I’ve been asked to provide lighting for a conference, evening function or church event quite a few times now.  I’m sure I’ve done it badly many times, so maybe you can learn from my mistakes and maybe even some of my successes.

The format I’m thinking of is a smallish stage in a function room or conference suite with maybe 100-200 guests on chairs or seated around tables.  Usually I haven’t been given much in the way of a spec. or even a timetable for the evening.  The role of the lighting is usually to add a bit of ‘wow factor’ and maybe to support a house band or worship band if there is music involved.

Here’s how I go about it.

Preparation

It’s worth finding out where the venue is, who is providing the stage, and how the seating will be arranged.  Is there a theme for the event e.g. colours on the tables and chairs, props, plants, feathers (really!) or other paraphernalia that we would like the lighting to compliment and not obstruct or set fire to.

Once I’ve spoken with the event organisers, I usually give the venue a call and find out when I can get in, what power is available and what the access into the room is like.  It’s also worth finding out whether the room is in use the next day to give the option of packing down in the morning if it’s looking like a late night.  If there’s any ambiguity, I usually try to arrange a visit to the venue and take photos of the room, stage and power supplies.  Often venues don’t really know what power they have, so I usually ask “is there an industrial socket anywhere” and have a poke around backstage and in boiler rooms and store rooms.  It’s unusual to find a medium-sized venue that doesn’t have at least 32 amp 3 phase somewhere nearby.

I try to ask at the outset whether there’s a smoke machine policy, and if they’re not sure, whether the room has heat detectors or smoke detectors fitted, and whether they’ve had DJs in there before using smoke.  Smoke isn’t suitable for every event anyway, but if you’re using moving heads for a dance or music act then it’s nice to have the option.

The rig

My for this sort of event would include:

(the links above are just for reference – I don’t necessarily rate those models – follow up article coming on cheap but heavy duty lighting gear…)

12 channels of conventional dimming is usually plenty for an event like this, and provided you’ve got enough juice coming in, even 6 channels of dimming should give enough flexibility if you pair up the fixtures appropriately.  I prefer to use my PC-based desk so that I can programme in nice slow crossfade chases on the LEDs to give a bit of movement and variation.

Hire companies will often rent out Parcans in ready-wired ‘bars of 4’ or ‘bars of 6’ which is ideal for this sort of setup.  I don’t think cheaper LED lights are yet up to scratch as primary lighting for a stage – unless you’re buying or hiring really high-end fixtures, they’re  better used for wall washes and effects.  Long nose fixtures are better because they don’t burn up the gel so quickly and I think tend to look nicer.

Of course, you could use far more lighting for a small event, but I’ve found that the temptation is to set up a truck full of equipment in a hurry, and then not have time to hide all the cabling and make it look neat, and get the desk programmed up with presets and chases that will compliment the programme.  It’s far better to be on the ball with less equipment than all over the place with a Wembly Stadium sized rig.

The lights are in my eyes

One of the commonest complaints when I’ve lit events is “the lights are all in my eyes” (from performers or speakers).  To an extent, this is a case of getting used to working on a professional stage, because the crowd wants to see the performer’s face, and their eyes are attached to their face.  But there is a lot you can do to mitigate this.

Firstly, light the audience.  If you’ve ever stood on a stage and looked out into near pitch blackness, you’ll appreciate how important this is.  I like to put a mixture of purples, reds and ambers into some Parcans and spread the light out across the crowd.  It helps the audience feel involved and breaks down some of the room/stage barrier and allows the crowd to be seen from the stage without it feeling like the house lights are on.  For standard seating you can point these from the back of the room.  If the audience are seated around tables you might need to reflect them from the ceiling and walls so they’re not pointing in people’s eyes.

Secondly, backlight the performers or speakers.  This makes a massive difference.  A pair of fresnels with a nice warm straw gel shining over the performer’s shoulder will make them feel a lot more comfortable.  If they have notes, they will be able to read them – always a popular move.  It will also probably spill onto the first few rows of the audience, again helping the speaker feel like they are engaging rather than talking or singing into a big dark hole.

White front lighting on its own tends to make the performers look very flat and one dimensional.  The addition of warm, diffuse backlighting is very flattering in combination with slightly colder, more focused front lighting (or key lighting as the film and video lampies would say) and produces a lovely halo effect particularly for women with lighter hair.  As the performers move around the light catches them from different angles and gives a sense of depth and texture.

The last couple of times I’ve lit an evening event I’ve used these techniques and had zero complaints about light being in the eyes, even though the normal focused front lighting hasn’t changed at all.

The gallery below shows this backlighting style.  The only front lighting is from a pair of 650W condenser profiles with no gels.  The first 3 shots are a ‘talking’ present, the final shot is the ‘band’ preset which emphasises that back lighting to make it a bit more rock ‘n’ roll.  This is using a hot pink and lilac/purple in the par cans and straw in the fresnels.  The straw also picks out the drum kit very nicely.  For a different effect I could have used amber and yellows in the par cans and maybe a light steel in the fresnels which would have been warmer overall.

In the next post I’ll show the rest of the rig and some programming tricks that I’ve picked up.