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Black Light Magic

Let It Glow, Let It Glow, Let It Glow

Black light shows have almost become a standard with puppet performance, so much so that there is now a market just for black light performance. Black light can be used in a number of different ways and add effects that are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate any other way. Every professional puppet team should have some level of black light performance in their arsenal of productions.

In writing this post, it has been brought to my attention a story in which a youth minister was assisting in creating a stage production where he (name purposely omitted to protect the guilty) was asked to go purchase a couple of fluorescent bulbs for the black light fixture they had. He came back with two-office grade, soft white fluorescent bulbs that he picked up at the local hardware store.

I had assumed that everyone knew the difference, but for the sake of making sure, I will interject here that there is a difference between regular fluorescent bulbs and black light bulbs. Also, the use of the word bulb is actually a misnomer. Though they do make black light bulbs, which look like regular rounded bulbs, but have a violet blue color to them instead of the frosted, white or clear, it is the long fluorescent tubes that I am talking about. The bulbs are novelty at best and do not work well for performance quality.

The advancements made in black light just in the last few decades is awesome to say the least. You can find quality black light sources in just about any style and size. From the 48-inch Sleeklook Black light Fixture & Tube that costs about $40 on up to the Wildfire Long-Throw, 400W Flood High Output Black light that runs about $2000 and higher, you can find one to fit your needs.

For teams that do a lot of traveling and use black light as a central part of their performance, I would suggest something like the Chauvet LED Shadow Black light Panel, which is great for traveling groups. Just one has the coverage of about a 20-foot diameter, and for the price of about $150 each, it is practical to buy two and place one on either side of the stage on a light tree so that one will bleed out any shadows that may be caused by the position of the other.

Proper Position

It is important to have your black lights positioned properly. With regular lights, you create shadows that can detract if the lights are not placed properly; with black lights, these shadows can literally make parts of your puppet, props, and background disappear completely.

The proper placement of your black lights are high and facing down toward the stage. If you are using a single tube fixture, you would generally have it attached high on your light tree or in a fixed position above and slightly in front of the puppet stage. If, however, you are using the LED panels, these can be attached directly under or over your main tree lights to be plugged into your control box.

Proper Use

Just as I have said in numerous other posts, as long as it is intentional and doesn’t detract from the performance, it is not wrong. With black light, this is true also. Any performance can be made into a black light performance, but with some, you end up asking; “what’s the point?” Some songs and skits are perfect for black light effects, but others seem to be done in black light for the sake of black light. Make sure that what you are doing works well with the black light.

Proper Materials

Prepare yourself. It is time for another pet peeve moment. I get so irritated when people make black light puppets by spray-painting them with fluorescent paint, especially those puppets made of fleece. This DESTROYS puppets. The fleece becomes brittle and starts to crack. In the very least, the fluorescent paint flakes off and gets all over everything. For the money that you will use to buy new puppets when the other puppets fall apart from the spray paint, it is well worth the money to invest in some quality black light puppets or make them yourself using fluorescent materials.

If, however, you feel that you cannot afford them and it will be less expensive for you to “convert” a puppet for black light usage, I would then create a body suit of sorts. First, wrap the puppet of choice with saran wrap, then take sheer nylon stocking material and stretch it over the puppet to create a form fitting cover. Once you have it ready so that it fits snug, you are ready for paint. Now, once the paint is dry, either affix new eyes on top of the old ones or use an X-acto knife to delicately (stress the word delicately) to cut out around the eyes and mouth. Use black masking tape to fix the edges around the mouth and now you have a black light puppet that you can easily convert back to a regular puppet by removing the nylon overlay. The paint will eventually degrade the nylon stocking as it would the fleece, but it is easier to spend a couple of dollars each time you need to recreate the body suit as opposed to fifty to a couple of hundred dollars to replace a puppet.

I once saw a puppet that was spray painted for black light and the paint was so thick on it that the fleece was no longer recognizable. It had become a hard shell. One too many performances and, instead of a rip that could have been stitched, the face actually split open.

With fur puppets, use the inexpensive fluorescent hair spray that you can get easily enough around Halloween. Before spraying, cover the eyes with something that can be easily removed after application. Also, cut a piece of cardboard or cardstock to fit the mouth.

Warning! Actually apply this under a black light. Have you ever had a clean, nice, dark shirt or pants on and to look at them under normal lighting they looked fine, but under a black light, every little white fiber stood out like a sore thumb? The same holds true in this case. There used to be a hair product out which had the tag line “a little dab will do ya” and that so fits in this case. Too often, people will soak the puppet with spray when they only really need to dust it enough for the black light to pick it up. Also, by doing this, the fur puppets will often times clean up rather quick with a damp sponge.

Black light effects are sometimes not able to be recreated live in any other way, so experiment and have fun trying to come up with new, intentional ways, to use black lights. Do not settle for spray-painting something fluorescent and going with it. There are so many things out there that come in fluorescent colors now that you will need to do very little painting to achieve the effects that you are looking for.


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