"stuck" as a designer...ways to get out


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Just a quick question that I'd be interested to hear advice about.

I feel that sometimes I have hit a wall with my lighting designs and I need help getting over a little hill to achieve more complex and better, fluid designs. What are some things/tricks/options you all consider when you are stuck. It's important to me to keep improving as a designer or the process can sometimes seem more like labor than art. I love improving and getting something out of my work, so I'd be interested to hear what you guys say.
I always try to get input from those around me when working on deisgns, to figure out what works and what doesn't as well as things I coudl add.
i remember being in the same place you are... set a goal- do at least one crazy new thing each show you do- maybe you've read about it or maybe your making it up as you go just as long as its something different. it might look good, it might look ok, or it might look horrible. trial and error. eventually branch out- look at other theatre's nearby- in my case it was 40 minutes to the next town with a theatre- but it was worth it, not only was it a totally different building, it was a radically different group of people.

but the most important thing is try something new... something that you've never done before, something that you really don't know if it will work. don't be afraid of something that looks different on stage than what your use to. still to this day I am trying to get people used to the idea of a single key light and not having them washed out the entire show... don't be afraid if people don't like your work... just do your best and be different
The advice a very experienced lighting designer I work with is always try new colours. Have a look at the colours you are using maybe try a green or a purple something you don't normally use. If you have time you can try a couple of things before committing to buying a lot of that gel.
Another thing to try is start to collect postcards that will inspire you. When you are programming or designing, scroll through those postcards and see if there is somthing you can use.
go watch a show.

if it's fantastic, you'll be inspired, if it sux, you'll know what not to do.

that always seems to get me out of a creative rut.
I agree, go and watch somebody else's show.
Having post cards, pictures and magazine pages that are studied as to what effect they have and how that effect is made is a good and useful tool for a designer as with lots of time under the belt in hang and focus or study of other designers creations. This as long as what you create for your art is only using such things as reference in intent rather than copy of how someone else approached the problem.

Study of angles and colors amongst other concepts is as if some kind of thesaurus to pull from. The more design and concept you have sitting in the back of your head to pull from, the more ranging the ideas in approaching a situation you have to pull from.

That’s one start but not quite design for your show yet. All such things along with styles and types of fixtures to choose from is add paint brushes to your painting of the stage.

Inspiration for and design is what’s the art part of it and difficult. Time spent watching rehearsals and reading the script and research into concepts of design is where what you design becomes important. Get a feel for the show, study and talk with the set designer and director for further intent than in time get inspiration. What does the director wish for given his or her overall picture for the production? This much less the set, costume and sound designers intend? Understand the stage picture work in unifying your picture with that of the other designers and you have some form of base. Beyond this, what do you see and feel in your own art of lighting brought to stage? What images say story board as if a comic book individual looks to a scene do you wish to achieve?

Look at a comic book, some such as Archie will be more newspaper like while others like Dark Knight will be very dramatic in highlight and shadow or other things. Both are also valid of course in design concept and convey a set of ideas. Not to say that your look on stage for say a Oklahoma production will have anything in common with the Dark Knight series of comic book either but as a general theme, take some important moments of the play and sketch up what look and lighting you would like to see during that time onto a story board or drawing.

Perhaps focus first on those most important moments of your show. Sketch up a quick and rough lighting design next to a look for what you might like to see on stage for those moments first by way of story board. Just sit in the audience during rehearsal and during a point that is important or while the actors are hamming it up, study where they are and the general mood they are attempting to convey. There is your inspiration for a scene.

Compare this inspiration to that above study in how others have lit the situation paintings, magazines, movies, comic books, post cards - really anything in solving your problems for a look. In taking the Batman theme, could a say above Oklahoma scene in the barn have anything similar to say the first Batman movie or even perhaps the TV show overall? Ever really look at the lighting for either? Perhaps if a movie or image from somewhere else comes to mind even if not anywhere similar, it’s design research and you should study it in intensity, angle and color. This so as to convey the image for your own use if for only a moment.

A single moment in a play, much less if at all possible where for at least those few instances is what in lighting design I most hope for = the times when what I attempt to convey when all is right with the actors and tech that for even a brief moment, my lighting design throws the performance over the top at an important moment for the audience. You can see such instances in their faces when they are no longer in the audience emotionally, they are there living in the play.

That’s lighting design for me or at least the most important part of lighting design for me after one’s base of light and image is built up. Could all just at times be a few important moments given the lights in general are there for the show and sufficient if not building for those moments. AT times, it could be after a show during the final moments after a climax where an actor goes to the refrigerator and it has a strobe light installed in it so as to convey a living on of this play and a conclusion. Or it could just be a puff of smoke cloud in the right place at the right time when the lights and more so than that color choice of lighting is there for the actors in helping boost their performance and in if even beyond this, catching that puff of smoke overhead in a secondary living element to the design in just such a way. Could be also just a masterwork of cuing such as bringing the lighting down at the end of the scene but having a few if not just one well placed light fixture linger a bit as the rest of the lights come down. A single down light on the action that as the rest of the scene fades to black goes up in intensity to it’s peak, than once all else is out and this final impression makes those on stage linger and sparkle, follows the end of scene blackout with expert timing by way of how long it lingers verses the speed it goes out.

