owner Rusty Brutsche said: "When we first conceived Vari-Lite we thought we were building a system of color changing lights that were repositionable. When we fired the system up the first time and saw the light beams move in unison under the control of the computer, we were astounded at the visual impact of the effect. The whole idea of the kinetic and visual effect of the moving light beams was not preconceived; it was an unexpected result of the system."

    September 25th, 1981 the Genesis tour began with a concert in a bullfighting arena in Barcelona, Spain and our industry was changed forever.
     
  2. Jezza

    Jezza Active Member

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    I just recently acquired that book, its really terrific. I hadn't known really any of the history of Movers. Props to Vari-lite!
     
  3. jfitzpat

    jfitzpat Member

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    Frankly, I find it a little unnerving to have guys like Rusty and Dale, who I think of as contemporaries, discussed in a "history book" - I feel old enough already.

    Also, to be 100% fair, the idea of dichroic coloring did not originate at ShowCo. But the existing systems were very crude. ShowCo did file some early patents on a better blending system.

    Optically, there was a tremendous amount of innovation in the VL3, the wash fixture. I could be wrong, but I think they debutted around '87. That is when I first encountered them (Momentary Lapse of Reason tour, I was developing the Floid Droids with Paul Rother). I remember being blown away by the smoothness of the color and the evenness of the wash when they were first pointed at that big circular screen.

    -jjf
     
  4. soundlight

    soundlight Well-Known Member

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    I did find the Strand pan + tilt units on their website, and I also found some cool electromechanical remote control color boomerangs for one of the models of the Klieglight on the Kliegl website.
     
  5. gafftaper

    gafftaper Senior Team Senior Team Fight Leukemia

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    Sounds like you might have some stories to tell of your own. Please share. There are a lot of kids around here who have no idea how dramatically the industry has changed in the last 25 years. Things they take for granted at a concert would have been earthshattering just 15 years ago.

    I went to the last Genesis tour in about 90 or 91... I remember how AMAZING it was that they had video wall that was like 60 feet wide... I think it was like the first time that was done. Of course it was three monstrous size Sony Jumbotrons (not lightweight LED)... must have been a killer to load that show in and out. They had two cables that traveled in opposite diagonals behind the band. Suspended from the cables were these boxes that traveled on the diagonal. Mounted to the boxes were a few moving lights (don't know what). It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. These days you see more moving lights at a high school garage band rehearsal.
     
  6. soundlight

    soundlight Well-Known Member

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    Searching up YouTube as usual (yeah, youtube didn't exist back then either...I know...), I found a Billy Joel concert video from a while back that had a bunch of a very old model Vari-Lite washlight. I think that it was either the VL3 or the VL5, can't tell you which.
     
  7. jfitzpat

    jfitzpat Member

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    I'm not sure what to say. I recall that an early effort at a commercial roller gel changer for PAR 64s was called the "ColorMAX". I first encountered them on a commercial shoot for a soft drink called "Mellow Yellow". There was a mini concert rig and I was laying on the back box truss, waiting to operate an "Ultra Arc", and pretty well exhausted from getting the rig up.

    Big tubes of parachute material each had a ColorMAX in it and they would not all go to the same color. "Fummi", who I think spent most of his career working for Tom Field Associates, was stuck as the floor tech and kept trying to get the @#$% things to work. Finally, in a fit, I saw him smash a unit to rubble, little gears rolling around back stage. He then took a deep breath, got on the headset, and in his Japanese accent simply said, "1000 pardons, ColorMAX not work."

    I can also remember throwing a packing blanket (by request) over a seemingly insane Varilite stage right at an Ozzy concert at the Salt Palace. It stopped the white search light with a mind of its own, but the blanket soon started to smoulder...
    My favorite VariLite story had no lights at all. It was simply Dale, with his heavy Texas drawl, trying to get a taxi in Tokyo to take him to a show. "I said BO DUH CON you idgit. Ya'll know, the big dang kung foo build'in. Christ, just move over, I'll drive!"

    Really, you think of it as people and experiences, not "History".
    -jjf
     
    Chris15 likes this.
  8. gafftaper

    gafftaper Senior Team Senior Team Fight Leukemia

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    Thanks... those were hilarious.
     

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