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Basic Lighting Therory
By Michael Ward


Should I use the Red bulb with the black spray paint on the base or the green bulb with the scratched up coating?" Although some of us would deny it, we have all been in similar situations at least once in our haunting career. As the opening day approaches everyone is just trying to get the final touches in place, and lighting theory, one of the least understood and most overlooked aspects of the Haunting experience, is the last thing on your mind. But before you pick the scratched green bulb because of the neat patterns it makes on the wall, consider this: could your use of lighting help create a more frightening Haunted Attraction?

Yo Yo Ma, world-famous cellist, was asked: "What is it that makes you such a great musician?" His reply was that it was not only knowing which notes to play - but rather the quality of the spaces between the notes that made the difference. In your attraction look closely at your use of light and dark - both are equally important. Lighting represents spaces in the darkness, and without light, there can be no darkness. It is the darkness that we fear because it is unknown and the light that warns us to what the darkness contains. To make these "spaces" the most they can be we need to provide something more than just light and shadow. In order to take control of light and make it do our bidding we need to understand its nature. Theatrical lighting is a complex topic but I feel the best place to begin is with color.

Color Theory
Light has three primary colors: red, blue, and green. Along with color, light has one more property called intensity. By changing the color and intensity of a light source you exert a great deal of control over how objects appear to your patrons. Theatrical lighting uses mixing and contrast to create stunning effects as well as subtle nuances. Award-winning lighting does not need to be complex or expensive, nor does it need to be powerful and awe inspiring. In fact the best lighting usually goes unnoticed.

We all know that mixing red and blue paint creates purple, while mixing red and green results in a brownish black. The more colored pigments that you add to the mix, the less light it reflects. One of the traits that distinguish light from pigment is that colored light is additive. As different colors of light are added to the same area, the result moves closer to white. While mixing red, green, and blue paints will result in black, mixing red, green, and blue light will approach white, and by altering the intensity of this light it is possible to create nearly every color the eye can see.

Lighting designers rarely spend a large amount of time mixing primary red, blue, and green lights. Instead they create the effects they need by using colored gels. A gel is a sheet of heat resistant plastic that can modify the color and intensity of a light source. Most stage fixtures emit a light is that close to white. White light is the mixture of all the colors of light, and what a gel is really doing is filtering out all the colors except the ones you want. Gels come in the primary and secondary colors in addition to every possible combination. By using gels you can get the exact color you are looking for without having to store hundreds of colored bulbs. Normally the gels are housed in a square metal frame and are either placed inside or on the end of a lighting fixture. This allows them to be removed and reused many times.

Unlike the mixing of pigments to create a paint color, light is rarely used to color the objects on a set. The most important use of light is to help define and separate objects such as actors and scenery.

By mixing any two primaries, such as red and green, we can create a secondary color, yellow. By mixing all three primary colors the result would be white. If yellow is mixed with blue, the remaining primary color, the result will be white. As yellow contained the other two primary colors, the addition of blue simply completed the mix needed for white. A color wheel is a useful tool for analyzing these situations. The wheel begins with just red, blue, and green. Where these colors overlap the three secondary colors of cyan, magenta, and yellow can be seen. By continuing to add intermediate colors the wheel can be made to represent nearly every color possible.

With this tool it is simple to find lighting combinations and predict the results for different situations. For instance, drawing a straight line through the center of the wheel will identify two colors that we can add together to create white.

This method can be used to our advantage when setting lighting for an area where we would like white light on a subject and some other colors elsewhere. To illustrate let's say a scene is lit entirely by blue light and your actor is wearing mostly red. Unfortunately, red looks dark or even black under blue light. In order to see the color of the actor's costume you will need to use a light that has some red in it. A plain red lamp would result in magenta hues and mask any other colors on the actor, while white would appear very harsh and slightly green compared to the blue background. The best solution is to light the actor in yellow. Because the actor is already being lit by the blue light all over the scene, the addition of yellow will give the actor the neutral white light that they need to be properly seen. This maintains the blue background and creates an interesting complementary color scheme.

