Friday, September 16, 2011

OT: Time to Plan for the Holidays!

It's Fall, and the Holiday Show orders from the Professional Theatre Companies are starting to roll in. Yes, the pro's are getting their ordering in now! So where are you in planning your Holiday Ice Show?

If you're like my Rink, the Holiday Show is the Rep show. The Sets and Costumes are typically used from year to year, and not much changes in terms of Lighting, Script and Direction. The only big changes are the faces. Hey, I get this. It's relatively inexpensive, everyone knows the routine, and it's comfortable.

Just don't get so comfortable that you wait until the last minute to do anything. The first few weeks of December are always a rash of disappointed callers trying to reserve followspots and effects equipment that was booked months ago.

So, start planning! I'm going to go Off Topic and step you guys through some of the common inquiries and questions we get here at The Shop around Holiday time, as Betsy Ballet (again, used affectionately) puts on her yearly Holiday Bash.

The single most important thing to consider is this: You can do anything you want, if you can afford it. If you can't, a good Lighting/Staging/Supply house will help you find a cheaper alternative, but don't expect to look like Julie Taymore on $350.00. (True story!) Also, don't forget the Service Triad of Cheap, Fast and Good: You only get two out of the three.

"What kind of lighting do I need?"
Loaded question. Honestly, I don't know. There's so many factors to consider here, so this is where you need some Professional Help. Talk to your Lighting Rental company, and here's what they'll want to know:

1. What's your budget?
We don't ask this so we can "take all your money." We ask so we know where to start looking, and when to stop. I've had folks price out very expensive color projections, be disappointed that it was prohibitively expensive, and then I tell them there's a much cheaper alternative. All they had to do was tell me they were on a shoestring to being with. It's okay!

2. How much power do you have available?
You can learn this from your Building Manager. He or She can tell you, in Amps, how much of your facility's power can be devoted to the show lighting.

3. How can we access this power? Where does it come from?
Again, the Building Manager will know which Electrical Panels can be used. What will happen is that the Lighting People will come in, open the panel, and risk life and limb attaching their scary Feeder Tails ("tie into") to draw from that source. The Tails power the dimmers, which power the lights. The number of lights you can use is limited to the amount of power you have available. (For the record, I once did tie into a panel illegally. The Power Company themselves removed my tails. Building management had told me that it was an available panel, but not before I inadvertently stole a few hundred watts!)

4. How much area do you need to cover?
Just measure the rink, but you already knew those measurements, right?

5. How many color washes do you want?
Four or five is a good number, and don't just consider the Rock and Roll deep color washes. You want some soft warm and cool tones as well. Just remember, the more color washes you want, the more lights you need, unless you want to jump to Intelligent Lights which can change color, which we'll talk about later.

6. How many specials do you want?
Specials are lights that are meant to do one given thing, be that a pattern that shines center ice or hit one particular place. Again, the more specials you want, the more lights you need. Our rink foregoes Specials in favor of the Followspot, and this is a perfectly acceptable strategy.

7. Where will you hang the lights? What is the weight limit on your roof?
Important questions for two reasons. One is that if the lighting positions are hard to get to (as in, over bleachers or an ice surface, which probably describes your whole rink) that impacts your labor budget. Someone's gotta get this stuff up there. Lifts and ladders take time. Two, you don't want to hang more weight on your roof trussing than it's designed to handle, for obvious reasons. In most cases like this, it's not a huge issue, but it's still something to bear in mind.

8. Do you want any special effects?
There's tons on the market, and the more expensive ones don't necessarily give the best effects. A well wielded cheap effects machine can render a better result than the highest priced intelligent light in the hands of a chimp. (If my rink would just ask me, I'd make that rink a polar wonderland for not much more than $150.00 and 1200 watts.)

