Lighting Scenic Elements – An Interview with Ford Sellers

Ford Sellers

Just about every volunteer who’s operated a lighting system for services, events and pageants has illuminated scenic elements on more than a few occasions – and just about all of them have had questions about how to use their fixtures most effectively to do that job. We collected some of those questions and posed them to Ford Sellers, who drew upon his rich theatre lighting background to provide us with some helpful answers.

Ok, let’s start at the beginning. Why would I want to add scenic elements to my church stage?

“Most of today’s modern houses of worship have a stage or dais that serves many different purposes. On any given day it may be home to the pulpit, a teaching space, a practice space for the choir, a performance space for the praise band, or even a part of a Christmas pageant.  In fact, during worship it may serve as all of these things in under an hour.

Beyond just dressing up the stage (which is very important), scenic elements help define the space, and let the congregation know what to expect. They help the worship leaders communicate by giving contextual clues as to where to look during the various parts of the service, or event.”

What does lighting do for scenic elements? How does it enhance them?

“Lighting is the ‘secret sauce’ for your scenic elements. Lighting really allows you to enhance your scenic elements without having to change them physically. Not only does lighting allow you to add color and texture to your space, but it also allows you to further direct the congregation’s attention. Lighting is not just for the people on the stage. It can be used very effectively to change the look and feel of existing elements for different parts of the service, to highlight architectural or scenic elements with color, or to call attention to the pulpit during the sermon, and shift to the altar during communion.”

Have LEDs changed the way we light scenic elements?

“They absolutely have! LEDs typically generate far less heat, and offer far more control (in terms of color and dimming precision), compared to traditional light sources. Most of the LED fixtures that you see in the modern house of worship are color changing (RGB, RGBW, RGBA, or even RGBWA+UV), and silent.   The ability to create instant color changes for a wall or other element has huge implications. You can now easily and silently change the entire look and feel of a space. This was not readily done in the past. Of course, the change doesn’t have to be instantaneous. Depending on your application, this can be done slowly, over the course of a sermon (perhaps to emphasize re-birth, or the dawning of a new day), or suddenly to emphasize a specific message, or as a part of a music or theatrical performance.”

We know washes are great for scenic elements, but do you have any advice on using other types of fixtures?

“Actually, almost any lighting fixture can be used to accent your space, and highlight scenic elements. Theatrical lighting like our Ovation E-190WW can be used to add texture to your space with the use of gobos, and can prevent light from shining in an area that you do not want lit by using their internal shutters. Fixtures like the ILUMINARC Colorist series are fantastic at providing color washing for interior and exterior elements. Moving head spotlights can provide color and texture to your spaces, and have the added benefit of being able to refocus on multiple areas with the touch of a button.”

LEDs produce less heat, but when you’re using things like fabric in scenic elements isn’t thermal management still important?

“Thermal management is always important. It is a myth that LEDs do not generate heat… they just make a lot less heat in comparison to the amount of light they produce. In fact, most of the higher quality fixtures have thermal feedback built into the light. This means that if the unit gets too hot, it lowers the intensity of the LED a little to let the unit cool off to a safer operating temperature. So when you are using LED fixtures in scenic elements, even though the LED fixtures are unlikely to cause a fire, you need to be aware that allowing for proper air flow around your units is still very important.”

Many different things can be used as scenic elements. Is there a difference in how you would illuminate a scenic element that was made of soft material like cloth vs. hard material like wood?

“Hard surfaces are very stable. This makes using a fixture with shutters or barn doors very effective, whereas fabrics are more likely to move, making hard focus lines less likely to be 100% accurate. When lighting a hard, flat surface you can have the light come from only one general direction (from the top-front, for instance), and be able to light the surface uniformly. However, when you have a scenic element that has curves and fullness (like curtains), how the surface reacts to light depends on the angle that the light is coming from. This means that lights hung directly above may show wrinkles in your fabrics, or that there will be a lot of shadows generated where the surface curves. This actually represents a fantastic opportunity for using accent lighting to make your surfaces look more interesting. By lighting the textured surface from 2 (or more) different angles, in multiple colors, you will end up with an object that appears to have more depth, and more visual interest.”

What about treating truss as a scenic element with truss warmers?

