One LD will never forget the industrial he did for a major pharmaceutical company that had actors, singers, dancers, and a reworking of Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody” to include “Embolism! Embolism!” in a splashy production for its annual gathering of sales reps.

Questionable production numbers aside, there are a number of challenges that greet the LD who works on industrials and corporate events on a daily, or even an hourly, basis. Time, budgets, and location have all — at one time or another — given the corporate event LD a fair share of headaches, nervous breakdowns, or drinking binges, sometimes all three. However, if you thrive on change, like LD Cameron Yeary of Unlimited Visibility Lighting Design (formerly Ingram Associates) does, then industrials might be just the field for you. “If you're not well organized, and you can't deal with a lot of changes, then it's not a world for you,” he says. “You're always answering to someone who's answering to someone else who could say, ‘I hate blue,’ so you have to change 120 cues, and, believe me, that happens.”

Yeary, who serves as LD on some of UVLD's smaller events and as associate LD and programmer on the larger events, adds that patience is most definitely a virtue for the corporate industrial LD. “If you keep a calm head and remain patient, it's a very lucrative field,” he says. “I like it because nothing is ever the same. I typically design 12 to 15 shows a year, and I thrive on it, but I have a sick fascination with thriving on stress.”

TIME'S A-WAISTIN'

Chief among the challenges is the tight schedule often placed upon designers. “Used to be you would get almost a week of rehearsals. Now, you're lucky if you get six hours,” says Kandi Blomquist of Treehouse Design. “And those six hours are usually of a single person practicing his speech who doesn't want to be distracted by moving lights!”

But the key to those time constraints is to find a spare minute when someone is not rehearsing on stage, so the designer can tweak cues for the next speaker, according to Gregory Cohen, lighting designer and founding partner with UVLD. “So much of what you do is based on always being ready. If there's somebody on stage rehearsing, you make sure you have his or her light cue written,” he says. “If they're happy with their background, you start to modify a little for the next speaker. So many times, you're writing cues during client rehearsal or during a time when nobody's aware you're doing it, so you're taking advantage of every available minute.”

Yeary echoed both Cohen's and Blomquist's sentiments but states that it is vital to have a good electrician who can get the lighting up and running while the programmer creates the looks he either planned out earlier in pre-viz or is creating on location. “If you're stuck in rehearsals with some guy on stage doing PowerPoint presentations for four hours, then you can't work on the big dance number intro,” he says. “Take it easy, and really concentrate on programming and fine tuning all of your static corporate looks and then, when you have time, write the rock and roll stuff. It's definitely a challenge to get everything you want in there.”

John Featherstone, principal and LD at Lightswitch, cites the innovation of pre-visualization software as one method to overcome time constraints. “Hotels don't want to give up the space for a tech event; they'd rather be selling it,” he says. “So that's where pre-visualization technology has dramatically impacted the kind of deliverables we've been able to offer our clients. We can now offer seriously enhanced levels of production because pre-viz has really come into its own as a very viable technique for doing things other than bump and flash.”

According to Featherstone, another timesaving advantage has been the increase in cost-effective, yet usable, moving lights. “Rather than hanging a truss full of lekos, we can hang a truss full of ETC Source Four® Revolutions or VARI*LITE VL1000s, giving us flexibility and getting the rig up and out of the way, and we don't have to worry about getting lifted (apart from maintenance issues),” he says. “By being able to focus remotely, it is not only more expeditious in terms of the initial focus but also when you get to the inevitable, ‘Oh, by the way.…’ So, when you want to move the podium 10' stage right, just give us three minutes. None of this, ‘Oh my God! We've gotta get all this down.’”

Cohen added that the lighting crew is the one design department that shows up onsite with most of its work still ahead. “The scenery is designed, the videos are built, the graphics are strung, and we show up with lights in boxes with clear gel in them,” he says. “So much of what we do is based on getting it done quickly and flying under the radar. There are times you get stressed because something might not be as polished as you'd like, and finding that opportunity — that four-minute break — might be your only chance to make it a better show.”

FISCAL THERAPY

Budgetary constraints are a more recent challenge, according to Blomquist. “Budgets are not what they used to be,” she says. “As the economy has tightened, one of the standard phrases is, ‘Can you do a little more for the same price as last year?’ That seems to be the mantra of everyone these days.” Blomquist notes that many of the producers she works with originally have plans for three full days of highly creative spectacles at the shows, but once the reality of budget sets in, it is one day of creative content and two days of talking heads behind podiums or tables. “I don't mind that, but I like the creative challenge,” she adds.

According to Cohen, industrial event budgets are also known to swing wildly from one extreme to the other, depending on how the end client wants to align itself. The LD is sometimes faced with the same budget for a high-end hotel ballroom as for a convention center. “We might do a show for a software company launching a project for 500 top vendors where they might spend a lot of money on production values. Then, the next week, you're designing for a marketing firm that's introducing a product to 15,000 sales people, but they're spending the same amount as the software company,” Cohen explains. “Obviously, they're going to get a less polished or less complete look, but that's the cross we bear.”

