I haven’t written a lighting post in awhile, so we are due for a little lesson in lighting from Uncle Steven. Today, I’m going to rant about something called Successive Contrast. You see, recently I went to a show, which was fun, since I don’t see a lot of shows, but the lighting… Well, it had a couple of problems with successive contrast that made the whole experience a little underwhelming.
Here’s the scoop:
Successive contrast is a phenomenon that occurs in our human eyes, where the exposure to a specific color for a prolonged time results in the eye straining to compensate for that color saturation and shifting that color closer to white. When the eye next experiences a different color, or even “white” – the white can’t be perceived as white, because the eye is too slow in shifting back to its normal state. That white light shifts to the opposite color of the color wheel.
Does that make sense? Let’s dive in a little further. Let’s say that you in a blue room with lots of blue light and blue, blue blue everywhere. You hang out for 3-5 minutes, maybe even less time, before you turn on your flashlight to see your way to the door and out of this blue nightmare. That moment when the light flashes on – it will appear very yellow. Try it! I swear that it is true!
Similarly, if you find yourself in a very follies pink/magenta room, and then turn on your flashlight, that light will appear green.
If you are thinking to yourself, “I understand that being flooded with one color would affect my eyes, and cause me to not be able to judge other colors correctly, but why does this guy think that the opposite of blue is yellow, and the opposite of pink is green?” – then you are still thinking back to your 7th grade art classes where you learned your color theory based on pigment primary colors of red, blue and yellow. We can talk about how that doesn’t work for light, and why there is another set of primary colors for light another day, but lets just say now that light uses red, blue and green for our primaries, and yes, pink and green are opposites, and blue and yellow are, in fact, opposites.
The show I saw, fell into the trap of not working with the human eye in order to guide the experience, to lead the audience from one moment to the next effectively. Several richly colored and very saturated songs were followed immediately by “real life” lighting that was stark and white. Except, as an audience member, those returns to real life were NEVER white.
A big showstopping torch song, deep magenta and sexy, ends, and returns to white. The whole stage went green! This isn’t flattering, and it doesn’t seem like it was intended either.
Ok, ok, you get it, this is a problem. It doesn’t tell the story of the play effectively at best, and at worst, it tells the wrong story. How jarring and disruptive to have to sit through these weird transitions, and try to stay with the story that the script and actors are telling when the lighting is saying something different. It’s bad, right?
How, great and wise Uncle Steven, do you solve or avoid these problems?
This means a trip back to color theory. In the cueing of your show, you have to chart out a color progression that leads the eye to the color you want your audience to see and experience. That big “Ta-Da” moment at the end of a song? Maybe it should display the color that is the opposite of your next “real life” color. Looking at the color wheel, your cool stark white is more opposite a reddish-orange. Can you as a LD steer a song’s cueing from pink toward a more true red? You might be more happy with the results!
Secondly, make sure that the real life color has the least amount of the undesired color native to it as possible. The successive contrast is accentuated by a white light that has an abundant of that green already in it. Using color filters, you can reduce the amount of green in your no color white light, and force limitations on how the eye will react to your cueing choices. In any show, the designer has to decide what white light actually is, and if you’ve decided that no color, or no filters at all is your “white” – then you are setting yourself up for trouble. If you instead set your white light as a pale lavender, the distance between deep magenta and “white” is reduced, and the eye doesn’t have to go through green going from one to the other.
Still with me?
With practice, common sense, and thoughtful design, this will come naturally. And then… You’ll have to worry about SIMULTANEOUS contrast. But that’s for another day.