"Do I need a Lighting Designer?"
Just as Coaches can put together a basic skating program, anyone who does Lighting can rough up a serviceable lighting design for you. (Well, almost anyone...) Just take the time to sit with your Lighting Company and Person, and let them know what you've got in mind. Work with them during the focus and tech process, and together you should be able to get a good result.

"I need a followspot. What do the Broadway shows use?"
Well, you probably don't need what they use. A typical "Professional" ice show gets a Strong 2.5K Gladiator. It's two thousand watts of "bright as the m'fing sun" Xenon source light. It also comes with a professional, fully trained operator who may or may not have a donut in his or her hand. This operator will have the same spotlight for every show, and will be given precise cueing instructions by the Stage Manager. In one of the books I read on Pro Skating shows, one spot is typically assigned to lead a jump rather than follow, literally lighting the way for the skater. Nice, but this takes a lot of work and time.

A Lycian Midget is what's typically rented to Ice Shows, and it's one of my personal favorite followspots. It can be 1000 watts of tungsten, or 575 watts of an arc source. (Remember; don't equate wattage with brightness. Your source matters, and an arc source is brighter than tungsten.) This guy is usually operated by volunteer labor, which is whoever you can find on that particular night. This person may or may not have operated a followspot before, but most people will pick it up pretty quickly. The only real hazards for newbies are finding the controls for iris, dowser and color quickly. When "training" your spot operators, put some chick on the ice and have them actually follow her. (Someone's gotta warm up anyway.) Scratch spins and high jumps have tight corners that they won't be expecting, so let them get a feel for how the skating actually flows. Better, it allows the volunteer to feel for how their spot works; if it's slow, loose, hinky or badly balanced. If at all possible, put the same operator on the same spot every night.

"Is there an automatic followspot system?"
The short answer is, "yes, there is." The long version is, "but no one really uses it because it's too expensive, unreliable, and forgets that live entertainment screws up sometimes." Let's imagine that Jessica Dube had her terrible run-in with her partner's skate blade while under the watch of an automatic followspot system. The automated system isn't smart enough to register that most people don't want to see a bloody mess on the ice, and Jessica needed her privacy in that moment. The Lighting Guy would have needed to be awake to shut the system down, which may not have happened fast enough. A trained operator would have seen the tragedy and doused out faster. Worse than that, it costs about $12,000.00, which doesn't include the four guys who have to show up and set it up for you, nor the moving lights needed to actually be followspots. As if that wasn't enough, the person being spotted has to wear a beltpack. Call me kooky, but I don't want a failed double lutz ruining my $650 belt pack, to say nothing of what it does to a skater's line.

"What color gels do I need?"
Well, take a look at your scenery and costumes. Get colors that will accentuate that. If you've got a group number where everyone's in deep red, the absolute last thing you want to do is wash them in deep red light. They will disappear, and no number of sequins will change that. The best course of action is to stick with the basics: Give yourself a wash of warm amber, cool blue, and a soft pink. This will be a good assortment no matter what color someone's wearing or what ethnicity they are. Color is subjective, so experiment. Ask your lighting company, they should be glad to help.

"We'd like some moving lights!"
Awesome! Moving lights are a great way to add flash to your show. Here's the caveat: They need a better lighting control board and someone familiar with their use to set up and program them. "Intelligent" lighting is a misnomer, the lights themselves are really dumb. They have to be told precisely what to do, and for that you need a lighting programmer and a lot of programming time. Whatever time you think you may need, double it.

Having said that, a well utilized moving light rig can eliminate a lot of your traditional Parcan wash lights, (and their accompanying dimmers) give you a staggering array of color wash choices, infinite specials, and beautiful stage textures and patterns. Remember, you're not a rock concert, so don't pretend to be. Most of the pro theatrical productions are using moving lights, they just make them look like "normal" stage lights! The trick to good use of moving lights is don't cheap out. Get a good Control Console, a good Programmer/Operator, and a Lighting Company that will help you.