While the company (i.e., Coke, Pfizer, Ford) is considered the end client, the lighting designer's client is really the event producer, so the money flows through the producer who is also getting the lighting gear and, in effect, serves as the middleman between the LD and the company. The producer may also work with the designer on a variety of events, from tiny to monolithic, so flexibility is key for the designer, regardless of the size or the budget. “A designer wants to be there for the clients, regardless of the price point, so you never want to turn to your client and say, ‘You don't have enough money,’” Cohen says. “They already know they don't have enough money; they don't need to hear it from the lighting designer.”

Fiscal responsibility to his clients is more of a concern than tight budgets to Featherstone. “At Lightswitch, we like to say that we spend a client's money like it's our own. We don't have the luxury of being quite as particular as you can be in concert touring about what kind of fixture we use,” he explains, and he should know; he was formerly a concert tour LD. “It's not fiscally responsible to say, ‘We gotta have a MAC 2000,’ because there are lots of very serviceable fixtures that enable us to be a little fiscally responsible because different vendors have different inventories. That helps us get flexibility. It can be a MAC 2000 or VL3000 or Coemar or High End Systems x.Spot®, and it helps vendors support what we're doing, as well. They can use their inventory management to get us what is most fiscally efficient for them and what they have on the shelf.”

Featherstone further stated that he has found that he must be prepared to explain his choices to the client. “It's the client's money, and we're more than happy to explain why we're selecting the stuff we do and let the client be part of the decision making process,” he says. “We're very lucky that most of our clients give us the tools we need to do our job, if we can prove we need them to do the job right. It's a symbiotic balance between fiscal responsibility and achieving the goals of the client.”

Event producers often “rob Peter to pay Paul,” according to Featherstone, and if the lighting department can make the most compelling argument, then it wins. “If we can justify why we need this or that — not because it's cool, but because it brings a compelling creative advantage to the show — most producers will respond with, ‘Okay, we really understand that,’ and that's going to give the end client a better show, and that's to everybody's advantage.”

CONSTRICTING BALLROOMS

Blomquist, who hails from a theatre touring background (Cats and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company were two of her projects), says that the biggest obstacle to working on industrials is the venue itself. “If you're doing a large-scale event in a convention center or a hotel, it's a lot more straightforward,” she says. “You have to know rigging limitations and figure out ways to be flexible. If I'm going from a riggable ballroom to a ballroom with a 16' ceiling that is 140' long, how do I create something in an entirely different size space than a standard space or standard theatrical layout?”

Another factor that goes hand in hand with the challenges of the venue is how the other elements of show are going to be used. “You have to be aware of how everybody else's parts are fitting into the picture right away: scenic elements, sound cluster, projection,” Blomquist says. “Those things start playing a part, especially if you get into a room that has limited rigging. You may be fighting for the only four rigging points in the room to put your truss on, versus the sound clusters going on your truss, and now, you only have 200lbs. that you can hang. If you're doing rock and roll tours where you can do what you want because the basic truss rig is the same from place to place, you base your venue settings on that rig. In the corporate world, everything changes every time.”

Cohen and his team have combated more low ceilings than he cares to remember, citing that at least 75% of UVLD's events are held in hotel ballrooms. Unfortunately, not all ballrooms are created equal, and Cohen found himself searching for a new type of light for one event held in a hotel ballroom with ceilings that were only 9'3" high. “The set designer, Rick Goodwin, created this beautiful ribbon of extruded aluminum that we lit with 150 Color Kinetics ColorBlast® 12s,” he explains. “By using LED fixtures, we didn't heat up the room to 375°, but we took advantage of the short throw, because that's a fixture you would never light a 30' high cyc with because you'd only see it 9' up. But when your ceiling is at 9', then this cool little super-fast LED fixture becomes the meat and potatoes of the scenic package, rather than just some razzle dazzle eye candy.”

Featherstone does not really see the various venues as a particular challenge; it is just part of his task as a designer. “It's part of what we call the real world of lighting design. There are a number of venues that offer challenges and opportunities,” he explains. However, what really causes Featherstone the most grief are those venues with policies that seem designed specifically to make his life more difficult. “I can applaud their need to use qualified riggers and rigging production companies, but all we're trying to do is execute our client's goals as part of a production,” he says. “This is a business that has evolved over last 20 years. We're not guys with a bunch of PAR cans; it's a group working with an extremely skilled support staff to accomplish our client's goals. The thing that frustrates me are venues that just say no because they're not prepared to help find solutions. Some of the best venues are ones where the staffs say, ‘We haven't had that before, but what do you need to accomplish your client's goals and not trash our building?’”