Where is the Industry Heading – Interview with Swami Candela

In a new column here at iSquint, Where the Industry is Heading, we asked working professionals in the lighting industry questions about some of the latest technologies and trends in the industry.  We start this column with an interview with a well known lighting designer and professional, the Swami Candela.

The Swami was gracious enough to take time out of his busy fortune telling, design and consulting schedule to answer our questions. To read the interview in it’s entirety, click the read more link.

In regards to paperwork, how has that changed from when you started to where you are now?

It doesn’t make the Swami sneeze any more, like it used to. It used to be that everything was drawn on paper and reproduced in blue lines. When a project was completed, all the printed paperwork was stored in a flat file cabinet, and over the years they would decompose into paper dust. When you had to reference the old paperwork it was horrible for allergies. The Swami used to sneeze his head off.

Ironically, there is little paper involved in paperwork today except where it’s impractical to carry a laptop, like at the top of a ladder or in a manlift. Now it’s done virtually using detailed 3D virtual models that are only committed to paper only in certain cases. It’s so much faster and more efficient, once you get up the learning curve, and it allows for the management of much larger systems.

But we’re only in the infant stages of integrated CAD systems. In the future, each device we use, whether it’s a light, a fog machine, or a console, will carry its own database that includes CAD blocks, user manuals, detailed attribute descriptions, and other useful information like weights, dimensions, and current draw. All of this information will interact on a system-wide level so that when you connect it to the system the controller will suck the data from the device like a plug-and-play system. No longer will the designer have to chase down CAD blocks nor will the programmer have to chase down fixture attribute channel assignments.

What are your thoughts on LED’s in general for use within the industry?

The Swami thinks LEDs are good and getting better, but we still have a long way to go before they reach their full potential. LEDs started out as indicator lights because they weren’t bright enough to be used for illumination. But they have doubled in brightness every 16 to 24 months for the past 40 years, all the while coming down in price. That’s the principle known as Haitz’s law because Roland Haitz, a scientist at Agilent Technologies, first made the observation. Now we’re right at the cusp of a new era where LEDs have the intensity to compete with discharge lamps.

But intensity is not the only hurdle. LEDs still have to overcome many issues, including color rendering, smooth dimming, and cost.

Since LEDs are narrow band emitters, RGB luminaires are missing certain wavelengths so they can’t reproduce certain colors faithfully, which translates to a lower color rendering index (CRI). Some manufacturers have begun addressing this by adding amber LEDs and creating an RGBA color mixing system. Selador has long used seven different colors to more faithfully reproduce a continuous spectrum and vastly improving the CRI. The Swami thinks they’re on to something, and apparently so does ETC because they recently bought Selador.

As far as dimming goes, many manufacturers are finally addressing the problem of steppy dimming with LEDs. They are so responsive that you can see dimming steps even with 16-bit dimming. Incandescent lamps don’t have this problem because the thermal inertia naturally creates smooth dimming. But now some LED manufacturers are incorporating dimming techniques in LED fixtures that emulate incandescent dimming. It makes for a much better dimming curve and looks much more natural.

Lastly, the cost of LEDs is still coming down and soon they will be at the point where they are undeniably economical. Right now, in 2009, LEDs are probably more economical than most light sources we use in theatrical lighting, but it’s not readily apparent because the upfront cost is relatively high but you save money on the back end. Incandescent lamps are just the opposite – they’re extremely cheap on the front end but they have shorter life, and therefore they’re more labor intensive, and they use more electricity, costing you more on the back end.

When all of these factors converge – the intensity, color rendering, and cost all reach a certain point, then LEDs will be the dominant light source in the industry. But that doesn’t mean we will abandon more conventional light sources. History shows that we never abandon old technology; we simply add new technology to our bag of tricks.

What challenges do you face with the ever changing console architecture?

You certainly have to work harder to keep up in this, the third millennium. There are so many very good consoles out there today that you can spend a lot of time learning different ones. If you specialize in one console you can get very good at it but most programmers don’t have that luxury – you have to take work when it becomes available with whatever console is available on that particular show. So it does pay to be conversant with many different types of consoles. The good news is that any knowledge one gains with respect to one console very often carries over to other consoles, at least once you translate the terminology. For example, most all automated lighting consoles use preset focus positions but they all call them something different.

Learning a new console or a new operating system may seem like a chore, but it serves to sharpen your cognitive abilities. The human brain is a muscle; it needs to be exercised regularly or it shrivels like a raisin.

Does 3D rendering provide a reliable method for developing a concept while designing out a production?

Yes, absolutely. There are a number of really good 3D modeling programs available and all of them offer some advantage or other. It’s not important which program you use, only that you use a program because that’s part of a holistic approach to design; build a model, lay in the lighting, program it virtually, generate the paperwork, and finally, realize the design. A virtual model can be amazingly accurate, especially with today’s rendering and visualization tools. And they’re getting more and more powerful. Three years ago the Swami bought a high end gaming computer for a couple thousand dollars in order to run a visualization program. He recently bought a small laptop for $500 to make traveling easier and guess what? The $500 laptop runs the new version of the same software just as well as the high end computer. That could not have happened three years ago.

Do you feel that projection media is a form of lighting or should it be considered a separate field?

