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Programming By the Book

Lighting for television is a field of endeavor that has failed to capture the imagination of most book publishers. In an age where there are "Complete Idiot's Guides" for everything from Catholicism to starting a restaurant (and even one for publishing magazine articles), television lighting appears to have been completely overlooked. Aside from the works of the prolific Gerald Millerson, and the only slightly less prolific duo of Brian Fitt and Joe Thornley, there aren't too many other books on the topic around.

Books on driving robotic lights and programming moving light consoles are an even rarer breed. Indeed, as far as I'm aware, Brad Schiller's recently published "The Automated Lighting Programmer's Handbook" from Focal Press (ISBN -0-240-80602-6) is the very first of its kind. Although this book is not specifically aimed at those of us in television lighting, the area it addresses is one that we are now regularly dealing with, as moving lights now appear on everything from talk shows to sports coverage and game shows to reality programs.

THE GENERIC APPROACH

The process of revision, upgrade and product development progresses at an ever-increasing rate. Indeed, most of the lighting equipment in your inventory will probably need another software update by the time you finish reading this column. Any attempt at dealing with specific brands, models and software versions in a book that doesn't have weekly reprintings would have been doomed to instant irrelevance.

Brad takes great care to base his book on the notion of a generic moving light, a generic control console and a generic production. While this approach will not directly help those hoping to learn how to program a grandMA console to control a rig of Martin MAC 2000s and HighEnd Technobeams, it does offer a very useful abstracted view of the production process that can be applied in almost any circumstances.

The chapters on the technologies and processes that come together as the lighting for a production are well organized and thorough in their coverage. Beginning with an introduction to the basic concepts and terminology of lighting control and robotic (automated) fixtures, the reader is lead through chapters on programming from the perspective of the luminaire, the console and the production. Scattered throughout these chapters are nuggets of practical wisdom which clearly arise from Brad's career as a careful professional programmer.

In my opinion, a reader coming to this book with only a perfunctory knowledge of robotic lighting and a high school level of production experience should, by the end of the book, be able to come to grips with the ideas that are involved in programming for production and begin to map out their own path to programming enlightenment.

There are, however, a few places in the text where Brad has not quite succeeded in giving clear, simple explanations of complex ideas. The most noticeable of these were the sections on channel precedence and cue tracking. Admittedly, these are some of the most difficult concepts to explain to the uninitiated, and although Brad has tried for very concisely worded explanations, I feel that it would have been clearer if he had also used some more visual explanations, such as channel intensity graphs or grid-style plots. These comments are based on my reaction to the text. Your mileage may vary.

FOR THE PEOPLE

For a book that deals with a very technical subject, Brad has chosen to put a lot of emphasis on people and the working relationships between the programmer and the technical crew, the LD and the performers. It is refreshing to see a technical book, that will undoubtedly be read by many aspiring lighting designers, programmers operators and technicians, deals with far more than just Amps, lumens and DMX universes. Not only are relationships dealt with in the discussion of each stage of the programming process, Brad has also included an entire chapter on the programmer-LD relationship and how it can and should unfold.

The last third of the book seems a little out of place. It concludes with a glossary and index, as you would expect, and even the final chapter that consists of quotes from working programmers and LDs sort of fits with the theme of the book. However, I am at a loss as to why the publisher has seen fit to include a 23 page appendix of the journal Brad Schiller kept when working as a programmer on the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

I have to confess that I actually found it interesting because I was there at the time, covering the opening and closing ceremonies for this magazine (and several others). As the only technical writer with a crew pass, I had unfettered access to all technical and control areas and met Brad and the other programmers, along with all of the technical crews, during the setup and rehearsal periods. I even had some fun helping to chase down a couple of DMX network glitches, so this appendix was a journey down memory lane for me. However, I really can't see the value of this section to the average reader of the book.

Despite my minor complaints, I recommend this book to anyone in television lighting who is contemplating using a rig of robotic fixtures in an upcoming production, and I especially recommend it to the technology tyros who are just starting out in lighting and would like to try their hand at console programming.