Template Basics – Clouds and Skies

Continuing our series on templates we will stay outside for the time being and, after having looked at leaves and trees, we will move on to clouds and skies. Clouds can be some of the trickiest templates to work with. At the same time they can, with very simple and subtle gestures, provide immediate depth and nuance to a stage picture. A simple two tone cyc will, with the addition of a few soft clouds, gain a depth of naturalism that you can never achieve with color alone.

Clouds must be thought of in relation to the sky you are lighting. Time of day becomes critical to our template choice. A streaky cloud is more likely to read as dawn or dusk. A large puffy cloud will read like something we see in the middle of the day. Color is very important when designing with clouds. As we observe in the natural world, a cloud often takes on the quality of light and then amplifies it. During a sunset the sky might do a simple ombre from amber to congo blue while the clouds appear on fire catching the colors everywhere in myriad shades of purple and red and yellow. During the day the sky might be a clear blue and filled with little fluffy clouds shimmering a brilliant white. After a rainstorm the skies might be almost wholly obscured by a million shades of grey in the dark and heavy clouds.

Cloud templates come in several varieties and each have their benefits and drawbacks. Standard steel, like with leaves, provide a cookie cutter cut out of a shape that, with the proper attention to angle and sharpness can be either cartoonish or subtle. Even a template as silly as R78169 can, with the proper focus, turn into a very powerful effect when designing a sky.

Years ago I was calling focus for a designer on a production of Cloud 9. We were doing quite well working our way through the rig getting things pointed when I brought up the first of his template system and a pair of feet appeared on a wall. Curious, we brought up the next channel and there was another pair of feet. Noting a trend we turned on the whole system of 20 or 30 lights. All feet. A simple typo in the paperwork had caused the master electrician to order 30 pairs of feet rather than 30 clouds. Fortunately clouds are soft and mushy things. By taking the barrels all the way out past sharp the feet were transformed into clouds and the focus continued.

The softness of clouds is one of their most important attributes. Varying that softness is how we achieve real three dimensional effects. Layering two instances of of the same template, one on top of the other, with differing focus and varied intensity can create a photorealistic cloud effect. Layering is a critical component to designing a dynamic sky. A single cloud template will do little to convey the depth of a sky but when we layer in multiple templates in differing colors and focus, with varied intensity, we can create truly dynamic looks on our cyc or wall.

Cloud templates come in many shapes and sizes. Even when looking at the options for little fluffy clouds we have the clouds themselves, we have the underside of clouds, and we have their tops outlined. We can choose between tradition steel templates, or mesh patterns, or glass. We can use any or all of these template options to design dramatic skies.

Color plays a huge role when designing a sky. Perhaps a scene takes place in the morning as dawn shifts to day. You might cover a sky in various saturated streaks of salmon, amber, and yellow light which crossfade into softer, fluffier, pale lavender clouds over the course of the scene.

The movement of clouds is slow and subtle and beautiful. Capturing that on stage is a wonderful thing. One way to gain a sense of movement is to have many layers of clouds in various colors which shift and change intensity throughout a scene or production. However, using something like the Gam Film FX can be a wonderful way to, very simply and elegantly, give movement to an otherwise static sky. The Film FX, like any device that uses more than one pattern in the pattern slot, requires a very close attention during focus. Trouble can arise when getting the proper softness for one side of the film loop makes the other side appear too sharp edged. The extra time and care that it takes to focus these devices is well worth it for the end result.

The options for cloud templates are as varied as the sky is day to day. Building a sky is a wonderful combination of color and texture. The best way to understand how to design a sky is observation. Getting out and really looking up at the sky and watching the clouds move for minutes and hours on end will help to build an understanding of their subtle nuance and dramatic possibility.

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