It’s all part and parcel to the art of production design. After all, when a spectator watches a show she doesn’t see lighting separate from projection; she sees one continuum of visual expression. The holistic production designer can use projection as an extension of lighting and vice versa. They are different expressions of the same medium or different mediums expressing the same concept. Yes, the technology is different, but what is a projector but a light source with color and animation shaping the output? And what is a luminaire but a light source with color and patterns, some animated, shaping the output? They both serve to set the tone of the production.

Looking back at a past production, how would you change it with some of the latest technology out on the market today?

The more the Swami uses the latest technology – media servers, video displays, automated lighting – the more he appreciates the fundamentals of color, form, light, and shadow. Technology makes it easier to exploit these design elements but, ironically, it also makes it easier to ignore them because you can always create a ballyhoo or an effect instead of taking the time to think about good design.

If the Swami could go back to redo some past projects, he would try harder to exploit the fundamental design elements in a meaningful way. The truly gifted designer can work wonders with simple beam projection using combinations of color, beams, and lighting angles, but with technology they can create magic. Lately the Swami has been working very hard to explore backlighting, side lighting, top lighting, up lighting, to create unusual looks using asymmetrical beams, and to sculpt a subject with shadow and light. He’s learning that he doesn’t have to reveal a subject all at once and it’s more fun and interesting to obscure parts of the subject for long periods of time. Technology just makes that quicker, easier, more powerful, and more effective.

What new or upcoming technology has the potential to change the lighting industry?

There are so many new advances, all of which have that potential, and some of which we don’t even know about yet. To start with – and the Swami thinks we’re already seeing this – LEDs are evolving so fast that we’re liable to awake one day to find that they have surpassed conventional lighting in number, even in the theatre. Some people will think this is heresy but it’s in the crystal ball.

Another emerging technology that has the potential to change the lighting industry is the LiFi source. It’s a plasma lamp that has already been adapted by a couple of entertainment lighting manufacturers including Robe and Ocean Optics. It’s a very efficient source with a high CRI and a long lamp life. It’s a tiny lamp, about the size of a TicTac, although the power supply is bigger – about the size of a deck of cards.

The whole computer industry that is developing at such an incredible pace that we cannot predict yet where it will lead us. The theatre and live event production industry has always ridden on the coattails of the computer industry so there’s no doubt we will benefit from the advances in computing power as well as networking speed and capabilities. We are living in exponential times where technology begets technology. It’s an exciting time to be alive.

What advice can you give to a beginner looking to make it in the industry?

Be curious, be friendly, and make yourself useful.

Your curiosity will help you learn the industry, the technology, and the culture of the road, the theatre, the corporate world, what have you. It will drive you to read about that which you have the most interest, it will take you to new places, and it will open doors by leading you to people who love to explain things and reason with you. Some of the best of these people can be found on college campuses. Be curious about learning enough to explore higher learning.

Your friendliness will help you to make lifelong friends who will eventually diffuse throughout the industry and make their way into every corner it. Some of them will pass into positions of authority and they will remember you when they need crew. They will call you because they know they get along with you and you can get along with the other crew. They will call you because they know you are fun to be around and that you don’t mind helping other people, and that makes their jobs easier.

Your usefulness will help you be a team player, helping out where your skills are most needed, making the job easier and more fun for everybody. It will help give meaning to the phrase, “The show must go on.”

Do you have any tech-table rituals or traditions?

The Swami’s only work rituals and traditions take place long before the work begins at the tech table. It starts early each and every morning with an hour to an hour and a half of physical exercise. Sometimes the Swami has to give up some sleep in favor of exercise but it pays in the long run. Exercise clears the mind, releases tension, and keeps you centered. It keeps you healthy, especially on the road, and it allows you to focus without distractions. It helps you better your quality of work.

The Swami has another ritual of exercising the mind by reading for at least one hour every day. Reading keeps your cognitive skills sharpened and expands your horizons. It is nutrition for the soul.

What is your favorite gel color and why?

Color perception is one of the most fascinating of the optic senses. (The contrast of light and dark is another.) Color has the power to evoke strong emotion, calm the nerves, whet the appetite, change your mood, or trigger associations. Can anyone think of red and green without thinking of the ritual of the winter solstice, or blue and orange without thinking of the neophyte cannon ritual? Of course not.

The color purple has long been associated with mysticism, spirituality, and royalty, probably because it obscures detail and it eludes sharp focus. So Lee 181 has long been one of the Swami’s favorites. But more than any single color, the Swami appreciates stimulating color combinations in the right proportion – strong contrasts to build tension, soothing analogous colors, bold monochromatic statements, resolute white light with a splash of color for accent… There are many ways to create interest using color, and how a color reads depends on the surrounding elements and the action at the moment. Color play is fascinating and one never stops building an internal library of favorite color combinations and applications.

Bio of Swami Candela

swami_headshotSwami Candela of the Third Millennium is an entertainment lighting consultant and thought leader with one thousand years of experience in the lighting industry. His unorthodox style is a reflection of the diversity of the industry he serves and his knowledge of the industry is derived from the extensive interaction with industry professionals at events, trade shows, online, and on the street. The Swami lives in the hearts and minds of the great people who make up this industry, though some believe he is the invention of an author of lighting books. It is for you to decide.

To learn more about the Swami, visit his website at www.swamicandela.com.

*All views and thoughts are those of the interviewe and not of iSquint.net