When pals Jim Lenahan and Seth Jackson sat down for lunch, they already knew what they wanted to discuss: convergence of lighting and video. We've heard it both hailed and criticized repeatedly, but then again, that's probably because it's worth discussing. And with Lenahan's 30-plus years of experience as both a lighting and set designer for such acts as Tom Petty, Barenaked Ladies, Third Eye Blind, and Bob Dylan, and his recent foray into designing both set and video on this year's Sarah McLachlan tour, he definitely has an opinion to share. Jackson has designed sets and lighting for Barry Manilow, Toby Keith, Melissa Etheridge, Lorrie Morgan, and Kenny G. As a team, they've worked on tours for Toby Keith and Don Henley, and they're currently collaborating on Manilow's permanent show in Las Vegas to open in 2005. As Jackson says, “Yes. It has video.”
Jim Lenahan: I suppose we're going to talk about media servers.
Seth Jackson: I feel like I keep running away from them, like I'm going backwards and into ancient lights again.
JL: Well, you should give your opinion about media servers.
SJ: Okay. The reason I did the Barry Manilow show the way I did is because I'm tired of looking at LED screens that are square. It's a sort of an anti-media server thing. I'm actually sick of looking at LEDs, period. I thought it would be nice to just light a show without all of the bells and whistles of an effects engine.
JL: So, you're in the “Roy and Abbey” camp? [“Light Lunch with Abigail Rosen Holmes and Roy Bennett,” LD, July 2004] Isn't that what they said? Why doesn't everyone quit wasting time making media servers and come up with good lights instead?
SJ: I believe that's what they said. I'm not sure it's only about that. I think that media servers are a great idea, but I think the way we present them hasn't caught up with what the servers themselves can do.
JL: I think that Roy and Abbey can be given a PAR can and a flip switch and make a great looking show. It doesn't matter to them. They can make a great show with a palm tree light.
SJ: But that's the whole point, isn't it, if you're a lighting designer?
JL: I actually hate gear.
SJ: I hate gear, too.
JL: But it's a necessary evil, just like media servers. I personally think that video, in live shows, is the anti-Christ. And just because I use it doesn't mean I agree with it. We have to use it, because we have to do what our clients want.
SJ: And in a video-driven world, that's where it's going.
JL: Unfortunately, the line that I keep hearing is, “The audience will be disappointed if they don't get video. They expect video in the show.” It's coming down the line. Before, I was hearing it from promoters, and now, I'm hearing it from artists. The promoters were saying it because they had invested heavily in screens and projection systems for their venues. And that came from video companies saying you had to have video for the audience to enjoy a live show. But we did lots of shows years ago without any video, and people seemed to like them just fine. They were perfectly happy.
SJ: Yeah, I think they were.
JL: Now, if you're sitting at the back of a venue on the grassy knoll, I can see the use for video, so people can see, but for years, it was just about grabbing a six-pack, sitting back there with your girlfriend, and hearing the music, and it didn't matter if you could see or not. But, it's good that we can use video today for those people to see.
SJ: Right, for the stage picture.
JL: But it's trickled down to where, if you're playing a club, they want video.
SJ: And most demand that you have some giant television screen in the middle of everything at the upstage wall that's bigger and brighter than anything you do, and everyone watches the screen anyway and not the actual show. With a live act 10' away, the audience still tries to look at the screen.
JL: And, a lot of times, the real person is bigger than the image on the screen because the audience is so close. Doesn't IMAG stand for “image magnification?” Aren't you supposed to make it bigger?
SJ: I thought so.
JL: By the same token, the notion that the people in the nose-bleed seats at the Staples Center need to see every nostril hair of the artists on stage just escapes me.
SJ: Well, they tell us that's what we're trained to do. Because we're a TV society, we have to have such bright images that we're using gear that was designed for outdoor baseball parks…
JL: …to be seen from the other side of a stadium in the daytime. So, okay, let's put that in a 3,000-seat theatre that was designed for vaudeville. This seems to be what people are looking for.
SJ: Very true.
JL: We played a theatre in Memphis years ago, and they still had the cages in the basement for the animal acts. They also still had the elevator to bring up the animals. Personally, I'd rather see that than a video show, rather than watch TV.
