Switched On - Building Lighting Cues

How much Light?

Plotting lighting cues involved deciding how much light to use – i.e. what quantities of light to put where. The amount of light to use from a single unit, or generally for any scene, is of course a vital decision that the Lighting Designer has to make when creating a stage picture.

More than anything a Lighting Designer must avoid the trap of using too much light.  And this is a trap because it seems ever so appealing – more light seems to suggest greater clarity – greater impact – greater anything!  Whereas often the truth is quite the reverse.

Certainly impact can be made with brilliance, but subtle nuance can more often than not be made with a clever balancing between light sources- and shadow is all-important in this.

Too much light simply denies us shadow.



The act of creating the lighting for every part of a production is called plotting, often taking place in a ‘plotting or lighting session’.  It is necessary to plot one’s course through a performance from lighting cue to lighting cue (the same will of course be true of all other technical aspects of the production) and in doing so record this journey so that it can be repeated over and over again.

Plotting usually occurs just before the technical rehearsal.  The 'tech’ is when all aspects of the production are put together, rehearsed, with the action.  During the plotting, for every different moment of lighting within the piece, levels are set, timings given and the over all moods delicately constructed.

Plotting is an act of creativity and the crucial moment when the ideas of the lighting designer are finally fully revealed and put forward for consideration.  It can thus be a potentially very stressful and fraught occasion. Because of this, once again, all the preparation before hand must go towards alleviating this potential tension.

In this case this includes having discussed in detail with the director what is required and having produced it in the focus.

Alongside having good notes and a clear plan to work from, the lighting designer has also to be clear during this session in two major ways: Firstly to the control operator(s) - so that the lighting can be plotted quickly and recorded efficiently; and secondly to the director - so that they understand what they are being asked to look at.

A certain amount of bravura and bluff is often needed in these sessions.  Because, unless the lighting designer has been able to pre-plot, this is often also the first time they have really been able to assemble the lighting themselves, and therefore the lighting designer is also having to decide whether certain combinations are working or not. Naturally displaying any doubt in this matter does not necessarily help the director decide.

What this comes down to is the need to lead the director to a positive conclusion – even when you yourself have doubts.  Remember you are the expert in this field and this can often mean that you are also a better judge of the visual than the director – they can too often be bogged down in the text.  So keep positive and work out your own issues whilst beaming positive rays of approval to the director!

On the other hand a certain level of frankness will be necessary when things are patently not being effective. Finding the right balance here can be every bit as tricky as calling the lighting levels and plotting the cues themselves.

Before starting the plot it is a good idea for the lighting designer to ‘flash through’ the rig (looking at every unit) before the director arrives to remind them of everything it contains – it is surprisingly easy to forget things under the pressure of a formal plotting session.

Remember also that neither the director nor anyone else necessarily expects you to be able to go straight to the finished plot for each cue – degrees of discussion and experimentation are allowed. In fact often the director will be much happier if this is the case as it will allow them to be part of the process more fully. However directors can also expect seemingly ridiculous things at this session – be patient with them for they do not understand! It is after all their first look at the lighting and often at anything like the finished staging- no wonder they get excited!

Obviously a case where new things are being asked for you have to make the best of what you can do. Or, after having listened thoroughly, explain that as this was something you had not talked about previously it will take some time to think out, and include in the rig. In other words give yourself time by promising to look into it. It is important here not to promise too much – as time will by necessity not allow for too many major changes – and although it goes against the grain you are allowed to say things like “No, that won’t be possible” or even “I don’t think that is a good idea – let's not do that”.  At all events be positive and be clear.

When unexpected things do require solutions it is surprising how taking a little time away from the pressures of the plotting makes finding them so much easier. Although it is good to think on one’s feet – it is also difficult to keep a good overview in such a pressured session.  Indeed ‘flashing through’ the rig even in mid-plot (perhaps during a break) can reveal surprising things to the lighting designer that in the heat of the moment they have forgotten - e.g. that unit that was meant as a special for Act 2 but not needed, can easily supply that unforeseen special that was asked for in Act 4.

