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Intentional Lighting

Sometimes a few lights do the trick. Great job by Thomas Pendergrass. 

Sometimes a few lights do the trick. Great job by Thomas Pendergrass. 

Today, we're continuing our series on intentionality. We’ve already talked about board layout, video directing and the whole concept of being intentional. Today, I’d like to hit the area that would benefit the most from intentionality. 

I could be wrong on this but I’m not sure there is another discipline that ends up being less intentional than lighting. And it’s not just in churches. I see all kinds of random lighting all over the place. But I think this is an area where some planning and thought can make a huge difference. 

Earn the Cue

Perhaps one of the best pieces of lighting advice I’ve ever received came from my friend Daniel Connell at Church on the Move. Last year at Seeds, he was talking about his approach to lighting and he gave us his criteria for adding a lighting cue to a program. He said, “The moment needs to earn the cue. If there isn’t a benefit for a new cue, I don’t do it.” 

I’ve repeated that phrase over and over to our lighting guys and use it myself when programming. The way this plays out for me is in simplicity. I don’t have a compulsion to do three cues per verse. Nor do I run animations all the time. When there is a build in the song, I’ll write a new cue. But if the feel of the song is consistent throughout, it will likely only get one or two. And sometimes the best lighting is super-simple—as shown in the photo above.

Learn Some Color Theory

One of the best things you can do as a lighting director (or technical director who programs lights) is learn color theory. Different colors make you feel different things. Do you know which ones conjure up which feelings? 

I’m not going to go into a bunch of color theory here; you can Google it. But there is a really good reason we use red for our communion songs and yellows, turquoise and purples for many of our worship songs. 

Match the Energy

This is a big one for me. It’s easy, especially for younger programmers, to crank up a bunch of effects engines just because they can. I’ve seen songs played at 68 BPM with lights moving wildly all over the place (that’s not good, by the way). The lighting should set the mood, and that mood should be complementary to the energy of the moment. 

We’ve done slow, contemplative songs with a single lighting look, because that’s the song needs. Larger, uptempo songs will have brighter colors, more animation and more cues. 

You should also take care to match the fade rates to the moment. Going from a dark, contemplative look for an offering song to full house and teaching lights in a 1 second fade is a sure-fire mood breaker.  By the same token, using 30-second fades during a fast song feels rather weird. 

Keep Learning

Lighting styles and trends change pretty all the time. It’s important we keep on top of that, while remaining true to our individual church styles. If you need some help with getting a sense of what is appropriate and good, pick some other church services to watch online. I recommend Church on the Move as a great place to start as Daniel is a master. They can do things that many of us can’t pull off, but there are plenty of concepts and ideas that are transferable. Find some other churches that are similar to your style and see what they do. 

Whatever style you develop, just make sure it makes sense for your church and the moment. All our lighting guys listen to the music while they program to make sure they are doing things that are in keeping with the feel of the song. Nothing is random, it all makes sense. But even that is not by accident. We were very intentional in teaching them to do it—and a lot of credit goes to my LD, Thomas Pendergrass.

Next time, we’ll wrap up the series with a look at graphics.

Gear Techs

Christmas Eve 2013

Several people have asked if I was going to write up our set and program from Christmas Eve. Since that’s pretty much what I do, here you go! This Christmas Eve was a lot like the past two, at least from a programming perspective. The look has been similar but different each time. In 2011, we stopped doing our big Christmas production and instead did Simply Christmas; four services on Christmas Eve. I joked at the time that I was glad we didn’t do Complicated Christmas, because from a production standpoint, it was anything but simple. But we made it work.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

The look for that year was designed to be warm and inviting, simple and down to earth. My design principle was to put together something some kids would build if they were in a barn in the country putting on a Christmas service. We used a lot of OSB, hanging antique lights and an old piece of muslin for a screen. 

Last year, we kept the hanging lights, but cleaned up the look a bit. Instead of OSB, we build luan panels and the block wall. It was still warm and inviting but a little more sophisticated. 

Similar, but Different

This year, we changed it up some more. Instead of the giant, artificial Christmas tree we’ve used in the past, we build a 16’ tall one out of pallets (and a few smaller ones). Instead of hanging the bulbs, we made the CMA lights. And we repurposed some old PAR cans from a student room and created our version of the Dewey. 

In past years, we’ve never been able to do much with lights, because, well, we just didn’t have that much to work with. This year, as part of our end of life equipment replacement fund, we picked up a dozen Elation Impression 90s, and another eighteen FlatPars. This gave us an incredible amount of color to work with. The past two years have been a lot more about the sets, this year, it was a lot more about the lighting. 

Our older Studio Colors are now in the house and give us options there, while we kept the Martin 518 RoboScans as a cool beam light upstage. 

Rentals that Almost Didn’t Happen

Due to a rare accounting glitch, we found ourselves with no budget for Christmas this year. I had planned on renting six VL2500s and three snow machines from our usual supplier, but when the price came back, we couldn’t do it. Even after they lowered it, it was still out of reach. Then I talked with a new CTA sponsor and local rental house, Pacific Coast Entertainment. They put together a package of six Elation Platinum Spot 5r Pros and three Antari snow machines at a price low enough for me to move some money around in my operating budget. So we were able to make it snow again for Christmas. 

