Stage lighting: special effects

Written by anne hirsh
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Stage lighting: special effects
Theatrical patterns can create the look of light reflected off water. (Water ripple image by Dmitry Rukhlenko from

Rapid technological advances make the special effects you can achieve with stage lighting virtually unlimited. Many effects centre on natural phenomena and enhance almost any play by creating storms, fires, misty mornings or underwater scenes. Sometimes a combination of physical effects, such as fog machines and lighting effects, produce the most believable stage effects, transporting the scenery and actors into an entirely different atmosphere.

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Starry Nights

Lighting designer achieve a starry night onstage in several ways and budget generally plays a major factor. For high-budget performances, fibre optic star curtains offer pinpoints of starlight that twinkle on and off like real stars. The lights onstage, in addition to the stars, play a strong role in making your starry night effective.

Old-style homemade star curtains produce a slightly less dazzling version of the same effect when you string white Christmas tree lights behind a black curtain and poke the tips through. By mixing a jumble of steady-burning and twinkling Christmas tree lights and lowering the power on them--as well as the rest of the stage lights--you can create an impressive star look.

To supplement your starry backdrop, keep the rest of the stage lights as dim and tightly focused on the action as possible. While it's tempting to flood the stage with blue light to allow visibility while keeping the feel of night, it does not look realistic. Support your realistic stars with cool white or only slightly bluish lights, broken up by soft-focused leaf patterns that leave the actors' faces visible without flooding the stage with light.


Modern mechanical effects give several ways to produce the illusion of water, whether you want the look of light reflected off moving waves, falling rain or a full underwater scene. Effect units that slide into the iris slot of certain ellipsoidal reflector spotlights (most notably the Altman Shakespeare and the ETC Source Four) are the best way to achieve these looks.

Double gobo (pattern) rotators with reflected wave gobos can produce the effect of light bouncing off the ocean. Soft-focusing a cool-tone glass colorizer gobo in a single rotator produces subtle underwater effects.

A film scroller unit produces effective falling rain. GAM Products (as of 2010) makes the unit, called the Film FX scroller. You place a metal scroll into the scroller unit and soft focus. Then you place a window gobo in the regular gobo slot on the instrument and hard focus, allowing the scroll to produce the look of rain falling behind the window. You can use these units for moving clouds and other effects.

As with night effects, don't fall into the assumption that all water is blue. Mix various shades of blue, green and white for your moving water effects for best results.

Black Lights

Black light effects are commonly sought in dramatic and dance performances but they are not as simple to achieve as an in-home black light room. Black (ultraviolet) light picks out certain colours--particularly white--and makes them glow, while minimising background illumination. For the best stage black lighting effect, make sure everything on stage is black or other dark colours for the black light scene.

This means covering any coloured backdrops with a black curtain. Check with your local theatrical supply company to see which black light units they recommend for your particular size of stage. mercury vapour black light units are powerful and can cover a lot of stage area, but take up to five minutes to warm up to full strength.

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