It's trade show season once again — giant shows at all sorts of venues where manufacturers exhibit their wares for public and private buyers. I've lit quite a few of these events over the years, with offerings ranging from automobiles to kitchen sinks.

Recently, Michelle Evans, CEO and lead designer for Light F/X Unlimited, of Los Angeles, hired me to light a booth at the annual International Home & Housewares Show. The event was held March 13-16 at McCormick Place in Chicago.

Evans' client was Salton, a company based in Lake Forest, Ill., that distributes hundreds of kitchen aids, such as the George Foreman Grill. Evans contracted the lighting division of Upstaging Inc., of Mundelein, Ill., to supply the lighting equipment, and my programming skills were called upon to bring her vision of the show to reality.

Booth Design

There are two things I try and concentrate on when lighting a trade show booth. The first requirement is to properly illuminate the products being displayed. By illuminate, I mean finding a way to make the product sparkle, shine, and stand out from everything surrounding it. The other thing I try to do is artistically light some other structures within the booth. The idea is that people on the convention floor will notice a brilliantly lit structure and migrate toward it out of curiosity.

The Salton booth was built to resemble a mall. It included more than a dozen manufacturers of household goods, with their own display areas. Each of these areas needed to be adequately lit with white light, as if it were a store.

A giant truss structure was erected above the mall. It spanned the 200ft. length of the booth and had 30ft. tall vertical trusses connecting it to the ground. This truss held five giant, white curved sails in place as a faux roof. This became my canvas to paint sunrises and nightscapes, using light for the different colors. These sails would catch the eyes of everyone in the building if I did my job right.

The Upstaging techs managed to assemble the lighting grid in two days — no small feat. All the products were lit with ETC Source 4 PARs and Lekos to provide incandescent soft light. To help make the products stand out on the floor, Evans used one of the old tricks of trade show lighting — she had house electricians unscrew every convention center light bulb hanging over the booth. This left plenty of ambient light for people to continue setting up, but really brought out the products once she started lighting specific areas one at a time.

Once all the conventional lighting was focused, there was plenty of spill/reflection to call the booth adequately lit. Evans then added some texture to the floor by putting breakout patterns in some Lekos and softening the edges of the hard beams, making the patterns out of focus. This light filled any dark holes on the floor.

Salton had a theme for its booth, and two large LED walls supplied by Nocturne Video, of San Francisco, helped illustrate that theme. The video, in turn, helped me develop a theme for lighting a one-hour presentation in the booth. The video that went with the presentation revolved around using kitchen wares at different parts of the day — sunrise, daytime, evening, and nighttime.

The client wanted to create different looks on the five overhead sails. They wanted to see an actual sunrise spread over the sails. They wanted a seamless transition into a sunny day look achieved in about 10 minutes.

Evans had a plan, but she needed help to make it happen. She envisioned birds flying around through blue skies with fluffy clouds. A sun would rise at one end of the booth, move across five panels, then set at the other end. Of course, we would need to see the moon rise at the same time the sun set. And what would the night be without stars?

On top of all this, there were breaks in the video for commercials. During these commercials, we were required to project client logos on the sails.

Programming Solutions

Evans had about 120 gobos to use during the show. The problem for me was that I only had 20 Martin MAC 2000 Profile lights to use for all these gobos. Plus, the show would run off timecode, meaning the video feed would trigger the lighting effects at key times. I had to think carefully before programming the High End Wholehog III console.

I chose to write one large cue stack on one fader of the console. This stack would contain my basic color transitions of the sky from deep blue tones through layered sunrises. I would put the timecode here, as well. Through this one list, I would trigger an assortment of smaller cues that would constantly fade lights, change focus, color, and gobo, then reappear somewhere else.

To light the sky, we used 20 Morpheus 9-light Moles with color faders on them. The color faders were key elements, because they are the only scrolling color changer that can cross fade from one color to any other color. They were focused in pairs, two on the top and two on the bottom, per sail. We added three High End Studio Beams to light each panel. These fixtures filled in any holes left by the Moles, and by adjusting the color we got some nice sweeps across the sky, adding texture.

For the night scene, I had two MACs with stars flickering on top of the dark sky. Each panel also had a projection of the earth in the center.

The sunrise was accomplished by a series of 20 linked cues, which turned each sail slowly to a green magenta tint at the bottom that rose to the top, while the magentas and rose colors appeared at the bottom. This slowly swept across 200 feet of sails.

As each star and earth gobo faded out with the sunrise, a sun gobo would replace it and slowly travel across the sky. I had a 5ft. space between each sail. When the sun left one sail, another light with the same gobo would pick up where I faded the last one out.

After about 10 minutes, the sails were bathed in an amber yellow, sensual look — time for a commercial break on the video. The MAC 2000s would twirl around on sails sporting colored gobos of the product logos. Every minute they would fade and a new set of client logos would appear on the screen. This went on for another five minutes, until it was time for the daylight scene.

During this scene, the panels faded to blue and clouds appeared. As each sail turned blue, I had separate cues of birds flying back and forth across the sails and off into space. I would fade the birds out, spin the gobos around, fade them in and fly them back the other way — you never saw them stopping. All the bird and moving cloud effects were written as separate cues, activated by macro cues in the main stack. I wrote similar transitions for sunset and nighttime looks, so eventually the people saw the whole day go by in an hour.

It took me a full eight-hour day just to focus all the lights in their key positions. While I did this, Evans focused all the conventional fixtures on the client's products. I spent the next day writing in all the cues and getting the intricate timing right. The last day I simply added in all the SMPTE time code values to the cues. This way the video playback triggered all the lighting cues and no console operator was necessary for the show.

The preproduction meetings were the key to getting all of this to work. Each lighting fixture had a specific job and gobo for each part of the show. If this had not been well thought out ahead of time, I would never have been able to achieve Evans' vision. The fact that every light fixture performed flawlessly for the show was a tremendous plus. I'd like to give Upstaging Lighting a tip of the hat for its great prep on this gear.

In the end, there was always a beautiful look spread across the canvas. You couldn't help but stare at this skyline from across the convention center, and best of all, the booth was constantly packed with people.


Nook Schoenfeld is a 20-year veteran of the concert touring industry. He divides his time between teaching lighting and designing lighting for concert and corporate events. Email him at nookld@aol.com