Light and STEM: A Radiant Combination


From stages and buildings to worlds beyond, technology shapes the light we see, deepening our understanding of time, space, and one another, in the play of an artist’s eye, scientific curiosity, and the know-how of engineers.

By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor

Renowned lighting designer and artist Anne Militello described the captivating power of light: “All of us have connections with light and color. And then there’s an emotional effect that is simply unexplained — a mystery. I love that part, too.”

Militello is also founder and principal of Vortex Lighting and a professor and head of the lighting design program at the California Institute of the Arts, teaching a new generation how to “shape the light.” Her love affair with design began in the 1970s, when she took a stage lighting course at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “It really changed the course of my life,” she said. “I had studied painting and photography, so I already sensed how to use light without formal training. I was also technically inclined — I loved making things work.”

Militello made her name as a lighting designer in New York, at first on off-Broadway and in clubs, and then on Broadway, designing for such star playwrights as Sam Shepard, who taught her to see lighting as another character in his plays. Seeing her work, audience members began asking her to light their homes. “As a young artist in 1980s New York and needing money, I said, ‘Sure,’ and then learned how to do it,” she said.

She began lighting residences, then window displays at Bloomingdale’s and other retail stores. Soon she attracted the attention of Walt Disney Imagineering, which recruited her to design for rides, restaurants, and shops at Disneyland, including the award-winning attraction, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. “I was largely self-taught, and Imagineering was great in giving me more formal instruction, everything from AutoCAD classes to shadowing other designers,” she said.

Color symphonies: Light Cycles, Winter Garden Atrium Plaza, World Financial Center. CREDIT: Vortex Lighting

Illuminating a building’s purpose

Militello found it easy to make the jump to architectural lighting. “Lighting a space with feeling and purpose is something I learned from theater,” she said. “Whenever I approach an architectural project, I ask who’s going to see it, why, and how they want to feel, at what time of day — the same questions I’d ask if I were lighting a play. I try to be sensitive to using the techniques of angle, color temperature, the rhythm of shadow or absence of it to help people feel and enjoy the space.

“For example, if a place needs dynamic lighting, not in terms of light moving, but the texturing of walls,” she continued, “does a wall want to be solidly lit in a flat wash or does it need highlights and lowlights? In nature, unless it’s a really cloudy day, we never see things without shadow; that’s not how light works. So to light a space and not compose those shadows is a missed opportunity and makes the space less comfortable.”

We all know that lighting can make or break an experience. Just ask anyone who’s ever had a harsh downlight make them feel tired or enjoyed the sun’s low angle on a brisk fall day. “Lighting is something you don’t really think about until you see it either done really well or really poorly,” Tamara Voss, P.E., senior project manager and an electrical engineer with Lam+Tea Engineering, said. “If done well, it completely transforms the look and vibe of a space.”

Militello and Voss worked together on lighting the historic Mayfair Hotel in Los Angeles, a multiyear project that opened in 2016. “Because the lobby was a nighttime hotspot with bars and restaurants, the owners wanted people to feel comfortable and attractive to each other,” Militello said.

Anne Militello, founder and principal, Vortex Lighting; professor and head, lighting design program, California Institute of the Arts. CREDIT: Vortex Lighting

To create a glamorous, 1940s-era atmosphere, Militello researched film noir, studying how cinematographers lit certain scenes. “In those movies, there’s intrigue but also great beauty,” she said. “The actresses always looked flawless, never a wrinkle or shadow on their faces. Yet the spaces behind them had quite a bit of shadow composition, lots of striking angles and high contrast. When I’m lighting a place where people socialize at night, I want their faces softly lit, with warm color temperatures and great angles, so their eyes sparkle. And then the walls can be dramatic, with splashes of light or curtains lit so their pleats look deeper. I use theatrical techniques but with architectural lighting.”

Voss played an integral role in the Mayfair’s transformation. “As in all projects involving lighting, we had to meet California’s Title 24 requirements — COMcheck in other states — for wattage and controls,” she explained. “We work closely with lighting designers to make sure the fixtures they specify are not huge power consumers and have specific dimming and/or control capabilities. Before LED, this was more difficult, and it still can be depending on what fixtures are specified.”

The work of engineers and lighting designers keeps people’s sense of well-being at its core. “Everybody wants to enjoy a space and feel comfortable and safe in it,” Militello said. “It’s our job to make that happen. And engineers? I am so in awe of the technical mind — what they do is a creative, problem-solving art, and they don’t get enough credit for it.”

New 42nd Street Studios, Times Square. Anne Militello’s landmark lighting design earned multiple prestigious honors, including the Illuminating Engineering Society’s Paul Waterbury Award. CREDIT: Vortex Lighting

A building that dances

One of Militello’s most iconic designs is her facade lighting for Times Square’s New 42nd Street Studios, a jewel of glass and metal that houses rehearsal spaces for dance and theater companies. Against a backdrop of LED billboards, it stands out — by belonging while being radically different.

