Recently our friends at Live Design ran a story entitled, “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” borrowing a famous line from poet Dylan Thomas. The article was on The Light, a poem by multimedia artist Sarah Beck that honors “the final days of the tungsten light bulb.”
Without prognosticating on the future of the tungsten lamps, we can confidently proclaim that the future of the tungsten look is bright (and warm!) indeed. Of course, this warm white light isn’t coming from tungsten lamps, but from energy-efficient LED sources in fixtures like our Nexus Aw 7×7 and the Next NXT-1 moving panel.
In essence, these fixtures are offering designers the best of both worlds: the warm glow of tungsten, along with all the cost and energy-savings benefits of LEDs. We asked CHAUVET Professional Senior Product Manager Ford Sellers to explain how this new generation of warm white fixtures works and why that old tungsten look remains so cool.
Quite a few lighting designers say they yearn for the old school tungsten look. How would you describe that look and why do you think it’s so appealing to so many designers?
“Yes, this look has become very popular recently. I think that the ‘tungsten look’ can be described most simply as ‘soft and warm.’ This is a combination of a nice warm color temperature, smooth dimming, and a slow, lingering decay on the fade out. I believe that the popularity of this look is a combination of nostalgia for the ‘classic look’ of lighting rigs from the last 30 years, and is a pushback against the trend of using ultra-saturated colors, and the high color temperature that typically come from LEDs and arc source lamps.
“The extremely vivid LED colors can look more like animation than reality, especially when the fixtures change colors instantaneously. In the hands of a great designer, this can create an incredible visual experience, but it can also be exhausting for our eyes and minds to process. Over the last year especially, we have seen a lot of lighting designers moving back toward warm white lighting washes as a way to create intimacy and a cozy relaxed feeling reminiscent of the high-energy incandescent light rigs of the ’80s and ’90s.”
Where did that look come from in the old tungsten fixtures?
“The incandescent look was a byproduct of the technology of the time. I think a lot of us forget that even as recently as five years ago there were not many LED fixtures used in large touring productions. The primary light source was the incandescent (mostly halogen) PAR lamp and the arc source in moving heads (spots and washes) and follow-spots.
“An incandescent lamp is basically a filament (like a coil of wire) that is heated up by electricity to make it glow. The more power you send running through the wire, the brighter the lamp gets, and the higher the color temperature that’s produced. The higher the power running through the filament, the longer it takes for it to cool off, and stop glowing. We describe this as a longer decay on the fade out. These lamps are not very efficient. They use a lot of power, create a lot of heat, and can require bulky external dimming systems to control.”
We use the terms “tungsten” and “incandescent,” can you explain the difference between the two?
“Most people in our industry use the terms interchangeably, but if you want to be technical, tungsten refers to a material that is used in some incandescent lighting filaments. However, not all incandescent fixtures use the same filaments, so not all are actually tungsten fixtures. So fixtures with tungsten filaments are a subset of all incandescent lighting fixtures. Practically speaking, though, no one will bat an eye if you use the term tungsten to describe any of your incandescent lighting fixtures.”
By whatever name we called them, these old school fixtures have largely been replaced by LED alternatives; why did that happen?
“The introduction of LEDs brought a lot of technological solutions to our productions, allowing us to reduce or eliminate dimmer racks and decrease the amount of power distribution and heavy feeder cables and Socopex in our rigs. It also allowed us to reduce the number of fixtures in our rigs, since LED units are often color changing fixtures. So where you used to have either a fixture with a color scroller attached (power to a dimmer, then to the fixture, and also the power supply for the color scroller), or two units for a simple warm/cool wash, or three units for color mixing — you now have one unit that changes color instantly. Plus, the LED unit can do this in any order you prefer (unlike color scrollers), and it can do so silently.
“LED units are also far more efficient in projecting saturated colors and typically use about a quarter or less of the power of the incandescent fixtures they replace. LED units almost all have their dimming on-board and use far less power to create the same amount of light. Also, you can now power a 10’ truss with one or two 20amp circuits, rather than the two or more 6-circuit Socopex cables that may have been required for a small par can rig in the past. These are the advantages of LEDs. However, the light produced by LED fixtures usually does not have quite the same look and feel of incandescent fixtures.”
Are recent advances in technology giving LED fixtures some of the performance qualities that designers liked about the old incandescent fixtures without sacrificing the efficiencies of LEDs?
“Yes, they absolutely are, and I’ll give you an example. LEDs are constant-current devices. When you dim a white LED, it does not change color temperature, and it can respond to changes in brightness instantaneously. In addition, many LED sources are designed to be used at full intensity, so even white-light LEDs often have a color temperature from 3200° (typical ‘warm white’) up to 5600° (typical ‘daylight’) Kelvin. This level of control and consistency is great when you are lighting a scene onstage, but may not be what you’re looking for when the fixtures themselves are in view of the audience.
