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Theatre Lighting Design: A 7-Part Hub Series -- Part 4: The Paperwork

Updated on September 26, 2017
Ellwood Designs Logo
Ellwood Designs Logo


Welcome to part four of the series. Oohhh... the never ending, ever changing paperwork. The paperwork is actually a continuing process from the first production meeting all the way through final dress. We're going to touch on the main points of the various items that will help you and your crew throughout your design process. By this time, you should have received a plan view (and hopefully sectional view) of the space from the theatre's Artistic Director. You should try to obtain that as early as possible so that you can get an idea of the space. Even with it in hand, don't let it hinder your concept or creative ideas. Alternatively (and sometimes preferably), get it from the set designer with the set drafted in light weight. Either way, you'll need the set on there when you're ready to draft the light plot. Personally, I like a blank canvas (so to speak) and then get a copy from the scenic designer when s/he's ready to hand it off. Fortunately, if you keep track of your ideas well enough and you have a strong idea of where all the blocking is, it doesn't take long to fill in the light plot (more on the light plot later). If you question the blocking, you can usually get a copy of blocking notes from the Stage Manager. However, I highly recommend sitting in on as many rehearsals as the director will allow so that you can see the blocking in action and you can take notes in a way that better fits your purpose.

There are a few computer programs that I recommend for the paperwork side of things. First, Excel (or similar spreadsheet). This will allow you to organize the moment breakdown, the channel hook-up, and the instrument schedule. Second is Vectorworks (or similar CAD program) for design of the light plot and sectional. Although I personally prefer to hand draft, I don't have space to do it anymore so I have to rely on a CAD program. One thing to note with a CAD program is to make sure that you have access to a plotter printer. That is something I fight with every time I design because my MCD files won't spool to my home printer properly so I need to compensate the scale and often cut it into multiple JPGs while trying to retain scale. The third program is simply Word or similar. This is to help you organize your thoughts and to assist with neatness when giving any additional information to your Assistant Lighting Designer (ALD) or Master Electrician (ME). And if you're like me and you can't draw to save your life, but you want a nice high-quality rendering of your concept, then I would also recommend Cinema 4D (3D graphics program). Once you get the scenic design from the scenic designer, you can build the set in C4D and then place the lighting where you want it and print that out as a beautiful 3D rendering to use as a reference when speaking with the director. There are some other programs that other designers may recommend. I have tried them and don't like them, personally. However, it's just a matter of preference and intent. There is a program called WYSIWYG that allows you to alter the light plot and what not in real time with a semi-realistic 3D rendering. However, Vectorworks also allows this now (though the graphics leave something to be desired in VW). I never liked WYSIWYG and always had better luck with the VW/C4D combination.

Moment Breakdown

The Moment Breakdown process starts after reading the script two or three times. This is where script analysis comes into play. As you go through the script again, start noting things like time of day, mood shifts, weather, etc. You should be getting this information from the stage direction (though keep in mind that stage direction is typically written by the first Stage Manager, not the playwright and may be different with your director), in the dialogue, or simply your inner-mood and emotion as it changes throughout. Keep in mind, also that once you start watching the rehearsals, some moments may be added or deleted depending on director choices.

In the Moment Breakdown, make note of the Act, Scene, Page Number, the changes listed above, what happens physically on stage at that particular moment, and what effect you feel should occur. You can use the moment breakdown as a sort of outline for cue placement later on, but note that not all moments will require cues. The moment breakdown is more of a mapping process for your design. You will have some cues that aren't in the moment breakdown and you will have some moments that aren't cues. But this piece of paperwork helps tremendously with organizing the idea and conveying the process of how you get from A to B to C, etc. There is an example below of how I typically set up my moment breakdown. This will change a bit from designer to designer. When doing a musical, a lot of times I will also have a “music” column which, in effect, is similar to the 'action' column, but focuses on musical moments. This helps with granulation of the moment a bit. It all depends on how far into the weeds you want to get. It's not uncommon to have 10 moments (for example) on one page of the script and then not another one for a few pages. It all depends on the script and the action therein.The table below is just an example from no play that I know of. You would continue the process represented below for the entirety of the script.

Moment Number
Curtain Up
Early morn./summer/dingy apt.
Meredith Enters
Slightly Uplifting
Meredith crosses to Steven
No Change
Meredith touches Steven's face
Soften/Warm/add slight pinks
Steven shoves Meredith
Angry / Resentful
Moment Breakdown Example.
Example Color Projection Sheet. 5-Point Lighting.
Example Color Projection Sheet. 5-Point Lighting.