Again, this is all the moment of the scene and show as but just a part to lighting design. There is base image also to create art from. This in supplement and general illumination or in art over a period of time and well placed in scene that is also all about lighting design and an intent to help convey an image the design team and talent are attempting to do. One cannot bypass a wall of light, or the sun, much less the moon or daylight coming in from a window even if subtle when important to the scene. Had this 1.2Kw Mole light at one point I sourced from a specific angle and direction to which all other lighting took it’s key from in supplementing. Given it being a hot day, this was beyond the rest a motivation for the scene. Everything about the scene by way of the script was based upon how hot it was and how oppressive the sunlight was. As opposed to doing a base of light based upon the McCandless system, everything instead of this balance was motivated and skewed towards the sun and it’s supplements.

Base of light than it’s supplement and motivation. Perhaps in some ways for letting the audience see the talent, a base of light should be thrown down but in a scene such as Hedda Gabbler, motivational lighting for the scene such as where the set designer placed the french doors and where various table lamps than alter the base in key and foot lighting much less how strong the light from one area is or not. How strong from a block location or in general along with cues and even the movement of light to pass time is where the curious and subtle influences come in. It’s not always the fun of creating a solid mass of RX 80 for a night scene that’s supplemented by enough white light not seen on the set but sufficient to light the talent, = challenge though it could be, it’s motivating the light also and making a balance at times between overt and just there and lighting the scene. What choices you do in the extent of your work also is in part the art and cue or scene and show need.

Not being lazy also is part of making living art. I’m at times a terrible designer in at times not letting go of my design to the board operator or finalizing my cues until after the first of second show in that I’m constantly changing things in the scene as I see them, or spend so much time in making the scene that I never get around to finalizing the cue settings. One would hope that by opening night, your cues are finalized and given off to the board operator. Still the concept of ones design, it’s cueing is there and to work on. Shaving just five beats off a scene’s fade at times
can spell the difference between mood and just plain lighting. Timing all about a scene is magic to be made along with cues, colors and positioning of the lighting.

Won’t go back into it but do a search on the forum into “Hitler” for one design that I once did which comes to mind as perhaps the best design I ever did. Just a single lighting fixture and a great actor made the production. That was placement of light, intensity, use and cuing.

Granted this is mostly all about creating the drama in the art. There is other stuff such as say the Oklahoma main scenes that’s less a darma and emphisis and more a wash and broad brush stroke but in being good requires both balance of the brush and the proper coloring to the scene. Actors/talent wandering in and out of beams of light much less in and out of the dark tends to dirstract from the fun in a scene. Master for instance your scene and that wash or base of light first in not being a detrement first. That’s the base of making your art, than work on the image of your art. Actors wandering side to side on stage that fall in and out of pools of light are often very distracting. Study how to both wash the stage where needed and control your lighting first in creating the scene. Than once the scene is under control, build and help the talent in throwing it over the top. This stated but don’t be distracting. Lighting for lighting sake without the talent making best use of it is distracting to them and the audience. Could have the most cool sunset in the world. If it by way of talent’s show and in general to the production becomes more the thing watched than the play you as a designer just failed.

Be prepared to make great art in image, color and beam of light, much less timing of it. Be also prepared to tone down your scene as sufficient or necessary to match up with the scene. That sunset in say Oklahoma might be the most beautiful thing you have ever created on stage but if the talent can bairly recite their lines, than the audience in given the choice between watching the actors and the sunset are given a choice, eyes follow ears and the action on stage is no longer followed. Instead at times is a much more subtle approach once you have your stuff together. Perhaps in sunset keep your scene in cuing and art but sort of wash it out with a white wash of light and dim it down in intensity and effect. At times even a great concept and design will need to be toned down so as to match the show and scene. Make art but be a collabritive artist in doing a show not your own work.

Inspires you... art... that’s all practice and intent.

Left over from a few days ago on my desk is a cover from the book I read a while back “Tinder Box, The Iroquois Theater Disaster 1903.” by Anthony P. Hatch. It shows a 1903 photo from the fire from the street. Just a bunch of smoke, black and grey images of people standing in place looking towards the fire, lots of water and snow and in the fog of smoke some poles and other things askew at angles that lean up to the theater. It’s a bad photo in accuracy except in art it conveys an image really well. Subject, intent, time and intent.

