Moving Right Along ...

One sure sight that remote-controlled, motorized lighting has just about made it into the mainstream is its most recent name change.

Initially sold to us as "intelligent" and "automated" fixtures by marketing people who clearly had never done battle with them on a production, the current, less grandiose, but more realistic title of "moving light," seems to be an acceptance of their place in the world.

Simply put, these are luminaires that move, usually when we tell them to, and most particularly, when we have a sound reason for making the move.


The precursor of today's moving lights was the Vari-Lite VL1, the first 50 of which wowed the world, when they toured with the rock band Genesis on their Abacab tour in 1981. These moving lights were neither intelligent, particularly obedient nor very reliable. They required a spares level of something over 20 percent of the rig, and an entourage of specialist technicians to tender to them between shows. They also used a proprietary control method, an expensive metal short-arc lamp, and they were significantly noisy.

Much has changed since then. The moving-mirror spot was devised to give us a fixture which could move the beam around more rapidly than the full-body movement of the VL1, and with a little less noise. These generations of luminaire, now generally identified as "scanners," were reliable enough to actually own and use on a regular basis. They used cost effective Metal Halide discharge lamps and could be controlled by a standard DMX512 console, although they still had some serious drawbacks.

Aside from costing as much as a good compact automobile, the pan and tilt ranges of the mirror were limited by mechanical considerations, while the size of the mirror limited the range of possible beam angles, usually in the optical configuration of an ellipsoidal reflector spot. Until quite recently, the cooling fans, actuator motors and power supplies were still so noisy that they were relegated to nightclubs and concert stages, where background sound levels have no discernable impact.

Succeeding generations of moving-mirror luminaires served as a platform for the development and refinement of such features as motorized CMY color mixing, indexable rotating gobo patterns, indexable rotating prisms, motorized faders, lighter weight switch-mode power supplies and even independent four-blade internal masking shutters. Eventually, as stepper motor technology and control systems got smoother, faster, and finally quieter, the moving yoke luminaire has reappeared.


Meanwhile, as a consequence of this increasing complexity, where each luminaire can now require more than 30 control channels to drive its huge range of functions, an entire new generation of control consoles has arisen. Each of these new range of consoles attempts in various ways to reduce the complexity of the plotting process, while giving the lighting designer maximum creative flexibility.

The conceptual differences in operating these console families are substantial, and continue to diverge. Every console manufactureræand many people who have never built a console beforeæseem to be compelled to enter the moving light controller market at the very top end, with a new, high-concept console that is as different as possible from all previous consoles.

The recent proliferation in video recording formats is nothing compared to what's currently happening with moving light consoles. I suspect that there are way too many top-of-the-line consoles in the marketplace at the moment, for all of the developers to recoup their R&D investment. The fun will be to see which of these new control concepts catches the attention of programmers, LDs and the people in the big offices who write the checks for equipment purchases.

The swing back to fixtures with moving bodies in the last couple of years has not only meant that beam positioning is now more flexible, it has also allowed luminaire designers to produce instruments with wider beams than could be positioned with a steerable mirror. The wash light (what we would call a fresnel spot) has been added to the moving light catalog. Motorized functions available on these fixtures (in addition to the expected pan, tilt and zoom) include internal color wheels, full CMY mixing, beam-spreading prisms, frosts, and most recently, four-leaf rotatable barn-doors.

In addition to the panning and tilting moving lights, there are now also a variety of static positioned but motorized color-mixing floodlights suitable for covering large, fixed surfaces such as sets, buildings, and of course, cycloramas.


Moving lights have been used in television production for many years now, although almost exclusively for doing guest spots on music shows where the audio is not live. More recently they have been seen waving their beams around in an effort to increase the excitement on game shows. Indeed a game show set that I visited recently had 170 moving lights as part of its frenzied (and utterly incomprehensible) format.

Most of the moving lights were not of the ultra low noise variety, having come straight from concert and corporate production work. Even with the fixtures at rest, the noise from 170 power supplies and more than 300 cooling fans was like standing on a sidewalk in moderate traffic. Fortunately on this production, most of the talent was reasonably close-miked and there was canned music behind the sequences where people, lights and cameras go berserk with excitement.

Given the overwhelming number of moving lights with MSD/MSR metal halide lamps, the LD on the show opted to color balance the cameras for daylight, and match the standard tungsten sources by correcting them with CT Blue. Everyone, especially the vision control guys, was very pleased with the colorimetry of their studio cameras when balanced for daylight.

Moving lights don't actually have to move in shot to be effective production tools. The next step is to add a few moving lights to a general purpose studio rig, to handle such simple requirements as an impromptu sports or special event hosting, or an interview for a news or current affairs program.

We are on the threshold of being able to achieve this right now. Last year at the LDI show, Vari-Lite released the VL-1000, a quiet, tungsten-lamped ellipsoidal spot, aimed squarely at the theatre and TV studio market. Only a few weeks ago, ETC revealed the Revolution, their quiet, tungsten moving light for this market, and Wybron will be showing their contenders, the non-moving, but otherwise motorized Nexera spot and wash fixtures, at LDI in mid-November.

Controlling these fixtures will require a moving light console with sophisticated features to make programming straight-forward, but small enough to run just a few fixtures rather than a concert extravaganza. It will need to be something that you can add to your existing control system, or perhaps even use to replace it. Fortunately there are now many such consoles available, with most of them costing much less than you think.

The next year or two will see the emergence of a new range of possibilities for the television LD, with moving lights that can simplify and extend everyday production, without major capital investment or a serious disruption to the flow of production. Stay tuned for further updates.