“That building is all about live entertainment and the arts,” she explained. “At the time, there was a mandate that any new project that went into Times Square had to be about 60% covered with advertising, whether it was photo billboards or LED signs. The city was going for a vibrant look, like Ginza in Japan and parts of Hong Kong.”

The owners wanted something else — something abstract. “To reflect the dance and theater going on inside, I wanted the lights to dance, and echo the excitement and color of Times Square,” Militello said. “I spent a lot of time on the street at night, listening to the city, watching the pace and energy change. And I interpreted that, using halogen, metal halide, fluorescent, and early LED light sources.”

She created glorious, fluid patterns of color, using dichroic glass lenses (which portray different colors based on reflected or transmitted light) and even theatrical gel on fluorescent fixtures. She programmed waterfalls of light from a theatrical console, which automated the cues and movement until engineers could install a permanent lighting playback system. Later, they upgraded to an ETC Mosaic architectural lighting system and reprogrammed it.

Editing the Universe

The old saying “there’s no light without the darkness” seems especially true when it comes to the James Webb Space Telescope, peering into the deepest dark, capturing the farthest
imaginable light.

Translating Webb’s infrared images for the public is an art in itself, and Alyssa Pagan, science visuals developer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), has always loved art and science. Pagan has a bachelor’s degree in art and design and another in astrophysics. Those two interests intersected in an observational astronomy course, where she learned to take her own data for analysis, process it, and make her own color images. “When it dawned on me that someone actually had to process the data from Hubble to get those final images, it really fascinated me,” she said.

Pagan’s fascination led to her dream job at STScI, where she works alongside principal investigators and scientists, processing images from both the Webb and Hubble telescopes. “Scientists come to us with a new discovery, and we take the data and process it into color images,” she said. “We work closely with them to emphasize certain features they want to draw attention to, informing the story.”

Pandora: Deep-field image color processed by Alyssa Pagan, with never-before-seen galaxies in orange. If you are reading the digital edition of SWE Magazine, zoom in on the Pandora image to get lost in the stars! CREDIT: NASA

Both art and artifact

With an artist’s eye for composition and color, Pagan transforms raw data from Webb’s infrared images into starscapes of astonishing color, contrast, and depth. Images of the diamond-brilliant stars in the Carina Nebula and the gigantic plumes of dust and gas in the Pillars of Creation are prime examples.

“For the most part, we do what’s called chromatic ordering,” Pagan said. “We collect specific wavelengths of light from the data and then assign them colors based on the physical meaning of how we perceive light in the visible part of the spectrum.

“For instance, we see the shorter wavelengths as bluer and the longer as redder, so we prescribe this same color-coding to those wavelengths we see in infrared,” she said. “Essentially, we’re translating, shifting that color space in infrared, but keeping the relationship the same. That’s how we get our full-color images. Even though we’re trying to emphasize certain features and bring out the color contrast, there’s real science behind how we assign the colors.”

Looking into the deep field

A recent deep-field image from a region of space called Pandora’s Cluster features never-before-seen detail. Webb’s view displays three clusters of galaxies — already massive — coming together to form a megacluster. According to NASA, the combined mass of the galaxy clusters creates a powerful gravitational lens, a natural magnification effect of gravity, allowing much-more-distant galaxies in the early universe to be observed, and opening up a new frontier in the study of cosmology and galaxy evolution.

“When the images of Pandora’s Cluster first came in from Webb, we were honestly a little starstruck,” University of Pittsburgh Associate Professor Rachel Bezanson, Ph.D., astronomer and co-principal investigator, said in a NASA release. “There was so much detail in the foreground cluster and so many distant lensed galaxies, I found myself getting lost in the image. Webb exceeded our expectations.”

Pagan worked on the chromatic ordering of the remarkable Pandora images. “When you look at a deep field, you’re getting both intuitive and color information about how distant these objects are,” she said. “When you see a very red galaxy that looks small, you know it’s very distant, and bluer areas are things that are relatively close. The foreground stars are very close galaxies and are white or blue.

“That helps inform the person who’s looking at it. The color separation is aesthetically pleasing, but it’s also a nice key to how distant these objects are. Everything I do to capture the ethereal quality and the mystery of space is grounded in real science.”

Pagan continues to learn ways to best present Webb’s data and the science it reveals. “Certain techniques work better for Webb data than Hubble’s, like using algorithms to correct electronic noise from the telescope,” she said. “Sometimes we’ll extract the stars because there are just too many in Webb images. This telescope is so sensitive it can see beyond the dust — and it’s just star-filled, everywhere. So we’ll process a nebula and subtle details separately, to avoid color-saturating the stars and losing them, bringing out those structures in the faint gas and dust. Then, of course, we add the stars back in.

“With Hubble, every image was a deep field. Now, with Webb, if you’re looking at a planetary nebula, you can see all these unexpected, faint background galaxies. I can look at any one of them and think, ‘I might be the first person who’s ever seen this galaxy,’ which is just insane. And in terms of the science, you might see the highest red-shift galaxy that anyone’s ever seen. The Webb is breaking all the limits set by Hubble.”

