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Parsons, Week 4: Eyes Wide Open

September 23, 2010

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I’m definitely one of those lighting designers that spends more time looking up than looking forward.  It’s a potentially dangerous habit, yes, but I can’t help it.  I don’t see spaces, I see lighting environments.  I need to look up to figure out how my environment is lit, and to analyze how other designers’ minds work, so that I can file that visual information away for the next time I run into a similar design challenge.

Since I am of a theatrical background, I do this automatically whenever I walk into a theatre.  I look up at the front-of-house positions, catwalks, box booms, and any other exposed lighting positions, and I generate a picture in my mind of how I imagine the show is going to look based on the number and positioning of the lighting instruments, the visible gels and accessories, and the presence of certain types of equipment.  Experience tells me what to expect out of each lighting instrument: having focused thousands of theatrical instruments so far in my life, I can fairly well predict what will happen.  What most excites me, though, is when something unexpected happens in a design; something that I can’t draw on experience to explain.

I was particularly excited one night this week, then, when I went to see the first preview of “A Life in the Theatre” starring Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight at the Schoenfeld Theatre (lighting design by Ken Posner), and was surprised, twice, by the lighting.  It wasn’t only an effect in the show that surprised me, though; one of the effects caught my eye before the show even started!

The Schoenfeld Theatre, New York, NY

The effect I noticed immediately when I sat down in the rear of the orchestra was the sparkling, but glaring, crystal chandeliers hanging from the underside of the balcony!  They were nice to look at, but they were either lamped too bright or designed with too many open spaces between the crystals because the glare from the lamps was overwhelming the sparkle factor, causing them to become huge distractions in my field of vision as I tried to see the stage … hold the phone. Listen to me!  I’m dissecting the architectural lighting design of the theatre!

I must be learning something in grad school after all!

I’ve started noticing more of the details in architectural lighting designs because I am quickly learning the terminology, theory, and technology behind how it all works.  Take Wednesday’s Principles of Lighting class, for example.  We spent the entirety of our three-hour class learning about incandescent lamps.  I thought: how much more can there possibly be to know? Well, a lot, apparently.  We learned about the physics and chemistry of the lamps, the reasons for the different shapes and sizes, and I finally learned the difference between standard incandescent and halogen lamps.  I’ve been using halogen lamps my entire theatre career, but I never actually knew what made them unique!  I love learning practical information!

It’s amazing how the new things I am learning are impacting my eye for design, too.  For instance, the other effect I that surprised me in the theatre that night was all due to the color temperature of a light source.  Before grad school I never would have made an observation about color temperature, but now I have a whole new vocabulary to discuss lighting in more accurate, technical, terms.  Learning the physics behind lamp technology has also helped me to better understand how light and color work together, which is the only reason I noticed the effect that I did.  I’m excited because I can now use that information to really make an impact with my designs.  I can use the physics of light, in conjunction with the physiology of the eye and the brain, to create powerful lighting effects that operate on the viewer’s subconscious.  It’s like being a lighting ninja!  (Too far? Nah.)

Long story short: I’m learning a ton, and quickly too.  So much so that I need to write down my thoughts all the time, because there’s just so much useful and interesting information flying at me.  The blog helps a lot with that, so don’t expect me to give it up any time soon.  I just wish I had more free time to write, because I could probably do a new post a day with everything that’s going on here.  So, stay tuned, and thanks to everyone for all of the positive feedback so far; it definitely keeps me motivated!

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Experiments with Light and Depth: Lighting Studio Project #1

September 18, 2010

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Sometimes achieving a very simple lighting effect can be just as challenging as executing a complex one.  It’s a problem that theatrical lighting designers, and as I’m now learning, architectural lighting designers, often run into. Often it’s the simplest effects that are the most difficult to isolate, yet the most powerful in a design.

Our first lighting studio project at Parsons focused on this dichotomy, by zooming on a specific lighting effect that we observed in the city, and then abstracting out the core effect to explore in three dimensions.

Observed lighting effect. (Research)

The effect I observed in a particular window display in Midtown East was the ability of light to reveal and conceal volume and depth. I observed that the gradient of light that plays across a surface, or two adjacent surfaces, reveals the depth of a volume in its transition from light to dark.  Also, the negative space (shadow) present between areas of light can generate the visual sensation of depth, even when there is none.

From those observations I began to examine the effect in drawings and sketches.  I started by examining how light and shadow play across geometric surfaces and solids, observing how highlight and shadow reveal a form.  It was then that I wondered: can I recreate the appearance of depth or volume with light, without either being physically present?  Or, can I collapse depth or volume, using light, when both are physically present?

One of many sketches.