"What's that stuff around the rink/stage perimeter? Can I get that?"
That's LED Ropelight, and it's been around awhile as Stage Edging. It's on most shows, actually, with the side towards the audience blacked out. If you've ever had stage lights in your eyes, you know you get blinded. It's just the nature of the beast. (The iconic image of a celebrity in sunglasses actually originated from the horrific Klieglights of the 20's which really did do permanent damage to the retinas of the actors. This does not happen today, no matter what any performer says.) Anyway, the ropelight on the edge of the ice can be seen, so this gives the skaters some idea of where they are on the ice and no one pulls a Midori Ito during a show. You can get this from National Specialty Lighting. Expect to pay roughly $5 per foot, it's cuttable every 3', and plugs into the wall with the hardware you specify.

"What about those drops that make pictures?"
That's an LED array. Have a lot of bake sales before considering this. If your local lighting company can't provide this themselves, they will know who can. This will come with an operator or two that you'll have to pay for, house and feed.

"Can I get a Star Drop?"
You can rent those from Rose Brand ( in New York. They also make some pretty neat kits where you can make your own using something akin to Christmas tree lights. I've never tried this, but it looks fairly simple to do.

"We'd like a fog effect."
Great! I love fog, and I'll bet the image you have in your head is of that pretty low-lying fog, the rolling clouds on the floor, right? Here's how you get that: You can use Dry Ice, which is pretty self explanatory, or you can use a Fog Chiller which will last longer.

Dry Ice is something just about every Haunted House is familiar with. You buy dry ice from a local source the day of the show, keep it in a cooler, and when you're ready, dump it in some warm water and push the resulting fog into place with a few fans. It's a pain because it's messy, someone's got to fetch the dry ice every so often, and the effect has to be babysat. But it's cheap and effective, and since it's just CO2, there's no worry about causing problems with the Asthma crowd. There's also Dry Ice "machines" which simplify the process; Aquafog and the Pea Souper.

A Fog Chiller is a different beast, and requires a touch of cryogenic know-how. Talk to your Rental company and ask for help. They should step you through the process. You'll need to rent the two parts; the fogger itself and the chiller. You will need to secure the third part from your same Dry Ice source, the CO2 dewar. This Dewer goes either in or alongside the Chiller, pumping super-cold CO2 into it. The fogger ducts to the chiller, where the fog is run over and with the cold CO2, cooling it down so it lies low. As the fog heats up it will rise and dissipate.

If you don't do the chilled fog and just use plain old fog like my rink does, just be aware of Rink Temperature issues. Fog, when it comes out of a fog machine, is warm. Warm air rises. The air next to the ice is, (I know) cold, so the fog will settle into some mid range above the ice, literally shelving itself above that cold air. The problem here is that it's invariably at some skater's eye level. I chronically worry about blinding when this happens.

"What's in that fog? I think my skater is allergic to it."
This is well possible. Most fog products are simply aerosolized food-grade mineral oil. All fog and haze undergoes extensive testing and must be approved for use by Actor's Equity and SAG. The documentation of all this is online at PLASA, the professional organization of peforming arts folks. ( However, known asthmatics will have issues with fogs. No matter how safe it's supposed to be, it's still particulate matter in the air. If your skater is an asthmatic and the rink is thinking of using fog in their number, speak up. (See why involving parents in the planning is important?)

"Can I color the fog?"
No. Don't add dye to fog fluid, the machine doesn't work that way. Worse, the dye acts as a particulate inside the tight machinery of the fogger, which will clog it. The only truly effective way to color fog is to toss a colored light on it.

"I need a Snow Machine!"
There are a few kinds of Snow Machines; one is the baler that sits over a stage and gently shakes out either paper bits or foam, the other is the machine that makes a loud whirring sound and blows a glycerin, soap and water mixture through a sock, creating a foam that drifts down. My bet is you've gotten and used the latter.