There are various ways to start a plotting session and, along with the lighting designer, the director themselves may have a preference. Here are the major variations:

• ‘Flash through’ the rig for the director, explaining how all the units will be used and how they fit into what has been discussed.

• In the same way show the director prepared groups of units – front light, back light, colour washes, gobo effects and so on.

• Simply start with the first lighting cue – usually the preset – and move on through the play cue by cue.

• Start with the most important lighting cue – and having defined this move on to others – thus not necessarily plotting cues in the order in which they will appear.

It may be the case that the formal plotting session – as it appears on the production schedule – is not actually used with the intention of creating the final lighting plot. After all it is very common to make many changes during the technical rehearsals, and therefore quite often a ‘rough sketch’ of the lighting states only is made in the plot.

It is useful however to have the actual number of cues, their place in the play, and a rough timing for each, established at this point. In the plotting session the cue points are put in to ‘the book’ – the master copy of the script – by the deputy stage manager. It is from ‘the book’ that the d.s.m. will cue all aspects of the production.

Rules for Plotting: (These are the rules also appear on Selecon Poster 5)


• Arrange a pre-plotting session (i.e. with out the director) when ever possible – but do not become too attached to anything you create in the pre-plot as the director will naturally want their say. Better to use this time not to create final states but to …

• Use pre-plotting time to ‘learn’ your rig – i.e. find out what it can do.

• Pre-plot useful groups of units to save time – e.g. colour washes, covers, etc.

Remember to make these groups as useful as possible by balancing the units within them – i.e. do not necessarily just use everything in a group at the same level.

• Do not become hide-bound to these groups.

The Plot:

• Always be clear in what you are trying to achieve.

• Remember you are part of a team & do not be afraid to ask for creative and technical assistance or opinion if you need it.

• Explain (persuasively) and clearly what you are doing or aiming at as you plot, do not expect those around you to be mind readers.

• Use levels that allow for adjustment (as a rough rule - start with no units over 40%).

• If a thing does not work, move on. (But remember what you have left unused or discarded)


• Remain flexible; open to new ideas.

• But also take time to explain yours.

• Explore ALL the possibilities of your rig.

• Set rough timings, they can usually be refined later.

• Make the timings fit the action or mood.- the fastest cue will not be abrupt if it fits the action.  Likewise a cue a second late, can be a disaster!

• As a general rule: Fast timings are dramatic, slow ones subtle.

• However, all cues only work in the right dramatic context.

• Make sure the operators are plotting your lighting properly, get it saved & backed-up. And make sure any written notes (e.g. cue sheets) are likewise copied, with one set always on hand.

• Remember the lighting ALWAYS looks better in the full action of the play & everything can always be changed later!  So …

• KEEP CALM (the rule here is: there will always be time to panic later!)

Building Cues:

When building cues, it is a good idea to start with levels that allow for upward adjustment.  But most importantly, and in addition to this, it is also a good idea to start with the core of the intended cue – i.e. the thing that is most important about it. In many cases this will be the key light – around which the rest of the cue should be dressed.

In a ‘general cover’ it may well be the back light that should be your starting point. Wherever you do start, do not make the mistake of thinking that the light that will be illuminating the actor’s face is the most important in this. Naturally it is often of vital importance - we do need to see the actors, but this light source is rarely the brightest or the key to our lighting.

Plotting techniques:

The more sophisticated lighting becomes the more we need to use the equipment at our disposal to its fullest extent. Below are a few such sophisticated elements:

• Split timings: Cues cross fade one to another over time – but often times can be over-lapped by using different up & down times. This can vastly improve the look and effectiveness of a crossfade.  The up-time of a cue dictates the speed of units entering or increasing in value from one cue to the next, the down time those units decreasing in value of leaving the cue entirely.

A faster up-time often creates a smoother cross fade. However a faster down time can create a useful dip in order to punctuate the action. It all depends on what you want.

