I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
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While there’s no hard and fast rules to lighting puppets, there are some good things to remember. (Please note: I’m only discussing theatre lighting, not film or TV lighting) If you haven’t designed or operated theatrical lights before, I suggest contacting your local lighting production company, hirer, or theatre technician for advice and assistance. You will be working with electrical equipment, so safety is a big factor, and it’s important to have someone trained to help you. If you’ve done it before, the following will serve as a good reminder of what things you should keep in mind when lighting for puppets. This is NOT a how to on lighting, as lighting design is quite complicated and certainly requires more learning than what you would get from a blog post (trust me, I studied lighting design for two years at university; it’s not a topic you can learn in five minutes). A list of good books on lighting design is provided at the bottom of the post.
Puppetry lighting is different in the sense that some directors, playwrights and performances may call for ‘hiding’ the puppeteers, rather than seeing them onstage. As discussed in the post on using a light curtain, the puppets can be visible, while leaving the puppeteers ‘invisible’. In discussion with the director, you should consider whether or not the puppeteers will be seen during the performance or not; and make the lighting design fit accordingly.
|Richard Bradshaw shows onlookers how we works his shadow puppets. Note his light at the top of the image. (Click the image for a larger view)|
Having done lighting design before, I know that it’s often not too important for the lighting designer to consider staging, unless there is a particular directorial issue at hand: like lighting a doorway for a special entrance, or important moment between characters. However, when using puppets, a lot has to do with staging. With marionettes, there may be particularly large structures or booths on stage, from which the puppeteers perform; shadow puppetry has its own unique issues; light curtain also makes things tricky, as puppeteers often need to have dim backstage lighting to help them feel around in the darkness.
Additionally, there will be other reasons to include staging when designing the lighting: entrances and exits with puppets are different than with human actors, ‘practical’ lights might be needed (like small prop lights), and using different levels of performing areas. In particular, puppeteers need more room to move than the actual puppets do, so you may want to consider focusing the lighting just on the puppets, with the puppeteers left in semi-darkness. Some people find the view of the puppeteers to be distracting, while others enjoy watching the intracacies of the movements made by them: either way, a discussion on what is important to be seen, and what is not, should be made with the director, playwright and performers.
Naturally, any lighting design will need to work within the limitations of the venue, whether it be indoors, a classroom, outdoors, or a theatrical space. Whatever you use, be sure to check out the technical requirements, safety and equipment of the venue. The only times you should really be concerned about not having the right equipment is when you’re touring, require special effects or unusual equipment (ie. UV lights), or are using a space with limited power supplies (ie. a classroom). For the most part, lighting equipment for puppetry is the same as what you’d need for a ‘normal’ theatrical production.
There are a number of subheadings for this one, and they will follow. Consideration must be given to the type of puppets used and the lighting. For instance, blacklight puppetry uses UV lights to make the puppets visible on stage. Alternatively, shadow puppets also have their own specific requirements. The use of puppet booths with glove puppetry often means lighting from the front, and large outdoor puppets may not need any lighting at all. There are also a wide variety of puppets that use or require ‘practical’ lighting, and puppets can be created with special effects lighting installed directly into the materials. (See my posts on building a Lego city with Christmas lights installed for example)
|This example of a blinking eye mechanism was lit from above, causing the reflection of the puppet’s head to appear on the table below. Lighting can not only create dimension, but also atmosphere.|
As with all lighting design, you must plan to have a good range of lights rigged, in order to create a dimensional look to what’s happening on stage. For non-lighting people, an explanation: even though an object is three dimensional, when it is lit from only one angle onstage, it appears to be one dimensional. Direct a light on the front of the object only, it will appear as flat as a piece of paper. Add a light from the right and one on the left, it will begin to look two dimensional; add another light at the back, and it will look three dimensional. This is why lighting designs usually incorporate front, back and side lights.
In particular, it is important with most puppets - minus blacklight, shadow and light curtain puppetry - to have three dimensional lighting, since puppets are often caricaturistic in design. This means that often their profiles, shapes and curves, create shadows where human actors might not. With long noses, or embedded eyes, etc, it creates a particular problem with shadows, and makes the puppet difficult to see.
Of course, the above can be taken witha grain of salt, as sometimes, as with evil characters, it’s necessary to ignore dimension and simply create a good atmospheric feel to the scene. By using the above issues with dimension, you can remove a downlight or two and turn that shadowy profile into quite a creepy and foreboding scene. This is where colour comes in as well, as often the type of gel (for non-lighting people: a piece of coloured plastic that slots into the front of a theatrical light, in order to create different coloured lighting. A theatrical light without a gel appears as a slightly yellow beam) used in a lighting design can greatly affect atmosphere, dimension and mood.
|Ronnie Burkett and his stage/lighting in Billy Twinkle. Note how the lights behind Ronnie’s head cause the shine on the stage in front of him, whilst also lighting the central part of the stage including Ronnie and his puppet. (Click the image for a larger view)|
Most lighting designers will know how important it is to get the right colouring for their lighting design; as mentioned above it affects the atmosphere and mood of the performance. However, I think that new lighting designers and puppet builders underestimate the importance of colour when it comes to lighting their puppets. It’s easy to forget: in the workshop of a puppet builder, lighting is usually a warm, yellow, natural light. But under this lighting, puppet materials will appear differently as they would in a performance, and so the colours of the materials may appear duller than on stage.
Both the puppet builder and the lighting designer must consider and remember this fact: the builder should use materials that will be brighter onstage than in their workshop, while the lighting designer should see the puppets before creating any plans for the theatre. Likewise, the type of materials used - glossy, shiny, matte, fleece, wool, etc. - will also affect the way the stage lighting reflects from, or is soaked up by, the materials. In this way, lighting design, gels/colour, will impact more on puppets than they will on human actors, as the gels will be best used to heighten dull colours or diminish bright ones.
Lighting design should heighten the features of the puppets, the mood, as well as complement the action on stage, the characters, and the way in which the puppets are used and move.
There are plenty of other things to consider when lighting puppetry, but the above is a good start. If you have any ideas, thoughts or questions, do leave a comment! Also, check out this post on staging for puppetry.
I really wish I could post my lighting handbook from Swinburne: it’s a font of really good basic lighting information, especially when it comes to giving definitions of what lighting does. I won’t go into the whole thing, but here’s the topics it lists as important things to remember when creating a lighting design: illumination, dimension, atmosphere, selectivity, fluidity, and style. I also, always keep in mind what my lecturer taught me: "Good lighting design is one where you don’t notice what’s happening with the lights," but instead as an audience member, you notice the action on stage.
Here’s some good books that will help you learn more about lighting design. One really good book I know of, but don’t think is still in print is Stage Lighting: A Guide to Lighting the Smaller Scale Production. I have excerpts from the book, and it’s very good, but I can’t find the author’s name, or the ISBN. I know it’s published by Strand Lighting. (If you know where to find the book, please let me know!) And here’s a good article on lighting design from the Strand Archive.
|A Practical Guide to Stage Lighting, Second Edition by Steven Louis Shelley|
|Stage Lighting Design: A Practical Guide by Neil Fraser|
|Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life by Richard Pilbrow|
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