Brilliant!

Around the middle of September, I got a call from my old pal and consummate audio meister, Stan Burns. A client of his had just called asking if he knew any West Coast LDs who might be interested in lighting a show for the Cessna Aircraft Company in Las Vegas. Stan, being the pal that he is, naturally thought of me. “Call Mike Smith at Crescent Sound & Light in New Orleans,” said the voice on the phone. “He's got a big show for Cessna in Vegas in three weeks and needs an LD pronto!”

Hmm…big show, Vegas, executive jets, lots of lights, rush job — sounded like my cup of tea, so I called. Was I interested in the job? You bet. Was I available? Absolutely. Could I be in Vegas tomorrow for a site survey? Well, sure, I guess.

The Cheyenne Air Center at North Las Vegas Airport was slated to host the event on what is essentially a parking lot for expensive airplanes and, as a working aviation facility, is constantly busy. From the start, it was clear that the design challenges would be more physical than technical. The location is basically a chunk of desert floor paved over with tarmac. Our stage was to be a 120' wide by 480' long canyon flanked on both sides by huge, bi-fold aircraft hangar doors.

Daryl Richardson, Cessna's event producer, was there to greet us, and for a couple of hours, we walked the site in the blazing Vegas sun, climbed the hangar roofs, poked around, checked out the aircraft, and took a gazillion digital snaps before retiring to the New York, New York Hotel and its blessed air conditioning.

A production meeting was held under a weeping willow tree by a babbling brook lined with small change as the air filled with the chatter of slot machines. While Mike Smith and technical director Tim Ewell of Trinity Media Services thrashed out the probable power requirements with Aggreko rep Rick Strole, I sat with my pen and a stack of table napkins.

The Cessna Certification Celebration was to be a one-off reception for Cessna clients lasting about five hours. The reason for the celebration was that Cessna had no less than three new executive jets FAA-certified in one year, while the competition hadn't certified any — pretty good excuse for a shindig.

Although Cessna wanted a generally festive atmosphere with clowns, entertainers, and wonderful food, they were unequivocal about just one thing: the six splendid Cessna Executive jets were to be the stars of the show and must never be upstaged.

This provided me with a very simple lighting strategy for the aircraft display area: throw masses of white light at all of those beautiful jets and let the reflected ambience do the rest. The party was to be held in a 100'-wide Clearspan structure that occupied the last 180' of the site. Outside the Clearspan, lining the walls, would be smaller tents housing Wolfgang Puck's five international restaurants: Wolfgang Puck, Spago, Chinois, Postrio, and Trattoria del Lupo.

Richardson's design for the tent décor was already fairly well developed. A grand aisle down the center of the tent lined with Transformit Spandex “icicles” led to a small performance stage at the far end. Above the aisle were eight huge chandeliers, 6'-wide frosted Plexiglas bowls hanging over floral arrangements that would be 8' to 10' tall. Once again, the lighting solution seemed to suggest itself: downlights with scrollers for the Spandex icicles, color changers and slowly rotating patterns for the chandeliers, some sharp pools of white light along the aisle where guests and strolling players would mingle, a low key but cosmetically pleasing warm wash for the table areas, something colorful to uplight the tent's ceiling, and 10 or 12 moving lights for the performance stage.

By the time the technical conversation had descended to the placement of porta potties, I had the tent lighting pretty much mapped out in my head. This was important; I would have to come up with an equipment list long before I'd created a formal plot. Lighting for the tent seemed as if it would be fairly straightforward and, aside from the need to distribute the weight of the rig evenly across the Clearspan's frame, presented no serious problems.

How to rig lighting for what we were starting to refer to as “the display plaza” was a whole other issue. The challenge was twofold: first, the hangars would be operating throughout the fit-up week, and the doors could not be obstructed; second, our six Cessna superstars would not make an appearance until the night before the event. One school of thought was to place all of the plaza lighting on the hangar roofs, but since the hangars on one side of the canyon were 12' taller than those on the other side, I felt that this would inevitably lead to an asymmetrical and rather awkward appearance. Additionally, Richardson wanted to stretch cables across the plaza to carry a series of flags and banners. These would obviously have to remain horizontal to the tarmac.