• Fade Types: There are other types of cue than the cross-fade – e.g. the move-fade. This allows for cues to be operated one upon another independently, and is specifically used when cues need to run concurrently. As the Lighting Designer you merely have to ask if the control can do what you want it to – however a good knowledge of what is possible is always a good thing.

• Preheats: Units that come up late in a cue can be pre-heated in the previous cue at an unseen level. Similarly units that fade out too fast can be post-heated in the next cue. Thus a cue can be smoother – with units appearing in sync’ with each other and the cue appearing slower without actually having to change the timing.

• Unseen cues: A play may have any number of ‘unseen’ cues, used to subtly change the mood, or accommodate to changes on stage. Therefore do not always feel that a cue must be updated – if a cue has worked well for the scene already, simply add the new adjustment as a new cue. This works especially when the new cue is simply to place light where it is now needed and not to make a dramatic point. Remember this only works if the cues remains unseen by the audience. All seen cues must be logical and have dramatic motivation, otherwise they will simply make no sense.


It is not unusual today to be asked to plot the lighting during the technical rehearsal itself. In which case most of the rules above still apply but the Lighting Designer must make sure that they are well prepared and the 'tech’ itself allows time for them to do the job well and make adjustments afterwards.

The idea of plotting lighting during the 'tech’ or over any other session should not be mistaken for saving time! It can however by highly effective as it allows the lighting to be plotted specifically to the action and the performers. It is however of course much more greedy of personnel as everybody involved in the production has to wait whilst lighting adjustments are made – again this pressure should not deter the Lighting Designer from getting on with the job in hand effectively.


In developing one’s skills as a Lighting Designer there is no substitution for actually doing the job. However in preparation for undertaking an actual design it is useful to try things out first by practical experimentation.  You can usefully set your own experiments or set them for your colleagues. In addition, whilst described for the individual, most of these exercises can be easily adapted for group work.

It is also a good idea to keep a notebook or JOURNAL of ideas, references, sketches, past successes, pictures, photographs, postcards, etc, etc.  Such a journal can become a source of good ideas and a useful aide memoir. Certainly the results and any sketches or notes made whilst working on the following exercises could be usefully included in such a journal.

GENERAL NOTES: Most practical exercises require that you can obtain a blackout and the use of several light sources – obviously theatre lanterns are intended but in some exercises torches may also suffice. Some of the exercises may also work in miniature – i.e. using small torches and a tabletop. Other, non-practical exercises, are of the kind that will help you fill a notebook or a journal of ideas.  These latter are marked***

***Exercise 28: TIME AND TIME AGAIN

a. Arm yourself with a stopwatch, or use a watch with a good timing facility.

b. Choose a favourite film or music video sequence. One with a reasonable amount of action – but not too much.

c. Watch it through a make a note of changes of camera shot, listing them.

d. Watch it through again and guess the length of each shot and (where appropriate) the length of any cross-fades, etc

e. Then check your answers with a stopwatch and see how accurate you have been.

NOTES: It will be interesting to you to know how accurate you have been.  Whether your idea of real time is as it really is.  After all 30 seconds sounds no time at all until you actually have to wait for it! Naturally this is useful because the majority of lighting control instruments use real time for cross fades and effects, etc.



a. Choose a small stage area e.g. one metre square and place within it any normal object to light – e.g. a chairs, a table, a potted plant, whatever you have at hand.

b. Create two separate lighting states (cues) within the area from the examples listed below – i.e. each pairing (e.g. Night & Dawn) represent two lighting states.

NIGHT & DAWN                   DAY & DUSK                 DUSK & NIGHT

DARKNESS & MOONLIGHT                     SPRING & SUMMER               SUMMER & WINTER

c. Cross fade each lighting state one to the other and note the believe-ability of the fade.  Pay special attention to the type of fade and its timing.

d. Alter either cue to make the cross fade more successful.

e. You may need to plot an intermediate cue to assist the transition or fundamentally alter one or either cure to allow for them to connect effectively.

f. Repeat with other pairings as listed above, or invent your own.

