The Genre Series: Architectural Installs

by Brad Schiller • in
  • Feeding the Machines
  • May 2018
• Created: May 14, 2018

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Continuing my series on different genres of automated lighting programming, this month I will focus on architectural installs. These can vary in type from outdoor building facades to interiors of restaurants or retail stores. In some cases, it can also relate to specialized art exhibits, roller coasters, or even zoos or parks. With each of these cases, the lighting is permanently installed, and the programming must run automatically with minimal user interaction. Additionally, non-lighting personnel may require additional custom, simplified interactions. All these mentioned conditions require specialized concepts and procedures by the lighting programmer.

‡‡         The Programming Seat

Before programming even begins, care must be taken to plan the location where the programming will take place. With many architectural installs, the lighting console (or rack mount playback unit) sits in a mechanical room some place deep within the building. Of course, this is not the location you want to be programming from. You need to work with the LD, architect, building staff and others to ensure that you can get the networking or DMX lines out to the best viewing location for programming. It is also usually best if this connection can be permanent to allow for updating the programming at a future date.

Once you get the lines out to the location where you intend to program, you now need to think about the environment. In addition to the usual tables, chairs, and power, you may need to provide cover in case of rain, barricades or security to keep the public out, risers, and more. I have programmed from many parking lots, rooftops, RVs, or even nearby buildings. On a recent project, a friend of mine booked a hotel room across the street from the building he was working on and ensured he had a room a few floors up facing the correct way. Then he and the crew stung a network cable across the street and tied it to the tops of the stoplights to get control to his hotel room. While this may not be legal, it indeed worked well (at least until a large truck barreled down the road and they had to quickly raise the cable higher).

Whether working in an outdoor location or within the interior of a building, always consider the best location for your programming. Ensure that the crew and staff are aware of your needs, and plan accordingly. Most importantly, the location needs to provide you with a great view of the lighting. You may even need to move to multiple locations to see all that you are programming.

‡‡         Automation

One of the biggest differences in programming for an architectural install versus other genres of production is that usually the lighting must run completely autonomously (or be triggered by a larger system). The lighting programmer must understand the needs of the install and create the show file accordingly. Just like any programming, the show should include labeling of everything and making use of palettes and other standard tools.

Where the difference comes in is making use of automation. First, you must guarantee that if power is lost, the console fires back up ready to run the show. This means using start-up macros or other procedures to restore the proper state. Macros or other programmable options should make certain that the console enables timecode where needed, activates clock functions, restores console views and more. You don’t want the console to power up and wait for user actions.

Then the programming needs to run correctly throughout the specified time range(s). Most consoles have some sort of clock and calendar functions that allow for precise programming of playback triggering. Making use of the clock/calendar features, you can create repeating events that happen at specific times or dates within a set of complex guidelines. For example, you can have fixtures begin their cues at 8 p.m. and finish at 12 midnight. On weekends, the timeframe could be completely different. It is very important that you understand the recurrence options as well as the calendar event features of your console. Many consoles also have astronomical functions that can calculate the sunrise and sunset times based on the installation’s location. These times can then be used with your triggers to automatically adjust to the region’s darkness.

Of course, with some installations, the lighting console is triggered by another device such as a show controller or timecode source. Even with these incoming signals, there may be further actions required from a clock or calendar source.

‡‡         More than the Show

All the architectural installs I have programmed required additional programming than just the show that is seen by the audience. Because there is no operator for the console, you need to think through the entire process of how the show will function. For instance, if you have fixtures using lamps, you will need to program in automated cues for striking and dousing the lamps at the appropriate times. Even for fixtures without lamps, you still need to program cues to instruct the lights what to do when they are perceived as “off.” You don’t want fixtures moving through ballyhoos in a retail store during the closed hours.

You must create startup and shutdown cues or sequences that automatically put fixtures in the on/off correct state and mode. Many fixtures have shutdown/restore (or sleep/wake) commands that turn off the light source, fans, motors, and reduce energy consumption when not in use. You will want to take advantage of these features whenever possible.

Automated lighting fixtures can sometimes have errors that are simple to correct with a simple reset or home command. I always program in reset commands right before the install is to turn on and sometimes even at various times through an evening. This ensures that the rig is continually in the best state possible for the show.

‡‡         Trigger Happy

Most architectural installations are set up to run on their own, but there are almost always conditions where the on-site staff needs to override the typical looks. Holidays, special events, private parties and managerial changes are all reasons that the staff may need to change the default playbacks. Since you won’t be there to change the programming, you need to try to anticipate what will be needed and come up with a method for easy selection of these overrides. Furthermore, your programming of these changes needs to either be for a temporary timeframe or automatically restore to the normal programming at the next opportunity. There may be a separate computer or screen to trigger the console events, or you may need to build a special page that appears as buttons for the staff to easily make their selection.

It is often difficult to determine what the best course of action is for your programming of the lighting in these cases. It is very important to think through all the actions and determine the best action. For instance, if they want to override the building to change to all red, does this mean it turns off all other playbacks? At the same time, you need to ensure that the clock functions to turn on/off the lights are not disabled. Do they want it red just for today, or for all week? What happens when the timecode rolls? How you build the connectivity and interactivity of all your playbacks and programming is hugely important.

‡‡         Nothing is Forever

Permanent architectural installs are tons of fun to program. I love the fact that the work will last for years and be seen by a huge number of people. It is very satisfying to return to a city and see your programming still in action. However, remember that the upkeep and maintenance of these installs may not allow it to always look the same, year after year. Many of these installs change with the times and, although once planned to be there forever, most last 10 years or so.

When programming an architectural install, the lighting programmer must think about the programming location, the automation and the interactivity that is required with this genre of production. While much of the lighting programming may be basic, the specialized procedures to create automation and longevity require precise skills and processes of the programmer. Be sure to plan wisely when taking on any architectural installation.

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