SJ: That's the point — the fact that so much of it is about watching a replay of the image on stage. I take a totally different course: when you talk about what Willie [Williams] did with U2. It was never the band played back on any of it. It was more visual, and it was a lot of original imagery.
JL: Which one?
SJ: Zoo TV.
JL: Right, and completely different from the next one, which was giant pixels.
SJ: That's true. But again, it wasn't about showing bigger versions of the band.
JL: Like with the Eagles, they had something similar, with a screen way up…
SJ: …yeah, way up, out of the way. I don't have a problem with that.
JL: But when you're sitting three rows back, instead of looking at the artist, they're looking to the side at some side screen or over the top of the proscenium, that's even worse! What must it be like to be standing on stage with a microphone, singing to someone twenty feet away, and they're looking 90° away from you?
SJ: Annoying. That's why for years on Manilow, we angled the screens. We had a single screen over the stage, way out of the stage picture and angled it in such a way that the first 20 rows didn't even know it was there. They couldn't see it. It was for the guys in the back.
JL: But, in the final analysis, what we think doesn't matter. No one cares what we think. For any young lighting student who thinks that we know something and that you should listen to us, here's a reality check: nobody cares what we think.
SJ: That's very true. The fact of the matter is that [media servers] are part of the toolbox now, and we have to use them.
JL: We have to do what our clients want us to do. Especially the younger artists today can look back and say, “When I saw my first Tom Petty show with Mommy, he had video, so I want video.” And that's the reality.
SJ: So, manufacturers have responded, in turn, by at least giving us something we can keep control of.
JL: But now, there's a war going on between video companies and media servers. All the video companies hate media servers. When I first call a vendor that provides cameras and projectors, etc., and they ask me what I'm using, and I tell them I'm using a [High End Systems] Catalyst™ or whatever, they try to say, “You shouldn't do that.”
JL: Can you imagine if you called a lighting vendor and said that you wanted to use a Mac 2K, and they said you shouldn't do that — you should use another light instead? You would tell them to go fuck themselves. But the video companies don't think like that, because they're like Technicolor used to be in the early days of color. When everyone was doing black and white, and Technicolor came along with color process, Natalie Kalmus, who was the wife of the owner of Technicolor, was the color consultant on every movie. You had to hire her, and she would tell you what you had to do with the costumes and the set. They basically convinced everyone that there was some mystery about using color on film. But people started realizing that it was not necessarily magic, and I hope that's what media servers are doing for video today.
SJ: They realize that it's not unapproachable, and it's not rocket science. JL: The video companies are in the business of keeping it rocket science, like the poor little lighting guys, with our tiny brains, are not capable. I had a video guy tell me one time that he didn't know whether or not I had “the bandwidth” to do what I wanted to do, and I realized that he meant that I wasn't smart enough.
SJ: That's a good one.
JL: They don't want us to change. Everyone wants to do what's easy and make money. What's easy and makes money is to do what everyone has already been doing for a long time. But the way they've been doing it for a long time is to just know they want video, hang a big TV set over the stage, let someone else do it, shut up, and go sit over there.
SJ: And then, everyone complains there's too much smoke.
JL: And that there's not enough light. Make it brighter, so our TV screen looks better.
SJ: I think my biggest beef about all this — and I don't know if there's even a way to fix it or change it — is that, in the past, I remember going to shows — 70s, 80s, early 90s…
JL: You're that old?
SJ: …okay, okay, 80s and early 90s, and being blown away by something I didn't see anywhere else — the looks, the visuals that I didn't see anywhere else. But now, all the awards shows look just like concerts, and the concerts look like awards shows, and everyone's got the same gear and the same looks and the same hardware, and everybody is doing scenery out of iPix. I'm just as guilty of it, so I'm not calling the kettle black here. But at the same time, has something been lost because all the medias have converged into where everything looks so bland and plain? I just don't get impressed anymore. The last thing that blew me away was The Lion King, and it didn't have any video at all.
JL: Why would you need video in a 3,000-seat theatre?
SJ: I've been asking that question for years.
JL: Well, Julie Taymor [The Lion King director and costume, mask, and puppet designer] didn't think she needed it, but perhaps some think she didn't have “the bandwidth.” I'm with Julie.