“However, thanks to advances in computing, LED lighting fixtures now have a microcontroller in them, which allows precise control of both dimming and intensities of individual colors. With all of this control, designers have begun to use pixel mapping far more extensively, and with increases in optical efficiency and decreases in required power, many designers are using LED fixtures as audience blinders, as well.
“So where we wind up is with many designers asking for a lighting fixture with the advantages of LEDs in terms of the ability to strobe instantly, ease of control, and low power consumption, but which look sand behave like traditional incandescent fixtures when viewed from the front.”
Chauvet has LED products like the STRIKE 4 and Nexus Aw 7×7 that create a tungsten look. Without giving away secrets, how is that possible?
“Technology has come a long way. Chauvet was among the first to add selectable dimming curves to our fixtures, so that LEDs could emulate incandescent dimming. In addition, our product development team is always working with leading designers to test light sources and specific color temperatures of white light, in an effort to find ways to achieve the effects they’re after. We also spend a lot of time researching and testing different optical solutions that help make LED light sources appear similar to incandescent sources without sacrificing the efficiency that makes LEDs so desirable.”
Aside from the energy-saving benefits that come from LEDs, are there any other advantages that these fixtures have over old school “real” tungsten fixtures in terms of dimming or any other performance feature?
“Yes! One of the major advantages of LEDs is the level of control and flexibility in design that we are able to give to designers. If you look at the STRIKE 4, you can immediately see the advantages. Firstly, they are incredibly bright, but won’t set your soft goods (or performer!) on fire from heat. If you’ve ever stood in front of a traditional blinder, you know that they get extremely hot. The STRIKE 4, on the other hand, is pleasantly warm.
“Then there’s the flexibility advantage of LEDs. With the STRIKE 4, your board-op has the individual control of each light source and the ability to change the dimming curve to act like a traditional incandescent blinder, or respond with instant dimming for strobe effects. The optics are punchy enough to act as a blinder, but wide enough to be used as an area wash.
“There’s also the compactness advantage. Fixtures like the STRIKE 4 have a smaller form factor than you would typically expect for a fixture with its power. That means less space on the truck, and less space and weight in your truss than you would expect for a huge output effect like this.”
How about the Nexus Aw 7×7?
“When you look at the Nexus Aw 7×7, you can see that it has 49 individual light sources laid out in a matrix, which give you the ability make text and animations quickly and easily. Because these sources are all in the same fixture, control is simplified. The unit has a ton of built-in effects, which are accessible via the virtual gobo wheel in the unit.
“Since we were able to customize our optical solution, we were able to choose a beam angle tight enough to give great aerial effects, but wide enough to be viewed by an entire arena. In addition, because the light sources are small, and lightweight, the fixtures are easy and fast to rig. The fixture has dimming curves that go from instantaneous, to slow lingering decays to emulate incandescent fixtures and smoothly fade effects across the panels.
“Finally, because of the power consumption, the units can be power-linked, so that 7 units can be run from one 20amp circuit. This makes hanging and cabling the entire system much easier, and reduces the amount of equipment you need to use to set up your rig.”
Do you think the tungsten look will continue to remain popular, even with the technology being supplanted by LEDs?
“Are you asking me to predict the future?”
“Ok, here goes… I think that lighting designers are becoming more tech savvy, and also more discriminating. The ‘tungsten look’ has been a part of the lighting designer’s tool box for almost as long as there have been electric lighting fixtures. But electric lights are used to emulate older light sources. Even today, LDs use incandescent, LED and even fluorescent lights to emulate lighting from campfires, torches, and that great big ball of fire we call the sun.
“In my view, designers do not want to lose the ability to generate the traditional looks that have been a part of our world and their design aesthetics for decades, but they also want to take full advantage of the newest technology. As a fixture manufacturer, Chauvet will continue to refine its products to allow even better, more precise emulation of older light sources, as well as incorporating the advantages of new technologies like LEDs.”
So this is part of an ongoing process?
“Absolutely. The last decade has seen tremendous changes in the entertainment lighting industry. Many of these have been driven by LED technologies, and by faster and cheaper computing. A number of the ‘new’ concepts like pixel mapping have been around for decades, but it wasn’t until the technology started to catch up that many LDs could actually begin to incorporate them into their designs.
“Some ideas like widespread inclusion of video were only made accessible by new technologies – and in turn these advances drove new concepts like the development of beam lighting fixtures to compete with direct view video sources.
“Every new technological advance spawns new ideas for how we can use them, which in-turn push us to the next idea and so on, and so on. However, throughout all of these changes in tools and technology, the basic job of the designer has remained constant: to light a subject, and create an environment. I think that soft and warm lighting looks will continue to be a major tool of the lighting designer for a long time to come.”