Articles: Concepts for Cruise Ship Lighting Design


As a lighting designer, you may have considered (or may now be part of) the cruise ship industry. Working on cruise ships provides many perks such as visiting beautiful ports of call around the world and the ability to save (or spend) large amounts of money due to the extremely low cost of living on a ship. Lighting design on a cruise ship, for several reasons, is very different from designing in land based venues due to the tight scheduling of shows and the wide variety of entertainment styles.

I have written this article as a brief and general guide to approaching lighting design on cruise ships, taking into account the major challenges that you will face on the ship. Although, the guide is very general, it will tend to be geared toward musical entertainers. The reason for this is twofold: first, because you will encounter more musical acts than any other type of entertainment. Secondly, because entertainers that perform in other styles (magic, comedy, juggling) tend to be much more specific about what they want and need for their show, and you basically just need to follow the instructions they give you.

Assets and Challenges

Cruise ship entertainment provides a fairly unique environment for a lighting designer. In general you are provided with a rig that many designers (outside of the high-budget touring circles) would drool over. There tends to be dozens of moving lights, advanced atmospheric effects, and just about every conventional fixture will have a scroller at the end of it. You will probably also have a modern light board (or two) that is powerful enough to handle such a rig. Besides your equipment, you will tend to find that your production teams will be very supportive and extremely helpful.

Now that we've gone over the positives, let's go over the major drawbacks of what you have to work with. There are three major challenges in cruise ship lighting design. Number one: although you have this rig that may seem very modern and flexible when you first walk into a theater, you may not think the same when you've been working with that exact same layout for 6 months. No matter how many lights you have in your rig, and no matter what they are capable of, you can only do so much with them when they have to stay in the same configuration at all times. The plot must stay the same for extremely long periods of time as there are production shows that must keep the rig consistent for years. The second major challenge is that it is common to need to have a show completely designed within an hour of first meeting a performer, and because they are usually focused on getting the orchestra up to speed on the show, you will rarely get to see anything in context or receive any feedback from the performer during the rehearsal. I don't think I have to say anything about the drawbacks of this situation. Finally, as a cruise ship lighting designer, unless you are very lucky, you almost never have any type of scenic elements to create dimension and variety in your looks. This compounds the lack of flexibility problem that I have just mentioned, and unless measures are taken to account for this problem, you will end up with very bland and boring designs.

Unfortunately, because of the time constraints that this industry presents, many of the classic practices of good lighting design must be abandoned or altered. Cruise ship entertainment is known for flash and glamor. There is very little in the way of artistic statement being produced in this industry. Trying to find and support an artistic statement with your lighting is likely to lead you to a point in your design where you have a lot of cues left to program and little time left to do it. Lighting design in the cruise industry is about producing a �wow!�, not a contemplative �hmmm�. Before you step foot on a ship, make sure to check your ideas about area control, sculpting, and concept statements at the door.

Having worked in the cruise ship entertainment industry for about a year now, I have developed some practices that allow a designer to create designs for shows that maintain a high standard of quality while dealing with the challenges that I have just laid out. It should be said now that these practices have been developed with someone from a formal theatrical design background. To someone coming from rock and roll or a similar background, what I have to say here may seem obvious, but to someone with a theatrical background, trying to design lighting for a cruise ship can feel almost like being in a foreign country and not knowing the language.

Preparing your light board

Before you ever meet your first performer, you want to make sure that you're set to program. You want to make sure that you have the right set of tools in place to start working on looks as soon as the rehearsal starts instead of hunting for the lights you want to use. To this end, I just want to say that pallets are your best friend when it comes to the type of speed programming you will undoubtedly have to perform. First of all, you want to have logically arranged groups for each type of instrument you have. I usually have groups by pipe, by Front of House/On Stage position, and Stage Left/Center Stage/Stage Right. In your position pallets you want a variety of washes (make sure you keep them symmetrical so that they look even in the haze), and again you want Down Center, Down Right, Down Left, etc. You also want to have a variety of color pallets created (including for your scrollers). Having these pallets laid out before you ever start programming allows for you to create a wide variety of looks with a bare minimum of key strokes.

You will also want to create a standard �play on� cue list for the show introduction. Save this as a separate list so that you can keep it consistent from show to show and so that you don't have to program it for every new show (and waste valuable time that should be spent on the show itself).

The Meeting

The first thing when you want to do when designing a show for a new entertainer is to meet them and get as much information as you can from them as soon as possible. Although a few of them will have a very detailed cue list laid out for you from the outset, you will more often find that entertainers rarely give you more than a set list. Here is a list of the main questions you want to ask your performer, along with what you want to gain by asking them:

  • 1.What do you like from your followspots?

    Some performers like to have their followspots only at 50% intensity, some like a single spot, some don't like spots at all, and many won't mention it and then will say something about it after the show, when it is obviously too late.

  • 2.Do you like haze/smoke?

    We will get to haze later, but many singers (especially older ones) do not like to use haze, as they feel that it damages their throat, lungs, etc. Even if you know that your haze is safe to use, make sure you ask because you may really hear about it if you don't.

  • 3.What numbers do you talk in between?

    Singers usually stop between some songs and talk for a while, and some songs just segue into the next. Make sure you know which ones they stop at so that you can build cues accordingly.

  • 4.Do you have any color preferences?

    Often if you just ask a performers about lighting design, they won't have any idea, but if you ask about color preferences they may have some very specific ideas. More importantly, they will sometimes give you one or two colors that they do not like in their show (I have come across one performer who absolutely refuses to allow any type of amber or yellow in her show whatsoever).

