Stefan and Benjamin Schmidt of STS talk about the theatrical lighting scene in Germany
In June 2015, Power Gems announced a collaboration with STS Lighting, a Munich-based lighting consultancy. Nearly a year later, we catch up with Stefan Schmidt, the owner of STS and a highly regarded theatre lighting designer.
Stefan (left) has been a lighting professional for 25 years, working in Germany as a theatrical engineer for the Munich Opera House and the Bavarian Theater Academy August Everding, and as product manager for ARRI lighting. He set up STS Lighting in 2013, and with Power Gems currently provides a seamless lighting solution for the theatre market.
Stefan’s brother, Benjamin Schmidt (right) is a professional engineer. For the last 15 years, as chief lighting designer at Munichs Prinzregententheater, he has been responsible for lighting designs in a number of Munich theaters and at the Bavarian Theater Academy August Everding.
Stefan: You founded STS Lighting in 2013, can you tell us about the productions you’ve worked on in the last 3 years?
It was tough at the beginning, starting a business from scratch with only a few projects. Initially, I focused on providing lighting consulting:
- I helped to finalise a SUNDOME, a testing device for airplane cockpits which uses a partial dome simulator that immerses the pilot in all the different lighting situations they will face up in the air. The SUNDOME was built for the Chinese Air Force. While technical details are top secret, I’m allowed to tell you that the blinding effect of the frontal sun was simulated by a 4kW HMI.
- I planned a crash test facility for trains – well the lighting part of this facility – for CSR (Chinese Southern Railway). We quoted to a British company, called TRL and TRL quoted to the Chinese end customer. How did this project end? Well, it ended like many Chinese projects. You work for months, with detailed planning to fulfil high Chinese requirement, you give plans and prices … and you never hear from these people again. It was what we call, a learning experience!
In 2015, I discovered a niche, that almost all HMIs in theatres are still connected to ‘old’ magnetic ballasts. I was happy to persuade Power Gems to design a ballast range for theatrical application. We showcased these products at a tradeshow, Stage|Set|Scenery in Berlin last June.
As a result of writing an article for technical theatre magazines about the advantages of electronic ballasts compared to magnetic ballasts, we sold the first tranche of electronic ballasts to German and Austrian theatres.
Stefan: Can you tell us, briefly, how German and Austrian theatre lighting is different?
German, Austrian and Swiss theatre lighting designers take a different approach to Anglo-Saxon lighting designers. They love to build their design around strong key lights, whereas English designers prefer to cover the stage with many ‘smaller’ lamps coming from different angles. Both approaches have advantages. For the last 20 years, the German designers have used mainly 4kW HMIs for their bright key lights. The world famous lighting designer Max Keller (Swiss) founded this tradition. That is the reason why HMI lights are widely-found in German-speaking theatres.
Stefan: Lighting is usually one of the first things to be agreed in a production, at what stage do you get involved? Take us through the lighting design process.
Lighting designers prefer to get into the creative process at an early state. This means you read the play as soon as you can and go to the rehearsals to get a feel for the production as soon as possible.
You talk to the set designer and you talk to the director. You try to inspire the director with your lighting solution. At this early stage, your tool is mainly your ‘talking about lighting’, using your words to convince other people to share your vision for the lighting solution. Later once you know your budget and your equipment, you do further planning. The setting of the lights is done in lighting rehearsals; that is when all the lighting cues are programmed in cooperation with the director and set designer. After a couple of weeks of intense work, finally the premiere comes, which is more or less the end of the design process.
Benjamin: How are you responding to the advances in technology and increasing complexity of lighting systems?
First of all, I like to have the choice between ‘old’ well-known and ‘new’ modern lighting technologies. For a lighting designer, it is important to have new products he can work with, similar to a painter who appreciates having new colours in his palette. I welcome new technologies. For example LED products. You have multiple ways of changing the colours, but LED lamps need more DMX addresses than other lamps before: red, green, blue, warmwhite, coolwhite, these are already five addresses for one LED lamp. If you consider that complete parts of the sets are covered with LED pixels, that might all need different control data for different colours; then you quickly get lots of data. But with your best boy on the lighting control board, who knows pixel mapping, it is not so problematic to handle the data.
The advantages of using LED are clear:
- Rich colours
- Deficient colour rendering because of the unfilled spectrum with middle-class LED lamps (RGBW). Although this is much better if there are up to seven LEDs, these lamps are expensive and lack power.
- While dimming Tungsten there is a shift towards a warmer colour temperature. This well-known effect is missed with LED. From a designer’s perception, the light of dimmed LEDs appears wan.
Benjamin: What are your main considerations when selecting lighting products?
There is no perfect light that fulfils all expectations. The selection of lighting products always depends on the effect that I want to achieve. Tungsten, low voltage, HMI, LED, HQI – it’s exciting to be able to consider a mix spanning all types. This often creates the tension I’m looking for as a designer.
Coming back down to earth, if you are fortunate enough to be a lighting designer at a rich theatre with a big budget, you can choose from everything the lighting market has to offer and have the money to buy lamps. But often you have to work within the constraints of the equipment that is available in-house.
Benjamin: You are going to be working closely with Power Gems in the years to come, could you tell us what we should expect from the collaboration?
Our wishes for Power Gems are: to please continue to keep an open mind, stay curious, and dare to explore new paths (as you have done so far). This is what keeps a good company alive and innovative.
Together with Power Gems, we want to replace all ‘old’ magnetic ballasts in theatrical market by ‘new’ electronic ballasts.
All different light sources are welcome for a theatrical lighting designer but we particularly love Xenon light. But Xenon disappeared 30 years ago from the theatre market because the technical effort was too high: direct current, expensive large rectifiers, high pressure in the bulb, ability to dim the rest light, only a few projectors based on Xenon.
We are keen on the Xenon technology of Power Gems because we think that problems with expensive, heavy rectifiers might have gone thanks to their technical expertise. Since Xenon has a very small light arc, it is the ideal light source to design a profile spot.
Our thanks to Stefan and Benjamin for sharing their experience of the theatre lighting market. You can find out more about STS Lighting at www.sts-lighting.de
This interview is part of an occasional series. If you enjoyed this, you should read: