Rutgers Virtual Plays Shine With Six SolaFrames For Six Short Plays

Date Posted: 5/19/2021

In an unprecedented time where live performances in every discipline ceased for over a year, Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts decided to produce two plays for livestreamed audiences. For these shows, Head of Lighting Design (and Tony Award winner) Don Holder’s students employed High End Systems fixtures to augment their existing rig. Holder suggested using the SolaFrame fixtures, which he previously had specified for The Lion King.

Lighting Designer for both plays was Isaac Anderson; now in his second-year studies at Rutgers towards a BFA in Lighting Design, Isaac utilized the HES gear and ETC Source Four fixtures to create gorgeous, unique lighting textures for each performance.

Ride by Megan Hart and 6 Short Plays by Don Nigro were presented in the school’s large black box theatre, and because it was livestreamed, the team was able to split the theatre into two sides for each production to occupy. Three SolaFrame Theatre and three SolaFrame 2000 were hung in the rig. Isaac comments, “Due to the expansive staging and the need for succinct lighting choices on the Don Nigro Shorts, I used all six SolaFrames on that side of the theatre. But because of the fixtures’ wide zoom ranges, I did find myself using a few of the SolaFrames that could make the shot from the Don Nigro side on Ride.”

Anderson maintains that the production would have been impossible without the excellent team supporting it. “Don Holder and Cat Tate Starmer (Assoc. Professor of Lighting) are both excellent teachers and mentors. They push us to be the best multi-faceted theatre artists possible. Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University was my top choice for collegiate study— my education so far at MGSA has been great: I have found myself as an artist in ways I never expected before.”

Holder says, “I continually stress to my students that every choice a lighting designer makes should be related to the text, the production's point of view and the specifics of the creative objective at hand.  An LD should be clear about her/his intentions and select the proper tool for the job.  So, it's crucial that students become familiar with the most versatile and sophisticated products available today and that we give them an opportunity to incorporate these into their realized work whenever possible.  Given my positive experience with High End Systems LED products on The Lion King, I was excited that Isaac and his collaborators had the opportunity to use SolaFrames.  I offered what I learned from my experience with the fixtures as a frame of reference to which Isaac could refer when crafting his own work. Among the many strengths I mentioned: the superb optics, color-rendering and color-mixing, high lumen output given its relatively low profile, the variety of frost features, quiet operation, and reliability. Since the production would be viewed by a live online audience, I felt that the SolaFrame's versatility and full spectrum native source would prove to be a big plus to Isaac when it came to adapting his work for the camera.”

Kristen Pedersen’s set design for the Don Nigro Shorts was made up of faux wood paint treatment and a large ‘picture frame’ which the actors would travel in and out of throughout each of the works. There were also 16 hanging lanterns 12’ from the show deck, seven of which flew in to 6’ for one of the pieces. Isaac explains, “Because all of the scenery was based on 45° angles relative to the corner of the theatre, it was necessary to add tail-down lighting positions, so I hung three SolaFrame 2000s on a pipe just upstage of the picture frame set. They were perfect as moving backlights used to push light through the picture frame onto the downstage areas, and looked beautiful in the haze. One SolaFrame Theatre was hung on another tail-down just downstage of the picture frame as a downstage back/toplight special. The other two SolaFrame Theatres were hung on the gallery rails of the theatre, where they were quite useful as moving sidelight specials. Having units with framing shutters was essential to shooting around the lanterns in the air, so having SolaFrame Theatres as the moving specials was wonderful.”

Isaac describes the HES framing system as ‘accurate, fast, and versatile’. “I really loved the full-curtain framing in both sets of units,” he emphasizes. “The color matching between the 2000s and Theatres was excellent. I could ask our programmer to Recall From/Copy the color information between the two and with minimal tweaking, it looked identical. The dimming was well implemented, too. I’ve had to split up lights into different cue parts to deal with poor dimming on LED fixtures before, but the SolaFrame units performed admirably; splitting up the dimming into parts was not necessary at all.”

