Traditionally, a row of striplight-type lights along the apron of the stage.
Called "floats" in the UK, one surmises from a time when they were simply a wick floating on oil.

Less commonly, individual fixtures, often masked or shaded with a shell motif.

A reproduction for a period play.

See also this post, from this thread:
gafftapegreenia;72888 said:
The Historical Role:

The edge of the stage was one of the earlist places for illuminants. Candles, oil lamps, gas jets and later electric lamps have all served as footlights. Why here? It was convenient, and in many houses one of the few places lights could be placed that they would be easily accessible. Remember, with candles and oil, someone would have to come by to trim wicks and refill the oil. As technology progressed, this lighting position stuck. Footlights, and all striplights for that matter, are really just a carry over from the olden days when rows of flammable illuminants would be used. Theatre, always being heavy in tradition, continued to build theatres with footlights. Striplights were effective in the older theatres. Why do you think so many older installations have permanently wired Xrays? Remember this is a world before DMX dimmers or even computer control. The Fresnel as a stage instrument has only really been around since the 30's. It was far easier and effective to have rows of lamps instead of same number of Plano Convex spots it would have taken to fulfill the roll. Footlights evolved into the built-in strips we can still find in many older theatres. The earliest styles were the "open trough" design, with a row of RWB lamps hooked to dimmers. Footlights evolved in the early years of electricity into a number of style - the reflector-roundel-A-lamp style still found on many older strip lights, the "compartment" type that used either sheets of colored glass or gel, along with a lamp and reflector, and the "dome" type that used glass domes over the lamps for colors. A trip through the archives on the websites for the Strand Archive and KlieglBros will reveal many distinct styles. Footlights, and all striplights for that matter, are really just a carry over from the olden days when rows of flammable illuminants would be used. The old strips and footlights refuse to die for two main reasons: tradition and the fact that, for some people, that is the best they are going to have in the forseeable future. In the "historical" period of footlights, they were still used as one of the main sources of stage illumination. Many permanent footlight installations can still be found in odler theatres using RWB, RGB or RAB configurations.

As dimmer and instrument technology progressed, and it became more affordable and practical to use several individual spotlights (P/C, Fresnel or ERS) to illuminate a scene instead of using the "floodlight" that is a footlight, footlights fell out of favor. They were seen as old fashioned and unnecessary in the "modern" theatre. I would place the beginning of this trend around the 1960's. For the most part, they were right, footlights had outlived their place as a main and standard source of illumination. The effect it had on a performer was harsh, casting large shadows and making a performer look "flat".

However, footlights live on, why is this?

Well, first there is the "art imitating life" thing. Designers today may use footlights when they want that "feel" of turn-of-the-century lighting. Perhaps they are doing an older musical. I spoke with an acquaintance a while back who was tracking moving lights for the current Broadway production of Chorus Line when it was pre-Broadway. He said the designers goal was to recreate the lighting of the original production, hence in photos of the current production, you will see alot of footlights. It's a design choice and something the creative team must agree upon.

Many older theatres continue to use footlights as curtain warmers, and a few still use them as main a main illumination source. The Oriental here in Milwaukee does just that.

The real role of footlights today is as a supplimentary or "fill" light. The days are gone of universally installed RGB mixing footlights. Zip strips and Birdies are commonly used today as footlights. They're useful to selectively fill in under a hat, highlight an actor, create dramatic shadows, or even-out the lighting on a performer. Ever watch stand-up comedy or The Chappelle Show on Comedy Central? You'll notice they use ungelled zipstrips as footlights.

In summary, footlights are simply another tool in the lighting designers bag of tricks. Used properly and consciously, and not neccesarily sparingly, they are of great aid to any designer.

I'm sure the others will elaborate even more, but I hope this serves as a good basis for the evolution and modern roll of the footlight.

A special derivation, "Cyc Footlights," sits on the deck just DS of the cyc or sometimes in a 2' deep cyc trough and is akin to a "electrics ground row".

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