Color Projection

The Color Projection Sheet (aka color chart) is a tool used to define direction and color of light at a quick glance. It can be developed after you get your moment breakdown done and have an idea of what you want to do. You're going to find that in your moment breakdown, you're going to want all these colors and angles and effects. Once you know the inventory with which you're working, the stage space, and what main effects you want, you create the color projection. It is important to note that the color projection does not include specials. It is used for your washes. So once you know the stage space and have an idea of your inventory, you know how many lights you have to work with. Once you know this, you know what type of lighting to do (3 point, 5 point, 7 point, etc.).

Before I continue with the Color Projection, let me define what I mean by 3 point lighting, 5 point lighting, etc. I should have done this in the “terminology” article, but I didn't think about it until now.

3 point lighting is where you hit any given area from 3 different angles. Since you almost always want 2 angles of front light in any given area, that leaves you with 1 angle left. It is recommended that you use down/back light by moving what would be straight down back a few feet from the center of the area you are trying to light. 4 point lighting is usually 2 front, 1 down, 1 back. 5 point is typically 2 front, 1 right side, 1 left side, down/back. 7 point lighting is the most preferred but eats up a lot of inventory and a lot of circuits. 7 point lighting is 2 front, 1 right side, 1 left side, 1 down, 1 back, 1 up. Remember that whatever you use, that's the number of lights PER AREA. So if you have 12 areas on the stage and you're using 7-point lighting, you're looking at a total of 84 instruments and circuits just for the wash alone! Then you need to add in your specials. It's highly unrealistic unless you're designing for a very large house with a budget most of us drool for. For the sake of simplicity, we will be using the 5-point lighting on the example image.

Ok, back to the projection sheet: It doesn't need to be a professional grade, gorgeous rendering. It is primarily for you and maybe to show the director if s/he asks, to give him/her an idea of what you're thinking in terms of light. Remember, directors like color names. They have no idea what R57 is. You can either just draw an arrow to denote direction and then label it with a color or, as I prefer, use Photoshop to draw a large arrow denoting direction, fill it with the closest color you can find to the color you intend to use, and then label that with the gel reference number (see image).

Light Plot

The light plot is possibly the most important piece of paperwork you can create. It relays all the information required for a light hang (with the exception of height). The light plot is a top down view of the space, often called a plan view or top-down view. They are typically done in ½-inch scale. With a small enough house, large enough vellum, and compact design, you can up that to 1-inch. Currently, I use ¼-inch due to lack of plotter and that really is getting a little too small if you're going to hand it off to the ME. The light plot needs to be clear enough so that when you hand it off, there are as few questions as possible. Anything that may be questionable should be addressed in the “notes” section. The information portrayed by the light plot includes area breakdown, specials, type of instrument, instrument location (what pipe it's hung on), instrument number (where it's located on the pipe), color if any, target area, circuit to which it's connected, channel into which it is patched, and if there are any accessories attached to the instrument. Unless you have an exact and detailed information template of the space, you can leave the dimmer symbol blank until hang when the instruments are plugged in. Then just go back to the CAD and fill in those blanks. It also includes the afore mentioned notes and the name plate (see image). There is a standard symbol for each instrument and accessory that has been developed and approved by USITT (examples found here). If you're working in a standard house where you're the full time designer with a standard crew, this isn't as important (though I still recommend using it). However, if you're handing it off to someone not familiar with your work or you are a freelance designer, then it is imperative that you stick to the USITT standards. Note that the image of the light plot I post below is a bit sub-standard. I would not use this in a typical theatre environment. It still has all the ideas of a light plot, but because I was the only one who was going to see it, I wasn't so worried about exactness with the symbols.

It's kinda hard to see here, but you'll notice I color code my plots when I CAD them. The set is in green in a light line weight, areas are in blue, and all else is in black (ignore the yellow rectangles on the left... they were references for me alone). Specials are typically denoted with equilateral triangles on the Areas layer. In this show, I made the specials their own areas instead. The blue horizontal line is the front of the stage apron. I usually don't do that, but this space is a little weird and I needed to clarify the edge of the stage and pull it out from the lines of all the pipes.

Though still not full size, it is a bit easier to see it if you go to my photobucket image.

Light Plot for "Running in the Red" Note: Because I knew the space, I didn't bother labeling all the pipes. They would typically be labeled.
Light Plot for "Running in the Red" Note: Because I knew the space, I didn't bother labeling all the pipes. They would typically be labeled.