I theorized that by placing light and shadow in exactly the right places, there could be a possibility to accomplish such an effect.  I decided the best way to do that would be to use backlight, similar to the effect I observed in the city.

After working out my ideas on paper and in several small-scale 3D models, I came up with a plan to build a five-sided box, illuminated from within, with a different exploration of lighting and depth on each side.

Here are my results:

The top of the box is a direct communication of the effect I observed in the city, that light has the ability to reveal depth and volume based on the gradient of light that plays across a surface.

The front of the box examines the same effect, gradient of light across a surface, but by slightly peeling back the edges of a backlit surface, allowing the light along the exposed edges to define the three-dimensionality of the surface.

The back side of the box attempts to create the visual illusion of depth where there is no physical depth.  The illuminated shapes are actually flat pieces of paper, although, backlit in this fashion, they appear to become three-dimensional, almost cylindrical shapes.  What’s also interesting about this study is that the black spaces in between the lit rectangles are actually on a separate plane, set back from the front surface of the box.  Here, though, they appear to be on the same plane thanks to the contrast in lighting.

The right side of the box investigates the effect of setting a white, backlit surface off of another white surface, which results in a great deal of visual depth.  Not only do the backlit circles appear more three-dimensional, but they stand strongly off of the background due to the reflected light that generates a halo behind them.

The left side of the box, on the other hand, examines the effect of setting a black, backlit surface off of a white background. I also chose to add another level of complexity to this study by setting the white background off of the surrounding black background.  Interestingly, as a result, the three distinct planes (levels) in this study become collapsed into a single visual plane due, again, to the contrast in lighting.

Overall, the project was essential in helping me explore the original lighting effect I observed, and I definitely learned a few things about light and depth simply by creating and observing the model.  It also helped a great deal to get feedback from others about what they saw, because they uncovered effects I couldn’t see because I had been working so closely on the project.

So the next question is: what to do with the model now that the project is finished?  All I can say is, if you ever visit my apartment, don’t be surprised if it’s hanging from the ceiling or sitting on my nightstand!

The Designer’s Lighting Forum of New York (DLFNY) Season Opening Event

September 18, 2010

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A seductively lit, high-end SoHo lighting showroom. Live music by a cellist and pianist on the balcony. Wine and cheese as far as the eye can see. An impromptu hip-hop shadow-dance performance piece. Hundreds of neatly-attired New York City lighting professionals. And the newest and youngest industry member in the room: me.

The Designer’s Lighting Forum of New York season-opening event this past Wednesday was my first formal introduction to the lighting scene in the city, and it was certainly one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had.

Why surreal? Well, as a new arrival to New York City and a new student three weeks into the graduate lighting design program at Parsons New School for Design, my mind was spinning as I walked into the room. I had suddenly fallen into an alternate universe where those high-profile New York parties that you hear and read about actually do exist.

I should probably preface my reactions with the fact that I am of a theatrical lighting background, principally from the Boston, MA theatre scene. Needless to say, there is nothing in my experience that even remotely compared to the DLFNY event. It was obvious, from the minute I entered the room, that this industry, in this city, was on a whole other level.

Part of the trepidation and awe I felt when I entered the room I attribute to the fact that I was the only one of my 20 first-year classmates who planned ahead enough (our first big studio project was due the next morning) to attend. It was a bit intimidating to walk into a room like that alone, but it was pretty exhilarating at the same time. I was the lone representative of the current Parsons lighting program, which I was proud of.

Luckily, one of my lighting studio professors, Craig Bernecker, was standing at the front of the throng, which was a relief. It was nice to see a familiar face in the crowd, and he introduced me to a few other people in the first few minutes.

The majority of the people I ended up meeting almost immediately were recent Parsons lighting graduates, who I learned, thankfully, were all employed by lighting or architecture firms in the city. I did end up having a few quick conversations with some of the other guests, including the host of the party and the singer/entertainer, but I spent the majority of the time talking with the Parsons people. I wish I could have started up a few conversations with some of the other people in the room, but the intimidation factor was pretty high up there, especially since I really only knew one other person in the room of over a hundred people. The other fact that, aside from a handful of Parsons people, I was the youngest person in the room by at least 7-10 years didn’t help either. Sometimes I wish that people at these types of meet-and-greets would wear big signs over their heads that would say “I work at XYZ firm,” or “I have a theatre background too!”

At any rate, I was happy that I made it out to the event. I enjoyed myself, had a chance to mingle and chat, and learned a bit more about the industry in the process. I’m excited to attend other DLFNY and industry events in the future, too. I really would love to meet some working designers and hear about their experiences. If you are one of those people, or if you were at the event on Wednesday night, let me know! Leave a comment below, DM me on Twitter (@fischerlighting), or send me an e-mail (ryan@fischerlighting.com).

