Bob Barnhart & Co. Provide Warm Inspiration and Hot Lighting in Cold Salt Lake City

The Olympic spirit can be identified by concepts like perseverance, commitment, determination, achievement, and excellence. While lighting designer Bob Barnhart and his team of lighting directors and technicians didn't win any medals at the recent Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics, they certainly lived up to these ideals while helping present the coveted athletic awards.

Barnhart and his crew were responsible for lighting the nightly medal awards ceremonies and headline performances at the Olympic Medals Plaza, a temporary 21,000-seat venue constructed for the 17-day Games in the center of Salt Lake City.

“This is the Medals Plaza, so every night all the medals are awarded here. This is the heart of the Olympic Games each evening,” says Barnhart, president of Full Flood Lighting and veteran of television awards shows and specials including the Emmys, Grammys, Academy Awards, and Super Bowl halftime events, among others.

“There are basically three parts to the show,” says Barnhart. “There's a preshow to entertain the crowd while they come in for two hours; there's a medals ceremony, which is really why we are here; and there's a concert every night. All three elements require completely separate approaches and we needed to come up with a system that would serve all three efficiently. Plus, we had to come up with looks for 14 songs every night that looked different from the previous night but not spend all night programming.”

Some of the headline talent that played the stage included: Creed, Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews Band, NSync, Macy Gray, Brooks and Dunn, Sheryl Crow, and the arguably best-received Barenaked Ladies.

Barnhart worked closely with production designer Steve Bass for over two years to create a light show fitting for the historic ceremonies, the live concerts, and, most importantly, the international broadcast seen by millions. He and his 16-member crew loaded into Salt Lake City on January 20. The Olympic Medals Plaza hosted performances for 17 nights starting February 10.

One major aspect of this production is a truly impressive mechanical curtain that expands and contracts using mechanical ribs. Called the Hoberman Arch, after its designer Chuck Hoberman who created the popular expanding mechanical toy globe bearing his name, the metal screen was designed specifically for the show.

“During the preshow the stage is hidden. When the curtain opens, it reveals the torch and the medals podium and gets the crowd pumped up about giving away medals. No matter what country wins, we want the crowd going crazy and it's working every night,” says Barnhart. “Chuck [Hoberman] and Steve [Bass] worked on many ideas and ultimately came up with this. It's a phenomenal, unique piece. Unfortunately, most people have not been able to see it because NBC has decided not to air it.”

“This is one of the few times you ever see something truly unique onstage,” adds Paul Sharwell, one of two lighting directors and programmers for the production.

“It was built by Entolo, part of PRG, out of New York. They did a great job,” Barnhart adds.

Barnhart's Olympus-sized lighting system included over 400 Vari*Lite® units and 470 PAR cans along with five Strong Gladiator spots and 124' of MR-16 striplights. Sharwell and a second lighting director, Matt Firestone, performed programming and performance duties using both Virtuoso and Wholehog consoles.

“The light plot is based on the set design, which is a half dome,” says Barnhart. “All the lights are sitting on the trusses, or fingers, of the dome. From a lighting perspective it really helps us because the lights come down to the left and right of the bands and the medalists. It really gives you all the angles you're looking for.”

“The lighting rig melded into the set design, so the two became one. That's hard to do,” adds Sharwell. “This provides an emotional response as it all becomes one, especially with the medallion in the middle and the flame in the cauldron. It just becomes a complete picture.”

“It gave us a very intense-looking and large-looking rig,” Barnhart continues. “I never dreamt I'd have that many lights to isolate every little piece of the Hoberman Arch we wanted. We made color sweeps happen with dissolves from blue to pink that literally rained color with pink as it overtook the blue across the curtain. It takes so many lights to do that but, because of all the concert lights that are back there, we were able to create looks that resembled projections. But it's all done with Vari*Lites, a lot of them and a lot of programming,” reports the LD.

Barnhart's equipment choices were based on the intense weather conditions that would be encountered. “We all look at gear the same way. They are tools. This gear was chosen because the VL5, VL6, and VL5Arc survive very well in weather. They aren't fan-cooled lights,” explains Barnhart.

There were some challenges, however. “It was sub-freezing for the first three weeks and we found out that the oil in the mechanics was freezing overnight,” says Barnhart. He ended up pre-heating the instruments for an hour before use to get the lamps hot enough to defrost the equipment and start taking cues. Even with this work-around, it could take up to 20 minutes for the VL5s to start effecting color properly. “Matt and Paul wrote cues for the lights to move around with the bulbs off every 20 minutes while we aren't here, just to break off the frost,” adds Barnhart. The team even contacted Vari-Lite's tech service department to inform them of this oil-freezing scenario. “They had no idea about that,” reports Barnhart.

