General Description of Documents

Eric Cornwell

This description provides an overview of the basic documents comprising a stage lighting design. It concludes with a brief description of the commercial software that designers currently use to generate and manage the design documents.

A lighting design has concrete physical elements and abstract conceptual elements, all of which are documented in some manner. In the past, the final form of this documentation was paper-based. The current trend, especially for larger productions, is that parts of this documentation are "born digital" and are accessed only through computers during the course of the production. Some of these documents may exist in the archive only in digital form.

This discussion will address only the documentation used for static, or "conventional", lighting fixtures. The last 20 years have seen a tremendous increase in the number of lighting systems utilizing fixtures which offer programmable remote control of color, direction, size, and myriad other properties. A contemporary Broadway show may use several dozen of these fixtures, resulting in a staggering amount of additional design information to track and document.

A standard means of managing the growing number of additional design decisions has not emerged, yet this information will need to be preserved in the Lighting Archive in whatever form a particular designer has chosen for a production. Perhaps in the development and use of the Archive a consistent means for displaying this information will be found.


What is being documented?

Lighting fixtures are installed at "hanging positions" around the theatre and the stage. Each fixture is "focused" in a specific direction for a specific purpose. The fixtures are of a variety of types and wattages, and may have a number of different accessories for coloring, shaping, and texturing the projected beam of light. Fixtures are plugged into electrical circuits, which deliver power from dimmers, whose power output determines the fixture's brightness. The dimmers are controlled by a special-purpose computer, which typically provides a means of assigning individual or multiple dimmers to control "channels" through a "patch".

During the performance the brightness of the fixtures are balanced to achieve the desired lighting states, or "cues". The transitions between states, the speed of those transitions, and how they coordinate with the performance, are all essential elements of the lighting design.

The study of a lighting design includes exploration of the decisions made by the designer when selecting fixtures and locations, choosing accessories, organizing power distribution and control, and constructing cue states and transitions.

The lighting design documentation consists of three general areas of information: 1) documents describing the physical location of each lighting fixture; 2) documents detailing where the beam from each fixture falls, how the fixture is powered, what accessories are installed, etc.; and 3) documents describing the light cues and their timings.

What are the Documents?

Light Plot
The light plot is a scale drawing showing the physical position of the lighting fixtures, as well as relevant architectural and scenic structures, and often detailed measurements. It is typically an overhead plan view, but may present some elements in other projections for clarity, for example lights mounted in a vertical tower may be shown in elevation rather than plan view on the light plot. Drawing size is typically 36x48 inches, though it may be larger or smaller. Scale is usually 1/2 inch or 1/4 inch per foot in the US, 1:25 or 1:50 in metric-based countries. The plot may span several pages, which may not all be of the same size and scale.

Lighting fixtures are designated by symbols indicating type - there may be dozens of types used on one plot. Each symbol is accompanied by annotations indicating an identifying number and several attributes of the fixture and its use. The light plot drawing typically includes a key to the symbols used, other written notes, a title block, and a revision history.

Lighting Section
The Section is a side view of the entire auditorium, both the stage and seating area, drawn to scale, revealing the vertical relationships between the elements on the light plot. Typically there is not any information about individual fixtures, but each hanging position is shown with one or more representative fixtures.

The section provides a graphic depiction of the elevation angle from each lighting position to the performers, which is a critical design consideration. The section also shows the relationship between lights and masking curtains or scenery that hides the fixtures from the audience's view, as well as exactly where the light passes between scenic or architectural obstructions to reach particular parts of the stage. The drawing is typically the same scale as the light plot and of a similar size. A show having multiple sets, or particularly complex geometry, may have multiple sections showing different scenic configurations and/or section cuts.

Shop Order
Many productions rent all of the lighting equipment used for the show. The list of rental equipment is the "Shop Order" and is a comprehensive specification of the quantities and types of equipment to be used for the production. The shop order is typically several letter size pages. In the case of productions designed for regional theatres or universities there will be an "Inventory" list of available equipment instead of, or in addition to, the shop order.