Now, next order of business, updating my business cards for the next event…

Parsons, Week 2: Designing With A New Set of Tools

September 12, 2010

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Let’s just say that I have been coloring with crayons all my life – over the past ten years of my life I’ve become an expert color-er and have successfully mastered the fine art of the crayon. Then, one day, I move to a new city, start at a new school, and someone hands me a box of markers and says, “now color with these!” … That’s about where I’m at right now.

My classes over the past two weeks, particularly Luminaire Design and Principles of Lighting, have opened my eyes to the plethora of new tools I have at my disposal when it comes to lighting design. No longer am I restricted to just theatrical luminaires – I now have incandescents and fluorescents, low voltage and HID (High Intensity Discharge), as well as the newest class of solid-state lighting, LED’s (Light-Emitting Diodes). Did I lose anyone? Hang in there, I’m just as overwhelmed as you. Luckily, all architectural lighting fixtures fit into one of these five major categories; unfortunately, however, within each category there are thousands upon thousands of fixtures, from hundreds of manufacturers worldwide, from which to choose.

I realize my shock probably stems from the fact that I am, essentially, starting from scratch to learn about a brand new industry. Yes, I have a lighting background, but theatre is an entirely different animal. I have spent years learning which theatre lighting fixtures, manufacturers, and suppliers to trust, and now I have to start that process all over again. The same goes for lighting leaders – notable professionals – in the industry. I have gotten to the point in my theatre career where I have a decent knowledge of who to watch and who to work with, but again, the field of architectural lighting has ripped the lid off my tightly-sealed container of contacts. I have already joined a number of industry organizations, such as the IES and the DLFNY, in order to try to narrow down the field, but even those are a bit overwhelming. I have to look at these as challenges, though, not as barriers. I’ve just got to start meeting people and learning names, which I’m already making plans to do!

Despite these challenges, though, I’m learning a lot from my classes so far. I’ve started learning how different sources (lamps) are designed to turn electricity into the visible energy we call light, how our eyes react to light in different quantities and environments, and how luminaires are designed to evenly distribute light. As a result I’ve already started noticing light around me even more than before. Now that I know how everyday architectural fixtures are designed to work, I can really analyze: is that the best source for this application? Is that fixture in the right position to maximize its distribution? Does that luminaire produce too much glare? Why hasn’t someone changed that lamp!?

Another interesting lesson I’ve learned from classes is how much more precise architectural lighting is than theatrical lighting. The other day in Principles of Lighting we broke out the handy-dandy light meters to learn how to measure light. Imagine that! I’ve been using my eye all this time to judge the brightness of a scene, when I could have had a small computer with an attached photosensor do it for me! We learned how to measure (prepare yourself) luminance, illuminance, luminous flux, luminous intensity, and reflectivity in lumens, lux, footcandles, candela. I promise I didn’t make any of those words up. Yes, apparently light can be measured in mathematical terms, and apparently we require different amounts of light for performing different tasks, depending on our age. Fun fact: a 60-year-old requires 40% more light than a 20-year-old in order to see the same task. Long story short, grad school is slowly resuscitating my math skills one day at a time, which I guess isn’t a terrible thing.

As far as my design education is going so far, the jury is still out on that one. As I learned this summer, studio classes are very much a trial-by-fire experience, and since my first lighting studio project isn’t due until Wednesday, I haven’t had a long enough trial period to examine what I’ve learned so far. I’m excited about the project though. It’s unlike any other lighting project that I’ve done, which is refreshing, and it’s more of an exploration of light than a statement about it, which leaves it very open to our own personal interpretation and examination. Stay tuned for pictures and updates about that later this week!

I think that’s all for now. Despite having very few classes due to holidays it was still an exhausting and educational week! Again, please feel free to leave comments (or just say hi) in the comments section below, or contact me via my Twitter account (@fischerlighting) or e-mail address (ryan@fischerlighting.com). Hope everyone had a chance to get outside and enjoy the beautiful fall-like weather this weekend!

Parsons The New School for Design, Week 1: Life, Like Light, a Study in Contrasts

September 4, 2010

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So it begins! After a much-needed month-long break from Parsons’ Summer Studies in Constructed Environments (SSCE) five-week intensive program where I was given a crash-course in contemporary architecture (see previous posts), I have returned to the Union Square campus to begin pursuing my Master’s degree in Architectural Lighting Design!

