Lighting City of Angels

This spring, my school staged a production of the Broadway/West End hit musical City of Angels. It would turn out to be the most technically challenging show that I've ever worked on, and one of the most ambitious shows the school had ever put on. The school had recently built a fantastic new state-of-the-art theatre, and this would be the Head of Drama's first show in that venue, so the pressure was on.

In essence, City of Angels is a musical in two parts. The first is the world of a novel-turned-screenplay writer living in Hollywood in the early 1950s trying to get his movie by the same name made. The second part is the world of the movie: a hardboiled noir detective thriller, taking place in black and white. Already, you may be starting to see challenges emerging.

I was the Lighting Designer, and in this post I'll take you through the story of City (as it became known) from my perspective.


Background

Our new theatre is a proscenium with a large thrust stage. It was decided that the thrust would be divided from the area upstage of the proscenium by a full-size scrim. All of the "Hollywood" scenes would take place downstage of the scrim, and all the "noir" scenes would take place upstage of the scrim, the idea being that as the two worlds begin to mix at the end of the first half, the scrim would be kabuki dropped.

As such, upstage would have to be "black and white" only, and downstage would have to be as warm and colourful as possible.

We have a tension-wire grid above the thrust, three motorised winch bars above the upstage area (Electrics) and a FOH balcony rail installed permanently in the theatre.

Research

It began in the first week of the Spring Term. I met the Head of Drama (EJTW) and he gave me a film noir DVD to watch as research into the lighting tropes that are common amongst noir films. Hard light, hats casting shadows over faces, and backlit smoke were all present throughout, and I began to build some images in my head for states for different scenes.

My next step was to go through the script and make a provisional list of the different lighting states I thought I'd need, which you can see here. Once I had these, I broke down the different areas of the stage that would need to be lit and how I'd like to light them, along with any specials I wanted.

Around this time I also went and saw the very last performance of City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse. I turned up at 8 AM and queued for standing tickets which I missed out on (some had come as early as 7:20), and then queued for a return ticket which I managed to get. I brought a Moleskin and filled six pages with scribbles (forgive the handwriting; it was dark).

Notes

They had some interesting projection (using 8 projectors to cover the whole stage floor and back wall), a vast array of moving lights (mostly VL1100, VL5 and Mac 2Ks) and brand new Source Four Series 2 LEDs for face-lighting. They also had two followspots that were so well incorperated into the states and operated I didn't realise they were any until about half an hour in. I was very envious, but we could never afford to replicate those effects. There were, on the other hand, some other interesting ideas that could be incorperated into my design at little or no extra cost, such as the placement of the side-lighting (side view in the photo above).

I also listened to the City soundtrack many many times so I could get a feeling for the narrative of the play, as well as the shifts in tone during numbers and rhythm (as my Last.fm profile will attest).

The Design

First of all I had to make a CAD diagram of the theatre using the architect's massive vector plans to print on A3. I haven't got the hang of VectorWorks yet, so pencil and paper with the help of my stencil is still far more efficient for me.

Here is the final design:

Lanterns

I started by dividing the stage into sections that would need to be individually lit (named DS1L, USR etc). From there, I went around the balcony bar and decided what face side-light for the downstage area I'd need: in the end, pairs of S4 15-30º for DS2 and DS3, and a single S4 25-50º for DS1. These all had to be perpendicular to the scrim so that no shadows would be cast on it during the scenes when both sides of the scrim were lit. This left me with some holes to fill in the second half, and so I used another pair of S4 25-50º pointing diagonally across. I ended up using these for Buddy's office too, since the scrim could become a wall for those scenes.

I then added area lights into the mix. Each downstage section (L and R) had a total of five area lights: a pair of warm/cold par cans, a pair of warm/cold S4 25-50º, and a 1K fresnel with a scroller. Furthermore, the centre of DS2 and DS3 had another 1K fresnel with a scroller to bridge the gap between the two halves when they're used together (lantern 91 is directly underneath lantern 94).

