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Winter Woes

Brad Schiller • February 2020Feeding the Machines • February 8, 2020

Automated lighting programmers often find that they are sitting behind consoles for extended periods of time. While programming sessions frequently take place in a comfortable space, there are situations that require working in extreme conditions. Although it is common to sit outdoors to program during spring and summer months, there are times that we need to conduct our work in cold environments. As with any job, it is important that you prepare yourself for working in the cold.

‡‡         It’s Cold Out There

During the winter months, there are many productions that take place outside. These can be anything from Christmas light shows to New Years Eve events or other various parties, sporting events, and shows. While some thoughts may have gone into temporary heating for artists, audience, and production personnel, often there is very little planning for the pre-production lighting programming period. You could be asked to program the show while exposed to the chilly conditions. Prolonged exposure to cold air not only will be uncomfortable, but also can cause serious health problems.

‡‡         Exposure Experience

Your health while working should always be a concern, and cold environments present certain risks. Experts say that hypothermia can occur at temperatures as high as 40°s F.. Hypothermia is the medical term for an abnormally low body temperature. When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it is produced. After your body temperature is too low for a prolonged period, your brain will slow down and it will be difficult to think clearly. Often this leads to people remaining in the cold and freezing, as their brain did not trigger a concern to seek a warmer environment. While it is unlikely that you will truly freeze to death programming a show, hypothermia is a very valid concern. Since you may not even realize that it is occurring, it is a good idea to prepare for the cold before beginning your work.

‡‡         Take Precautions

When you know that your show will take place outside in a very cold environment, plan ahead and prepare for the cold. Pack layers of warm clothing appropriate for the temperatures you might experience. You can then adjust your layers according to the current climate. Wear proper footwear too if you will be tromping through snow to get to work; you don’t want to program with cold, wet feet. Gloves are important as well, and many programmers prefer “fingerless” gloves or even mittens that open to reveal the fingers. You can even find gloves that are compatible with touch screens if you wish to not expose your fingers. Remember that the thickness of gloves may increase “fat finger” mistakes, so use them cautiously.

Always cover your head (especially if you are bald like me). You can lose up to 10 percent of your body’s heat just through your head! Additionally, there are many devices and gadgets to help you remain warm. Heating pads, shoe and glove heating inserts, USB warmers, and other specialty items can increase your warmth. Do all that you can to stay warm and comfortable during your programming session.

Depending on your environment, you should request additional items for your front of house area. Many programmers ask for a heater to be placed under the programming table. In addition, you should consider a proper shelter (particularly if there is wind). Tents, mobile trailers, RVs, shipping containers, and other types of structures are commonly used to house consoles and personnel during winter productions.

You can also warm up internally by consuming warm foods and drinks. Hot liquids such as coffee, tea, and hot chocolate are very nice when you are cold. Consider having a coffee or teapot near your FOH so you can have these warm drinks ready as you wish.

‡‡         Watch the Time

If you must work outside with limited shelter, set a timer to limit your exposure. Take frequent breaks to go inside and warm up. Even a ten-minute break in a warm space will make a big difference to your health, stamina, and attitude. I was once programming lighting on the face of a building for a large event and made it a point to go inside the building every 30 minutes. This provided me with an opportunity to not only warm up, but also to gather my thoughts for the next scene to program. As always, be sure to back up your show file anytime you walk away from your desk.

‡‡         Not Just in Winter

Cold environments are most commonly found outside in the winter, but they can also happen any time of the year in nearly any type of setting. Many venues are kept very cold for various reasons, and thus, you might not be prepared for the cold. For instance, a few years ago, I was hired to program a corporate event in an arena in June. Leaving my house for the airport, it was over 100 degrees outside. Even in the city I was working, it was over 90 degrees every day. I was not thinking about being cold.

However, the arena kept the air conditioning going at all hours, and the front of house area was under a major air vent. It had to have been no more than 50 degrees at the console! I had not planned for this type of cold and did not even have a jacket with me. I had to use the console cover as a blanket to stay warm. Luckily, I always travel with a beanie cap, so at least my head was warm. Sometimes we work in areas that we cannot control the temperature, and you should always plan for the unexpected.

Actually as I look back at my career, I can think of many theaters, arenas, television studios, and other venues that were extremely cold year-round. While these environments are not freezing to the point of causing hypothermia, they are very uncomfortable to work in. Also consider that the other side of the globe has the opposite seasons as us. When traveling to the other hemisphere, check the weather before you pack your suitcase.

‡‡         Spring is on its Way

Luckily for most of us, the extreme cold weather only lasts for about four months of the year. With proper clothing, FOH requests and planning, you should be able to stay warm during any programming session. Try to keep your fingers warm so that you can correctly press the console buttons and screens. Limit your exposure and do your best to keep yourself safe and warm. Before you know it, the warmth of spring will be upon us, and you can relax comfortably again at your console.

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