Totally Unauthorized

A side of the film industry most people never see.

Sometimes that one thing is all you need.

Dimmer systems for stage lighting have always contained an element of voodoo.

On paper, they’re pretty basic – a computerized control console and rack-mounted dimmers, hooked together by a type of control cable called DMX.

The number of things that can inexplicably fuck up in this seemingly simple system are mind-boggling. Lamps come on and turn off for no reason, lights that worked yesterday refuse to turn on today, parts of the system shut off randomly, the console decides it doesn’t like the producer’s shirt (or something) and refuses to boot up. Older types of DMX cable will malfunction if run too near power cable, or will just decide not to work (or something) on any given day. Add moving lights into the mix and things get even more unpredictable (I have – more than once – seen grown men brought to tears by Vari-Lites).

On more than one show, we’ve replaced random parts to no avail, and someone on the lighting crew has somehow ended up in the dimmer hut*, wearing nothing but a grass skirt and the skin of the slowest-moving PA while scattering chicken feathers over the dimmer racks in an attempt to get something – anything- to work before the DP blows a gasket.

At Saturday’s seminar – which was attended by reps from the two companies who make dimmer racks, we learned that one company’s racks have the cool air intake on the bottom of the rack and the hot air exhaust on the top of the rack, and the other company’s dimmer racks have the exhaust on the bottom of the rack and the cool air intake on the top of the rack.

This means that the two company’s dimmer racks, when placed next to one another, are sucking in each other’s exhaust and overheating despite the air conditioning in the dimmer hut.

Oh. My. Gods. I did not know this, and apparently neither did either company’s reps (or anyone else) until fairly recently.

Lining up dimmer racks from both manufacturers next to one another is common practice – depending on how many racks one needs and how busy the town is, it sometimes isn’t possible to get only racks from one manufacturer.

Wait. Did I mention that the dimmer racks overheating is bad? I didn’t? Well, it is. It’s very bad (when they overheat they shut off and so do the lights they control, even if it’s in the middle of, say, a difficult stunt or the only good take of two actors who loathe one another pretending to make sweet love) and it happens more often than we’d like – and now a whole seminar full of people know exactly why.

Even if I hadn’t learned anything else from the day, that one thing was totally worth it.

*Dimmer racks contain fans, and fans make noise. Sound guys hate noise, so we can’t put the racks on the stage. We can’t put the racks outside with no protection from the elements because they really shouldn’t get wet or sit in the hot sun, so we put them in a little hut (usually a cargo container) right next to the stage.

Filed under: Work

14 Responses

  1. Spot 2 says:

    I try to stay away from lights…Well, unless its a spotlight. LOL!

    Also, do you happen to know any other IA members who blog?? I’m looking for team members…. Cheers from Boston=:)

  2. wen says:

    And did you also know that ginger ale is bad for keyboards?

    ::wanders away muttering to self- “wearing nothing but a grass skirt and the skin of the slowest-moving PA …”::

  3. Meg says:

    Hee hee hee. The things we learn-thanks for the voodoo tips.

  4. craig says:

    Reminds me of a story about a certain networking equipment vendor that decided to mount their fans on the side the case. Now typically this equipment sits in racks and air flow is front to back. In this case airflow was right to left. When you put this in a datacenter, lined up all the racks in a row, the machine on the right was nice and cool, but by the time you reached the end of the row on the left, the machine was melting. Transverse airflow through electrical equipment that might be lined up side to side is just not a good idea.

  5. Stan says:

    I’m always glad to hear that voodoo is useful in things other than computers.

  6. Mike80 says:

    True voodoo-related story: In Miami, they have a special janitorial division at the city courthouse, whose job it is to go around and clean up all the voodoo and Santeria sacrifices (chicken parts, goat’s blood, etc.) that are left around the courthouse. It’s that big of a problem. I just feel bad for the chickens.

  7. Anonymous says:

    That is seriously good to know. Thanks!

  8. Molly Mayhem says:

    PS: I assume we’re talking about ETC and Strand, yes? I occasionally run into Leprecon racks, and probably others that I haven’t noticed the brands of.

    Peggy sez: Yep, ETC and Strand.

  9. Grimace says:

    You know, this explains so much.

    Time for a little playing around…

  10. Andrew Rosenstein says:

    Tell me about it sister. Right now I’m dealing with 16 moving lights that all don’t want to work at the same time. One day some of the lamps won’t strike, then some other lamps won’t strike. then they can’t find home. Then the gobos get stuck. This is why I do sound.

  11. Charli says:

    I still haven’t bought dimmers, okay, I still haven’t bought lights. I just have a little VidLED and Paglight to my name. Too bad I can’t take the sun inside with me.

    Peggy sez: Dimmer systems are rental items, trust me. If you need to dim a light that’s less than 650 watts, just buy a wall dimmer from the hardware store. They’re cheap and they work great.

  12. Crew Guy says:

    I know this is off the subject. I just got a call sheet from the show I’m on. A show that is very popular for it’s time slot. With very well known and paparazzi stalked cast.
    I know production is always try to screw us but get this they attached a price list for show SWAG ( Items that have the name of the show) coffee cups, t-shirts, Jackets and cap. A PRICE LIST!!!!!!! I never expect swag from every show I work on and I have bought show shirts from the studio stores for relatives and the like. I just feel a bit insulted I guess. To sell us merchandise from a show I work on.

    Peggy sez: They’re SELLING stuff to the crew? That’s fucked up.

  13. Gary says:

    Last time I worked Scrubs, last season, one of the crew was selling SWAG to the background, and presumably to the other crew as well. From the conversations, I got that this was a regular thing on this set (Riverside in NOHO).

  14. Meg says:

    In response to Crew Guy’s message. Yikes. It’s come to this? A PRICE LIST? That is insulting. Of course, he could always sell the call sheet on eBay (VBEG)

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