This principle also works for creating other colors. For example, if you wanted to create a nighttime scene you might be tempted to just use a flood of blue light. The drawback to the monochromatic approach is not only that the colors in your scene are washed out but the scene also appears flat.

Because blue is a primary light color it cannot be broken down any further. Blue is bordered on the color wheel by the colors cyan and magenta. Both of these colors are mixtures of blue and other colors on the wheel. What we are concerned with is that both colors have blue as part of their makeup. By lighting one side of a scene with cyan and another side with magenta the overall effect will be blue. Since the elemental color blue is dominant it is the most apparent color of light. But why go though all this trouble? The advantage is that each light source will fill in the shadows cast by the other one. In the end you will have a blue colored scene but you will also gain cyan and magenta shadows. These new shades, along with the striking shadows, add depth and more interest than just a flat blue light. In addition, the magenta and cyan colors also add some red and green to the room. The broader spectrum of light means that more colors can be seen in the scenery, costumes and makeup of the actors.

Pigments are slightly different. In this case the primary colors are magenta, yellow, and cyan. By looking at the color wheel for pigments you may notice that it looks very similar to the lighting wheel; this is because they are direct opposites. Mixing pigments is mixing the ability to reflect light. Pigments are subtractive in nature because as more colors are added less light that can be reflected. Therefore the center of the pigment color wheel is black. A white wall will reflect all colors of light while a black wall should reflect nothing.

Think of pigments as sheets of gel plastic glued to the surface of a mirror. A red ray of light entering a black wall might make it through the yellow pigments, but it will be stopped cold when it hits the cyan. Therefore no light bounces back and the mirror looks black. If we only have magenta and yellow pigments then the red light will make it through and bounce back out. The yellow pigment will stop blue light, and green light will be stopped by the magenta. It is worth noting that regardless of the source light's color, only red light will be reflected back. If you were looking into the mirror and saw a person behind you with a red flashlight, you could not be sure if that person had a red bulb or a white one without turning around and looking.

If you shine a red light on a red wall the full intensity of that light will be seen. However, if you shine a blue light on the same wall you will only see a faint glow. If the pigment and light were perfect you would see no light whatsoever. It is important to note that your patrons do not see light; they see the effect of light on an object. If the object is absorbing all the light it may as well not have any light shining on it at all. Another thing to remember is that pigments and lighting interact. If you were to stand in a darkened room and look at a wall with a red spot on it you would have no frame of reference to let you know what you were seeing. Just as in the mirror analogy, without some other indication it would be impossible to tell if you were looking at a red light on a white wall, a white light on a red wall, or a red light on a red wall.

Furthermore, if you were using red as the color of the walls and lit a room entirely in green light the walls would absorb the light that hit them making the walls, and the room, appear very dark. Again it would be hard to determine the colors of the light and walls without some other clue. This type of color ambiguity can actually be used in an effect. By matching gray and red tints of paint under a pure green light you can paint a gray room with bright red blood spatters. Under the green light the entire room would appear gray. Once the lighting switched to white the red blood splatters would become much more visible on the gray wall. This type of effect is often referred to as Steganography, a technique of hiding something in plain sight. The same effect is used to hide messages and then read them with a red plastic decoder window.

The Secret
The real secret to proper lighting is that there is not one. Whether it is a major Broadway production or your new walk-in closet, the rules are the same. Light only serves one purpose and that is to help us see what stands before us in the darkness. Understanding how lighting colors mix and how they interact with pigments in a scene is an important first step to creating an even more frightening attraction. It gives us the ability to give our sets more dimension, and to bring out the real color of a costume without flooding the whole scene with white light. The next time you are trying to set the lighting on a scene, get some gels and try a few things out. Maybe that scratched up green bulb would look good with a Roscolux #59: Indigo flood on the walls. What can I say; the scratched green bulb really does make some interesting patterns on the walls!


Michael Ward is an electrical engineer, computer systems analyst, and an avid haunter for over 2 decades. He formed Theatronics Engineering to better focus his energy on the technical aspects of the season. His background in theater, both on stage and backstage as well as his musical career have given him a rare insight into the theatrical nature of haunting. He can be reachedat Mike@Theatronics.com or by phone at (402) 510-5405

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