Old Man Musings
It’s 1982 and I’m hanging by my ankles under some truss trying to get the doggone ColorMax units to reset themselves after putting the flimsy gel strings back in their undersized sensor tracks and adding a little “road” technology. LD Marilyn Lowey is standing downstage center waiting to focus one last fixture…, as usual. This light and its color scroller provide the real money shot. One of two large format fixtures that will keep Neil Diamond bathed in color during the show. And it ain’t cooperating.
Somebody seemed to think it would be a good idea to make a scroller big enough to fit on a 5k Fresnel and it became my gig to keep them working. Like an aerial surgeon, I delicately move the 3” square piece of aluminum coke can I have freshly snipped – into position, holding it in place with some super glue. This thin piece of metal must reflect the light from that 5K bulb away from the sensors counting the gel string to make the color changing mechanism work. We called Keny Whitright, the guy who designed this Colormax scroller to ask why the gel string just goes off by itself when we turn the light bulb on? He doesn’t have an answer and does not condone the fabrication we are doing with his gear. But we have no choice, this bit of technology doesn’t function today. It’s Roadie 101; fix it class. 20’ in the air. I’m leaking sweat on to the gel scroll as I signal someone to give this bad boy one more try from the controller. F#$% my life.
The color scroller turned forty last year with little fanfare. Perhaps there was a reason for that. They were the first bit of automated lighting many technicians had ever seen. They showed up a year before moving lights and every LD had to have em. But this new gizmo came with a cost! Lighting techs had to spend extra care on these bits of “technology” to keep them functioning.
Often enough one person on every tour became the color changer tech. That same person often sat at front of house with their dedicated controller and hit cues to change the roll of gel strings to the next desired color. These strings were basically a dozen colored gels in a rectangular shape, all taped together with clear heat resistant tape. Each gel had a little tab at the start of each new color that was counted and recognized by a sensor it slid by, therefore knowing when to stop the string in the proper frame. A simple gust of wind could blow the gel out of the sensor, making life a living hell for the person on the truss.
I was working as an electrician on an early 80’s tour. LD Howard Ungerleider had Colormax scrollers mounted on lekos and pars alike. These were the first scrollers invented. He had them mounted on 5-degree ellipsoidals and all these worked fairly well. But Howard wanted them on his 9-light moles. Gosh darn it, Motley Crue had them working on their LSD 8-liters, why couldn’t Rush? Well Colormax may have invented these scrollers, but they hadn’t figured out how to get the heat out of their original units. No matter if we mounted the scrollers 6“ from the light source, we still melted the gel on the rollers daily. Cost of replacement gel strings was not cheap. We were forced to give up the concept on that tour.
The makers of color changers did get it together as ColorMax units were replaced by the newer Wybron lines over time. The entire Wybron line was trustworthy I found, at least indoors. I rarely met a scroller that could defy the wind or rain.
Light and Sound Design did indeed master the manufacturing of the scroller with their own models, the Colour Mag mounted to pars worked fairly well, though like the ColorMax, I never did make it through an entire show with all of them functioning. Their true claim to fame though was the big Mole Mags that were well engineered for heat dispersion and massive amounts of DWE bulbs. Eventually they built these giant pods called Mega Mags that went out with the Stones and other stadium tours, that were plain awesome. They had a little black box as their dedicated controller that roadies just tossed in the top tray of the road box.
I needed some color scrollers in 1988 to light the architecture inside of the Royal Albert Hall for a Stevie Winwood concert being filmed. I called Theater Projects in London. They actually had 40 of these new “Rainbow” color changers, right out of the box. They were made by a company in Germany at the time (some say Sweden is where they originated, I don’t know). They all had the same color strings (bonus) and we used them with a great deal of success. They were analog models we easily patched into a Leprecon console someone ran manually. I have never used these since, but I bet they are still in stock somewhere at PRG.
Showlites really went after the concept of color scrollers in a big way in the mid 80’s, with their ShowChangers. They had em for pars and 8-liters. They were so serious about their models that they designed a par64 with these U-shaped scrollers permanently welded and wrapping around the sides of the par can. You could not replace the color changer, but at least one never fell off the fixture. The idea was cool, as was the nifty controller built into a Haliburton briefcase. Keeping these things working was another story. Most of the evening the dimmer tech was turning off individual pars just long enough for someone to reset them.
