Before I begin this review I should point out that I am new to Vectorworks, I have had no prior experience with previous versions and the only real exposure I’ve had to it are the paper designs that other designers have created. I’m sure the majority of people reading this will have used earlier versions and I’m sorry that I can’t draw comparisons for you.
For those of you who don’t even know what Vectorworks is, perhaps a quick summary is required before going any further. Vectorworks is a CAD (Computer Aided Design) package that started life many years ago. The first official version of Vectorworks was actually called Vectorworks 8, before then it existed under the name MiniCAD which originated on the Mac way back in 1985. So, Vectorworks certainly has maturity on its side and years of continual improvements. To begin with Vectorworks was a fairly generic CAD program but in 2001 Nemetschek added the Spotlight package. Since then it has grown to become one of the most popular programs for creating set and lighting designs.
From very early stages Spotlight has been developed in conjunction with experts in the theatre industry to make sure the features and functionality are exactly those you expect and need. This is one of the things that really impressed me as a user, if I wanted to do something specific it was nearly always a simple job to get it done.
Vectorworks is actually a whole suite of CAD products which includes Architect, Landmark, Machine Design, Renderworks and of course Spotlight. The Designer edition includes all the various tools and is actually the edition that I’m reviewing here. However, as long as you have Vectorworks Spotlight 2010 with Renderworks, then everything in this review is applicable to that version.
It would be fair to say that a thorough review of all the aspects of a package as comprehensive as Vectorworks would require thousands of words and is something I simply couldn’t do full justice to. Instead I’ll focus on what’s new and my experiences with it as a new user.
The first thing to say is that an application such as Vectorworks isn’t for the faint of heart, the sheer size and amount of features means that getting to grips with it is a monumental task. The fact I’ve been using it since December and only now almost five months later I feel in a position to contemplate this review should give you some idea of just how big a task it is to learn. This isn’t a criticism though, you simply can’t expect a program of this nature to be “pick up and play”, if you’re going to get into the world of CAD you need to be ready to invest some serious hours to learning the software package! Of course it will help if you have some prior experience in CAD to help your initial induction.
Vectorworks Spotlight with Renderworks includes all the tools you need to draw your venue, set and lighting design in 2D and 3D and generate plans for printing. Once I’d got to grips with the modelling tools provided it was a fairly simple task to transfer the rough drawings I had on paper into 3D models in Vectorworks. The basic method I employed was to draw everything in 2D as a traditional plan view, then use the 3D tools to ‘trace’ over my plan and extrude them. Vectorworks provides a system of saved views and design layers which makes organising your drawings incredibly simple and keeps even the most complex of designs manageable.
A Spotlight workspace will create some default Design Layers and for most projects they will be adequate for your needs. They include a Theatre Floor Plan, where you can place all the venue specific objects such as the stage dimensions and auditorium if desired. A scenery layer where you would place all the set, then the lighting positions layer where you would detail all your lighting bars, or truss etc and then the Light Plot layer where you would position all your fixtures. This separation makes it easy to hide layers you don’t need to see, for example when working on the set you might want to hide all the lighting instruments so they don’t get in the way.
These design layers also make collaborative working easier, your set designer could supply you with a drawing of the set which he or she may have as several layers of his own. But you could import the whole thing to your single scenery layer since you may not need to work on that and will only be using it for reference. You can then use Sheet Layers to control how the drawing is displayed, you can create several of these Sheet Layers so you might generate one for the set builders with the dimensions but not print any of the light plot. You could then make another one for your lighting crew at the venue with the light plot showing with circuit numbers, gel colours and other relevant information but have the set shown as simply a grayed outline drawing. All these things can be easily configured by simply checking the relevant boxes in the Sheet Layer options using the same drawing.
If you don’t want to spend the time drawing your venue in Vectorworks, then if you already have it you can import it in numerous other formats. But perhaps the coolest one is PDF, loading in a PDF means you can scale it, but even better if the file has vector information then they become snappable just like any other Vectorworks object!
One of the best new features in Vectorworks 2010 is the improved 3D environment, a new Unified View allows you to select and modify objects in 3D on any layer, it also has some excellent 3D snapping. This is probably the area of Vectorworks that impresses the most, being able to switch to a 3D view and continue to work on the drawing is fantastic. You’ll need a powerful computer to do this in anything other than wire-frame, but if you do the benefits are immense. Being able to tweak focus and instrument positions in real-time using a lit 3D model proves to be extremely powerful. With a set fully textured and lit, you can really get a sense of how the finished product will look. If you go so far as to model the entire auditorium you can even pick a seat to view the stage from to check your angles for masking etc.
Other new features added in the 2010 edition include a whole new Event Planning suite which provides you with the tools to create rooms for events ranging from banquets and corporate presentations to large-scale shows and exhibitions. With relative ease you can create the room layout, seating and stage. They’ve also added new video screen objects to reflect the increasing importance and use of projectors and other video equipment. They can be used to display images in your rendered views but also give you the viewing areas covered along with projection distances needed depending on lenses.
In the lighting design arena Spotlight really excels, the library of fixtures is immense and many include both 2D and 3D symbols. You can set gel colours using RGB and hex values, or my preferred method simply by typing “L106” to get the instrument to output Lee 106. Each of the lighting symbols comes with a range of information including its size, weight and photometric data. Ideal for making calculations on how heavy your lighting bars will be!
What’s even better is that each lighting position contains the details of all the lighting objects that belong to it. This makes working out your gel requirements easy by seeing at a glance how many of each colour you need and in which size as well as calculating how many of each instrument you’ve used if you need to put together a hire list for example.
Vectorworks is also supported by ESPVision and Lightwright 5, using these together will let you export your designs directly for easy visualisation of cues in ESPVision. Lightwright 5 also supports real-time sharing of data which will make creating and maintaining your paper work a breeze.
Vectorworks may come with a hefty price, but it packs a huge amount of features and with a little dedication to learn the methodology things will quickly become second nature. What initially feels like a mountain to climb with features and tools fighting against you will suddenly become clear and you will realise how using the tools in Vectorworks can make creating your designs a whole lot easier.