One of my napkin sketches described a 30' tall lighting tower that would fit, if necessary, into the narrow gaps between the hangars so the doors could still be opened. In theory, there would have to be ten of them, five per side. The towers, I hoped, would have an architectural, 21st-century spaceport flavor, which would be further enhanced by scrolling truss toners, vertically mounted Martin Professional MAC 2000s loaded with Cessna gobos, a James Thomas Engineering 8-Lite with a scroller to lay down a solid color wash between the aircraft, and 40 glittering cobalt blue strobes at the ends of slender, 10'-long antennae. This would be the solution I would push for. Did you ever fight and win a design battle and find yourself wishing later that you'd kept your mouth shut?

Three weeks later and Hurricane Ivan blew by, and suddenly, it was load-in day. I'd been fortunate enough to obtain the services of an old friend and long time collaborator, Jonathan “JFA” Allen. Conveniently, he was already in Las Vegas. JFA had supervised the gear pull at Production Resource Group, our flexible and accommodating equipment supplier, so almost everything we needed for the entire week arrived at the start of day one. Less wonderful was that the tent didn't.

It would be two more days before we'd be able to hang anything inside the structure, so the tent rig had to be built out on the tarmac: three 160' runs of 12" box truss riding on numerous wheeled flight cases. Although we had six days to build the show, a large part of that was consumed dodging wings and tail fins and trying not to impede Cheyenne's VIP tenants. I wish that I had a time lapse film shot from above the site. It looked like some crazy pinball game or maybe an airplane and snorkel lift ballet.

Stabilizing the ten lighting towers was a whole other story. Although the instrument layout attempted to balance the weight tightly around the center of gravity, the 30'-tall towers obviously needed extra support. Outriggers or tie-downs (which actually would have looked pretty good) were clearly out, as they would obstruct the hangars and the aircraft. The solution was a 3,000lb. concrete block with inset truss bolts at the foot of each tower and, since we weren't allowed to make holes in Cheyenne's buildings, a steel cable running back from the top of the tower, over the roof, and down to the floor behind the hangar where it attached to another 2,000lb. block of custom fabricated concrete.

Richardson's Dallas-based company, Daryl's by Design, has been Cessna's event producer for many years and is completely unafraid of scale. Richardson thinks nothing of shipping 30,000lbs. of concrete blocks and an entire grove of mature 30' palm trees from Dallas to Las Vegas. (Shipping concrete and palm trees to Las Vegas: seems like there should be a “coals to Newcastle” gag opportunity in here somewhere.)

As the week progressed, the extra challenges we faced became more natural than practical. We were faced with daytime temperatures in excess of 90° and a wicked dust-laden wind powerful enough to rip gels out of their frames and spin ETC Source Fours® five degrees around like they were weather vanes. But despite the climate conditions and thanks to the tenacity and persistence of our master electrician, Nick Menas, all ten towers got their lights, cable, scrollers and Molefeys, and MAC 2000s. All ten even got the star strobes that I'd specified.

And on the day before the main event, right on cue like true pros, in came the stars of the show. With a collective value of over $150 million, the six gleaming Cessna executive jets were a sight to behold as they slipped into their respective positions. Suddenly, our gaping canyon was a very crowded place. It brought to mind trying to get six rock and roll divas to show up for a photo call, all in the same place and at the same time. And these prima donnas are extremely expensive. One wrong move and we'd be in a world of humiliation and embarrassment. On the upside, they know how to keep still.

A total of 180 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals (5s, 10s, 19s, and 26s) were used to paint in and frame out the jets with little or no spill. Each plane had an additional eight floor instruments to light under the belly and wings for that floating sensation, while 48 sheets of L203 pumped up the whiteness an extra notch. Those planes shone in the dark as if they were internally illuminated.

Although the towers were designed to be focused by climbing the vertical truss, the high fives and tens were just beyond fingertip reach and had to be focused from a lift. Maneuvering a Z lift around the tail fin of a $30 million jet takes skill, patience, and nerve, and my hat's off to Nick Menas (operating the lift), Tim Ewell (his spotter on the ground), and Jon Allen for pounding out hundreds of uncharted dimmer channels with his left hand while programming all the MAC 2000s with his right. The team pulled an all-nighter to get those six superstars looking perfect, and by daybreak, they were all ready for their close-up.