I went down to Australia with Lenny Kravitz in 1993. Jands Lighting was duplicating this giant pod of 20 x six-lamp bars with Avolites Gel Jets attached to them. These color changers were fast, taking just two seconds to run through a dozen frames. They were loud as all hell as they zipped by with a whizzing sound. They were not much bigger than the face of the par 64 and weighed little. It was a long day keeping them working, but my crew chief Motley (awesome LD in his own right) did his best. At the end of the show we used to tilt this pod to 45° then lower it down so it was just over the band’s head. Unfortunately as soon as Motley tilted the truss half of the color changers fell off the pars and were hanging by their safeties. Well, with the exception of the two that fell off of their fixtures and landed on the drum set. Our alcoholic drum tech made a big point of bringing them to FOH and smashing them to bits during the end of the show as a display of his happiness with this product. I feel certain his next paycheck reflected their cost.
When I first started doing some work for Morpheus Lights they had their proprietary line of scrollers called the Ranger. These had a rectangular opening for light to come out, looking rather like a TV set. These were analog models, controlled in the same fashion as a dimmer on 0-10 volts DC. Programming from any console was simple, there were no sensors for gel to fall out of. They all worked, every night. Morpheus had moving par cans with these Rangers on them that were fairly unbreakable as well (Panabeams). Eventually they designed a digital copy of this changer that held more than the six colors and had a proper round light opening.
In 1990 I was out on a Madonna tour when the first 30 color faders ever used showed up in a box. Peter Morse was the first LD to use a color mixing scroller that had separate cyan, magenta, and yellow scrolls. The separate CYM gel strings had scaled perforated holes in the gel strings that would allow a certain amount of white light through them to adjust the hue. These color changers were rock solid and rarely broke. It was fantastic that they could fade or snap to any gel color. Their big fault was that they cut the light output in half. I found I had to spec two pars with Faders to equal the light output of one par with a Ranger.
Eventually Wybron and some others built scrollers with more than one scroller, for color mixing. I had good luck with them as well, though you couldn’t bump colors like the Morpheus XL Fader.
Christie Lites started making their own scrollers called the ColoRocket in the early 90’s. Analog models. Eventually they manufactured the original digital Chroma Q line of scrollers through a separate company they owned called Spectrum. They must’ve sold a buttload of these devices because I ran across them at every festival I played in Canada it seemed. They always seemed to work well for me. I spent a year using these as truss toners on a Phil Collins tour and never had to swop one out.
Apollo made quite a few versions of scrollers over the years. Somehow I managed to get thru my entire career without ever touching one, but they deserve an honorable mention for still being in the game. As does the scroller Martin manufactured to go on the front of their Atomic strobe, they performed well.
In the 90’s Sting toured with these fixtures called the DHA Light Curtain. It was a good sheet of light, a precursor to the GLP Xbar-20 line. They were about 6’ wide striplights with eight par 56 lovo bulbs and a long color scroller in the front that could hold 20 frames. I found I could program these with split colors. I had fairly good luck with these items on tour, but that’s probably because of the talented Ken Burns, the crew chief who could fix anything. However, they didn’t make it out of the 90’s successfully I’m told, by anyone brave enough to still spec em. Upstaging would only rent them to Robb Jibson if he promised not to ever engage the scroller.
The largest scroller I ever had on tour had nothing to do with gel. In 1994 Phil Collins went out on his Both Sides Tour with a set that resembles a city rooftop. On the rooftop sat a billboard approximately 8’h x 20’w. It scrolled to different painted advertisements during the show. This scroller was built by Wybron for the tour and was off course spring loaded for tension. During a windy evening the scroller would let go by itself on occasion, taking 8 stagehands a good 15 minutes to re-scroll it. Jim Digby was the set carp in charge of taking care of this structure. One night the scroll let loose and zipped back across the elevated platform knocking the artist off his feet as the whole stadium gasped. Collins was fine, much better than Digby that evening.
The last time I physically touched a color changer personally was in 1993. After this gig I swore I would do whatever I could to avoid them during my design career. I was working on the 30th anniversary show of Bob Dylan at the Garden, where many artists showed up to play their versions of his tunes. Patrick Woodroffe’s design called for 16 of these doggone underhung 5k Fresnels with color changers on them. As it came time for focusing the lights we realized how old we were. Dizzy Gosnell, Ethan Weber and I were the climbers that day. We had 50 years of collective experience but 100 years of collective age. Through lots of grunting we managed to get the things focused but getting the scrollers to stay working was another story. Ethan was the only one of us that could physically fit inside the truss and be able to reach down low enough to work on these and he did so all the way up til doors opened. Diz and I admitted defeat, but not Ethan – he kept at it. Every one of those damn things worked that night.
I realized then that I had gone full circle with this technology in 12 years and it was time to find a better way to change colors. After 40 years these still make a great way to color a stage if you have the gear in house. But by the time you add a dimmer, fixture, scroller and cable – it makes more sense to use an LED product for the same effect. Progress is all about finding an easier way to accomplish something. I can’t say I’ll miss the scroller, nor the hours spent keeping em working. But they hold a sentimental place in my heart.