I was lucky enough a few years ago to visit a fantastic Baroque theatre in the heart of the Czech Republic. What was fascinating about this venue is that it was one of only a couple of theatres in the world that still use candlelight as the only light source. The way that the stage pieces took the light was something that modern day discharge and LED fixtures have constantly tried to emulate.
In the latter part of the 17th century, footlights consisted of open-flame oil lamps with floating wicks. A tin trough was later added to reflect the lights onto stage and shield them from the view of the audience. The lamps were gradually improved, and footlights remained a major source of stage light until the first half of the 19th century.
Of course, Health and Safety “gone mad” means that we no longer reach for the matches at the beginning of each show and are using much safer means of lighting the talent on stage. We have for many years turned to tungsten lamps to replace the wick and flame, however now we face another problem. Tungsten has been laid to rest and trying to source these lamps now is a challenge that even Indiana Jones would think twice before taking on.
So, up steps LED. Manufactures all trying to get to the magical CRI number. (CRI being the measure of colour that is used to define how faithful it is in comparison to a natural light source.) The higher the number the better the unit, right? Well yes of course that is a key factor but when it comes to footlights it’s not the only one.
Typically, with LED, the best way to get a high CRI is to use multiple LED chips of differing colours, this in turn can add a problem of size of fixture. The more LEDs you use the more cooling you need and the bigger the reflector you need. As the units are at the front of the stage, blocking the audiences view is frowned upon so now we are not only looking for a High CRI we want this in a small package. With footlights often used in theatre we have to be conscious of noise. So, fan noise cannot be tolerated. So, quiet please!
All this before we even get started on the quality of the optics or the consistency of the LED colours. Not an easy task.
Why do we need footlights anyway? Well the answer is right under your nose. I mean literally under your nose. With modern lighting, we are all used to being lit from above and where we can, some help from the side. This gets the majority of us of course, but what about the nooks and crannies that we all have? Chins, noses, shadows cast by big costume pieces or hats. We can of course hit the problem with powerful followspots or fixtures on a front of house position. We are still fighting physics though with the fact that light travels in a straight line. So, a footlight allows us to have a soft light from below that doesn’t impact on the main lighting state and “fills in” the problem areas. Cutting out the harsh shadows and importantly as we mentioned at the start, keeping the subject looking natural.
Oh and of course we must remember that the subject we are looking to light using the footlight will move up and down stage. So, we must make sure that we have consistency of output depending on where they are on the stage. We need to make sure we can cover chins and shins.
To recap then, ideally the best unit would be one that has a high CRI, is relatively small, makes the minimal amount of noise, can light a subject equally no matter that they are up or down stage, oh and it of course has to be a quality light. If it was easy though everyone would be doing it surely?
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