Lighting the jets was nerve wracking and pretty much monochrome, but painting the tent was barrels of fun. Working with Richardson is a pleasure because he provides an LD with multiple opportunities to do great lighting stuff and then pretty much trusts you to get on with it. “What do you think Daryl? Do you want the amber look or the magenta? How about the cyan?” I asked. “It's all good. Do whatever you think,” he said. So I did. The tent interior scrolled, very slowly, through the entire spectrum for five hours and culminated in a complete rainbow.

At the end of the grand aisle was the performance stage, wrapped in fiber optic drape, for a series of Vegas-style lounge acts. These lasted only around five minutes each at half hour intervals, as the client did not want to risk the entertainment drawing attention away from the stars of the show outside. As there was no advance information as to exactly what form the entertainment would take until the day before the event, the stage was equipped with five High End Systems Studio Spots® and six Studio Colors® which collectively provided enough flexibility to handle all the last minute programming. As it turned out, the talent was great and probably could have pulled the audience away given half a chance. I managed to jam 40 or 50 cues into the ETC Expression 3 console for these folks, adding the last few, as usual, right before the doors opened.

To add to the Las Vegas flavor of the whole affair, an entire posse of Elvis impersonators had been hired as greeters, but despite a plethora of Elvi, there was little doubt as to who were the real stars of the show. Predictably, by the latter part of the evening, the guests had accumulated around the fabulous food and the entertainment, but Richardson had one last card up his sleeve. Ten Vegas showgirls, 8' tall in their ruby pumps and ostrich feathers, wearing a few sequins and precious little else, appeared from a back room and made their way through the tent and out onto the tarmac. Naturally, the audience followed.

Our tireless and perpetually upbeat A3, Scotsman Brian Spark, got the last word in a perfectly accented imitation of the Guinness beer ads. “Naked women to lead the punters back to the airplanes?! Brilliant!”

David Jackson has over 30 years as a freelance lighting and set designer. His concert credits include: Kate Bush, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Supertramp, Public Image Limited, and Gloria Gaynor. In 1989, he switched his focus to film and video production as well as to designing corporate and industrial events. Clients have included: Yamaha, Intel, Equinox, Rexair, AAPI, and Microsoft. (www.davidjaxn.com)

CESSNA 2004

Crew:

Event Producer: Daryl Richardson, Daryl's by Design, Dallas

Technical Producer: Mike Smith, Crescent Sound & Light, Inc., New Orleans

Technical Director: Tim Ewell, Trinity Media Services, Antioch, CA

Lighting Designer: David Jackson, Jaxn Communications, San Diego

Assistant LD: Jonathan “JFA” Allen, Technical Designs, Denver

Master Electrician: Nick Menas, San Diego

Audio: Stan Burns and Kevin Carey, Sound Productions, San Diego

A2 & Second LX: Brian Spark, Tayside Productions, Petaluma, CA

Lighting Equipment: Pat Little, Production Resource Group, Las Vegas

Generator Power: Rick Strole, Aggreko

Equipment List:

29 ETC Source Four® 50°
30 ETC Source Four 36°
16 ETC Source Four 26°
28 ETC Source Four 19°
76 ETC Source Four PARs
20 Altman PAR46 200W
18 Broad Cyc' 1K Floods
24 Wybron Coloram scrollers
8 Rosco gobo rotators
7 High End Systems Studio Spots®
8 High End Systems Studio Colors®
1 Reel EFX DF-50 Hazer
1 ETC Expression 3 console
490' 12" TOMCAT USA box truss
15 1/4 ton ChainMaster chain hoists
2 Aggreko 200kW “Twinpack” Generators

Aircraft Display Plaza

300' 20" TOMCAT USA box truss
42 ETC Source Four 36°
42 ETC Source Four 26°
14 ETC Source Four 10°
28 ETC Source Four 5°
22 ETC Source Four PARs
36 James Thomas Engineering PAR64s
24 Broad Cyc' 1K Floods
6 Martin Professional MAC 2000 spots
8×8 Liter Molefey
8 Molefey scrollers
40 Star Strobes by various manufacturers
1 ETC Expression 3 console Dimming
6 ETC 96-way Sensor racks