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Lighting a Fairytale: Designing the fantasy lighting of Little Women

Some of you may remember me as the lighting guy from the 413 Project’s last production. As soon as I learned the awesome team behind Les Miserables would be producing another show I immediately volunteered!

Since our first show we have learned a lot about making magic from very little. I’ve been constructing this new lighting for Little Women focusing in on versatility and effectiveness. I am also trying to push and see how we can have a remarkable show by utilizing some unique lighting tricks.

The timeframe of Little Women is right after/around the Civil War. At this time in American history “carte de visite” images were incredibly popular due to their cheap production costs and simple process. The images, printed on paper and cardboard allowed people to send images via the mail and attributed to their widespread nature.

Small cards with the image of Abraham Lincoln and other celebrities of the time were also particularly popular! Knowing this I decided that for the imagined story scenes I wanted to try to recreate the feel of these old time black and white photographs by having all of Jo’s fantasy scenes in the show done be done in monochrome black and white design to mimic the illustrations from a fairytale book.However how does this happen? The process is an intricate one. And it will require the cooperation of the costuming and makeup as well as specially converted lighting gels. The thing is we do not have “black and white lighting” to get this monochrome effect. Instead the onstage black and white effect requires sepia tone gels and white light. If we were to just place our actors into grey costumes and makeup and put a white light on them they’d look flat, uninteresting and somewhat “off” on the stage.

To begin with, in order to bring life to the costumes without color we will need to use what is known as the zone system. The zone system in photography is a method for controlling the black and white photographic process by working with the exposure of the image. It ranges from O (which would be a flat black) all the way to X (white) using roman numerals. Created by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer, the system allows the photographer to plan out the shades of gray of an image in order to maintain the details of the people or objects being photographed. While our production is certainly not an image, this zone system will allow us to properly color the costumes so that they would retain their dimensionality and not be dull.

Zone V in the middle is known as middle gray. This is the tone we want to avoid using a lot. By using the other shades of grey we can avoid the flat look. For example light human skin tones would likely be using a grey around zone VII and VIII if they were really pale. Whereas brick red would be something close to zone III.

Again these ideas are still not final and there will likely be changes. I am incredibly grateful to be working with the 413 Project again this show and look forward to working with the cast and crew to put this together!

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