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.
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
“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
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
For new students, this embarrassment of riches can be mind-boggling
“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 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
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
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, 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
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
“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.
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?”