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The Art of Light: Lighting design program shines as one of a kind

Amarante Lucero should be drunk with pride and satisfaction, but he’s really just too busy to indulge himself. Lucero, a professor in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin, is head of the Automated Lighting Design Program. He leads the only university lab in the Western Hemisphere dedicated to the instruction of automated lighting design.

Professor Amarante Lucero
Amarante Lucero is head of the automated lighting design program in the College of Fine Arts.

As a result of a carefully nurtured symbiotic relationship with High End Systems Inc., a leading manufacturer of automated lighting in Austin, Lucero has been able to build a unique lighting program from the ground up. He has spun a fledgling dream of one meager automated lighting design course into three quarters of a million dollars worth of lighting equipment and a four-course robotic lighting program that has steadily grown and evolved over the past seven years.

“I first saw this lighting at a technology conference I attended several years ago,” said Lucero. “And that opened the door to my viewing demonstrations of it at High End Systems. I started to worm my way in at High End and learn all that I could. In two or three years, after studying the technology, I began to build our program with equipment from High End. They’ve always been extremely kind and generous to us.”

While the university receives equipment, High End Systems benefits from trained lighting design students who may become future employees and from the feedback it receives regarding the efficacy and quality of the lighting equipment.

The result of Lucero’s perseverance and High End’s generosity has been an unrivaled automated lighting program that boasts the same top-notch, cutting-edge, industry-standard equipment that you might see at a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert or the Academy Awards.

Lucero’s close ties to the lighting industry also have led to a former lighting design student, Jason Pottef, being recruited to join a small group of lighting industry professionals in developing a standard and protocol to which automated lighting equipment and software will have to conform.

“UT is in a really, really interesting position right now, being one of the first universities to become actively involved in standards processes writing,” said Pottef, an electrical engineering major. “The industry has needed one consistent yardstick to measure the equipment to, so that when it’s measured up to that, the equipment can be stamped remote device management-compatible. Working on something this big puts my name out there and also puts UT’s name in the high-tech hat.”

Being top-dollar, tech-sexy and in the industry loop are some of the more obvious charms of Lucero’s lighting design program. For a designer, however, the real allure lies in the array of options the equipment offers for artistic expression.

“With conventional lighting, you hang it, point it, change the color and turn it on and off,” said Jason Norris, a graduate student in lighting design who has completed all four automated lighting design classes. “With these advanced automated lights, each fixture has a computer attached to it and controlling it. You can, with the computer, vary light position, color, texture, intensity—up to 22 variables. It’s completely different from conventional lighting.”

For new students, this embarrassment of riches can be mind-boggling and intimidating.

“I am one of the least experienced students overall, and I find the tech part of this very difficult,” said Shelby Wilson, a junior and first-year automated lighting design student. “A lot of the other students in the class have at least had some experience with conventional lighting. I'm working with all kinds of things that I've never seen or heard of before.”

The automated lighting design lab
The automated lighting design lab boasts the same advanced technology that is used at major concert venues.

Shelby is not alone in her status as a novice. Because there have been no programs of study to teach mastery of the automated lighting, the few professionals who have learned have done so in an apprenticeship mode, on the job. Individuals trained in the technically challenging lighting are rare and much sought after.

“In training these kids in advanced lighting technology, our fine arts program is way ahead of the curve,” said Lucero.

Students entering the design program comprise an eclectic melange of undergraduate and graduate students with academic backgrounds as varied as dance, computer science, electrical engineering and acting.

In addition to being unique, the program is also exclusive. Lucero announces each spring semester that he will be accepting applications, and, when the dust settles, only eight lucky students find themselves in Robo I, the first of the four courses.

The initiates begin by learning how to use the LCD Controllers, consoles that allow the operator to control various groups of lights. In the long, box-shaped, coal-black lab, the control panels sit at one end, and an array of lights protrude, on vertical and horizontal grids, from the ceiling and the far wall. Standing at a console, hands flying over knobs and buttons, a pensive expression on their faces as theatrical fog spews from a far corner of the ceiling and fills the room, the students look like deejays at a Miami club.

In order to tutor the students in both the aesthetics of design and in technical prowess, Lucero has them choreograph the lights to music.

A first encounter with one of the light shows in the darkened lab is, for most visitors, a very moving surprise and delight. A visitor may feel that the lights almost have human qualities. Depending on the piece of music selected by a student, or assigned by Lucero, the lab may swell with a cathedral hymn or a rock ballad, and delicate rounds of light can swirl and dance on the floor, embodying pure emotion. Then architectural beams of ethereal, white, smoke-filled light may sweep to encompass the viewer before rising on a wave of chords to the ceiling.

