We have all heard of creative people taking risks in their work. But when have you ever heard of someone taking a risk when they installed a lightbulb?

No, this is not the beginning of another lightbulb joke, but rather a serious discussion of the risks involved in the decision by Princeton’s new Lewis Arts Complex to install all-LED lighting in its new theatrical performing spaces, completed this past fall.

“It was a risk to go to all LEDs because the technology for entertainment is changing fast, but the decision was for Princeton to be at the forefront of energy efficiency in design,” says Jane Cox, director of the Program in Theater and a senior lecturer in the Lewis Center. “We also decided that our basic lighting systems should be automated for maximum flexibility, and are betting on the sophistication of our students to learn to engage with these systems and maximize their potential.”

Learning to work with light as a form of creative expression means learning how light functions, how we see it, and how we relate to it, says Cox, who has created lighting designs for theaters from London to Los Angeles and has twice been nominated for a Tony Award for her lighting designs in Broadway productions. She was drawn to lighting design while studying music as an undergraduate at the University of London, and she finds many parallels between lighting and music.

In an e-mail exchange, Cox elaborates on the consequences of the LED decision:

The biggest change that moving to all LED lighting makes has to do with color rendering. Your eye has (obviously) evolved to see color best in natural day light or sunlight, which has a very broad spectrum of wavelengths in it.

Creating artificial lights that can mimic this ability to see color is very challenging. Picture trying to choose the paint color for your wall by the light of a single candle — the problem is not that it’s too dim, but that you can’t see color well enough, because the light is only giving you the warmest end of the visible spectrum. All new artificial light sources start out with this same problem — too narrow a place on the spectrum.

Over the last 50 years or so, tungsten halogen theatrical lighting has greatly improved. The quality of light that comes out of a tungsten halogen light has a broad spectrum of wavelengths that render color very well (something that wasn’t as true a few decades ago). In other words, if you put your multi-colored sweater onstage in a tungsten halogen light, you get a pretty good rendition of what those colors are intended to look like in natural light. This is the product of decades of research. Theatrical lights made with LEDs have different color problems than tungsten lighting did, and we are less far down the road in terms of improving the ability of LED lights to render color well across a broad range of colors.

You’ll notice sometimes when you walk into an office lit with low quality LEDs or with fluorescents that the room feels somehow blurry or dull or mind numbing. You aren’t imagining this — the colors are being rendered badly, and you are literally seeing less colors than you would be in a better lit room.

Theatrical lighting engineers are attempting to deal with the problem by introducing several kinds of LEDs into a single light fixture that mix together to create a broader spectrum, but the science is in it’s early years, I’d guess.

Theatrical and entertainment lighting companies are tackling all these things and thankfully have come a long way since the day we decided our new theater would go all LED. At that point it was a real leap of faith. We decided to force ourselves into navigating the complex territory of color rendering and dimming, because we felt that we needed to prioritize environmental concerns and that at Prince­ton, we could perhaps provide a useful environment for young designers, engineers, and artists to work with the most up to date equipment and then perhaps offer something back to the field. Princeton students often have dual interests in arts and computer sciences or engineering, so it’s a natural place for considering these kinds of questions; our students might have something to offer.

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