  • 5.Do you need any specials?

    Most performers have some point in their show where they will do a slow, romantic segment where they will want one or two specials on them at a steep angle. Make sure you figure out where they have any of these moments in their show.

For most performers, these few questions will cover just about all the information that you will ever get from them about their preferences for the lighting of their show. Its often sad to see how little many performers know what they want or even care about the lighting for their own show. It becomes your job to make it look as if you have spent a lot of time with the performer collaborating on the design when in reality you may have only spent 5 minutes with them (or, occasionally, you've never met them).

The nitty gritty: Programming

Now that you have everything set up and you've met with your performer to discuss what they want to get out of the lighting, it is time to dig in and start programming. Everything that you have done up to this point should have you optimized for speed. I am going to give a general overview here of what I tend to do with the rigs that I have used on my ships. Obviously, the setup of your rigs will vary widely, so not everything I say here will directly apply everywhere. This should, however, give you a good idea of where to start.

Generally, if an orchestra is being used, it will be upstage of the performers, and probably on some type of risers. I tend to split the stage into two major areas: downstage, where the performer tends to do most of his/her work, and upstage, where the orchestra is. On my current ship, I have 3 pipes of onstage moving lights. I tend to use the downstage most row to light the orchestra, and the upstage two rows as a floor wash. I generally use this arrangement for several reasons: first, as the pipes tend to be relatively low, it gives more throw distance in order to allow the beams to spread into a more even wash. Secondly, using backlighting on the stage/performer, is the most effective means of coloring the stage floor, as the light rays are reflecting toward the audience off of the floor. Thirdly, this arrangement allows the orchestra to serve well as a scenic element. Sidelight (where available) is also very effective on the orchestra, but tends to be a waste of time on the performer as it is barely visible because of spotlights, and adds little to the stage picture, as there are usually no scenic elements and the light simply lands in the wings.

On top of the wash described above, I like to use spot instruments to add texture (either conventionals with gobos, or preferably, moving fixtures). Take care that what you are doing with moving lights fits with what is happening on stage. It is tempting to use a lot of movement just because you can, but remember it is the entertainer's show, not yours. In most cases, subtlety is most effective in supporting the show. Slowly rotating, softly focused texture is often all it takes to give a song some that extra bit of life. Save your big effects (ballyhoos, flyouts, and strobes) for moments that are really deserving of them. Overuse of grand visual statements dilute their impact when you finally do get to the big moments that warrant them and have nothing left to separate it from the rest of the show.

As I said at the beginning of the article, one of the major challenges you face in this environment is the lack of scenic elements. To address this problem, I have found that there are two things, used in conjunction with each other that help immensely.

The first is haze. I have an old friend who used to jokingly say �Haze plus moving lights equals good design�. While the designer in me wants to dispute that statement, I must say that when it comes to this particular area of lighting design, it is pretty accurate. Haze, especially with heavy use of gobos in your moving lights, enables a designer to create a lot of texture that is otherwise very difficult to achieve on the blank stage that you are given to work with. If the performer allows it, I use just about as much haze as I can get away with to create the texture and dimension that I am seeking.

The second thing that helps to give texture and variety to your show is floor level lighting. Often you will have a few movers that you can put on the floor, and placing them creatively for each performer allows you to create a unique style for each show as well helping to give effects such as flyouts more impact. Used along with the haze that we just discussed, floor level lighting can add a lot of dimension to the stage. As a side note, make sure that when you do use floor level lighting, that you document where the instruments were placed (and in what orientation) so that you can keep the effect next time that performer returns.

When the entertainer stops to talk to the audience, use it to your advantage. If you are using scrollers or moving lights that don't use color mixing, you can use this time to preset for the next song. I usually use either fixed color conventionals or pick a wash of scrollers/movers that I won't use in the first cue of the next song to use as a �chat wash� in order to let all of my other fixtures preset. I have come across many shows that have been designed by former lighting techs that let colors just flip through while the instruments are on. While this may be okay every once in a while as part of a planned design, it is usually just a result of lazy, and it comes of as ugly and very unprofessional. Do not be one of those �designers�, think ahead and design around the limitations of your fixtures. As a general rule, I copy and paste �chat wash� wherever the performers. This both gives consistency throughout the show and gives you more free time to work on the more interesting parts of the show.

Wrapping it all up

As I said at the beginning of this article, this is simply a set of observations that I have made in my short experience in the world of cruise ship entertainment. Nothing in this article is intended to be read as hard and fast rules, and by no means is it meant to be a guide to anything other than an extremely fast paced production environment. It should be read as a set of suggestions on how you may want to start to approach the cruise industry as a lighting designer.

One thing that I touched on earlier, but should be reiterated, is that you should always remember to take notes on any show. This should include things such as the layout of any movable lighting, which disk the show is stored on, followspot notes, haze notes, and any other relevant information that you collect. No matter how simple a show is, when the performer comes back a month later there will be something you will have forgotten if it isn't written down. Also, you must remember that the ship will probably be sailing long after your contract ends, so you are not the only person who is going to run the show. Make sure it is documented well enough that the next person in your position doesn't have to re-do all the work you already did just because you didn't write a few notes on a cue sheet.

I would like to thank all of you who have taken your time to read this article. I hope it has been helpful and informative for you. I am always glad to receive questions, comments and constructive criticism on any of my work. If you'd like to contact me regarding this article or anything else you have seen on this page, click on the contact link at the left of your screen.