Dimmer Curves & Lost Projectors

9th Sep · Dawn Hawkins

Behind the scenes tales of the Barn’s technical installations

One of my favourite pieces of wisdom from Tom Waits goes like this:

“Fast, Cheap, and Good… pick two. If it’s fast and cheap, it won’t be good. If it’s cheap and good, it won’t be fast. If it’s fast and good, it won’t be cheap. Fast, cheap and good… pick two”

And that certainly rings true when it comes to the supply and installation of technical equipment.

We were extremely lucky to be awarded £15,000 to upgrade our existing lighting, moving from traditional halogen lights to newer LED fixtures. While that’s a great amount of money the reality is that a good quality LED theatre light is not cheap at around £1000 per unit and our lighting stock consists of over 40 halogen fixtures of various styles, so you see the problem. In the world of theatre lighting the demands on a light are so much more that in a domestic set up, in terms of colour temperatures, control of the lights beam/focus and the all-important “dimmer curve” (the way a light fades in/out). Our eyes have become used to the way a halogen lamp fades and the cheaper LED units have not managed to match this without looking jumpy or jittery, so to go for cheaper options we would be taking a step back in terms of quality. Working to this budget we had to decide on what the most effective way to reduce our kilowatt hours. Our day to day working light in the space was supplied by halogen flood lights on the lighting rig so we have replaced these with LED flood lights fixed to the roof which will now provide all the general lighting in the main Barn space at around a third of the power we were running at before. Our local electrician supplied and fitted these and I’m really happy with the results, however, on the day of this install the lights that were supplied by the wholesaler were at a colour temperature of 4000K. We had already upgraded two of the lights at the back of the hall to 3000K LEDs (3000K is the colour temperature of halogen and is that nice warmth we’re accustom to), so we had to make the decision of waiting a further week for the warmer ones that look “right” or have it done quickly, we went for the former and I’m happy we did.

No2

Another of the challenges that comes with switching the theatre lights is the infrastructure that is needed to power and control them. Traditional dimmer packs, which you would use to control the halogen lights, literally control the amount of voltage going to the light, and the more voltage, the brighter the light. With LED lights however, this process is different and you require normal mains supply along with a control signal which can alter various aspects of the light, so this requires more cabling to be run to facilitate the way these lights operate.

One of the benefits of the LED lights is that they are more “intelligent” than halogens, if you want a halogen light to be green you physically have to put a green colour filter in front of the light, with LED technology however you can control the colour which the light outputs, so where previously if you wanted a red, blue and green colour wash on the stage you needed to have lights dedicated to each colour, whereas with the new technology 1 light can do multiple things so we can reduce the amount of lights that are required for each show.

When installing technical kit there’s two separate things which you want to achieve at any given time, sometimes you want to be able to make an upgrade and have the audience not notice the upgrade, which is the case for the lighting, we want people to come back into shows and have the new technology operate as if nothing has changed (apart from much less heat generated in the auditorium) but it has made life easier behind the scenes. The other type of situation is where we really want people to notice the difference which leads us to the other major project which we have been dealing with during lockdown.

Screen Installation 4

We now have a new projector and screen which have been installed by Omnex. The new set up is a DCI projector which will allow us to screen newer movies closer to their mainstream release dates.

There have been a few things which need to be considered for installing with us. Due to the multipurpose nature of the space we have, sometimes (read most of the time) the easiest and most straightforward way to do something might have a knock-on effect to other elements which we cater for. For example, with the new projector going in, the simplest thing would have been to install it in a similar position to the old one with a slight modification to how it was suspended. However the new projector is considerably bigger so when we came to do a theatre show on the floor we’d have a big projector shaped shadow being cast on a great area of the stage. Additionally, if we had it installed on an existing lighting bar, due to the weight, it would mean that bar could not be used for anything else, which would greatly restrict other shows. The old projector was also considerably lighter so it could be taken down/put back up as required, the new one is 55kg so it needs to go up and be left in place (believe me, I helped put it up and we don’t want to be doing that all the time!). We settled on the solution of moving the projector position further back in the room meaning it’s out of the way of lighting for live shows, but that does have the knock on effect that as it’s behind the lights we need to take down some lighting fixtures before film screenings in order to avoid having shadows in the image – but that’s a pretty easy trade off to decide on, move a few 5kg lights or one 55kg projector, the only sensible choice is the latter.

This also threw up a challenge – the ceiling at the back of the hall where we wanted to rig the projector had no suitable fixing points, and as mentioned already it’s a heavy unit, so fixings need to be sturdy. For this we have installed 2 lengths of truss to brace across the roof beams and this allows the projector to sit central to the space and out of the way of lighting for shows. This was an extra expense than we had allowed for at the beginning of the project and it was not cheap but it has given us an extremely solid rigging point for the projector which can also bear additional load, so it grants additional flexibility in a space where it will most definitely be utilised - so, expensive, yes but also “right”.

The screen was another element that we have also upgraded as part of this project. The current screen we had was excellent quality, however, over the years had got a couple of marks on it which weren’t always noticeable but once you’d seen them you couldn’t “un-see” them. The route we went down for this was to have a new screen put on the existing electric roller mechanism. The installation of this came with some issues of its own, with a team coming up from London to install, as it’s a highly specialised job. On getting onsite with us and starting the job, they possibly hadn’t accounted for the fact they were coming to a converted farm that sits in the middle of the countryside, they came to me with concerns that the temperature in the room wasn’t warm enough and is the screen is susceptible to contracting and expanding in high/low temperatures. So it meant the install team taking a couple of hours off site while I pumped all the heating up full and rigged some additional halogen lights and pointed them at the screen (they do have a use, couldn’t have done that with the new LEDs) in order to get the temperature up. After a bit of time like this, with me the typical Aberdonian now moaning it was too warm, the team were happy that the installation would take and within a couple of hours we had the mechanism back up and working again.

We did have some nervous moments with our new £20k projector being lost in transit, we were supplied tracking details of the package and it left Barco in Belgium at 9pm one evening, arrived at East Midlands airport at 1am, delivered to a depot in Aberdeen by 7am. Then, on the day it was due to be delivered to us, there was no sign of the projector at all, I had to do some investigating and found that the main courier had given it to a third party for delivery to Banchory and there was no contact details for these couriers and no one could tell us where the projector was. The following day we had people on standby again to receive delivery but again, no projector turned up. Finally on the Friday the projector was delivered and all was well with it, however it doesn’t cast our local couriers in a great light, in that it took 10 hours to get from the manufacturer in Belgium to Aberdeen, then a further 3 days to get from Aberdeen to Banchory!

We look forward to having you back in for a show with us again sometime soon and for you to notice, and hopefully not notice when applicable, some of the improvements we have been making.