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Monday 30th September 2013

How to Build an Effective Mobile Lightshow

How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowAnyone who regularly reads my articles (thankyou by the way) will know by now that I am a self-confessed lighting geek. Part of this geekdom is bred from a love of lighting design but, I would have to say, the biggest driving force behind my desire to see lighting done well comes from the experience of seeing it done very, very badly. I have written about lighting design for weddings in a previous article but weddings are, so often it seems, a hotbed of lighting failures. I will elaborate on this as we go through but I hope that, through my finding of fault, you can pick up some tips on how to improve your lightshow and avoid some of the common mistakes DJs regularly make when it comes to lighting at their events. Please let me say at this stage that lighting is very subjective and my opinions are, exactly that, just opinions so feel free to take them on board or disregard them entirely as you see fit (I am a nerd NOT an oracle).

How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowIt’s worth considering at this point that poor lighting isn’t a budget issue (although certain effects will always come a premium due to the technology involved). It is possible to put together an effective and professional lightshow which will cater for most occasions for just a few hundred pounds. Similarly it’s possible to spend thousands on top-spec lighting gear and end up with it looking disasterous. This will be reassuring for any mobile DJ looking to put together a professional lightshow without spending the earth. Please bear in mind that this article is focussed around mobile lightshows but similar principles can be applied to club installations and other fixed applications.

Let’s start by breaking down the lighting fixtures you are likely to be using into 3 categories. Firstly there’s ‘ambient’ effects, I classify anything that creates a ‘wash’ of light as ambient so this covers any par-cans, LED bars, floods etc. that you are using to light-up the room. Any fixture that isn’t ‘ambient’ or ‘illuminating’ is going to fall under the ‘effects’ header. I reckon you can break lighting effects into two categories “intelligent” beam effects (which basically covers scanners and moving heads) and then everything else (moonflowers. lasers, strobes, colourful LED effects, starcloths, backdrops, centrepieces etc.) Within this “everything else” category a lot of the effects will be DMX controllable so are, in effect, ‘intelligent’ but most won’t have the flexibility or range you get from a moving beam effect.

How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowAny decent lightshow (with a few exceptions) will be built from a well-balanced combination of fixtures from the above three categories. Leave one category out and your lightshow will typically suffer because of it. This brings me to the first lighting ‘faux-pas’ and one that, in my early days of DJ’ing, I was personally guilty of. When I first started building my lightshow I did so without any real planning or foresight and I quickly succumb a common temptation. Buying loads of different sound-to-light effects such as bright, colourful moonflowers, derby effects and effects with hundreds of coloured beams is a very tempting prospect for the new DJ as they do offer a lot of ‘bang for your buck’ (or pound). The problem is that a lightshow which is made up entirely of high-impact, sound-to-light effects will end up looking very messy and is very restrictive when it comes to using lighting to build atmosphere or create a mood. The example I always quote when it comes to these types of lighting setups is the first-dance at a wedding.How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowSo many times I have seen this key-moment is someone’s big day accompanied by an uncontrolled lightshow throwing coloured beams all across the room and covering the bride's white dress in coloured ‘blobs’ of light (photographers hate this by the way). Another problem you’ll face with this type of setup is a lack of ambient light and colour so, apart from where the beams land, your dancefloor will be un-illuminated, this can lead to a lack of atmosphere and also to the room appearing very dark. This problem is easy to counteract with a few LED par-cans which, not only give a good effect, but also light-up the room so you don’t need to leave the house lights on and ruin the atmosphere in order for your guests to see where they’re going.

How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowThis brings me on nicely to the second type of effect and that is the ambient, “wash” type. Going back many, many years, this was the only kind of effect that a lighting designer would have at their disposal. Lightshows were, at one point, made entirely from par cans and spots that used to just flash on and off and were controlled by a basic chase controller. A lot of these effects can still be found in theatres and in venues where large areas (such as stages) need to effectively illuminated and, for certain applications, still look the part (for example, a lot of bands will still use par cans etc. as they are consistent with the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of their performance).How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowWith the improvements made in LED lighting over the last few years, combined with increased affordability, I believe that every mobile DJ should have a few LED par cans in their lighting arsenal. As well as lighting up the dancefloor (or yourself) and complimenting more dynamic effects, LED Par Cans can be used for creating atmosphere and for coordinating your lighting to the occasion. Increasingly, large numbers of LED Par Cans (and other ‘wash’ lighting fixtures) are being used for stylish uplighting in venues. This is a great ‘up-sell’ for mobile entertainers who wish to add value to their show and I will put together an article on uplighting in the near future. This type of fixture is incredibly versatile but, particularly for disco applications, a lightshow built entirely from ambient fixtures will look a little dull and will certainly be less dynamic than one that is mixed-up with other types of lighting effects.