They're okay. I'm not a huge fan of the Snow Machine. They're loud, they don't cover a lot of territory, they're expensive, and they make a mess of whatever they're "snowing." You can get a cleaner and more expansive snow effect using lighting. The GAM Film FX ( makes a terrific snow effect for less than what you'd spend on a snow machine rental and purchase of snow fluid, and it won't leave foamy bits in a skater's hair. Again, ask your Rental company how this works.

"What about a Bubble Machine?"
I think this would be a bad idea on an ice surface. Bubble fluids are just a mixture of water, soap and glycerine. The resulting film on normal floors is slippery as all get out, I can't even begin to fathom how treacherous this would make an ice rink. If you need some round things moving around, I'd go for a simple mirrorball, really.

"Can I get a Blacklight?"
Sure you can. Like most things, a well used blacklight can give you some fun effects. Blacklights come in a few flavors, and the only one you really want to avoid is the one that looks like a fluorescent light fixture. They just don't emit enough UV to be effective. Also make sure that whatever you shine it on is UV Reactive. UV Paints come in a few varieties, the best ones being Rosco Vivid FX ( and Wildfire. ( Wildfire also makes a stunning variety of UV Reactive materials, including makeup, fabric, water dye, and confetti. You can also get "Clear Color" paint, which is white or clear under "normal" lighting but will fluoresce under UV. This stuff isn't cheap, but a Sample Kit with one of every color will cost around $75.00 and should be enough to add some jazz to costumes and scenery. Also be aware that good UV Lights will take awhile to "heat up" to full brightness, and will need to be turned on a few minutes prior to when they'll actually be used. Don't leave the UV on too long, as the human eye can't take too much of this stuff and your audience (and skaters) will come away with a headache if they get too much exposure to it.

"Can we get a strobe?"
Sure. Strobes are fun! But if you use one, just be aware that strobes can cause epileptic reactions in some people, so post a notice in the program and in the lobby. "THIS SHOW USES STROBE EFFECTS." And of course, make sure it's okay with the skater who will be performing while it's on. Rehearse with it a couple times to be sure.

"What about makeup?"
In the skating world, the girls think they have this covered. Reality is, your Walgreen's Cover Girl or Wet & Wild is fine for Competitions, which happen under relatively normal lights. Under Stage Lighting, though, you got washed out a lot. Ben Nye ( makes a beautiful line of Stage Makeup called Belle Visage. It's soft and natural looking, yet looks great under hot light. Glitter and other effects are fun, just be sure what you're doing is in line with your program, and don't make yourself look like a harlot. Ideally, the boys needed a touch of makeup as well. (Sorry, Dad.) Their features got washed out, which is what stage lighting does. Just some foundation, some liner to bring out their eyes, shadow under the chin, and a little color on their cheeks. Nothing major.

"Do I need to flame proof my sets?"
Probably yes, but call your local Fire Marshall and ask. If he says yes, don't panic. There's a wide variety of flame proofing materials available for whatever you're using, so just tell your theatrical supply source what you're up to, and they'll get you the right goods. Most flame proofing things can be applied quickly and easily. (

"But I've already painted them! Now I have to flame proof them!"
Again, don't panic. Get yourself some Rosco PA Paint Additive and a few gallons of Rosco Flat Premire Clear. (Figure 300 Square Feet per gallon.) Go over your set pieces with that and you're set to go! Have a painting party, it's an excellent excuse to get dirty, eat pizza and go out for beer afterwards while it dries.

I'm of a mind that no question is a stupid question. But these questions are a bit silly:

"Can we get Pyro?"
Stop. Check with your local fire marshall before you go any farther with that question. Inquire about your local regulations. I don't know about where you live, but I can tell you that no one in our area supplies pyro due to the stringent laws and liability factors. You need a specifically trained and licensed operator who won't be cheap, and see how your insurance agent reacts when you tell him what you want to do. And, really?

"But we just want a little pyro, just flash paper or cotton."
Still causes bad burns in the wrong hands. Sorry.