Instrument Schedule
The Instrument Schedule lists detailed information about each fixture, sorted by fixture hanging position and sequence number within each position. A fixture is typically referenced by the name of its hanging position, and its sequence number within the group of fixtures at that position. The designation "2 Pipe 3" uniquely identifies the third light on the second pipe. There are many variations on this scheme including letters and decimal notations, but the basic position/unit-number designation is typical.

The information listed for each fixture may include its type, wattage, color filter number, accessories, electrical circuit number, power dimmer number, and the control channel number used to command the dimmer. The Instrument Schedule usually has one line of text for each fixture. It contains more information than the Light Plot, but lacks the specific fixture location information - other than what can be guessed from the hanging position name and fixture's sequence number.

Instrument Schedules are typically letter or legal sized, and span multiple pages. The number of fixtures listed on each page varies, as pagination may be organized to avoid page breaks within a position's list, when possible. There is often an index listing each position name and the first page number of its information.

Productions dating from before the adoption of software like Lightwright (1980s) typically do not use Instrument Schedules, as all the information conveyed is also available in the Channel Hookup in a different order. Creating and maintaining both documents by hand was often too much work.

Channel Hookup
The detailed fixture information contained in the Instrument Schedule, when grouped and sorted by control channel number, becomes a document called the Channel Hookup. Again there is one line per fixture, but there may be more than one fixture per control channel. Each fixture's position and unit number, which serve as its unique identifier, are listed on the Channel Hookup so that the fixture can be located in the Instrument Schedule, on the Light Plot, and by extension, in the physical installation. Because the Channel Hookup and Instrument Schedule may be used in different ways, the order of the columns of information about the fixtures, and even the choice of which information is included, may differ between the two documents.

The Channel Hookup is typically letter or legal size and spans multiple pages.

Dimmer Hookup
The Dimmer Hookup is quite similar to the Channel Hookup, but is in dimmer number sequence. Again, the arrangement of information columns may be different than either the Instrument Schedule or the Channel Hookup.

In pre-computer-control days, when dimmers were operated by direct manual control or by non-computer-based electronics, the concept of channels did not exist and the Dimmer Hookup was the primary reference document.

The distinction between dimmer numbers and circuit numbers is blurred in venues that have a "dimmer-per-circuit" lighting infrastructure. Dimmers in these theatres are permanently connected to outlets around the performance space, which are identified by the dimmer number. Productions may have a mixture of dimmers permanently wired to circuits and non-dedicated dimmers, which may have associated circuit numbers in the documentation.

Focus Charts
Detailed information about what portion of the performing area is illuminated by each fixture, what scenic elements it is specifically lighting or not lighting, how soft or sharp the edges of the beam are, how a projected pattern is oriented, etc. are documented in the Focus Charts. Measurements of stage locations, small drawings, shorthand symbols, and even colors may be used to record information needed to exactly recreate the fixture's orientation and optical setup should it be knocked out of its assigned focus for any reason. Focus Charts are typically organized in Instrument Schedule sequence, on letter or legal size pages, and may show only a dozen or fewer fixtures on a page.

It is worth noting that while the other documents usually are single-sided, Focus Charts are sometimes double-sided and the relationship between information on facing pages, which often show fixtures whose physical locations and lighting purposes mirror each other, is important.

Focus Charts tend to be used for productions that are planned to run for a long time. The maintenance of the show after the designer moves on to other projects is often in the hands of stage management and electricians who may not know the original design intent.

Magic Sheet
Designers often create for their personal use a crib sheet of sorts to remind themselves quickly of the lighting channels available within a design. A common visual channel reference is the Magic Sheet, which is organized around abstract design concepts. One area of the Magic Sheet may show all channels controlling lights pointing in a particular direction, or those pointing at a particular part of the stage, or lights having generally similar colors (warm and cool, for example). The design of the Magic Sheet is highly personal and as such it is a key to understanding the designer's intentions, priorities, working methods, etc. It was named and perhaps invented by Tom Skelton in the early 60's.

