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The beautifully shaded penny

It's very easy to get caught up in a moment, caught up in a situation where one might lose sight of the bigger picture.

And within the world of live lighting, time definitely won't wait for you.

Curiome lighting design
Curiome lighting design

A few years ago, I was working on a stage show, kind of musical theatre. The story was loosely based on Toy Story with about 11 acts in all. One of the acts described a giant vacuum cleaner, coming along to 'suck up' all the toys (the characters). For this part of the scene, I wanted to have a variety of moving lights sweeping across from stage right to stage left towards this vacuum cleaner, to give a sense of urgency and danger, dramatized by actions of this giant vacuum cleaner, to the sound of frantic, frenzied music.

So I described what I wanted the lights to do, namely ‘the sweeping effect’ - to the programmer. We started creating this look but just could not get it to look exactly right. We tried different timings and slightly different delays but it just wasn’t happening. In the mean time, we also had a lot of other scenes to light or that were partially finished and it was getting very late. And we were becoming increasingly tired. After about an hour, I was frustrated, with the programmer annoyed and couldn’t understand exactly what I wanted. Why couldn’t we get it right?

And then it hit me. I was spending too much of time on this; we were on a deadline to finish this scene that night. And this sweeping effect, was just one small part of it. Was it really worth spending all our time on such as small part?

The Power of Limits

Inspiration and knowledge can come from places outside of (in this case) the world of lighting design. I happened to have just finished reading the book Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar. And there is a section called The Power of Limits. In this section, the author refers to a phenomenon producers at Pixar called The Beautifully Shaded Penny. It talks about how artists who work on their films care so much about every detail, that they will spend days or weeks crafting the “equivalent of a penny on nightstand you’ll never see”. Back to my lighting, I asked myself, “was this effect worth any more time than it had already consumed?” No. “Would it have been fun to get exactly how I had imagined it?” Of course. But I realised that this was only one tiny part of the whole show. I could I have spent all my time getting this effect 100% right, however it most likely would have come at the expense of other scenes. I could have found that I had run out of time to finish the rest of the scenes, which would have been a real issue.

So, we took a coffee break and then returned with fresh eyes and wrapped it up.

In closing

Understanding the power of limits is nothing new. But it did cost me some time before realising this. Since then, I've imagined teams of animators working on "penny on the nightstand" parts and then perhaps pausing to evaluate their work before moving on.

The lighting effect I was working on, was my penny on the nightstand.

Have you ever had a Penny on The Nightstand moment?

Luke Bonner

Lighting Designer

Curiome P/L

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