Stage Lighting Basics: Intelligent Fixtures, DMX, and More4 min read

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If you’re new to stage lighting, some of the base technologies involved may feel a bit mysterious. Understanding what each technology is, how it works, and how it benefits stage light design can be challenging at first. Luckily, by understanding certain key components, the pieces start to come together.

Digital Multiplex (DMX) is one of those technologies. If you’re curious about DMX and its purpose when it comes to stage lighting, here’s what you need to know.

The Basics of Stage Lighting

small theatre looking out from stage with stage lighting turned on and purple walls

In the simplest sense, stage lighting is the act of using lighting fixtures to illuminate various parts of a performance space in specific ways. Certain stage lights have different capabilities, allowing you to craft a mood or sense of ambiance – as well as direct the attention of the audience – through the strategic use of light.

In many ways, stage lighting is a performer. It goes beyond simply lighting up a room, as that doesn’t require anything beyond traditional house lights. Instead, stage lighting is meant to shape and mold a scene, adding a new layer of interpretation and bringing a broader vision for the performance to life.

Understanding DMX

As mentioned above, DMX stands for “digital multiplex.” DMX is a digital communication protocol that allows you to remotely control certain stage lighting fixtures. When you want to send an instruction to a light, the DMX protocol issues it through the light’s assigned channels, allowing you to make certain kinds of lighting changes based on the intelligent lighting fixture and the DMX controller’s capabilities.

DMX has a long history in stage productions. It was initially created in 1986 and quickly became a standard. As a result, it’s still widely used today whenever there is a need to control the actions of intelligent lighting fixtures.

If you’d like to learn more about DMX lighting, check out: Getting Started with DMX Lighting

How Intelligent Lighting Fixtures Work

two robe lighting megapointe intelligent lighting fixture

The term “intelligent lighting fixture” doesn’t cover a single kind of stage light. Instead, it’s a reference to any lighting that can be connected to a console, app, or computer software and controlled remotely. Whether it’s an LED light with built-in color adjustment capabilities or a more complex system that allows for effects, movements, and color mixing, they can all qualify as intelligent fixtures.

Generally, intelligent lighting fixtures have to be connected to a DMX console using DMX cables. The lights have specific connections for the appropriate cables, ensuring that the signal between the console and fixture is routed correctly.

The Ins and Outs of the DMX Controller

A DMX controller is a piece of hardware or software that allows you to use DMX communication protocols to make adjustments to intelligent light fixtures. In some cases, it’s a standalone console. In others, it’s software or an app loaded onto a computer, smartphone, tablet, or similar device.

Through the controller, you can choose specific lighting changes and issue instructions to the intelligent lighting fixtures. The amount of options available depends on both the DMX controller’s capabilities and the available technologies in the light fixture.

How Intelligent Stage Lights and DMX Work Together

working with dmx lighting console to control lighting fixtures on theatre stage

Once you have the right components, you can begin with a stage lighting setup. Usually, the first step is to patch. With that, you’ll connect the intelligent lighting fixtures to the DMX controllers using cables. Then, you enter specific information about the fixtures into the DMX controller, ensuring it can control the right lighting functions.

Once connected, the stage lights receive a DMX address. An address serves as a unique identifier for the fixture, creating digital pathways – or channels – between the controller and the light’s various functions.

When you need to change what a light is doing, you’ll use the console to send the instruction through the proper channel. The light will receive the instruction and make the appropriate changes.

Precisely what kind of changes you can make vary depending on the intelligent stage lighting fixture and the capabilities of the controller. However, some common adjustments include color shifts and dimming or brightening. At times, you may even be able to control a stage lighting fixture’s physical movement, giving you the ability to shift the position of the light beam to a different spot on the stage.

Ultimately, the core concepts behind stage lighting are fairly straightforward. However, the skillful execution of lighting design does require a significant amount of expertise. Luckily, by understanding many of the fundamentals, you create a strong foundation, ensuring you can make use of the available technologies and shape a production in the best way possible.

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