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Bright Ideas: Effective Use of Lighting at Special Events

Lighting is integral in making special events special. Lighting can create atmosphere, provide cues and segues for presentations, and highlight decor and architecture. Increasingly, lighting not only highlights the decor, it is the decor, turning tent walls into planet-scapes and casting corporate logos on dance floors. For the debut of our "Tools of the Trade" series, industry experts offer insights so you won't be left in the dark about lighting.

FROM HIGH-TECH TO HOMEY Like most aspects of the special event industry, lighting design is becoming more sophisticated. "Event planners used to be happy with an aerial wash in pink and amber, but not anymore," notes Jim Block, owner of Watts Up!, a lighting design company based in Hollywood, Calif.

But don't think you need a high-tech lighting package to create fabulous effects. "It doesn't all have to be big, theatrical lighting on trusses," Block says. "Use finesse, and play. Don't use a pin-spot all the time. Use 100 paper lanterns with red bulbs for a great Chinese party. We hung up 50 different lamps and lanterns we found at garage sales for a private event recently to reflect the guest of honor's personality and give the event a homey touch."

Instead of simply washing long hallways in light, Block recommends using "gobos layered upon gobos." (Gobos are shaped disks that project a shape, shadow or image onto a surface when placed in the optical path of a spotlight.) "This technique uses the same amount of power and wattage, but the design is much more refined, creating a patterned carpet effect," Block says.

HIDING YOUR LIGHT Concealing the technology and concentrating on the effect of lighting are important for the overall design of an event, according to Leni Schwen-dinger, artist/lighting designer and president of Leni Schwendinger Light Projects of New York City. She suggests working with a series of strip lights-lights on a small strip of metal or plastic: "You can hide them well." She also lists drapery, furniture, theatrical masking pieces and more delicate suspension rigs as handy tools for concealing light sources.

Lighting on a budget is possible without sacrificing design, Schwen-dinger insists. "Using a really high wattage of extremely bright film light on a high stand is one cost-effective option," she says. "You augment this with reflective materials placed around the room-foil, candy wrapper or gossamer silk, for instance. That's innovative."

Gregg Lloyd, national accounts manager of Bronx, N.Y.-based Visual Effects, a manufacturer and importer of special effect lighting, cites scrim as an effective fabric to bring lighting to life. "It's a translucent cloth that really brings out the lighting," he says. "It can be formed; it can be put on walls and ceilings. You can use it with par cans, pin-spot lights or intelligent lights such as a projector light."

"Glass gobos of custom pictures, like a photo of the bride and groom or company president or product, are becoming increasingly popular," notes Stan Schwartz, executive vice president of Stanford, Conn.-based Rosco, a manufacturing giant whose product list includes gobos and light filters. "Of course, they're expensive."

But he, too, says you don't have to pay a fortune for lighting. "One of our most popular products is a simple plastic sleeve with colors inside. If you're running an event in a bank or supermarket and you can't bring in enough electricity, you can slip these sleeves over the fluorescent tubes to get rid of that unflattering lighting."

SMART LIGHTS Intelligent lighting matches movement and color to the mood of the decor theme, music and other factors of a special event. "Intelligent lights require a computer controller to operate," explains Jeff Rudner, general manager of Abbey Event Services' lighting division in Rancho Dominguez, Calif. "They do what we tell them-they can change colors, patterns, move fast or slow, and point where we want them to point."

But they require a skilled programmer to work effectively, Lloyd warns. "Don't expect to learn to program intelligent lights in the course of a week. I still get stumped," he says.

Whether you choose an elaborate, high-tech lighting package or a charming, retro design, make it unique and make it memorable, Schwendinger recommends. "People's visual sense of what's right, what's interesting, is trained by designers," she says. "If they want vanilla design, then that's our fault. So make new trends, push the envelope. Don't reinforce run-of-the-mill design-it's a vicious cycle."

Resources: Abbey Event Services, 310/900-0099,; Leni Schwendinger Light Projects, 212/947-6282,; Rosco, 203/708-8919,; Visual Effects, 718/324-0011, www.visualeffectsinc. com; Watts Up!, 323/465-2000

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