Shadows: A Brief Oral History of Disco Lighting

"With different colored lamps behind the same Perspex panel, it would appear to change color."
by Tan Lin

4 Color Par 38 Light Sequencer

Did the colored lights used have specific names?
The most popular lamps used, before the Pinspot, were PAR38 and R95. But other common lamps used were R80, pigmy and golf balls. All of these lamps were lacquered in a specific color. 
Why were they named pigmy and golf balls? 
It was a description of the shape of the light bulb. Pigmy lamps are very small versions of a standard mains lamp and golf balls were round and about the same size as a golf ball.
What colors were the four sequenced lights typically? 
Red, green, blue and amber. Yellow was generally not popular as it appeared to be twice as bright to the audience as the other three colors.
Were there any machines that deliberately created shadows or shadow effects?
The only shadow effect that I can recall was the use of a spinning wheel in front of a spotlight. This wheel would have alternating holes and blanks. By spinning the wheel, a strobe effect was created as the blank part of the wheel cast a shadow across the beam.
Wait, what’s the difference between a hole and a blank?
A blank gives you a projected spot on the floor. A hole creates a circle of light or a ring with a dark area in the centre. When projected in the air through fog, this gives a tunnel effect that the audience can actually look down. 
Were there specific strobe lights used in the dance industry?
Yes, strobes became very popular. It wasn't long before you could link multiple strobes together to synchronize them. There was even a company (who are still trading) called Optikinetics (now called Opti) who created a "strobe flower" effect. Also they produced a two meter tube that had multiple strobes inside. These tubes could be joined end to end to chase around a dance floor. This was called "ArcLine."

Strobe Lighting Demo

When did this begin?
Strobes were in use by the end of the 70's but they became most popular during the 80's. 
How were they used?
Strobes were used to create a moment of excitement and were generally used for very short bursts of about 20 seconds.
Can you describe the perceptual effect of a strobe in a night club?
The effect of the strobe was to give a "stop motion" effect. Dance movements would appear jerky. A fast movement would give the effect of a person appearing in one spot and in the next view they would be in a different spot with no perception of the movement between- a little like the first old silent films. The strobe was never an effect that was used continuously. The DJ would turn all other lighting off and the strobes on  at a specific moment to create a dramatic but short effect. Usually no more than about 20 seconds. 
How fast do strobes go?
You may also be interested to know that original strobes had no speed limitation. It was found that speeds above 22 flashes per second could induce epileptic fits for those who were susceptible and consequently were banned in some establishments. Modern strobes are now limited to about 12 flashes per second to prevent this.
Who made the first strobe lights?
To my knowledge the first commercial strobes produced specifically for the disco market were made by Pulsar in the 1970's. Optikinetics and a company called Ice also released their own versions around the same time. 
Were all of these described effects meant to be used simultaneously or would that be too chaotic?
The ability to use the right effect at the right time was essential- as if you turned all of the lights on at the same time, you not only lost the effect but finished up illuminating everything in "white" Remember, unlike mixing paint, when you mix light, red blue and green added together makes white! This eventually produced a new job and the "light jockey" became as popular as the disc jockey in some of the larger clubs.

Black Light

What is the history of the black light (UV)?
UV was used slightly before strobes. I recall seeing my first UV effect in 1966 in a disco. In this case they were using photographic UV lamps.
How would you describe the perceptual effect of black light?
UV had quite a good visual effect when first used. You have to remember that lighting used to entertain, instead of being used to light the entertainer, it was a new concept and consequently exciting. I remember running a club in Grantham (The town in the UK where Margaret Thatcher came from) where UV light was used to light night scenes painted on the walls. The silhouettes of houses had their windows painted with UV active paint and appeared to light up! The other effect was less subtle. UV light makes white clothing glow in the dark. The result was that girls underwear showed straight through their outer garments. A very big plus for young men of the 60's and 70's. The bad news was that it also made your teeth glow green in the dark. Or even worse false teeth would not glow, showing whether you had your own teeth or not!
How did they work with other light effects?
UV was not very effective with other lighting effects. Any color other than red would cancel the UV effect. So generally UV was reserved for use during the slower spots where the dancers cling together and don't particularly want to be lit up. 
Does it relate to shadow production at all?
No, UV casts virtually no shadows. Theaters did use it to great effect at one point by dressing performers all in black and then painting a skeleton on the fabric and illuminating it with UV light, creating moving skeletons. 

Disco International

Did you know any of the light DJs at Studio 54? Were any of them famous? 
I was based in the UK, and have very little knowledge about Studio 54 or its jockeys. Jockeys did move from club to club and their knowledge did move with them, spreading the news about lighting. Perhaps one of the most common names in the era was Peter Stringfellow, who owned clubs in both the UK and the US. I had the distinction of refusing him a job at my first club in 1967. He must be very grateful for that, had I given him a job his life may well have gone in a completely different direction.
As a light DJ/developer and club owner, how was information about lighting shared? 
The most famous publication in the 70's was called Disco International. This monthly publication was regarded as the disco bible by all DJs and nightclub owners. All new technical innovations were reviewed in DI and this magazine went worldwide.

From Sex Magazine #3 Spring 2013
Labelled Technology