This article is sponsored by Full Compass—stage systems and lighting to help you create the right atmosphere.
In this article, Noble Mosby discussing black masking—blacking out your stage design to provide a blank canvas to build from.
One of our main goals in stage design and lighting is to eliminate distractions. This helps us more clearly see what’s happening on the stage.
Blacking out the back of your stage is a great way to eliminate distractions. In a darker room, with a blacked out stage, you have a blank canvas to start from. And one of the best ways to black out the back of your stage is with black masking soft goods (or fabrics).
Black masking soft goods help create clean foundations and have many lighting and design advantages. However, careful consideration must be taken to ensure that it achieves the desired overall look.
When deciding to use black masking in your venue, consider how it will look within your worship space as a whole. While you want contrast between your background and foreground elements on stage, one thing you want to try and minimize is the overall contrast in your worship space.
If your venue has light colored walls, then masking out the entire area behind your stage might be too stark when house lights are up. Consider using color and textures from lighting sources, draped fabric or environmental projection to add visual interest. This will help soften the transition point resulting in a more natural appearance.
As a lighting designer, I want complete control over where my light sources come from and what they look like. We have stained glass in our worship space, but my lighting console controls the light source.
In churches that have windows or stained glass illuminated by the sun, the first thought is to black them out. Most of the time that’s what happens. But consider how brightly it’s illuminated when the room is in use. If it doesn’t illuminate the room too much naturally, it might not have to be blacked out. Dimly lit stained glass can have a nice visual effect. If you need to further lower the intensity, neutral density gels are a great way to decrease the intensity of light without altering the color temperature.
Regardless of the size of your lighting rig, lighting beam control is key. Here at FBC Lafayette, I have a fairly large stage that allows plenty of separation between my house/stage lighting focus areas and the masking area. This can be a greater challenge when dealing with smaller stages and venues; therefore it’s important to use the correct lighting fixtures in your upstage areas that will give you greatest beam control.
Having the correct type of lighting fixtures available in your venue will aid in controlling light from spilling onto areas where you don’t want it. Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlights (ERS) or “lekos,” such as the ETC Source Four, give greater control with the help of its shutters to allow for beam shaping. Par Can and Fresnel fixtures offer a nice wash of light, but have no beam shaping abilities on their own. Adding barn doors to these fixtures allows some beam control but are not as versatile as an ERS fixture.
Depending on your lighting angles, it might be impossible to keep all front light from illuminating your masking. If possible, adding a set piece, plant, or some type of foreground object in that area will help bring the focus forward.
Black Masking and Video
Once your masking is in place, you now have a clean slate on which your set designs can come to life. When working on a new set design, whether for a special service or theatrical production, how I design is largely affected by how it will be seen through the camera lens. Cameras, unlike our eyes, have a limited contrast range; therefore, it’s important to know that designs, which look great to our eyes, might look bad on camera. Since all of my events involve a camera, contrast ratios, color saturation levels, and balance within the lighting design are key. Keeping front and ambient lighting off masking is important, but lighting it creatively with gobos and color is a great way to help soften the contrast for video in areas that fall to black within a camera shot.
When working with any soft good, it’s important to be mindful that heat generated by lighting fixtures or stage design elements, can lead to serious fire safety issues. With most churches and designers looking for ways to keep set costs down, it’s tempting to run to the nearest local fabric store and pick up a few bolts of your favorite fabric. However, these fabrics do not meet the self-extinguishing, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards for theatrical use. Fabrics that meet self-extinguishing standards are labeled either Flame Retardant (FR) or Inherently Flame Retardant (IFR).
Flame Retardant (FR):
FR fabrics are made of threads that do not meet fire codes, but once the final fabric is made, it is treated with a flame retardant chemical. This FR chemical dissolves in water. So keep in mind if your fabric gets wet, it will need to be re-treated.
Inherently Flame Retardant (IFR):
IFR fabrics are made of threads that produce a product that meets fire code standards, without the addition of separate chemicals. IFR fabrics retain their flame retardant properties for life and are machine washable.
Theatrical soft good suppliers, such as Dazian and Rose Brand, offer a wide variety of flame retardant fabrics in many colors.
Whether changing the entire feel of your worship space or planning your next series set design, keeping these concepts in mind provide the building blocks to a beautiful stage.
Noble Mosby is a Technical Artist passionate about sound, lighting, stage and cinematic design that create captivating environments to facilitate worship. He received his Bachelors of Music from The University of Mississippi and currently is the Director of Technical Arts at FBC Lafayette, LA. For more information visit noblemosby.com.