"How about lasers?" (Yes, this gets asked.)
See above. Lasers also have their own set of tough rules governing their use. As in, people are licensed to do those cool laser effects safely. You can cause permanent damage to eyes in a minute or two if you don't know what you're doing. Yes, you can pick up a cheap laser effect at Spencer's or Guitar Center, but you'll get what you pay for. Frankly, in most cases like this, they are completely uneccessary, to say nothing of being tacky.

"Tell me about Confetti Cannons."
I don't see this happening a lot with skating shows, but here's a ProTip: Stick with the streamers, as kids will grab them off the floor for souvenirs, doing most of your cleanup for you.

And finally, when you just need some release;

"Ugh, I'm so frustrated with this show, I could hit the Director with a Pipe Wrench!"
You can do that. It will cost you $50.00, minus shipping.


  1. I hear the rink does not have a very good track record for staying within the allowed wattage.

    Does anyone use nitrogen for fog? Every time I use nitrogen for cooling I get some bonus fog.

    "You can cause permanent damage to eyes in a minute or two"

    At my job, we would call that a relatively safe laser. There are lasers that will make your eyes explode.

    "Can we get Pyro?"
    Stop. Check with your local fire marshall before you go any farther with that question.

    Or ask me to introduce you to the right chemist, there's an amateur piro show in town twice a year, and I'm pretty sure they're not licensed. You don't need a supplier if you know how to make it yourself. By the way, it's a great show. My wife got to breathe fire at the last one.

    The rink tried blacklight a while back. I only saw the video. It was terrible, which is perfectly logical since TVs and video cameras are not made to do that. But the parents of the kids in that number who bought the video must have been very disappointed.

    I am resisting my scientist urge to rant about the meaning of "Amps".

  2. Your rink show must be way cooler than ours. We are lucky if we get a theme. Last year the theme was put up after everyone had programs set. It was "decades" so we had to submit the decade of their music. Except some people did the decade the music came from, and others the decade the movie the music was from was set in. I think we had Pirates of the Caribbean in two different acts!

    We have no lights or sound design. But the mall does turn off the food court music so the rink music can be heard just a little better...

    (Another rink nearby does a great show. We just don't have that budget!)

  3. I love your adorable assumption that ice rinks (cough) have enough competence to even formulate the thought.

  4. Fun info! Our rinks have zero budget for show lighting, and nobody plans it really, except the person in the booth turning on and off the lights as the show happens. We do have disco mirror balls though.

    Also, I too had a moment of scientist giggling at the "minute or two" for the laser to take out your eyes. Yeah, more like instant blindness from the lasers I have been around...

  5. Yes, there are lasers more powerful than out entertaining, "ooh, pretty!" Variety we use in entertainment. Thankfully, we don't use these as we seem to have a hard enough time with portable staging the days.

    There is a guy who does fog with LN2, he is local, but he's really expensive and sells mostly to theme parks. His machines are really big and really complicated. LN2 would be overkill, and there's horror stories about oxygen displacment.

    Going over your available power can be okay so long as you don't run everything at full all at once. I've *cough* never done this, of course.

    Jessim, you're in a mall? Take a walk. I promise you, some retailer is using Source Fours. {Nordstrom for sure.) Ask if you can borrow! Nab their lighting fixture, rent a gobo rotator locally, and you can make some really nice stuff for about $50.00. Email me if you want details.

    Same with you, TSedai. It doesn't take much to get a Wow effect. Disco balls are awesome, try throwing two different colors on two sides of it. Play with what you have.

    Xan, if Betsy Ballet can do it, ya'll can too. But ideally, all this flashy stuff should accentuate the performers, not work for them. You can have the best rig in the world, nothing will help if the skating is ragged. If folks can't do it, I don't want them to come away feeling inferior. Focus on the product; the performance. That's what it's really all about.

    Not even going to touch the homemade pyro.