If starlight takes billions of years to reach you, is the source extinct by the time you see it? “If it’s a supernova, then that star is most likely completely gone by the time its light reaches us,” Pagan said. “With nebulas, those tend to remain the same, with small changes. Take the Carina Nebula, about 7,500 light years away. In 7,000 years, the dust might have eroded more; there’s probably more stars peeking through, ‘turning on.’ Tiny galaxies have expanded, or may have merged with other galaxies into something completely different. It depends on the distance and the object, but yes, these things are constantly changing. It really is mind-blowing.”

For many, seeing the first Webb images was a moving experience. “I don’t know if words can describe seeing those images for the first time,” Pagan said. “I felt honored to be one of the first to see them and show them to the world. Over 25 years of work went into the Webb, and when it finally launched, there were so many obstacles to its unfolding and functioning in space. With over 340 points of failure, if any one thing went wrong, the telescope wouldn’t work. So many engineers and scientists spent so much time to make this telescope to study the universe. They succeeded beyond what anyone dreamed.”

The Mayfair Hotel, Los Angeles: Film noir-inspired lighting design by Anne Militello. Tamara Voss, P.E., served as project manager and electrical engineer. CREDIT: Vortex Lighting

Fifteen years later, it’s not as bright as it was. “Acid rain was killing the dichroic glass,” Militello said. “We engineered special, tempered-glass covers, but they still faded over time.” Another unique challenge was “subway shake,” the vibration from trains rumbling under Times Square. “It was breaking the filaments inside the halogen bulbs, so we got special heavy-duty bulbs from Philips. Technically, it’s been interesting all the way, and I’m fortunate to have great engineers and systems integrators helping.”

Though recent advances in lighting equipment have opened up new opportunities, Militello sees pluses and minuses. “I miss halogen light so much,” she said. “The depth of that glow — they say you can duplicate it with LEDs, but you can’t. It’s the difference between film and video. Flat versus deep. Even incandescent light still can’t be perfectly matched.

“Then again, LEDs make so many more things possible in the movement of lights, cuing, and the colors you can mix. Instead of using eight fixtures where each one is a different dichroic glass color, with LEDs all that potential is in one fixture, so it frees up space. But do we save space? No! Now we have room for more LEDs!

A glimpse of the future: Thomas Wilfred’s “light box” art, from the 1950s, predates the Hubble Space Telescope’s first images from space by decades.

“People say we can replace a 60-watt fixture with a 10-watt LED and save power, but then they just add five more 10-watt fixtures and end up using the same 60 watts,” Militello continued. “There’s a tendency to just keep adding more. It’s why you see buildings now with more lights on them, more color changing. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

Light celebrating life

Three World Trade Center was destroyed in the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. The World Financial Center rose in its place, opening on the site in 2018. “It had a beautiful glass atrium that was rebuilt as the Winter Garden Atrium Plaza,” Militello said. “The landlord and developers commissioned artists to bring the space back to life, rather than making it a memorial to the people who died that day. Still, I felt a responsibility to honor those spirits by celebrating the rebirth of the space in a new form.”

Alyssa Pagan is a science visuals developer at Space Telescope Science Institute. A significant part of her work is public outreach, which she calls "spreading the space love." See "Editing the Universe" sidebar for details. CREDIT: STSCI

Militello named her installation Light Cycles. “I wanted the piece to be active day and night,” she explained. “I made round disks to represent the circle of life, stringing them as pendants in the atrium, almost like jewelry — 150 strings of them, hanging from different heights. On one side of the exterior facing the windows I made panels of color-shifting LEDs that were simply a thick acrylic with lenticular arrangements embedded on the exterior.”

Behind the pendants, Militello placed mirrors to catch incoming daylight and reflect it through the disks onto the floor. “Like a mirror ball but not that dense, just lively movement,” she said. “Each pendant moved a little in the air currents, making the mirrors shimmer. The atrium’s glass had heavy coatings of bombproofing material that caused more reflection back into the space, and making the colors come alive inside at night. Then disks outside played what I call ‘color symphonies’ from the cycles of light I had programmed to repeat.”

The intricate installation process was executed on schedule by lighting engineering firm 4Wall Entertainment. “We thrive when faced with producing custom LED products on short notice,” Kelly Easterling, project manager and electrical engineer, said. “Due to the use of sustainable LED technology, and the ability to constantly update and change the look and feel of the piece, it should continue to be a staple of the World Financial Center for years to come.”

At night, Light Cycles could be seen from New Jersey, its lively, shifting colors in part inspired by images from the Hubble Space Telescope. “When I look at the Hubble and now the Webb images, they remind me of some of the work Thomas Wilfred did in the 1950s with lightbulbs, glass, metal, and motors that revolved and cast shadows on a screen,” Militello said. “I’m like, ‘How did this guy channel what we’d be seeing decades later in those images from space?’

“Technology is helping us see what’s out there,” she said. “It makes me know that there’s so much beauty we need that help to see. I know they had to colorize those images so we could see the dimensions. Whoever decided to do that is amazing.”

Before and after: The Pillars of Creation, one of the Webb’s first images, goes from infrared to living color through chromatic ordering. CREDIT: STSCI