How to Create Northern Lighting

Things You'll Need

  • Cyclorama
  • Water troughs
  • Mirror panels or silver mylar
  • Lighting instruments
  • Red and green lenses or gels
  • Optional: electric fans
  • 3/4 plywood trough covers

If you have ever experienced Northern Lights, or the aurora borealis, you know firsthand how amazing this astronomical event is. Northern Lights are a very deep shade of color, usually lime green or blood red, and they appear on the northern horizon in stark contrast to the night sky. Northern Lights undulate, dance, and emit a faint tinkling sound. You can create this effect on the stage using simple devices.

Establish an area at the back of the stage set where technicians can hide, unseen by the audience. You can accomplish this with ground rows or a line of raised platforms.

Install or drop a cyclorama screen across the back of the stage.

Create a set of troughs that hold water without leaking. The troughs should be about 18 inches wide and about 4 inches deep. Line up a series of these troughs across the back of the set, end to end, no less than 6 to 8 feet downstage from the cyc.

Line the bottoms of the troughs with mirrors. Silver mylar will also work, but mirrors will be better. Fit the mirrors so they lean up against the downstage side of the trough a little bit. Later, you can adjust the angles of these mirrors. The effect is best, however, if most of the mirrors fit in the bottom of the trough.

Fill the troughs with a few inches of water.

Erect lighting instruments along the line of troughs. A few border light strips, laid end to end, are best. The lights need to be mounted up off the floor through some reliable means, but pointed down at the water troughs. The lights must not be visible to the audience. Place these lights on pocket dimmers so they can be operated remotely and dimmed in and out of the scene. Color the lights with red and green gels.

Station technicians near the troughs. If this is not possible or practical, install small fans in front of and slightly above the troughs. Place these fans on dimmers as well.

Dim the stage lights slightly. Turn on the colored lights focused on the water troughs. Have a technician disturb the water gently with a finger or a stick, or turn on the fans so the air waves disturb the water. The colored light will be reflected off the mirror and onto the cyc. But the water in the trough, and the machinations of the technicians or the fans, will distort the reflections, giving them a shifting aurora borealis look

Experiment with mirror angles and the amount of disturbance of the water, as well as dimming and brightening the intensity of the lights. The more you manipulate the water and the lights, the more the lights will “dance” on the cyc. In a few minutes, you will develop a lovely “performance” of your Northern Lights special effect.


  • Add a faint "tinkling" sound effect to the scene, but use it sparingly. For an Arctic play like "Terra Nova," consider opening and closing each scene with the Northern Lights.


  • Be exceptionally careful in laying down lighting instrument cables around the water troughs. Cover the troughs with 3/4-inch plywood boards during dark times in the theater to stop actors and stagehands from stepping in the troughs. Refill the troughs periodically during rehearsals and the run, being careful not to spill water on the stage floor or near lighting connections and floor pockets.


  • "Magic: Special Effects and Illusions;" Albert Hopkins; 1990
  • "Cool Special Effects;" Karen Kenney; 2009
  • "Backstage Handbook;" Paul Carter; 1994

About the Author

A writer and entrepreneur for over 40 years, J.E. Myers has a broad and eclectic range of expertise in personal computer maintenance and design, home improvement and design, and visual and performing arts. Myers is a self-taught computer expert and owned a computer sales and service company for five years. She currently serves as Director of Elections for McLean County, Illinois government.