Magic Sheets are typically letter or legal size, but may be larger. They often use color, and may span multiple pages.

Cheat Sheet
This is another form of crib sheet listing all channel numbers (often mimicking the layout of the control computer's display) with a shorthand notation or graphic to indicate the usage. This document is essentially a very distilled Channel Hookup and helps to quickly translate lighting ideas (color, direction, stage area) to channel numbers used in commanding the control console, or as a reminder of what a particular channel number appearing on the control screen actually does. This document is highly personalized, may be any size and shape, and may have multiple pages.

Cue sheets and Tracksheets
These are the records of all of the individual channels' intensities in a cue (typically represented as percentages or fractions of full intensity) and the cue-to-cue transition timing. Hand-written cue sheets are letter or legal size, typically portrait orientation, typically one or two pages per cue, with dozens of cues per show. They record only which dimmers (or channels) are moving in a given cue.

Track sheets have the same information in a spreadsheet format so that all of the channels that are on in a cue are visible not just those that are moving. In recent (1980s and later) productions the printed tracksheets from the computer consoles are typically letter size, portrait orientation, and reflect the much larger number of channels and cues that the computer systems can handle. Each cue might span several pages, and a Broadway musical might have hundreds of cues.

The Tracksheets typically show a grid of channel numbers, 20 or 25 per line, with an intensity percentage listed below each channel. Included with each cue, or on a separate "Cue List" document, is timing information about transitions between cue states.

With the advances of computer control, and the geometric growth in the amount of cue data as designs have become more complex, some designers choose not to print the Tracksheets at all. Often the only record of the Tracksheet information is a diskette with data in a proprietary binary format, sometimes lacking even a file directory. Most recently (2000s) some control computers are capable of creating Abobe PDF files of tracksheets, including contents pages having links to each cue.

Cue Synopsis
The designer will often create a document which lists for each cue state: the cue number, the script page and line where the cue happens, basic transition timing information, and a quick verbal or visual reminder about the purpose or action of the cue. The format and content of these documents is as varied as the individual designers, and for that reason they are, like the magic sheet, a valuable tool for understanding the designer's style, working process, and personality.

Script
The designer's copy of the script, score, and/or choreographic notes provide a context for understanding many design decisions. Cue numbers, noted in these documents, provide a cross-reference to other documents. Scripts are typically letter size, portrait orientation, single-sided, but notes and diagrams are often written on the blank left-hand pages and their relationship to the text on the right-hand page is important. In these cases scripts should be thought of as a tabloid sized, landscape oriented, page pairs. Other notes may be letter or legal size, or on musical scores. In the context of making production documents available online, the script is least likely to be available due to copyright concerns, but they are available in the library collections to be viewed there.

Supporting design documents
Other documents may relate to design development, or may be working tools. Lists of colors, diagrams of scenic arrangements, production schedules, daily to-do lists, and weekly production and rehearsal schedules all may be part of the design documentation.

Other design references
Rarely does lighting design exist in a vacuum. The other visual designs (scenery, costumes, projections, hair and makeup, etc.) may have a bearing on lighting design decisions, or may have been driven by lighting factors. The width of a hat brim, for example, may be an important factor in choosing the elevation angle for a fixture that lights a face. While other designers' work is not in the scope of the Lighting Archive, cross-references to those designs and designers would be useful.

Photos or film/video content
Still photos or archival film or video of a production can provide valuable lighting design documentation. Shooting a commercial video frequently involves modifying and augmenting the original theatrical lighting, and thus may produce a somewhat compromised record. Archival recordings tend to be purer, but any visual records showing the lighting design in context (actors/dancers, costumes, scenery) are useful. A means of referencing lighting cues to specific photographs or video/film timecodes would be highly desirable. The video or films dating from before the mid 1990s are a very poor record of lighting; the technical problems dealing with contrast make either the faces burn out or the scenery disappear.