This photo I can create on stage given especially it’s black and white, I can study into highlight and shadow more easily and don’t as much need to study into color. It’s an image that is in my mind’s eye to pull from should I ever need to convey with light on stage a hopeless situation that is both mornful and pitiful, much less harsh in situation and after effect. So much I can pull from that one photo, it’s one of many images from painting to post card I have studied over the years. All in studying or perhaps looking back on once in a while of the saved images, are things to pull from that later should I need to convey an image that matches will translate in copying say where the sun is in this cloudy day smoke filled image. Look at how grainy this image is, somehow the lack of detail helps the sorrow. That the people in the image are more black than buildings about them says where the main light is, yet such a direction is very diffused in nothing being more than shapes and places. Only thing that shows clarity really in the photo is a big puddle of water between the sections of ice in the alley. The rest is all smoke and haze filled the further away you get.

As a concept in converting such an image to play, I might hold back this image to some form of “Fall of the House of Usher” by Poe in combination with some form of Sam Shepherd type of intent stuck in the Isben times type of play and scene for effect. For me that’s the photo in application. Would not be correct perhaps say for a final scene for MacBeth but than again perhaps it would be dependant upon the director’s production. Given a stage it might have to be toned down some also or perhaps enhanced some for a wider stage. Ever so much you can get from a single photo or painting. That’s where the art of design comes in.

Hope it inspires and lends a sense to there being more to design than just popping lights up on stage and them not being magic for your at this point. Yep there are some plays and shows that don't inspire thus just need a base of light and perhaps what ever beyond this you can give them to help but not overpower. At other times you find yourself challenged to make art sufficient for the need.
As another concept in design, often when I’m innitially not so inspired with first the magic and needing to get something on paper I hit the books. This from a step by step lighting design function by way of book do this first next this base of light to say Ben Bova’s “The Beauty of Light” for inspiration and concept. Lots of fuction books out there from Gelette to McCandless to even the “White Light” concepts of Rosenthal in “the Beauty of Light.” Than there is books by such a Jones asking for a new but realistic and useful lighting to those of say Craig to Appia that are more etheral in concept but not so much in realistic application. Craig was a great designer but had in fact very few shows realized due to his intent for art not being reality to the show's need. Literally great images and concepts but ones that did not work for the production. This verses those of Jones were realized and while not as much out there in greatness, sufficient in pushing the limits of design. There is three designers to study none the less for inspiration and idea. This beyond say Bova if not say something from "the seven lamps or architecture."

Overall concept is to lay down your function and base of light if nothing else in supplement as necessary for now in gaining time as you commune with the show for the art part of it. The more rehearsals you attend the better in getting a feel for it and making what you do keyed into that production.

Might at times never really get a feel for the magic of a specfic show. That’s a bad thing and often very much dependant upon how much you commune with it and get to know the director and other designer’s visions for it - given they are more involved with it than say set decorator in interest or not so enthused as to inspire you with a “I feel purple” concept and inspiration even if confusing for design statement but very useful.

When not feeling the play, one can and should study into the abstract of it where appropriate for it’s design - where ever that design takes you in research. Believe Itallian Amerecain Reconcilliation as a play once took me into listening to the original show LP for Turnadot the opera for inspiration. Much less West Side Story took me to corrugated structural steel decking study. Why not study while you have time what ever in study moment to moment takes your interest? Worry about the design after you have to and at that point base of design is a function to supplant the magic of it. This or base of design is there to do the magic of it once your cuing and color much less base is down and good.

Want a really cool moon - even if for a show doing a show steeling moonlight effect might overpower the necessity? Study into it. How have others done so in making magic? Experiment wand make it where of interest and appropriate for your own scene. Easy enough once it is magical to tone it down some in not steeling the show, more important that this if it’s a few days of study and important to you, is what is that element of the design you base your design on. If even for a moment you make magic, that’s art given the rest of your art was sufficient to build up to that moment.

This is a combination, your scene and show need to be both there before one or the other is mastered in a production. Study if nothing else the perfect wash and blend in making the scene and all scenes. Figure out for a show given a limited amount of colors what will for one scene at a specific intensity be the best for more than one scene given a few different colors they will become given dimmer intensity.

Finally remember that if the audience can’t see the eyes of the performers, you have failed unless specific to the intent. Part of the art is in mastering not just the scene but the show. Actors in the dark cannot be heard, talent who’s eyes are in shadow or not scene are not real as it’s the eyes that are the key. Get your base of light there, study, tinker and master at least it if nothing else. Once you accomplish this perhaps for even a show that makes you lack inspiration, your accomplishments for doing if even this will be sufficient especially if the cues and colors are there also for the scene.

Lights are not simple = especially if one wishes art on stage. Mastering the look especially the intended look is very much a challenge in ever so many ways to catch one’s interest. Can't imagine getting board with a design. Even if really bad play, it's a chance to realize a design study into something or some concept.

Work hard into mastering concepts and or even some very specific result. Done well it's done well.
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