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Bringing lighting design to life: using 3D-printed standard lighting fixtures, theatre students learn hands-on 'focus and hang'.

Faculty who are lucky enough to have a 3D printer may already be the envy of their friends and collegues. Of course, they also face the challenge of devising effective applications and creating lesson plans that use the printer. Existing applications for lighting class pedagogy are limited, so I launched a project to make scale lighting fixtures for my students.

I began with a 1:24 scale ETC Source 4 (experiments with 1:48 scale produced more blobs than instruments) and then continued designing and reproducing every fixture in a standard lighting inventory. Once I was surrounded by numerous scale lighting instruments, I realized that these scale instruments could be a great way to present the concepts of lighting angles and distribution, thereby bridging the gap between the 2D lighting plots and real-life "focus and hang" in the theatre.


Students often struggle with visualizing how a 2D color/focus key relates to a 3D world. Traditionally, professors relied on a Color Key graphic that has been used for decades to attempt to describe angles in two dimensions, Top and Side. It may take students some time to understand this approach, as they grapple with how the two images can represent one light on stage. Students often see the Color Key as a representation of two lights rather than one. The challenge is to teach stu dents how to document a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional form. A scaled 3D lighting inventory created with a 3D printer allows professors and students to tackle these concepts using a 3D color key.

The 3D files were then redesigned to allow the printed instruments to pan and tilt. The next challenge was to create a way to quickly "hang" each fixture, so students could experiment with different approaches to lighting a space. Neodymium magnets, which are tiny and strong, were glued onto the yokes. Next, a frame work made of steel was created to represent the color key. Anything can be used, like steel wire mesh shelving cubes or hardware cloth, but experiments revealed that a hamster cage kit worked the best for scale.

Students could then hang the color key and document how that fixture's angle would be drawn on the traditional color key. Students were given an assignment to reinforce this concept: Select three photos and then hang the color key from the lighting in the photo on the 3D Key and document it on a traditional Color Key. This assignment reinforces both the traditional paperwork denotation of color keys while allowing the students to work in a 3D space.


Once students master the color key, they can learn how to distribute the color key to multiple focus areas on the stage. Using a 2D lighting plot, many students would become frustrated with how and where to place lights to get the right coverage and angles. By placing the 3D Key on a lighting plot, students can move the whole key from focus area to focus area to get a sense of how to apply the distribution of the key to a space.

Lastly, students use the 3D fixtures to hang the entire plot. For this assignment, students were given a ground plan and electrics made from %-inch square tubing on 3D-printed supports, as well as several fixtures to hang and focus. Students also needed to visualize the focus of the beam. By using 3 mm colored cocktail straws that fit inside the fixtures, students could see how each system distributed across the space. By placing a Field Template beam spread guide next to the fixture, students were able to visualize and select the correct instrument for each focus area. The next step was to document the results using USITT standards on a traditional lighting plot.


Once students hung and focused their stage, the lessons focused on circuiting and patching. Using colored string and clips, students could "circuit" each instrument and "patch" it to any number of channels the instructor sets. This practice can begin with one-to-one patching and then gradually move to the challenge of working with a limited number of channels. The ability to manually circuit instruments in a classroom setting allows students to gain physical experience and apply to paperwork and connect the two in a classroom prior to climbing around catwalks in the theatre.


Students internalized the information better using this approach. They actually had fun and spent more time with the models than they did when drawing traditional plots. 3D printed equipment provides a great way to teach students to move from viewing a 2D lighting plot to visualizing a real 3D space in a classroom setting. Students move instruments quickly and easily to achieve the ideal coverage. They also get a hands-on experience of "hanging and patching" instruments before they get into the theatre. And, they can easily and simply experiment with different lighting approaches and compare the advantages and drawbacks of each.

As nice as it would be to have a space dedicated to just teaching lighting, most colleges and universities have a limited number of performance spaces. These spaces are in constant use and it can be nearly impossible for students to find time to use the lighting equipment as a lighting lab that doesn't interfere with the current production. Likewise, while larger institutions may have dedicated classroom lighting labs, many do not. Therefore, a small portable system that allows students to work on these concepts in a classroom would be a great benefit for many schools. Although they can be expensive, LED systems are one option. But even an LED system is insufficient for an entire class of students. Building several systems with a 3D printer is economical and allows students to work with them in small groups so every student can actually get a hands on learning experience before going into the theatre. Such exposure and practice time can only enhance the learning experience.

Paying for 3D services would increase costs, of course; the total here does not factor in the cost of the 3D printer itself. Schools can easily put several set-ups into place at this price point, or each student can pay for their own via a lab fee. Creating a system using LEDs would cost significantly more. A single LED fixture costs at least $10, which quickly adds up to more $500 to have the same number of 3D fixtures available. Create your own 3D setups by downloading the fixture files on Visit Ronnskull/designs.

Ronn Campbell is currently an associate professor of theatre at Columbia Basin College. He holds a BFA from the University of Idaho and a MFA from Humboldt State University. Campbell designs scenery, lighting, and soundfor many companies and universities in the Northwest, including Snowy Range Summer Theatre, Washington East Opera, CBC Summer Theatre, Las Memorias Performance Project, and Idaho Repertory Theatre. Ronn has served as the Chair of Design, Technology and Management, for Region VII of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) and is the past Chair of the Northwest Section of United States Institute for Theatre Technology. Campbell is currently the National Member-at-Large for the Kennedy Center (KCACTF). He has also presented workshops around the country and at the USITT national conference. In 2012, Campbell was awarded the Kennedy Center Medallion for his work in college theatre.

Caption: One-half inch scale model of concert lighting truss with circular truss

Caption: ABOVE: 3D lighting lab with colored straws used to visualize focus. Photo by Shauna Joseph used with permission.

Caption: LEFT: 3D Color Key unit with 2D paper Color Key placed under and to the side of the unit to help students better visualize the relationship between the 2D and 3D versions. Photo by Ronn Campbell.

Caption: RIGHT: Students "hanging lights" in lighting lab. Photo by Ronn Campbell.

Caption: Student hanging lights to create their color key. Photo by Ronn Campbell.
Each 3D set up costs approximately $48. Costs are
as follows:

50-Source 4 scale                    $0.03 each      total $1.50
lighting instruments
3-Plain Steel Cold                   $4.50 each      total $13.50
Rolled Square Rod 1/4 in. x 36 in.
4-3d printed supports                $2.50 each      total $10.00
50-Neodymium                         $1.10/10 pack   total $5.50
magnets 1/8" dia. x 1/16" thick
Box of colored cocktail              $2.50 each      total $2.50
straws (3mm diameter)
Steel mesh or cage                   $15 each        total $15.00
(hamster playpen made 2)
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Author:Campbell, Ronn
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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