“Design’s a funny thing, very elusive,” said David Nancarrow, a professor in the College of Fine Arts. “We try to teach the students that a piece tells you what it needs. We want them to become familiar enough with the bits of equipment that they will know which to use to express themselves well as artists. These students are building a particular kind of mind, one that can ‘see’ in a special way and know what’s good.”

In order to refine their skills and practice using the technology-dense equipment, students sign up for lab time outside of class. Class time is used for presentations of completed choreography projects as well as instruction and troubleshooting lighting equipment that has been sabotaged, for instructional purposes, by a graduate lighting design student before class.

After showing a choreographed piece, each student must submit to a workshop-style critique session and listen to critical feedback from colleagues, refraining from commenting on his stylistic choices and defending his work.

Robotic lights can be controlled remotely with computers
Robotic lights can be controlled remotely with computers, and a designer can vary light position, color, texture, shape and intensity.

“I've got to teach the students confidence,” said Lucero. “The technology is only one part of being a designer. In addition to needing to understand sophisticated electrical concepts, they have to know how to deal with other people when they're touring and working on a production. I want to give them a sample of real life in here and teach them how to brainstorm, work with a team and figure out how to solve problems that inevitably occur during productions.”

As students advance through the Robo II, III and IV courses, they are introduced to more advanced equipment and gain experience touring and presenting their artistic works to diverse audiences, along with designing the lighting for university theatre and dance productions.

During the past semester, the students took their lighting shows to Wichita Falls, Thorndale and Rockdale, and have given demonstrations in the campus lab to visitors such as a group of Pearce Middle School students who visited shortly after Thanksgiving.

Shelby Wilson will be traveling to Angleton, her hometown, in the spring as part of Artsreach and showing her lighting design work to high school students there. Artsreach is a program in the College of Fine Arts which helps students plan and finance artistic projects in non-urban Texas towns and establish residencies in their home communities.

“Next semester I’m going to go down to Angleton and talk to the high school drama students there and show them some of the advanced equipment that we have,” said Shelby. “The next day, my crew, the other Robo II students, will drive down and set up the show. We’re even going to let some of the high school drama students help set up the lights, and the drama teacher is going to choose some of them to design their own productions and show some of their own work while we’re down there. It’s going to be cool.”

While the students are exposing Texans to the magic of robotic lights, Lucero is throwing his net a bit wider and taking the technology to Latin America. From the moment Lucero went to Costa Rica in 1985 as a Fulbright Scholar, his imagination was captured and his passion for working with the Latin American artistic community ignited.

“Technologically and financially, Latin America is far, far behind us,” said Lucero. “But, aesthetically, their work is excellent. They have such intensity and passion and a different set of values. I love melding their aesthetic and our technology.”

Lucero has done shows in Costa Rica for the past two summers, working with the National Theatre, children’s museum and American Embassy Cultural Center.

Students learn to use the lighting equipment and develop a more refined aesthetic sense by choreographing lights to music
Students learn to use the lighting equipment and develop a more refined aesthetic sense by choreographing lights to music.

Next summer when Lucero travels to Costa Rica it will be for the purpose of realizing a personal dream and opening the Institute for Digital-Performing Arts, a partnership between organizations in Central/South America and the United States, with a staff that is a mix of artists, technicians and academics.

“Amarante brings lots of equipment when he comes down and lots of people who are very experienced in using that equipment,” said Jody Steiger de Bonilla, a freelance designer, instructor at the Costa Rican National University and member of the institute staff. “No university down here has robotic lighting—we have a shortage in Latin America of ALL equipment. We’re extraordinarily grateful to UT for the technology, equipment, training and Amarante.

“Latin America has super performers and musicians and a young, vital orchestra,” said de Bonilla. “We have the artistic resources—Amarante’s idea of using our musicians and dancers and composers and then bringing technicians from the States is precisely what we need. Latin America is behind because of economics, but the interest definitely is here.”

Although the robotic lighting design program is about branching out to an international audience, embracing the latest technology, touring Texas and helping students get healthy paychecks upon entering the workforce, it is also about something as abstract, fundamental and ephemeral as emotion, art, the artist and an audience.

Nancarrow, an eloquent, articulate lover of both conventional lighting and robotic lighting, sets the scene best and captures the spell that settles over an audience when lights marry with stage spectacle.

“One of the most exciting moments in theatre for everyone is when the stage manager asks for the house lights to go out,” Nancarrow said. “You sense that something wonderful is about to happen. There’s a hush. Everyone’s focus is riveted to the stage. When the house lights are completely out, there’s that moment when nobody’s chattering, and then, voila, the curtain rises and beautiful, marvelous lights magically come on and…the evening begins! Isn’t art grand?”

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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