Creating Amazing Atmospheres with Lighting and Special Effects

in on Jun 18, 2012 . 0 Comments.

Illuminate the dance floor and watch the people move

Ever since the ancient Greeks decided to build their theaters and schedule their performances to take full advantage of the sun’s light, entertainers have realized the power lighting has to create a mood that captivates an audience.

Why Lighting?

DJ lighting borrows elements from the stage but uses them in different, usually more abstract ways. On stage, the spotlight will move to follow the action. In a DJ setting, the movement is not so specific, but is definitely more intense—beams of light flashing and scanning across the floor can reinforce the rhythmic movement of the music, in turn helping people enjoy the dance experience more. Composition or specific placement of lights can create a variety of effects on stage, from placing the action in a certain time and place (midday in the desert, city alley at midnight, etc.) to accenting the emotion of the play (for example, sharp, jagged shadows as a background to a murder mystery). When it comes to light placement, DJ lighting relies more on symmetry, or having lights that balance each other on various sides of the dance floor. Time and place may seem irrelevant to a dance-oriented lighting setup. But think about it: isn’t a color wash on a wall or floor kind of like controlled moonlight? And those pinpricks of light bouncing off your mirrorball seem an awful lot like rotating starlight, don’t they? Moonlight and starlight illuminate but also leave a lot to the imagination. Thus, lighting can be a powerful tool as you attempt to carry the crowd away to a different place for a little while.















Color is Primary
What are the essentials to using light effectively for DJs in the twenty-first century? We asked a number of DJs for their input, and one thing came up repeatedly as the most important consideration: color.

Nick Burke, owner of Sound Decision DJs (Millersville, MD), 37-year entertainment veteran and Gear & Equipment Board moderator for, says of color, “’s the way atmosphere or mood is set up by the lighting. Color fill is an absolute must...” Taking it further, he adds, “I do use oil-wheel projectors, fiber-optic light smears, even gobo projectors. Moving heads are great because they’ll put light just about anywhere.”

“Fill—first and foremost, is always fill,” states Chicagoland DJ Al Deneau. “Effects are simply effects, whereas a good fill will actually create more ‘mood’ and ambiance.”

The reason for this is the proven psychological effect of different colors. Mobile Beat columnist Jammin’ Jim Kerins, who runs both DJ and band entertainment services, gives his explanation: “Obviously all of your favorite movies utilize the talents of a colorist to give cinematic productions a certain look that will promote various feelings and emotional responses. This should not be lost on us. Even at an elementary level, cool colors slowly mixed together or faded into one another will promote slow dancing...not to forget pastel colors, which illuminate with a soft glow when it’s time for close body contact.” On the other hand, “...certainly bright reds, and yellows, will turn up the party heat.”

Turning Mood into Movement

Static or slowly-mixed colored light can set the mood, like the background of a painting. Programmed or sound-activated moving fixtures can then get your crowd up and moving on the dance floor.

Offering some specifics on how to ramp up the event, Kerins says, “I think it’s imperative to be able to control room lighting, and to get the dance floor as dark as possible, while maintaining lighting at a reasonable level in the back of the room for non-dancing guests...As soon as the first real dance song begins, immediately, and in synchronization, bring down the dance floor house lights and turn on your light show to indicate that it is definitely party time. This may seem simplistic to some, but people are often self-conscious about dancing at the beginning, and a dark dance floor gives confidence to those soon-to-be-inebriated dancing guests. Plus a dark room will showcase your way hi-tech, supercool light show...”

“Weddings in Chicagoland rarely want a ‘big’ light show,” reports Deneau, “but they want some pizazz, so creativity really becomes your best friend. The fine line between ‘awesome’ and ‘too much’ can be easily crossed. Subtle mood enhancing lighting is the key with weddings. Corporate events can really benefit from a creative light show, from custom gobos with the company logo to highlighting the speaker with lighting...”

Palette for Your Lighting: Special Effects

Of course the “effect” of any kind of lighting depends on the actual physical atmosphere in which it is projected. That’s where special effects come into play. “Fog (or haze, when practical) is the single best thing one can do to enhance lighting, change moods, and create excitement,” states Kerins. “Many of those expensive beams can go to waste unless there is particulate matter to render them visible.”

How far do you go in adding to the atmosphere, though? Lighting engineer and DJ, Jeff Johnson (Northcoast Lighting and Crystal Entertainment, Townsend, MA) has wide experience to share: “We do use all of the foam, fog, bubbles, flames, and so on...Be careful, because with the fog, bubbles, foam and confetti it can make a real mess and create a safety hazard...Be very paranoid when using this stuff—safety comes first. Even if it’s a little $39 fogger, it can still set off alarms and create a hazard if not placed right. In foam, people can trip and fall...Real fire or pyro? Call a real pyro company to do it that is licensed and insured...Simulated flames rock! Safe, cheap and effective—a sure shot every time.”

On the other hand, for many DJs, less is more. “Fog and haze are my only ‘special effects,’” says Deneau. “The well-timed blast of fog along with an awesome light sequence will always enhance the show...light haze throughout the night (even cigarette smoke) helps keep the beams alive and three-dimensional. Confetti would be nice, but many places here are not allowing it—as well as fog or haze, which is too often overused by inexperienced operators.” Burke concurs: “I do not get into foam parties or lots of confetti as most of my venues frown upon the clean-up required after such things. I use haze as opposed to fog as it’s less offensive and a lot more subtle. I’ll use flaming bowls for a tiki-bar or luau environment.”

Tools with an Impact

Like every other aspect of your DJ show, it is imperative that you treat lighting seriously, if you decide to add it to your bag of tricks. In Johnson’s opinion, “...the size doesn’t really matter as long as you provide what you promise to the customer and make it look professional...Do not use stuff from the mall or Wal-Mart!”

Lighting and special effects are certainly tools you should consider using, according to Kerins: “I feel that DJs often give 98% of their thought, effort and execution to the music portion of their shows, and only 2% to the visuals. What we must realize is that the average partygoer does not know if you’re using a $99 CD player or Denon’s best. However, everyone will notice great lighting, and this is what will separate you from other less professional DJs. With the proliferation of high-quality, inexpensive lighting, there’s no reason for any DJ not to have a small arsenal of great lighting effects.”

There’s a myriad of choices when it comes to the realm of lighting and special effects. For basic information on the full range of companies that supply foggers, bubble machines, “dancing” fan-inflated items, as well as high-tech luminaires, consult your copy of the Mobile Beat Gear Book 2004. An expanded lighting section and separate listings for special effects are included.

Tags: design, dj, lighting, nightclub, installation, special effects, atmosphereLast update: Jun 27, 2012


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