Even in this age of computers, I don’t know a single lighting designer who doesn’t swear by his or her lighting stencils – usually, masses of them, in every conceivable scale.
Offering a unique spin on the classic lighting stencil is Field Templates, an entire family of theatrical lighting stencils designed by Steve Shelley, and distributed by Fred Allen and Associates. Shelley is not only the designer of the templates, but he is also constantly designing for shows, as well as writing books on lighting design and more.
For those designing theatrical lighting, the templates are something special, and worth a look.
How They Work
In evaluating the templates in person, I was impressed with the fact that they are easy to trace, and that they are designed to assist the user in a steady hand and a consistent series of traced elements a light plot. All of the Field Templates are based on the patented Pro*Trak 50 System™, in which “all of the symbols are arranged in a grid-like pattern based off their hanging points, pre-spaced 1'-6" apart, and aligned to horizontal axes (like a batten),” adds Shelley. This means that drafting is much simpler – you simply trace a symbol or element, slide the template so that the traced symbol appears in the adjacent hole, trace the same symbol again, and the two are now pre-spaced at a perfect distance.
The wealth of information offered by each template means they’re not just powerful drafting appliances, but are also “Reference Manuals in Plastic,” as Shelley notes.
“For the computer-savvy draftsperson, this means CAD-drafted light plots drawn using Shelley’s SoftSymbols™ can be hand-corrected on site with matching symbol shapes,” he explains. “And even if you don’t need to trace symbols, you still have all the reference information about all of the lighting fixtures at hand.”
Prices range from about $7 for Field Template Lite, to $18 for Field Template Stage Fixture (quarter-inch), to Field Template Striplight (half-inch) at $27. Direct purchase can be made through a host of industry dealers linked via the Field Template website -- FilmTools seemed to have the most options and varieties when I did some searching, and Amazon also has a good selection as well.
A New Approach to a Common Tool
Field Templates came about when Shelley, like many inventors, saw a need for improvement, and did it himself. “It started at the 1985 USITT convention,” comments Shelley. “While viewing the show floor, I decided I wanted to purchase a new lighting template.” He kept tweaking the image in his head, adding improvements, then realized by the end of the convention that what he wanted didn’t exist and he would have to create it himself.
Shelley then hand-drafted several potential designs, but attempts to find a manufacturer were fruitless until 1989, when he teamed up with his friend Fred Allen, who was at that time working for UCLA. As Allen helped Shelley complete his preparations for an industry presentation on the templates, he looked at the template design with interest, stating simply, “I can make that.”
The rest was history. The two created Field Templates, and have been creating templates for theatre ever since, with other options including the Stage Fixture, Field Template Rules! Version (as well as a metric version), the Striplight Placement template, the Layout Template, and (my favorite) the Business Card. Shelley’s symbols have since been adopted as the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) standard, and he has also replicated these and thousands more in his lighting software toolkit called SoftSymbols, designed within the VectorWorks environment. Even between two entirely different mediums, Shelley’s symbols match perfectly, so that on-site changes traced using the plastic Field Template will exactly match the symbols created in the CAD program.
A Cut Above
Field Templates are markedly easier to trace, and Shelley explains that most other templates on the market were created with rough drill cuts, and “Tracing the lighting symbols could quickly break the lead in the drafting pencil,” adds Shelley. “Field Templates are designed with smoother curves, to reduce this challenge.”
In addition, “Cutout symbols on PETs were all aligned to the front [lens] of the lighting instrument,” he adds. “When tracing different symbols on the same line [batten], you were forced to shift the template up and down so that each symbol would always be traced on the C-clamp point.” Cutout symbols on PETs also had no graphical horizontal line to indicate where the batten was located relative to each of the cutouts, and were arranged in the plastic with no specific automatic distances between them, so defining scaled distances between traced symbols required a scale rule or other device. Shelley wanted something that was a true all-in-one tool, that offered information at a glance as well as precise reference points and accurate scaling.
“Previous lighting stencils also had little graphic information about any lighting fixtures,” adds Shelley. “There was no hanging weight, cut color size, or beam spread information. In most cases, the only graphic information provided for each cutout symbol was the instrument type and lens size.” His Field Templates addressed these issues, and created a tool that can be a teaching element for lighting novices, providing them with the information they need in order to make informed choices in their designs and light plots.
Logistics and Challenges
From a design standpoint, the primary consideration for any template is first and foremost, the arrangement of the cutout symbols, which need to be spaced carefully in order to provide the greatest number of symbols in the smallest amount of space, while still maintaining enough plastic and spacing to prevent bending or warping. Such additional aspects as the scaling and drafting marks, equipment information, and readability, were also major challenges, but the resulting templates are small yet strong, flexible yet easy to use, and light enough to carry in a pocket at a moment’s notice.
Over the last twenty years, Field Templates has led to new production innovations within the CNC template industry. When advising others on getting the best out of any template, Shelley recommends a slightly rounded pencil tip for best results. "Whether against a T-square, parallel rule, triangle, or template, care must be taken that each line is a uniform width,” he emphasizes. The template should also always be pinned into place to prevent movement or fluctuation during the tracing process.
Shelley is passionate about the work he does, with a constant cycle of new templates and approaches always in development. “There are constantly new products being developed,” he comments. “Sectional templates, scenery templates, and stage management templates are all projects in some state of refinement. We just released our new English Metric Rules Stencil last fall.” He has also designed a software called SoftSymbols, an object library containing over 3500 symbols -- tracing his way to further success.