“I believe that truss is under-utilized as a scenic element. Because aluminum trussing is reflective, with just a little color you can add significant visual interest to a space.  With their reflective surfaces, most truss takes light beautifully. If you look at many concerts and live shows, you can see fantastic examples of trusses being used as scenic elements. A great advantage is that when you want to de-emphasize hanging truss as a scenic element, you can simply turn off the interior accent lighting. Finally, the advent of truss scrims and fabrics that are specifically designed to wrap trussing mean that you can turn a truss into a solid column, which can then be lit from within. This means that you can make the column glow with light, so that you do not have to worry as much about finding a place to hang your fixtures. In addition to touring concert applications, we are beginning to see this more and more in non-touring applications like youth centers and architectural installations.”

Any advice on using fixtures backstage to illuminate line sets as a scenic element?

“Angles are critical when you are considering lighting something from a direction that is not in-line with the audience. Lighting from the sides can be effective for a three-dimensional piece, but you still need to have your lighting fixtures slightly closer to the audience than the object you are trying to light. When it comes to back lighting, it really depends on what your intention is, and what the items are made of. Solid scenic elements obviously cannot be effectively lit solely from behind, however using back light on them will make them stand out from the other objects. Lighting from directly above, or just slightly behind, can be used to make beautiful silhouettes. Lighting sheer fabrics from the rear can be very effective. One element that I have seen lit beautifully is a rear projection screen. When the video was not being shown, the church had color changing LED lights and some gobo projectors focused onto the screen. This allowed them to make the screens feel like a part of the space when there was no video, and then they fade the lights out when the video content came on to make beautiful transitions.”

How about the direction of light on scenic elements, it seems to usually be uplighting, but can you down light scenic elements?

“Absolutely –floor space can be extremely limited. Being able to hang the fixtures and shoot light down onto the specific element is extremely important. In fact, I would say that permanent lighting is actually more commonly installed from above than from below.

Clear exceptions include walls, and columns which are visible all the way to the ceiling, and architectural accent lighting outdoors on buildings, and in landscape lighting. These are lit from below, as it is unattractive or impossible to light them from above.”

What is your advice on using gobos as scenic elements?

“This can be an inexpensive way to alter the feel of a space. For multi-use venues this can be a very effective strategy. However, when you have a space which is going to be used consistently for one purpose, having fixed architectural elements is more consistent and durable than a lighting effect.”

Any advice on color blending and scenic elements? What about color changing on the elements?

“This can be very effective when done as a part of an overall visual design. Adding color can be a very effective way of engaging your parishioners, and helping convey your message.”

What are the most common mistakes made when lighting scenic elements.

“Mistakes can be made on any design, whether it is a scenic design issue, a lighting issue, or even a problem with the acoustics being altered by the addition of new scenic elements. The most common mistakes I see are not accounting for fixture maintenance, being so specific in your initial design that you do not allow for the lighting to grow and change as the church does, and (alternatively) over-building a lighting system that does too much… Sometimes having too many choices can be even more limiting than having too few choices.”

Can you overdo lighting on scenic elements?

“YES. While lighting can be an effective tool to help change your space, and help to convey a message, it is easy to get carried away. You need to be very careful not to overpower the rest of the presentation with lighting that distracts from the message, rather than supporting it. This is where the help of a professional lighting designer in setting up your system can be extremely useful. A designer can help design a system that is flexible enough to help define your space, and also generate a number of pre-built looks (or lighting cues) for your church, which will both generate energy to support the messages you are trying to convey and not become so overpowering that they divert attention from the worship service.”

Ford Sellers, the senior product development manager for CHAUVET® Professional and ILUMINARC®, has over 20 years of hands-on experience in the lighting industry. Prior to coming to Chauvet in 2010, he was the master electrician for the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance at Cornell University, where he also taught classes in lighting technology and the mechanics of lighting. While at Cornell he served as a lighting designer for productions and plays at the school’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. After studying lighting design at Syracuse University, Sellers began his career installing lighting for the groundbreaking show “EFX” at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and eventually became assistant lighting director of the MGM Grand Conference Center. At Chauvet, he has played a key role in developing many of the company’s groundbreaking lighting products including the Ovation™ E-190WW, winner of the 2013 WFX New Products Technology Award.