His crew also solved one of the true lighting industry mysteries in the snowy conditions of SLC. “We are using PAR cans that are shooting straight up to light flagpoles,” Barnhart explains. “Snow collects in the light. For the first time, I was able to use Rosco 00, which is clear gel. We covered the gel frames and when it snowed we just tipped over the instrument to clear them off. Otherwise, it's a bucket of snow. I was always wondering where you'd use R00. Now I know.”

The Olympics are an international event and the Medals Plaza is no exception. One production element even created a very, very small international incident. “StageCo. provided the roof system from Belgium,” says Barnhart. “Usually this would be a roof over a set with a lighting rig flown in. But Steve Bass wanted as large an environment as possible since it's a 21,000-seat venue. So we hung on the roof to help expand that look.”

However, the situation got more complicated. “They used a different-sized pipe to build the truss than the clamps we usually use,” adds Barnhart. “So we had to make 225 custom clamps for the Vari*Lites. Luckily we knew about that ahead of time, as who would have thought they would use a larger-diameter pipe?”

Barnhart's international contributions also extended to the medals ceremony, which was dictated by the sometimes-Byzantine protocols of the International Olympic Committee. The building and use of a single location for the Olympic medals ceremonies is a new procedure at Salt Lake 2002. Previously the medals were awarded at the conclusion of the athletic event at the venue where it was held.

In addition to forging a new path in Olympic ceremony production, Barnhart and Bass suggested a change to the order of the medals presentations to bring more dramatic tension to the event.

“They used to always give the gold away first, but we wanted to give away the gold last so you get that big final anticipation for the winner. They've actually embraced it, and they're giving gold away last,” states Barnhart.

“Part of the success of this medals ceremony portion of the show is that we're not going over the top,” explains Firestone. “We're trying to make the medalists become the main attraction. That's who it is about. It's not the lighting. It's not the scenery. It's the medalists.”

Firestone and Sharwell accomplished this subtle approach through the use of minimal color and a limited variety of looks during the ceremony. “We rotate three different color schemes,” explains Sharwell. “They're all complementary to each other. They're in warm tones, nothing too drastic, nothing too colorful, and not too many colors onstage. We were just trying to give them a look that's worthy of them. This is their big moment.”

Barnhart also used an understated followspot technique to provide the athletes with an appropriate moment. “A followspot holds all three athletes, and when the bronze medal is introduced another spot comes in just at a low level, like 20%, and highlights that athlete,” Barnhart explains. “That person's standing out a little bit more but not being blown out on TV. When we come over to the silver medalist, a new followspot comes in and brightens up the athlete, and then again on the gold medalist. And the one on the gold medalist stays there throughout their national anthem. There's a lot of real emotion. They've achieved something; they've dedicated their lives and their bodies — all they've got — to this.”

To deal with a different headline concert every night for 17 nights, Firestone and Sharwell developed 25 blocks, or templates, of looks with several cues pre-programmed in each.

“Basically we have 25 varieties of looks with a verse, a chorus, a bridge, and maybe a special effect for that block that has something to do with the color palette,” explains Barnhart. “So, when the band LD says, ‘We usually do this song in magenta,’ we have two or three versions they could pick from, and then those blocks stay in that color range.”

“With focus changes in every block, the verse would look different in focus from the chorus and from the bridge,” adds Firestone. “We would always change it up so that you'd get a little movement, and when we pile on effects it looks like it's been programmed for the band.”

Visting LDs from each band would come in the night before their performance and run through their set lists with Firestone and Sharwell, choosing looks and identifying cues from the pre-programmed inventory. The band LD would then direct the action during the show in real time.

“The LD could say, ‘I'm about to come up to a part that should get brighter, and we need to flash it or ballyhoo or bring the lights out to the audience.’ They do all that live,” says Barnhart about his lighting directors. “They were basically playing pianos.”

The theme for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympiad was “Light the Fire Within.” Barnhart and his crew found their inner strength to overcome frozen gyros, deal with constantly changing LDs, and provide an awe-inspiring level of production never before seen in 100 years of Olympic events. They lit the Olympians that lit the fire within us all, for 17 nights in a row.

Donny Emerick is a freelance event producer and writer based in Portsmouth, NH. He was talent logistics coordinator for the headline artists at Olympic Medals Plaza. He can be contacted at


Lighting Equipment

1 Vari*Lite VL2402
200 Vari*Lite VL5s
150 Vari*Lite VL6Cs
75 Vari*Lite VL5Arcs
6 Vari*Lite VL7s
470 PAR cans
124' MR-16 striplights
5 Strong Gladiator followspots
4 Reel EFX DF-50 hazers
2 High End Systems F100 Performance foggers
2 Vari*Lite Virtuoso consoles
2 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles with expansion wings
4 ETC 96x2.4kW dimmer racks
6 ETC 48x2.4kW dimmer racks