How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowFinally I come onto the “intelligent” moving fixtures such as scanners and moving heads. If I’m honest, this section of the article could easily run into hundreds of pages…but I’ll try to keep it brief. Moving heads and scanners used to be the preserve of touring companies, TV production and big nightclubs. This type of fixture has become much more affordable in recent years and also far more compact and user-friendly. Next to a £100 LED moonflower which gives a massive display of beams and can be used as a complete, stand-alone lightshow, a moving head (which can cost anywhere from £300 upto £20,000) will typically only create one beam in one place at one time. However, when used in multiples, these type of fixtures are the only way to create a genuinely intelligent and choreographed lightshow like the ones you see on shows like ‘X Factor’.How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowWhile these big-budget shows have a lighting budget of millions, with great movers like the American DJ X-Move LED 25R it is possible to create these professional effects on a much smaller budget (albeit on a smaller scale). Moving heads and, to a lesser extent, scanners can be uplighting one minute, providing artistic beam effects the next and, when it’s time to hit the dancefloor, be part of a dynamic display of light and colour. Moving heads are one also one of the few effects where the fixture itself can be a feature. A moving head plinth can make your lighting fixtures the focal point of your mobile disco. Remember that most of your clients and guests will not be lighting experts and, as such, a moving head on a plinth will look, to the untrained eye, like something straight out of star wars. As always though, moving heads and scanners should not be used exclusively to create a complete lightshow.How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowIt is possible to combine a number of profile heads (the ones with gobo patterns that create a strong, narrow beam) and wash heads to create a complete show but the chances are that costs will be prohibitive. Moving heads are best used with ambient effects such as LED Par Cans or Colour battens as the fixtures can be linked by DMX to coordinate colours etc. This setup will allow the moving heads to create the wow-factor while the pars and bars illuminate the venue (or your chosen section of) to create a stunning overall effect.

How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowI’ve talked a lot about types of fixtures and it is important, if we want to call ourselves professionals, that we know our stuff when it comes to lighting. One thing is for sure though and that is that 99% of your clients and guests won’t notice (or probably even care) what lighting you’re using. To go back to my wedding scenario, I recently went to a wedding where the DJ had 4 LED effects (all moonflower-type complete with coloured blobs). These effects were all running all night from the first dance to the big finale (New York, New York no doubt) and, to be honest, nobody commented or probably even noticed (apart from me it seems). So, why bother spending out on expensive effects, spending hours programming a lightshow and taking time to plan and design your rig if nobody cares? My thoughts on the matter are thus; If you are at an event (such as the wedding mentioned above) then you probably won’t really notice the lighting any further than just the fact there is some (and everyone expects a mobile DJ to have some 'funky flashing lights').How to Build an Effective Mobile LightshowBUT, if the first dance was accompanied by stylish up-lighting throughout the room in the weddings’ colour-scheme, the dancefloor subtly washed in a pastel shade and there were slow, crisp panning beams from moving heads on illuminated plinths then people WILL notice. Lighting has a way of adding atmosphere and improving a show that, quite often, people will not be able to put their finger on. This will lead to an increase in repeat bookings and referrals by setting your disco out from the crowd (and if you’re unlucky enough to have a lighting geek like me at your gig then it will be greatly appreciated).

I will put together a comprehensive Do’s and Don’ts list for lighting design which I will publish in the getinthemix articles section soon. In the meantime if you would like any further information or advice on any lighting products the please don’t hesitate to contact our expert sales team on 01206 845125. Alternatively, visit the Lighting Effects section of our website and order online 24 hours-a-day 365 days-a-year.

Coming Soon: Effects lighting Do’s and Don’ts

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