These same ideas were used upstage of the scrim as well, but in slightly different ways. I used Pacific 45-75º lanterns instead of S4s because they're 1kW not 750W, and (except for the facelight) everything was "neutral" (as close to 100% white as I could get). Instead of the par cans being independently controlled and warm/cold, they were paired and both neutral. Becuase this made such a dense beam (2kW), I used them mostly for the outdoor scenes to replicate sunlight. I then also added a 1K fresnel with a scroller for each left, right, and centre part of the stage. I was surprised to find that a total of 4kW area light was only just bright enough for outdoor scenes with the scrim, once everything was gelled neutral. The facelight for upstage was entirely from Preludes on the "torm" booms, which (in my opinion) were one of the strongest parts of the design. I had two warm and four neutral on each which could either be used all together for daylight, or one by itself for dramatic noir-style effects.

Finally, all of the eight sections of stage had a backlight profile. Downstage, these were S4 15-30ºs on the box booms or handrail and upstage these were Pacific 14-35ºs.

There were also a bunch of specials, for instance the downlight for the Angel City Four (the S4 15-30º on 2 Electric), some venetian blind gobos, and a couple of Preludes on the balcony bar for Stine's desk. I also rigged four Preludes to light up the sprocket strips on either side of the proscenium arch during the preset/interval (all on a single dimmer).

I hung three of our super-bulky Strand Codas on the Back Handrail to light the scaffolding at the back of the stage with cold and neutral gels in them, and rigged four Prelude F lanterns pointing straight down with warm gels in them for a bit of highlighting. These would be useful in the cocktail lounge and sound stage scenes.

I also placed a couple of birdies behind the two city-scape cut-outs on the back wall, and two of my crap LED pars for which I had to make a custom profile on the Ion because none of the generic profiles worked.

The production designer, Mike Leopold, had also wanted some practical pendant lights, which I took and rigged on pulleys so that they could fly in and out for the different scenes. In some of the rehearsal pictures they're flown in for the first half, but we ended up cutting that and only using them in the second half because they cast nasty shadows onto the scrim. They were independently wired into three dimmers, and I also wired in a desk lamp for Stine that could come on in the scene changes and go off for the "noir" scenes.

Because of the need to be able to light upstage and downstage completely independently, I had roughly 1.5x as many lights as I would have otherwise (the grand total sitting finally at 131), I kept bumping up against the hard limit of our 96 dimmers and lantern stock. In the end, I had to borrow about 25 lanterns from the school's studio stock to cover everything.

Gels

I chose a colour scheme on a scale of colour temperature: hot, warm, neutral, cold, and purple.

Hot was used only for Stine's office, because I wanted it to feel cozy and indoors, compared to the more open feeling on the rest of the stage.

Warm was used as face light for downstage and sometimes upstage, as well as area lighting for most of the downstage scenes and the "real world" upstage scenes.

Neutral was everywhere upstage: the face light and the area light, as it had to be as monochromatic as possible to fit the theme of "noir". I cheated a bit here because in my opinion it would have been too flat by itself, so all the upstage backlight is actually cold (a technique I saw in the Donmar version).

Cold was also used as area lighting for all of the downstage sections in different acts. Finally, I used purple to light the area around Stine's desk during scene changes to contrast with the hot lighting on his desk.

Once I had which colours I wanted to use, I had a look through my LEE Filter sample book and tested them out on one of the birdies I have in my room. In the end I chose these:

  • Hot: L441 (2 sheets)
  • Warm: L103 (4 sheets)
  • Neutral: L711 (4 sheets)
  • Cold: L200 (3 sheets)
  • Purple: L071 (2 sheets)

I took all the gel home, sat on the floor and listened to podcasts, and cut the 150 individual squares needed over about three hours with my Stanley knife and gel stencils (which I laser-cut out of acrylic at school).

We have 9 Rainbow 8 Pro Scrollers, which would be exactly what I needed to have one on each of the 9 1K fresnels. I made up 9 of my own gel strings to match the five colours I had chosen, and installed them over the course of about 3 hours (after having finally figured out how to hard reset them).

Unfortunately, it turned out that one of them was faulty (loading the gel string failed every time for the same reason with strings that worked fine in other scrollers). Luckily we were able to borrow two from our junior school (they've moved over to moving lights for the most part and so don't need them much anymore). I ended up using all 10 as I put one on a Pacific 14-35º for the final number (I couldn't resist the top hat to make the barrel almost obscenely long).

I also added some Opal Frost (L410) to the face-lights, which makes the edges of the beam invisible and helps them blend together (don't ask me how, magic or something).