The sectional is simply a side cut-away view of the space using the same information as the light plot. I don't have an example of this because I haven't used one in years (had no need to since I was aware of the spaces in which I worked), and to avoid copyright issues, I will not link one from Google. It is extremely useful when dealing with teasers and to get an overall height of the set. It is also necessary for the master electrician to know where to set trim (height above the stage) on the electrics. In addition, it helps with light tree instrument placement. While you can portray all this stuff on the light plot using notes and side diagrams, it is usually best to have a sectional to stifle confusion. The sectional typically extends to encompass the entirety of the house. This is so the designer can see the rake of the house and determine vertical sight lines to assist with the setting of trim of the teasers and lights.

Channel Hookup and Instrument Schedule

While the light plot is the most important paperwork, the channel hookup could arguably be the most useful in terms of organization and post-tech tracking and maintenance. The primary purpose of the channel hookup is to keep track of the instruments by channel number. This is most useful when doing channel check, but can be useful during hang/focus as well if you need to quick glance at “what's plugged into dimmer 5?” and then cross-reference with the light plot. Also, it's useful if you didn't fill in the dimmer numbers on the plot (and thus the channel hookup) in the first place. As you're hanging the lights, you can fill it in with pencil on the channel hookup and then when you're ready for a more permanent fill, just take the paperwork and 'fill in the blank' in the various paperwork (plot, channel hookup, instrument schedule). For channel check (more on that in a later article), it is useful to go down each channel and if there's a problem, you look to the next column to see into which dimmer it's plugged and what instrument it's supposed to be. So if Channel 6 (for example) doesn't come up, you have a quick, handy reference to know where that instrument is located so you can head up and check the lamp. If it still doesn't come up, you can start doing dimmer checks. All information is right there. Both the channel hookup and the instrument schedule are redundant but serve different purposes. Technically, they hold the exact same information but are organized differently. Both contain the instrument type, the channel number, the dimmer number, the target area, the color, the purpose, and any accessories. However, where the channel hookup is sorted by channel, the instrument schedule is sorted by hang location and then instrument number. For example, “House 1 pipe – Instrument 5”.

You will notice on the channel hookup that the numbers in the channel column (CH) have jumps in them. I will discuss this more in the article about patching the board. For now, take a look at the last digit in each channel. You will see that it relates to the Area number in the same row (unless the channel is for a special). This helps greatly with knowing exactly what channel should come up. For example, I know that if I call for channel 11 that it should bring up the warm side into area 1 whereas channel 1 will bring up the cool side in the same area. And channel 21 will bring up the backlight. It is a very easy way to organize your channels.

Channel Hook-up "Running in the Red". As you can see, I had no accessories for this show.
Channel Hook-up "Running in the Red". As you can see, I had no accessories for this show.
Instrument Schedule "Running in the Red"
Instrument Schedule "Running in the Red"

Cut Sheet

The cut sheet is simply the color, size, and number of gels required for the entirety of the plot. This is handed to the ME who hands it off to a tech who gathers and organizes the gel cuts with the appropriate gel frame and sets them aside for hang/focus. It is merely a list. For example (follow along on the above channel hookup image):

  • 8 R54 6.25”
  • 8 R16 6.25”
  • 8 R55 7.5”
  • etc.

Once the gels are gathered, framed, and sorted, they are ready to be placed into the instrument at focus.

In Closing

There is a lot to the paperwork. However, once you get the plot done, the rest is pretty much just 'fill in the blank'. And while it seems like it's overly redundant, you'll thank yourself for having all aspects of the paperwork handy. After you do it a couple times, it becomes second nature. Of course you don't need all the programs I mentioned throughout the article, but they will help make your job a bit easier.

Once you're done with all the paperwork, make sure you have time to put it away for a day or so. Then look over it without referencing anything other than the paperwork itself. If at any point you say, “What did I mean there?”, it's a good time to clarify it because if you question it even a little, your ME will have no idea what you wanted done.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments or think of something I may have left out, please feel free to use the comments section below. Thanks for reading... on to part 5.



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    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 

      2 years ago from The High Seas

      Interesting read, thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Craeft profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Grand Blanc, MI

      Thanks for the kind words, Jp. :)

      We'll see how burned out I get by the final article. heh

    • jponiato profile image

      Joe Poniatowskis 

      6 years ago from Mid-Michigan

      This in-depth series gets better with every installment. I do hope the theater production folks are taking notice.


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