The Platinum Spots, while not nearly as bright as the VLs, were certainly good enough, and the Antari snow machines were actually much better than the ones we’ve been renting. You can see the Platinum Spots on the upstage poles, surrounded by Color Blasts.

A New, Brighter Look

With all the new lighting we have to work with, the service was much brighter than in years past. We’ve completely re-hung our front light this year, and that’s driven a lot of the new look. Of course, having two dozen moving heads on stage gave us a lot to work with as well. I have to give a lot of credit to my LD, Thomas Pendergrass. He did an amazing job not only with the lighting design, but programming as well. And of course, the rest of the team pitched in and helped make the set possible. 

Overall, I was very happy with the way the service looked this year. About the only thing I didn’t like is how cluttered the stage looked. We added three musicians this year, which meant more cables, more M-48s and more mic stands—not to mention keyboards, music stands and all the cabling. It just looked cluttered to me; not sure how we’ll address that in future years, but it’s something I want to look at. 

So that’s a little bit about the set. Later this week, I’ll talk about mixing it, and talk about a calculated risk I took that didn’t really pay off. In the meantime, if you want to see the service, here it is on Vimeo.

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Church Tech Weekly Episode 177: I Felt His Presents

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Being that it's Christmas week, we solicited fun Christmas stories from our listening audience. And boy did we get some! We even throw in a dramatic reading of one! And somehow, we end up talking about LED lights at the end. Go figure.

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A Pallet-Shaped Christmas Tree

Or is it a Christmas Tree-shaped pallet?

This is a back view of my drawing in Sketchup. I decided to eliminate the fourth course of spacers.

This is a back view of my drawing in Sketchup. I decided to eliminate the fourth course of spacers.

Continuing our theme of the Christmas set, today we’ll talk Christmas trees. In past years, we’ve set up a giant, 20’ artificial tree on stage. It looks good enough, and is pre-lit, so it’s not really that hard to set up (after we finally got all 9 sections labeled properly…). But this year, we wanted something different. I had been looking through ChruchStageDesignIdeas.com and saw this set from Grace Church in Camus, WA. I liked the look of it, and it fit in with our “vintage” look that we’ve been going for. But we had a few challenges.

Where do you find pallets?

Pallets proved to be harder than we thought to acquire. My ATD Jon spent a few days calling around and we eventually spent a morning with a trailer behind his truck picking up pallets in various states of disrepair. I have to admit to being really nervous about how much would we could harvest from the pallets, thinking we wouldn’t have enough. Our big tree is 16’ tall and required over 30 courses of wood to complete. That seemed like a lot of wood, so we collected over 20 pallets (and I didn’t think it would be enough). 

As it turned out, we were fine. I think we broke down about a dozen pallets and had more than enough wood to build the 16’ tree and three 8’ ones. Now we have to get rid of the extra pallets…

A good structure is needed.

I’m not really a set carpenter; I’m a residential/commercial carpenter. For that reason, it’s possible I tend to overbuild things. My dad and I used to joke that if we ever started a residential building company, we’d call it Sessler & Sons General Contracting and our motto would be, “If it ain’t overbuilt, we didn’t build it.”

My big fear with a 16’ tall tree made of pallet slats was racking. I knew we would be using two slats per course on the bottom half, and that would mean we would need at least three points of connection per course. I designed a basic box frame with a 16’ tall center pole, two 10’ tall outer poles, all tied together with 18” spacers. I planned four courses of spacers, but one of my volunteers talked me out of one of them (it probably was overkill…).

I used 2x8 for the frame for two reasons. First, I knew it would be more than strong enough to stand up straight without racking. Second, we had a bunch of 2x8x16’s laying around from another project. I had some of our teen volunteers paint them black a few weeks ago, so we would be ready come build day. 

Breaking down pallets is surprisingly hard.

Those things are built to last, and they don’t come apart easily. We used a Sawzall with a metal cutting blade to cut the nails off behind the slats. Once we had a good collection of slats, I sorted them by length and width. I started by laying out the outline of the tree on the floor with tie line. A basic triangle with an 8’ wide base, a 1’ wide top and 16’ tall. Once I had a general spacing layout to work with, we built the frame. 

We cut some 2” spacers from scrap to keep our course spacing consistent. It took a while but eventually we got into a good rhythm of selecting boards, laying them up, marking the length, getting them cut and screwing them in place. Once we moved to the actual frame, we screwed down the bottom and top courses and stretched some tie line very tightly between them to define the side shape. 

Once all the courses were in, we stood it up and used another 2x8x16 as a diagonal brace. We thought we would need to sandbag it, but there’s enough weight back there that it doesn’t need it. 

Smaller copies complete the layout.

We also made three 8’ versions. These were much faster to put together; the big one took us about 3 hours, while the small ones took about 30 minutes each. The small ones are made from a single 8’ 2x8 with a 40” piece of 2x4 screwed to the back of the 2x8. The 2x8 is wide enough that a few sandbags on the 2x4 give us plenty of tip resistance, so we didn’t diagonally brace them. 

Lighting really makes them sing.

While the trees look good on their own, we are going to use ETC Parnells to light them up from the ground. The warm light of the Parnells makes them glow wonderfully, and accentuates the rustic nature of the wood. 

So there you go. That’s our version of the pallet tree!

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