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The use of computer-aided drafting (CAD) systems in theatre has become as standard as drawing boards once were. Originally, CAD was used in this industry mostly by large national and opera companies. There were two reasons for this: First, the software was costly. Second, the systems of that time were often mainframe-based, with a group of terminals used by operators. This kind of arrangement needed a great deal of IT support and investment, which was beyond the resources of most companies.

Nowadays, CAD systems are generally run on PCs or Macs--although the higher the specs of the unit the better, particularly if 3D work is to be undertaken. There are also PDAs and smartphone-based products available, for users on the move. Now that we are all connected, it’s easier to disseminate and update drawings through electronic communications.

However, these developments also mean that we have to be disciplined in our use of this information, given the deluge of emails we may be faced with!

CAD systems are used in a variety of ways within the industry; the selection of the right software is based on these needs. For instance, mainstream CAD programs are quite capable of producing the ground plans and sections required by scenic designers. Such drawings can be used by other departments. For instance, the stage department will want to use the designer’s drawings to make calculations regarding loading in the flying system.

Lighting designers are perhaps better served by programs that aid their processes. These generally add lighting instrument symbols to the CAD part of the program, which constitute the basis of data generation in the form of the various lists required by an LX department.

Going a step further, visualizer programs add the ability to examine a production’s lighting looks on screen, and to save them as cues. Some of these systems can be hooked up to lighting consoles to play back cues in the venue. Conversely, many lighting consoles now include a visualizer as an extra screen. Whether these systems are truly “CAD” is perhaps debatable, but they are undoubtedly part of the tool set available to productions.

Of course, the question of the software’s cost cannot be ignored but, as with all IT products, there is now a wide range of software to suit most purses and purposes. Often, users start with a cheaper product before graduating to higher-end programs as they gain more experience and as their work demands it. The ability to share files in a common format will often drive this upgrade policy.
Today, the use of CAD systems for production has not only become widespread in the industry, it is now expected. Many colleges and universities that prepare students for careers in the entertainment industry find they need to provide CAD training, on both the design and technical sides of the fence. Also, organizations in the industry offer training to those already working who may have missed out on CAD the first time round.

Whatever your role, today’s CAD systems have the potential to help you work faster and smarter on your productions, saving you time and money so that you can concentrate on making your show the best it can be.

David Ripley has over 25 years experience in the theatre industry as a production manager, lighting designer and educator. He runs cad4theatre, providing drafting services, training, and consultancy to the industry in all things CAD. He is the author of AutoCAD – A Handbook for Theatre Users, and runs the ABTT’s AutoCAD distance learning course.  He also teaches at several U.K. drama schools and is the LD Assistant UK support center.
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