Stage Directions — January 2016
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Chris Wood

How to Succeed with Trying LED Tape

LED tape helped the budget for a rep set— but not without causing some issues of their own

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a musical set in the colorful fast-paced business world of the 1960s. Very early on in our design process for this production at the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, scenic designer Fred Duer and I (as the lighting designer) knew that it would be a challenge to indicate all of the necessary locations, especially as it was in repertory.

In discussions with Fred, and after seeing his initial gray-scale rendering, I had the idea of integrating LED ribbon into the midstage wall. Lighting individual sections and using color in specific ways, I felt that we could set each scene and further the storytelling. For example, as the character of Finch rose within the World Wide Wicket Company, more of the wall would be lit to show his progression.

For our early design meetings, I layered on Fred’s gray-scale renderings in Photoshop, creating my version of the drawings to demonstrate how I thought the LEDs could impact the scenic design. In the initial sketch, the mid-stage wall was comprised of a series of squares varying in sizes. The larger squares closer to the stage deck would open to create elevator doors and entrances to other offices. We outlined each of the squares with high density LED ribbon that contained 60 RGB LEDs per meter.

To ensure that it would work how we anticipated, I made a mockup to show the light skimming effect that I was going for. UFOMT Technical Director Steven Workman then made another mockup, placing the LEDs on the actual materials from which the scenic element would be built, allowing us to determine the size of trim to help hide the point source of the LEDs.

With a tight budget in mind I created series of “control zones” on the wall that gave us the maximum artistic capability for the lowest dollar. Breaking the wall into zones helped manage the escalating amperage and the concerns of voltage drop. Breaking it up into multiple drivers allowed for better distribution of the current flow and helped simplify the sections of the wall that moved. We went with LEDLuxor to provide the 800 feet of LED ribbon. For control we utilized two 12-channel LED drivers from Ecolocity LED, seven three-channel off-brand LED drivers, and two RC4 Series 2 wireless dimmers. Total number of addresses utilized was 48.

When testing the wall, we made the discovery that the various paint treatments reacted differently than expected under the LED lighting, adding even more character and variation. We also came across an interesting issue where the crew noticed that sections of the wall were not the same color across the whole ribbon or that when one section was triggered, it would control others as well. Eventually we found that when the manufacturer soldered sections of the ribbon together, the solder burnt through the backing of the tape. This along with the steel structure of the wall not being adequately sealed allowed for current to travel between the different faulty ribbons. In order to solve this issue, we cut out the faulty section and soldered in a new one, or we inserted material between the ribbon and the steel to break the current. The method used was dependent on the location within the wall.

The wall ended up becoming another character in the production. It could go from an imposing image to a softer look in seconds, reacting to and magnifying the emotional energy brought forth by the artists onstage. One moment the squares came together to form an image of an elevator and an elevator shaft, while the next a variety of offices. Throughout the production we utilized a variety of effect engines on the ETC Ion to create motion and life in the wall during the musical numbers. My favorite effect was a broken flicker effect that we used on parts of the wall during Disaster as the World Wide Wicket Company was being ransacked. It was so effective that the electrics crew thought the wall was short-circuiting and started to troubleshoot it during tech. In total we invested less than $2000 into the lighting of the wall, splitting it between the lighting and scenic budgets. Now that the LED drivers and power supplies have been purchased, they have been folded into UFOMT’s stock and are an investment towards future productions. The wall would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication UFOMT’s electrics crew.

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