Equipment specifications
The lighting designer's palette is a shelf of catalogs listing fixtures, bulbs, control computers, color filters, optical effects, etc. The technical specifications for the equipment used is unlikely to be included in the design documentation received by the Archive, but offering a parallel collection of equipment specifications would enhance the value of the design documents, particularly with regard to historical designs.

How might the design be studied?

Each of the above documents describes several aspects of design information, but none show the whole picture. It may well be impossible to present all aspects of a design on a two-dimensional display because so many variables are in play. In order to analyze a complex lighting design, or even gain a cursory sense of the designer's work, it is critical to be able to view multiple documents simultaneously. Prototyping and testing will reveal the best ways to display and navigate these documents, but I'll offer a rudimentary example.

A reader opens a Light Plot and a Section with the goal of gaining a general sense of the physical installation of a particular lighting design. By selecting a lighting position name on the light plot, "2 Pipe" for example, the reader causes that position to be highlighted on the Section document. Conversely, selecting a lighting position shown on the Section causes that position to be highlighted on the Light Plot. Automatic scrolling and/or zooming of documents may be desirable. If another document is also open (the Instrument Schedule for example) it would also page or scroll to the selected position information and highlight it.

This synchronous browsing interface could be used to explore logical patterns within the design. Selecting a channel number on the Channel Hookup would highlight the fixtures controlled by that channel in their graphical or text form in all open documents: fixture locations would be highlighted on the Light Plot and Section, the channel number would be highlighted on the Magic Sheet and Cheat Sheet, relevant Focus Notes would be displayed.

Documents representing the more abstract, non-physical, design information could be investigated with the same interface. Clicking on a cue number on a Cue Synopsis would cause the Script and Tracksheet documents to display the relevant pages. Any applicable photo and video cross-references would be listed, and the actual images displayed if they are available.

The result of every design choice is represented in at least two different documents, each providing a different context for the information. Understanding the choices and the design itself is contingent upon the ability to find and view the outcome of those decisions in all relevant contexts.

The Lighting Archive website is working toward a structure that will operate as described above.

Other instructive areas of study might require comparison of two or more productions. An original Broadway production and a later revival likely will have different designers who will have taken differing approaches to the same script. A Broadway production may spawn a series of touring productions, (national tour, bus and truck) which are typically smaller and smaller with each generation, and therefore the original design concepts will be distilled further and further for each production. Studying an individual designer's work on a variety of productions would be instructive, as would the examination of parallels between the work of a master designer and an apprentice.

All of these studies would require links between documents in different designs. This capability might not be available in the initial implementation of the Archive, but the specification of the display and navigation interface should not preclude the ability to search for relevant data in any open documents from any production.


Current software tools

Most current lighting designs are developed and documented with the aid of personal computers. A multitude of applications are used, but I'll mention a few of the more popular. Much contemporary design documentation may be delivered in electronic form, as stored by these applications.

Vectorworks
Many lighting designers use CAD for most of their drafting. Vectorworks is popular due to its relatively low cost and the availability of a stage lighting design package, 'Spotlight', which includes a lighting symbol library and lighting-specific analysis and reporting tools.

Lightwright
Lightwright is a lighting design project database offering data entry, navigation, and report generation tailored to the lighting designer's needs. It is currently at version 5 after about 20 years of intermittent development and is used extensively in the profession. Lightwright' author, John McKernon, is an advisor to the Lighting Archive project.

WYSIWYG
In lighting design circles WYSIWYG refers to a specific software product that provides real-time 3D lighting visualization on a Windows PC. It has a steep learning curve, but offers designers the ability to pre-program complex lighting cues in their studios before the always too-brief technical rehearsal period on stage. Subsequent development has added tools to do full CAD drafting and database report generation. Since its introduction in the mid-1990s, a number of products have been developed which offer similar capabilities.

Microsoft Excel
With some effort Excel has been coerced, at one time or another, into preparing every type of document mentioned here, including schematic light plots.


Summary

Obviously having some actual documents in hand will provide more concrete information about the nature of the physical design documentation, but I hope that this overview has given at least a general sense of what is represented in the documents and how the documents relate to each other.