Anderson also really liked the variable CTO on the SolaFrame Theatre, which he says was essential in mixing color with the rest of the incandescent rig, as well as its variable frost. “The SolaFrame 2000s were very bright”, he adds, “which I found useful especially when pushing into saturate colors. In all theatre settings, having a wide range of intensity is important.”

On the importance of lighting for the camera, Isaac says, “I try to be aware of the CRI and TM-30 readings of any fixtures I put into a rig. This is especially true when lighting for filmed works, where subtle variations or discrepancies in color are very apparent. The SolaFrame units performed admirably, though. The color mixed perfectly with the incandescent systems that made up the rest of the rig.”

One of Anderson’s other concerns when selecting fixtures was the PWM frequencies of any LED equipment and how that relates to the image on camera. “I’ve run into issues before where the refresh rate of the LED emitters will mathematically align with the shutter speed of the cameras. This can cause striping, flashing, and poor color. With the SolaFrames, we were able to power up the fixtures and get to work without having to adjust any camera settings to the lighting equipment. I was delightedly surprised at how similar they appeared on camera to the in-person look. I am certainly thrilled with the performance of the equipment used, and excited to see what the future holds for using HES gear on future projects.”

Lighting six plays which all occupy the same playing space was certainly no easy feat for Anderson. Fortunately, all of the shorts had one cohesive visual vocabulary and thematic progression so many basic lighting systems were able to be re-used. “I knew immediately there would be some degree of ‘ad-lib’ required during tech, i.e. some of the requirements of the show could not be entirely anticipated. This is where having a robust layout of moving lights was vital to me. The expansive feature set of these units was essential to filling in where I needed; everything from moving specials to entire lighting ideas.” 

Other Rutgers students played vital roles in the production. Isaac says, “Assistant Lighting Designer Maz Sailer had my back throughout the entire process. Having someone to run the focus call and direct the electricians where to go next kept the process running smoothly and quickly. I was able to move from light to light without any hiccups.”

Mikkhail Serrano acted as the Lighting Programmer and Board Op for the run. Anderson enthuses that Serrano did a ‘great job of programming the moving lights and incandescent fixtures, as well as keeping a clean cue-list’. By the third day of tech, the team had established a solid dialogue and were able to work quickly and efficiently.As the programmer, Mikkhail greatly enjoyed working with the SolaFrame fixtures. “They’ve been my favorite light to program thus far. I really enjoyed the quick response time and consistent accuracy from both the 2000s and Theatre units. The control was fluid and made for a great experience overall.”

Nate Morgan (with his assistant, Emrys Watson) is the Lighting Supervisor at Mason Gross. Anderson knew going into the show there would be challenges and much work required from all involved, but was especially thankful for Nate and Emrys’ efforts to get the show into the air.

Another important collaborator was Danielle Liccardo-Massood, the director of the Don Nigro pieces. “Danielle provided one of the most fruitful collaborations I’ve had to date. I am blessed to have been able to work with Danielle so closely on every aspect of the show’s lighting. I felt empowered to make instinctual decisions knowing we could talk collaboratively about what worked and what didn’t and come to a consensus about what to change.  

Rutgers’ house inventory is largely ETC-based; Anderson says ETC products have always been essential to his process as a designer. “Source Fours and Source Four Pars are workhorses and accounted for most of the incandescent rig. We use an Ion-Xe in the black box space, which is a wonderful console. Being able to network into the console from my laptop via ETC Nomad was extremely useful during tech.”

In closing, Don Holder says, “Isaac wisely deployed most of the SolaFrame fixtures in backlight positions, which allowed him to beautifully etch and separate the performers from the dark backgrounds, creating many high contrast and striking images on camera, with excellent depth of field. The versatility that these fixtures offered allowed him to craft each of the six scenes in his production with specificity and a clear point of view. He showcased the SolaFrame's ability to render color quite well across the visible spectrum, crafting a variety of stage pictures ranging from golden candle-lit scenes, to a sunlit park, to a moonlit and mysterious drawing room.  In each case, Isaac was able to seamlessly blend the SolaFrame's LED source into stage pictures largely lit with Tungsten-Halogen Source Four fixtures.”