Rigging

Once I'd got the final design down, I made a spreadsheet of the lanterns and gels that I was going to need, which you can view here. It helped me organise which lanterns would have to be moved where (since they are all stored on the technical level - the top floor).

I spent a lot of time trying to get power from where it came out of the wall to where it was needed. Apart from the sockets in the wings, all the stage lighting power is run by Socapex, which is then fed into Internally Wired Bars or squids. I frequently found myself running out of extension cables and we ended up making about 20 more 16A male/female CEEform extensions.

Here's a view of some of the bars:

3 Electric + Back Handrail

FOH 3

Centre Handrail + FOH LC

FOH L

I rigged the majority of the lights by myself under the supervision of the theatre technical managers. About 1/3 of the lanterns are over the tension-wire grid and so took hardly any time at all to focus, but those on the Electric bars took much longer, since (although they're winch bars and can be flown in) I had to focus them from a Genie.

View from the genie

The photo above is of the SR end of 2 Electric, in case you were wondering.

Plotting

On the Saturday before the Wednesday we opened, I sat in the theatre for 8 hours with the director and the Ion and built all 184 cues for the show. I took my GoPro and timelapsed it because that's what someone like me does in that situation. You can see how I build cues by area:

I used the groups which I had made previously extensively (I hate submasters, they always get in the way when I'm programming) to speed things up a bit, but we averaged about one cue every two minutes, which isn't too bad.

The total number of cues grew over the tech rehearsal, and after each performance as I noticed parts where people moved into new areas or as cue points changed.

Tech & Dress

These altogether weren't too bad from my perspective (sitting on my bum). Tech was only 12 hours long on the Sunday and 1 hour on the Monday, and the Dress finished by 6:30pm on the Tuesday.

We move the Ion down into the auditorium for plotting and the technical rehearsal, so I can actually see everything properly, and then we move it back up to the booth for the Dress Rehearsal which we run as if it were the first night.

My view during the Tech:

Performances

I chose to operate the lights as well as design them mostly because I love being there on the night and hearing the reaction of the audience - one night's audience's sense of humour can be very different from another's.

I set my part of the booth up like this:

I have my laptop and a widescreen 1080p monitor propped up vertically against the wall with my Ion tombstones on it on the left, and my two relay monitors and Ion playback status monitor on the right. The two CCTV cameras were necessary for me to see the movements of the stage crew in the dark, and also see actors who were in Stine's office which I could only see if I stood on my chair. My script is on my right because I'm left handed, so I can turn my script with my right hand and have my left hand resting by the go button.

I used my laptop to record 5 channels of audio of the show for the film (two Rode NTG-2s on the balcony bar, two Behringer C-5s in the wings, and a radio mic feed) all coming over our theatre's Dante network.

The first night on Wednesday went fine, I only made a couple of cue mistakes and they weren't anything many people would notice. Thursday was a little sloppier: I went early once during a scene change and had to stop a fade up while the stage crew left the stage, but other than that not too bad. I had director's notes after each of those two nights: sometimes a request for more/less light in a cue, sometimes a moved cue point, etc. Therefore each night was slightly different, and I saved the showfile on the Ion each night with a new name. By Friday I had no notes and so only added extra cues where I thought they were needed after having watched the play all the way through three times.


Here are some images of the final design, some shot by Jonah Lowenstein, the show photographer, and some frame captures from the film of the play:

Stine's Desk

The Tool Shed

Final Number

You can always count on me

The Red Room

Munoz and Avril

Stone's Office

You're Nothing Without Me

You Gotta Look Out for Yourself

Kingsley Mansion


In Numbers

  • 125 Conventional Lanterns
  • 10 Colour Scrollers
  • 2 LED Lights
  • 150 Gels cut to size
  • 90 Dimmer Channels Used
  • 4 Non-Dim Channels Used
  • 9 Extra Lighting Bars built
  • 40 Scenes
  • 192 Cues Recorded
  • ~120 Hours in the theatre

I hope this post was at least midly interesting. This is certainly the biggest show I've ever been involved in, and I had one of the principal crew roles. Overall I'm pretty proud of the outcome, even while knowing all the things I would've done better if I had more time.

My next show will by Henry V in November/December, for which I hope to be able to do an objectively better design, since there won't be anywhere near as many constraints as there were on City of Angels. I'll probably write another post for that.