ACADLighting v1.0 Review
An AutoCAD plugin for theatrical lighting visualization
By Rob Guglielmetti (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Rob Guglielmetti is an architectural lighting designer specializing in the application of computer technology to the task of lighting design. He is the Director of Information Technology and head of lighting simulation programming and analysis at Renfro Design Group, Inc, an architectural lighting design firm in New York City NY, USA.
ACADLighting, an AutoCAD plug-in from Design & Drafting of Oak Lawn, IL, allows you to create volumetric and other lighting effects inside of AutoCAD. It’s specifically targeted at theatrical and industrial (and perhaps retail) lighting designers, who sometimes need to render the effect of projector lights on a scene – be it a stage set or a product at a trade show – and it’s uniquely suited to that task. Most theatrical lighting software is aimed at assisting designers & electricians with managing the often-voluminous amount of paperwork that is required for a show. Indeed, Design & Drafting market a product that does just that (see manufacturer’s website for details). But ACADLighting is aimed squarely at the visualization niche, and it’s refreshing to see.
As a former theatrical lighting designer, I was drawn to computers by their potential to simulate the myriad and often complex interactions of light with the many variables on the stage. Pure white light emanates from a lamp, and is subjected to subtractive mixing (with a color filter), additive mixing in the air (with other lights focused on the same point) on its way to the stage, then is once again subtractively mixed when the net result strikes the pigments on a set piece or the fabric of a costume. It’s a complex bit, and it’s hard to describe, and designers have limited tools to illustrate these effects in their communications with the rest of the design team. Computer graphics seems like a natural way to develop renderings of lighting designs and animations of a moving light plot. ACADLighting is a step in that direction.
With ACADLighting users can quickly and easily visualize a theatrical/industrial/retail lighting design, and the product includes an extensive library of pre-defined blocks that cater to this specific market. There are 3D blocks that accurately depict the physical dimensions of many popular theatrical lighting systems, from basic lekos (the standard weapon in the theatrical lighting designer’s arsenal) to moving lights. An entire stage environment can be created; there are blocks for sound reinforcement equipment, truss systems, even crowd control apparatus. Gobos (projection templates) and color filters can be assigned to a fixture, by simply browsing lists of available patterns & colors -- and there are a lot to choose from. It appears that the majority of Roscolux, Lee and Gamcolor filters are represented in the gel color browser, and you can add your own gel colors and gobo patterns.
Installation is a snap, and proceeded without a hiccup on my two test machines, a 1.2GHz Athlon system and another Athlon 2400XP setup. Once installed, you’ll find a new menu choice on your AutoCAD menu bar, called “ACADLighting”. It is from this menu that you access all the tools of the program. Here the user can use the “create room” command to build a 3D space, add trusses, and populate them with light fixtures. Of course, you can use an existing 3D model of a space and simply fill it with lights.
Perhaps the greatest power of this software is the ease of placing and focusing (aiming) fixtures. To add a fixture to the model, one simply drags it out of the block navigator, and drops it where one wants. Then, you can select the “focus instrument” command, and configure its general beam distribution. After the fixture/instrument is focused, a “disbursement” is displayed, emanating from the fixture’s lens. This disbursement is simply the cone of light that will be projected from the fixture. You can see both the beam angle (50% of the peak candela) and the field angle (10% of the peak candela).
While I’m on the luminaire features, let me tell you about some of the admittedly few gripes I have with the program. Currently, only conical lights are supported. No photometric (.ies) distributions are available (but according to the developer, more surprises are waiting in the wings). Also, luminaire intensity is somewhat crudely represented with a simple “1-100” scale. Therefore, there is no provision for differences in lamp wattage. You can of course scale all your intensities with a wattage multiplier; it’s just a manual process. Color temperature shift, an inevitable result of dimming, is also not accounted for in this program.
One really nice feature is that you can use grip editing to refine the focus of the fixture. Select a fixture, and then simply grab the grip at the focus point and drag it to wherever you want the “hotspot” to be. The disbursement cone actually contracts and expands in real-time, as you move the focus point closer or further away from the luminaire. Once refocused, the luminaire’s block orientation automatically adjusts to the new position. The ability to focus lights in such an intuitive manner is worth the price of admission alone, if you do these kinds of spot-focus layouts often.
You can simulate volumetric lighting with this program. In other words, you can render the effect of light scattering in participating media, like smoke/fog. If you have a color filter in the fixture, the smoky cone of light will be colored accordingly. If you have a gobo in the fixture, its pattern will be projected. These light beam alterations will be projected on and through the smoke, and on the scene. It makes for a convincing rendering of the intended effect, and is exactly what makes this program so useful to theatrical illumination artists. Control over the volumetric characteristics is controlled via a simple dialog box, where you specify density, noise, whether or not the fixture produces a “star” pattern (twinkle), etc.
The choreography of an entire moving light show can be simulated with ACADLighting. The entire process is quite simple; you select “animation” from the program’s menu, and define luminaries as “moving lights”. Then, you can tell ACADLighting the intended path of movement for each fixture by selecting a polyline in your model. You select a speed for the movement, and hit the “render” button, and the software takes care of rendering all the required frames automatically. The end result is an AVI file, which can be shared with clients and played back in real-time. It’s a pretty nice feature. Finite control over the motion & timing of the animation is lacking, but you can cobble together a fairly accurate representation of the choreography in minutes.
All of the luminaries you place in your model have a wealth of data assigned to them. The user can easily call up a schedule of luminaries, trusses, etc. Virtually any object you place in your model from the ACADLighting library can be catalogued with the schedule option from the ACADLighting menu. These can be printed to hard copy, as well.
The documentation could use some improvement; the online help file consists of a command summary, which also exists as a pdf file on the installation CD-ROM. There are a few sample drawings, which have some luminaries already configured and you can learn from those. There is also a very basic “quick-start” tutorial, but there is no cohesive User’s Guide to the program. Perhaps because the program is so easy to use, a strong manual is not necessary, but I still feel that the docs could be beefed up a bit. There is also a collection of .AVI files that walk the viewer through the use of some of the features of the software. The topics are seemingly random, and are not a comprehensive intro to the software, but they are useful.
Users of Viz4 can also take advantage of another feature of the software, VIZlink. VIZlink is basically a seamless “export to Viz” command, that takes your AutoCAD model and all the volumetric lights, and exports them to a valid Viz scene description, ready for use. It’s a good example of best-of-breed, or “using the right tool for the job”. Autocad (combined with ACADLighting) is an excellent tool for accurate model building and lighting layout, but once that work is done, a tool like Viz is better able to create visually convincing renderings. VIZlink makes that workflow easier to accomplish.
The few questions I had about using the software were swiftly answered by Design & Drafting’s tech support, via email. No complaints in the tech support department at all.
Pricing is $499.00 for a single seat license, and multi-seat license discounts are available. ACADLighting will work with AutoCAD 2000, 2000i and 2002, and AutoCAD 2004 support is supposed to be added sometime in August of 2003. For more information (there is a 15-day demo) or to order, contact Design & Drafting at:
In summation, ACADLighting is good at what it does, but it does very little. If you create layouts with a lot of spot focus fixtures, and need easy hands-on control over the layout, this is a fantastic product. However, the lack of support for true photometric files limits the utility of the program somewhat for serious lighting design, and the basic database/paperwork features probably won’t impress too many theatre LDs. But it’s like that tool in your toolbox you only use once in a while that’s made specifically for the task; you paid a bundle for it, and you don’t use it every day, but when you need it, you really really NEED it. It’s certainly worth a look, to see if it meets your needs. I have a feeling this product is exactly what some people are looking for.
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