Cyc Lights at the Nomad Playhouse
We got new curtains at the Nomad Playhouse in December, part of which was a cyc (cyclorama), a white piece of fabric that can be lit to create different colored backdrops. As you can imagine, we were cyc’ed! (See what I did there?? Ok, ok, please don’t pun-ish me!).
When we were preparing for the 11th Grade play, Twelfth Night, we ran into the problem of how to light the cyc. Normally a theatre would have special cyc lights, or at least enough matching fixtures to create an even wash of colors. We had neither. So, at the suggestion of our friend, lighting designer, and Tara grad Shevek, we decided to build them ourselves.
What We Used
- 2 sheets of 3/4″ plywood
- 2 sheets of Lauan plywood
- 45 keyless light fixtures
- 45 100 Watt incandescent lights
250 ft 14/3 SJOOW electrical cable– See note about wire selection below
- 100 ft 14/2 Romex
- 60 ft 14/3 SJOOW electrical cable
- 9 male Edison plugs
- 9 female Edison connectors
- 6 4×4 metal junction boxes
- 6 4×4 metal junction box covers
- 18 metal Romex clamp connectors
- 18 black button Romex connectors
- 60 tan wire nuts
- 96 bulldog clips (to hold the gels)
- 15 each of 3 colors of lighting gels (45 total), cut to 6″x9″
- 96 1/2″ pan head screws (to attach bulldog clips)
- 90 3/4″ pan head screws (to attach light fixtures)
- Table saw
- Radial arm saw
- Drill press
- 2.5″ hole saw
- Wire strippers
- Zipzip (cordless drill)
- Phillips head screwdriver (#1 or #2)
- Flathead screwdriver
- Needle nose pliers
- Diagonal cutters
- Utility knife
- Soldering iron – See note about wire selection below
- Fingers 😛
Our main concerns during design were:
- Light bulb spacing for the correct overlap
- Making the fixture as short as possible as not to lose too much at the bottom of the cyc
- Modular design for easy storage
After calculating the width of the keyless light holder and the plywood, we decided that 6″ center to center would be good spacing for our lights. Also having 1/2 foot intervals would make the measurements very easy.
The height of the trough needed to be at least as high as the lights + the base + the gap underneath for the wires, so we landed on 7.5″ sides
For the depth we decided to go with a 6″ base, so with the walls added on the final depth came out to be 7.5″ as well.
We decided to make three 15-light sections, each with 3 circuits (three colors), that could be connected together. All in all we’d have 45 lights on 3 circuits, each light of the same color being 18″ apart (every third light).
After shopping for our materials, we made a 3-light test unit. We spaced the lights 18″ apart to emulate the distance between each light of the same color.
After testing the unit with our cyc, we were pleased with the throw and overlap, so we decided to proceed with the real thing.
Here’s what we did:
- Ripped the plywood into 7.5″ x 96″ sheets for the sides, 6″ x 96″ sheets for the bottoms, and 7.5″ x 96″ Lauan sheets for the bottom covers
- Glued and screwed the bottoms and sides together
- Measured and marked out our light fixture placement, one every 6″
- Drilled 2.5″ holes on our marks to allow for access for the wiring
- Marked out screw placement and partially screwed in our 3/4″ screws for attaching the keyless fixtures
- Sprayed our troughs with metallic silver paint
- Attached the keyless light holders
- Cut our electrical cable into 2′ sections
- Stripped the jacketing off the last 2″ on either end – NOTE: This is one of the more difficult parts of this project. Make sure that while cutting through the outer jacketing you do not cut the inner individual jacketing of the wires as this could cause a short between the conductors.
- Cut the reinforcement stranding
- Stripped the individual conductors
- Used the soldering iron to tin the hot (black) and neutral (white) conductors – NOTE: We tinned the wires so that they would stay in place while tightening them into the set screws of the keyless lamp holders. Trying to tighten untinned stranded wire into a setscrew is in the best case a pain in the ass, and in the worst case an electrical hazard. Looking back on the project, I would have chosen to use solid wire for all of the connections and only used stranded wire for the pigtails at the end of each section (the cords with the plugs on them).
- Bent the tinned ends of the hots and neutrals into hook shapes to fit around the set screws
- Connected the hot (black) wire to the gold set screw and the neutral (white) wire to the silver set screw
- Wired every third light together (skip two). This way we’ll have an even pattern of three circuits for three colors of light
- Wire nutted the ground (green) wires together. Since the keyless fixtures aren’t metal, they don’t need to be grounded, but we wanted to have a ground passthrough just to be safe
- Cut out chinks at each end for the wires to pass through
- Attached the metal junction boxes
- Knocked out the appropriate holes
- Stripped the jacketing off of the electrical cable
- Put the black buttons (grey in this case) on the wire and into the knockouts – NOTE: Normally you would put the black buttons into the junction box first and then slide the wire through. However because this cable is so thick, it was much easier to put the black button onto the cable first, and then pop it into the knockout
- Install the metal Romex clamp connectors in the junction box
- Installed our Lauan bottom covers
- Installed plywood dividers between each light
- Cut 1.5′ sections of cable
- Stripped the ends
- Installed our male and female plugs and connectors (3 male and 3 female for each box)
- Clamped the pigtails into the metal Romex connectors (3 male on one end of each section, 3 female on the other end)
- Wired all of our grounds together
- Wired each pair of hots together
- Wired each pair of neutrals together
- Installed the junction box covers
- Installed bulldog clips at each divider to hold the gels in place
- Put the sections in place behind the cyc
- Daisychained the circuits (connected the male plugs of one section to the female plugs of the next)
- Connected each lighting circuit to a stage lighting dimmer
- Clipped our gels in place (red, amber, blue; red, amber blue; etc.)
- Turned them on!
After testing the lights out at several different angles and distances, we found that angling them about 10° towards the cyc and placing them about a foot away gave the most even wash. The problem (as seen in the above photo) is that the lights are visible from the audience. We solved that problem by making a 1′ tall L-shaped blockade that sat right behind the cyc and ran the length of it. This blocked the ugliness at the bottom, with the tradeoff of losing the bottom foot of lighting. The wooden boxes in the center of the image above were a test of this idea.
A more permanent solution will be to sink the lights into the stage, with cover panels that will sit on top of them when not in use. That will allow us to access them very easily whenever we need to light our cyc. We’ll also install more permanent circuitry so that we don’t have to run 50′ extensions every time!
That’s it for now! Please feel free to leave a comment below with any questions or thoughts! Thanks for reading!
Carpentry: Greg Fisher, Francis Galloway
Electrical: Cooper Hansen
Concept: Shevek Major-Peers