Now, with the first week of classes behind me, I can safely say that architecture school is nothing like theatre school.  For those playing catch-up: I received my undergrad degree in theatrical lighting design from Emerson College in Boston, and I loved every minute of it.  Emerson, for me, was a fantastic place to get an education and mature as a young adult — it had a fun and supportive environment, a friendly and caring student body, offered plenty of opportunities to get involved (almost all of which I took advantage of), and was situated in the heart of one of the most beautiful, historic cities on the East Coast; it truly was my home away from home for four years.  I certainly appreciated everything Emerson offered while I was there — I knew was incredibly lucky to attend such an amazing school — but moving away from it in the past three months has definitely thrown my experiences in New York into even sharper perspective.

Some of the crew of the 2008 EVVY Awards at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College.

For one thing, attending architecture school has made me incredibly thankful for being blessed with an education in theatre.  Not to alienate others who may be reading this, but those theatre people out there know what I mean.  The teamwork, professionalism, and problem-solving skills I learned from working day-in and day-out with teams of people in logistically complex, technically sophisticated, and deeply artistic environments, I believe, are some of my most valuable professional assets.  Not only that, but the leadership, organization, and communication skills I learned from leading crews of people under strict deadlines and, often, stressful conditions have positively shaped me into the individual I am today.  To make a long story short, my first week in architecture school has made me realize how much more individualized the work in this field is, at least comparatively to theatre.  Yes, you may argue, the design and construction of a building takes hundreds of people on a scale of years to complete!  In an educational design studio environment, however, students are often directed to work individually on their own designs, putting them in direct competition with each other.  Yes, Parsons does offer some excellent opportunities for working together in large groups later down the road, and I am not disparaging the program at all (I’ve only been here a week, after all), I am simply stating a difference I see in the educational environments.

The second biggest difference I have experienced between Emerson and Parsons so far has been directly related to that difference of working environment.  Due to the fact that the work in an architecture studio environment is so individualized, and that are many fewer areas of specialization within the department as compared to theatre, the individual attention and feedback that I receive on every project here is exponentially more than that which I received on any theatrical project.  I have quickly become accustomed to the process of the desk crit, which is simply in-class time devoted to in-depth one-on-one conversations between a student and a professor (or multiple professors) about their design ideas and projects, which I have found extremely helpful.  While working on a theatrical team prepared me well for presenting my ideas to a large audience (for instance, at production meetings), I was often the only lighting designer in the room, and so could only bounce my ideas off of team members who specialized in other areas, which didn’t usually amount to much feedback or in-depth discussion.  For this I am glad that I have the studio environment at Parsons, so that I may become more comfortable sharing the ups and downs of my design process, instead of just the final product.

The final, and most obvious, difference between Emerson and Parsons is really the difference between Boston and New York.  The resources, in terms of professional connections, that a school like Parsons can offer are outstanding.  For instance, every single one of my seven lighting professors this semester are major players in the lighting and architecture professions, with most of them practicing in or around New York City.  There is little that can compete with a school that has positioned itself, both geographically and ideologically, in the center of one of the largest and most innovative cities in the world.  Of course, what this all comes down to is job placement.  I will forever respect and maintain the professional network and connections I gained by going to school in Boston.  Emerson is no small player in the theatre world (recently investing over $90 million to renovate a historic downtown Boston theatre into a multi-venue arts and entertainment complex), and I definitely benefited from it’s reputation and training while living locally in Boston.  I am very excited, however, about all of the new people I have met in the past week alone, with direct connections to the field and industry I want to work in, whose influence extends beyond the city of New York.  Lighting Design is fast becoming an international career, so the resources offered by a school like Parsons will absolutely prove invaluable in the future.

Despite my lofty goals and plans for the future, in the end I want to reassure everyone that I never want to stop doing theatre.  I have made too many good friends, and had too much fun, to stay away from it.  Since arriving in New York in June this has been the longest period of time I have spent outside of a theatre in a very long time, and that has been one of the most difficult challenges I have had to deal with thus far.  My hope is that I can somehow combine my theatrical background with the new set of skills that I am learning at Parsons, so that I can practice both together when I graduate.  I am very interested, for example, in working for a firm with a theatrical background that also does architectural work.  I am also interested in the prospect of potentially designing theatres as a theatre and lighting consultant.

Before I get too ahead of myself, though, I want to zoom back in to the here and now.  My first week of classes at Parsons have gone well, and from the looks of the class syllabuses I am in for a roller coaster ride of new experiences and information!  I hope to use this blog to track my experiences, thoughts, and projects during the year so that I may keep in touch with those that care about me as well as connect with those who may share my interests. Please, I encourage you, feel free to comment here or stay in touch with me via Twitter, Facebook, or Linked-In.  For those interested in receiving e-mail updates about posts I write here, please click the “Sign Me Up!” button at the bottom of this page.  We are incredibly fortunate to live in a time where we have the power to communicate to anyone, anywhere, at any time, and I plan to take advantage of that opportunity; I hope you do too.  Thanks for reading!