At 52, Bob Dickinson is at the top of his game. He is a go-to man for the lighting of live events on television, from awards shows (Grammys, Tonys, Oscars, etc.) to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics (Atlanta, Athens, and Salt Lake City, to date). Ellen Lampert-Gréaux touches base with Dickinson just after this year's Academy Awards for his take on the current state of the art, from moving lights to projections.

LD: How did you become the king of lighting live events for television?

BD: I started out in 1973 in the motion picture industry as a lamp operator for episodic dramas, such as Colombo. Then, I went to work for Carl Gibson at Academy Lighting, then with Imero Fiorentino, and I was part of the Klages Group. In 1990, I started Full Flood, so you can say I grew up doing television lighting. In the late 70s, there were still a lot of variety shows on the air, and I found that genre more refreshing than film work. I had a lot of good opportunities for a young guy and got a reputation for being on the cutting edge.

LD: How did that segue to the Oscars?

BD: I was 28 years old, lighting Solid Gold, a weekly taped music series, when I got a call from the director who asked me if I wanted to light the Oscars. That was in 1983, and I have lit most of the Academy Awards shows since, except for a five-year break. Those first Oscars were my first live broadcast, as everything else was taped. It was also the first time that moving lights were used on live television. That first rig had about 80 Panaspots from Morpheus. At the time, Vari-Lite was involved in the concert touring market and didn't see a future in TV. Ironically, today TV accounts for 50% of the rental market for moving lights.

LD: How did you know that moving lights were the way to go?

BD: An ABC staff LD had lit the Oscars the year before, with over 2,000 conventional fixtures in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But the lighting was very generic, and they brought me in to be more specific. Also, Roy Christopher had designed the sets and said he wouldn't come back a second year if they didn't get a lighting designer. The only way to make the lighting more specific was to use moving lights. We had the 80 Panaspots and 400 fixed lights, less than 25% of the inventory from the year before, and it was an instant success. I guess I was the only one young enough, or stupid enough, to do it that way. But we were able to get focus, texture, and color to change the lighting with the scenic changes.

LD: How big is the Oscar rig now?

BD: Six hundred lights, I would say. We are creeping back up, with almost 400 moving lights including Vari-Lite VL5s, VL3000s, VL6Cs, VL1000 arcs, and MAC 2000s, and VL2416s (what we call the VL9), plus 180 LED Color Blasts from Color Kinetics, and 200 ETC Source Fours® to light the audience and architecture front of house. I don't use PARs anymore, as Source Fours flare less in the camera and give us a greater level of control. Even with all the moving lights, there was very little color used at the Oscars this year. They were very colorful the year before with bright, buoyant colors. But this year, the scenic graphics were in black and white, so I mostly used shades of white. I liked the austerity and cleanliness of it. It was as close to black and white as you can get on color TV. I flirted with a little blue toward the end of the evening, and Dolly Parton's song was in amber. The console is always, always, always a PRG Virtuoso. It can best handle a large rig, and with the right programmer, you can design almost as fast as a designer can talk. I had lunch with Jere Harris about a month ago, and PRG promises to put additional R&D into the console. They realize they have almost the perfect tool for this kind of environment. I also used it for the Olympics in Athens and at the Super Bowl halftime show this year.

LD: How did you get involved in the Olympics?

BD: Producer Don Mischer asked me to get involved in Atlanta in 1994. His process is not just a scenic design, then a light plot, but more of a three-year commitment. All of the designers go through the entire creative process. We did the opening and closing ceremonies for Atlanta and Salt Lake City. We have our fingers crossed for Beijing and have made a proposal with director Ang Lee.

LD: How was it working on the Super Bowl halftime show?

BD: It was a great experience to work with Patrick Woodroffe on that show, to be able to work with a peer from another genre, who has so much confidence. He is to concert lighting what I am to television. But we decided to limit the use of color, no matter what songs the Rolling Stones decided to perform. No color for the first song, one color for the second song, and two colors for the third song — none of this wild color changing. But it was hard to stay disciplined once we got there, when you want to blast through with a big amber look. Patrick wanted a big ballsy look, like the biggest garage band show ever.

LD: You were really one of the first champions of big moving light rigs.

BD: Yes, I was one of the first to say, “Let's stop using fixed lights over the stage.” Moving lights are more flexible and can do anything a fixed unit can do, and they cost the producer less in the end. With fixed lights, you need more units, more power, more labor. Moving lights have colors from soft pastels to deep saturation, and there is literally nothing they can't do.

LD: What about the issue of using color and texture appropriately?

BD: That is perhaps the one negative about moving light technology. At one time, color was the most lavish, expensive commodity a designer could use. To change colors, you had to have a second, third, or fourth lamp on the same focus, and there were so few colors to choose from. Today, color is so available. It has become the most overused lighting tool in entertainment. We have almost lost the context of using angle, texture, and intensity in creating cues. For me, when I see lighting in anything from a Broadway play to a concert tour, I am attracted to a disciplined use of color.

LD: How do you feel about the use of video projection?

BD: Like color, video used to be a rare commodity and was breathtaking when used well. Today, it is super available, and I am counseling my clients to use it in a measured manner and make sure the content is necessary, not to do it just to do it. Do you really want a big screen up there unless it applies to the subject? But I love all the technology, like the Catalyst. It's great, and I find that content not on screen is far more intriguing, through the use of different formats such as Barco MiPIX or scenic accents to add motion to the scenery — to do what we do with lighting. With projection, we used to take down the light levels to not wash them out. Now, we are begging the LED people to turn down the intensity of the screens. They were designed to compete with daylight and are really bright. The intensity is too hot for TV, where we shoot at 35 to 60 footcandles and 45 to 50 footcandles on average. We'd need 500 footcandles to compete with those screens. You have to turn them down for a good balance on TV. I think that high-tech lighting, video, and projection are part of the future but will not displace the basic tools of lighting.

THREE THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT BOB DICKINSON:

  • Last May, he received a honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches a seminar each year.
  • He loves living in Palm Springs, so when he's not working, he's at home in Palm Springs or at his home in Napa Valley.
  • He's an avid day hiker, so when he doesn't answer his cell phone, he's out hiking with his dogs, which are boxers.