NOTES: This exercise is of course much easier if the two lighting states are planned to run into each other, rather than completely independently created.

It is likely that the timing will need to be very slow - which may make the exercise a bit tedious to keep repeating, but persevere – and split timings may well be of much use.


***Exercise 30: SPEAKING CLOCK

a. Choose a short piece of recorded text, or record a piece yourself.  (Or use the sound track from a film on dvd or video).

b. For the dialogue write a list of things that you will guess the length of – i.e. a sentence, a paragraph.  The gap between speeches, etc.

c. Play the piece again and guess the timings you have listed.

d. Play the piece again and see if your guesses were right.

NOTES: The ability to recognise the length of short pieces of time – i.e. in seconds – is very useful when setting timings for lighting cues.

Sensitivity to speeches and dialogue is also very important.  Therefore the recorded voice rather than a film track is the material to be preferred here.


Exercise 31: TALK TALK

a. Choose a short piece of recorded text, or record a piece yourself.  (Or use the sound track from a film on dvd or video).

b. Choose a small stage area e.g. one Metre Square and place within it any normal object to light – e.g. a chairs, a table, a potted plant, whatever you have at hand.


b. Choose a vertical screen or hung cloth.

For the dialogue create a series of lighting cues to emphasise phrases or words or sentences.  There need be no real logic to your lighting choices – just enough things to allow for lighting cues to be created – perhaps no more than 4 or so units.

NOTES: As it says above the lighting itself is not important and can be very repetitive.  But the timing of he cues to the dialogue – making them fit will be quite an exercise.

Once again sensitivity to speeches and dialogue and rhythm therein is very important.


Exercise 32:  MARKING TIME

a. Choose a short piece of music – no longer than 3 minutes at most, and not too ‘busy’.

b. Choose a small stage area e.g. one metre square and place within it any normal object to light – e.g. a chairs, a table, a potted plant, whatever you have at hand.


b. Choose a vertical screen or hung cloth.

c. Create some simple lighting – colours and shapes – to use as cues linked to the music. (best to use generic non-moving lights for this exercise).

d. Plot the lighting to respond to the music.

NOTES: Timing of cues and intervals between cues is vital in this exercise.

A very ‘busy’ piece of music is difficult to keep up with – so gentle classical or jazz can be very useful here.

Alongside the need to plot the cues accurately is the need to be sensitive to the music and its mood – all good practice.

Depending on the lighting control in use the final cues may be manually operated or a whole sequence run by machine.   It is equally useful to attempt both - if possible.



a. Have a friend or colleague choose a short piece of music – no longer than 3 minutes at most, and not too ‘busy’.

b. Ask your friend to tell you briefly what he or she wants from the lighting that you are going to produce to accompany the music – i.e. act as the director. (Be careful that neither of you get too ambitious!)

c. Choose a small stage area e.g. one Metre Square and place within it any normal object to light – e.g. a chairs, a table, a potted plant, whatever you have at hand.


c. Choose a vertical screen or hung cloth.

d. Create some simple lighting – colours and shapes – to use as cues linked to the music (best to use generic non-moving lights for this exercise).

g. Plot the lighting with your helper, interpreting his/her ideas as you would with a director.

NOTES: This will depend a lot on the person you choose to help and your relationship – as indeed it does with a director.  (See the next exercise) But even working in close, friendly collaboration will test your ability to turn ideas into cues.

All the notes to Exercise 30 will continue to apply.



a. Repeat the exercise above (#31) with the help of a friend or colleague, however this time ask this person to make your life a bit more difficult by attempting to take on one of the following character traits or something similar of their own devising – making sure they do not tell you which they have chosen:








NOTES: Again, this will depend a lot on the person you choose to help, but in this case also on their acting ability! It may not be easy to keep this up for long (before dissolving into laughter) but it is a useful thing to get use to dealing with difficult situations and people.

In lighting terms, once again, all the notes to Exercise 30 will continue to apply.