Rob Halliday, Lighting Designer & Lighting Programmer

Rob Halliday
Rob Halliday has been working as a lighting programmer and lighting designer for more than fifteen years. His work as a programmer has been seen on productions in London and around the world, including, recently Shakespeare in Love, Bend It Like Beckham and Merrily We Roll Along in London, Billy Elliot in Holland, the New York productions of Evita, Red, Hamlet, Equus, Mary Poppins and others and, further back, such legendary shows as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and more.

His lighting design work includes the acclaimed dance show Tree of Codes around the world, Daddy Cool in London and Berlin, the award-winning UK and US tours of My Fair Lady, the US tour of The Wizard of Oz, Buried Child, West Side Story, Hello Dolly and others at the Leicester Curve, Goodbye Barcelona at the Arcola, as well as many shows at the Royal Academy of Music, LAMDA, Guildhall and elsewhere.

Rob also contributes regularly to a wide range of lighting-related publications including Lighting & Sound International, Lighting & Sound America, Live Design, and the UK’s Stage newspaper. Many of the best articles from the period 1994-2006 are available in two books, Entertainment in Production vols 1 and 2. He has also taught at colleges including LAMDA, RADA and Rose Bruford in London and the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

FocusTrack was born out of his need to record precisely what lights - particularly moving lights - got up to during shows so that the look could be maintained on tour and re-created around the world. “In part, this is because my memory is so terrible,” he notes. “With one show using twenty moving lights I could just about remember. Now that shows are using hundreds of moving lights, I find I just can’t!”

Over the years, Rob has used a variety of techniques to record the focuses. “I always start with the show programming: using preset focus groups almost as labels so that you can get an idea of what a light is meant to be doing just by looking at the screen. Once we'd finished making the show I'd then trawl through the console, noting which lights were used in which preset focuses in which cues and entering those into a simple database.”

With that information, a precise focus plot would be made, originally by hand-drawing the position of each light in each focus on the stage. “The advent of digital photography changed that approach quite dramatically,” Rob notes, “and since Oklahoma! in New York we've used digital pictures, one per light per focus, to keep a very precise record of what each light is doing. However, we then ended up with hundreds of digital photographs; figuring out which photo belonged to which light became quite hard work!”

Which is where FocusTrack began. “The two aims of FocusTrack were to find a way of getting the computer to figure out the list of when and where each light was used automatically - it seemed crazy for a human being to be doing exactly that kind of repetitive, tedious work when that’s what computers are so good at - and then to have the same system able to keep track of the order the pictures were taken in so that we always knew which picture corresponded to what.

“Along the way, we figured out that - on Apple Macs, at least - we could have FocusTrack control the console directly, so it could actually do all of the work of turning each light on and off in turn!”

The result, now, is a system that dramatically simplifies the task of creating a complete, accurate record of the show. “On a big show, it used to take me a day or two of just trawling through the showfile figuring out what I had to photograph, and then taking the pictures involved lots of juggling of a laptop, a camera and the lighting console. Now I feed the showfile into FocusTrack, let it figure out what gets used where (which it does much more quickly and a great deal more accurately than I ever managed), then just sit in the balcony with my laptop connected wirelessly to the console. FocusTrack turns each light on in the right place in turn, I take a picture. Even on a really complex show like Billy Elliot, we can focus plot the entire show, conventionals and moving lights - 1653 picture sin total - in just under three and a half hours, including waiting for sixteen changes of scenery on stage. That averages to about eight shots per minute, or one every 7.5 seconds.”

Over time, FocusTrack has started to manage more information than just details of what the moving lights were doing. "Once we had that, it seemed silly not to be able to focus plot conventional lights in the same way," Rob notes. "Once we started doing that, it seemed silly not to add other details about the rig - patch information and the like - and to have FocusTrack be able to import that information from the console. Then, since it had the Cue List, it seemed silly not to be able to add pictures to that, too. None of it's really been planned; it just keeps evolving as I - and now its other users - find new things that they'd like it to be able to do!"

"The most gratifying thing is that, having built a tool for myself, it turns out to be useful to other people, too!"

And the most ironic? "A long time ago, I did a degree in computer science. Though I spent a lot of the time mucking around in the theatre, my final year degree project was in databases. Then I left all that behind for a life in theatre. It's funny that most of my time is now spent dealing with computers in one form or another, and that FocusTrack is essentially a big database project. Even more scary was that I actually found myself enjoying working on it!"

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