SJ: Great theatrics, great stylized stuff, and brilliant ideas with mechanisms — that's what excites me. That's why I went back and used all those [VARI*LITE] VL2Cs on the last tour I did. Those shows used to blow my mind, because the programming was so deep and involved, on a [VARI*LITE] Artisan, no less. It was spectacular, orchestrated stuff to watch. Now, it's an effects engine, a rotating gobo, lots of color flashing of LED pixels, and a TV set in the middle of the stage.
JL: Also, you have the downfall of people in show business, which is that you're cynical, like all of us are. We all see shows, and it's like, “Yeah, what else have you got!”
SJ: That's very true.
JL: That's the cross we have to bear. Every time you sit down at the drawing board, you have to ask yourself what you can do this time that you haven't done before and haven't seen before. I guess one thing to do is not attend anyone else's shows if you're working on a design, because at least if someone else has done it already, you don't know about it!
JL: Well, personally, I feel like I don't even want to go to a rock and roll show unless someone is paying me to be there.
SJ: It does feel like going to work, doesn't it?
JL: It is going to work. Having said all of that, there must be a silver lining to this cloud.
SJ: I think you've found ways to use stuff inventively. Sarah McLachlan doesn't run strictly as a TV set video playback.
JL: No, and you know, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” so we're forced to use this stuff. We have to, whether we want to or not. So, being who we are, we're not going to just do what everybody else does. We've got to use our brains and try to find something interesting or new. I have a really low boredom threshold.
SJ: Me, too. I'm bored right now!
JL: That's because you need another drink. Anyway, to me the least interesting thing about media servers is IMAG. However, to totally contradict myself…
SJ: Here it comes.
JL: …what should media severs be doing now? They're just scratching the surface. It's a brand new toy.
SJ: I agree that the potential is there, because of the ability not only to change what's coming out of it, but also the surfaces you're using to receive that projection. That's where the exciting part lies.
JL: What do they need to do that they're not doing? I guess the people who figure this stuff out want to know what people like us think and what we're looking for. What I would like to see is the ability to switch cameras.
SJ: Through the server?
JL: Yep. I can design lots of abstract stuff, but when I want to put a person up there and do it with more than one camera, we have to be able switch from camera 1 to camera 2 to camera 3, and right now, there's no way to do that except with existing video technology. It's not necessarily rock-and-roll friendly or the way a lighting designer might look at it. This is surprising to me. Video guys don't necessarily think the same. We're not doing a TV show; we're doing a live show with video in it. It seems like it forces us to go with this really expensive gear with extra stuff we really don't need. We can do that on our computers, and we don't need it all to be in a video switcher.
SJ: It seems like it has to get to that. It's lost all the organic nature of what we do. There's no heart of depth to “lots of pixels.” There's a certain place where stylized imagery fits, but a lot of times, it's the elephant in the room — a beautiful set and then a big, square box-an overly bright, attention-drawing square box that really sucks the life out of a nice, organic show that has some depth to it and makes it into a TV show.
JL: The other thing is that cost has got to come down.
SJ: Right. Take your lighting budget, double it, and that's the video budget.
JL: Yeah, and a set budget is a drop in the bucket compared to total rental and video. So, that means that instead of a really nice set, you might have a set you can just get by with in order to afford the video.
SJ: And you don't need such a nice set, because you're going to have a giant TV screen anyway! JL: But if you can do some of these things and cut down on some of the really expensive video gear that was not designed to do what we're doing, then hopefully, it means we can get to the heart of this artistic tool. Use it when it's right to use it, and turn it off when it's not right.
SJ: Yeah, it's like some management feels like, “Well, we're paying for it, so we're going to use it.”
JL: So, you're going to end up with IMAG, IMAG, IMAG the whole time, and it's going to drive the design, the whole look of the show, because if you know you have to use it, you have to design around it.
SJ: Right, your levels, how you light the act; you can't do a great silhouette, because the video guy won't have a face shot at that moment.
JL: If there's going to be a giant screen with a face in it, we're going to have to power that with heavier lighting. Otherwise, it's just another damned TV set hanging over their heads.
SJ: I think that's half the reason everyone's trying to make a brighter light. We have to overpower the video just to be able to see the lighting.
JL: Well, one of the great things about Sarah McLachlan was that she didn't want her face on the screens all the time. We designed for that. They're out of range of the view of the people in the front, and we were able to light through that. I think, artistically, this is the right moment to use IMAG.
SJ: Yes, but a huge reality check is that we are not the key decision makers in these equations. I remember reading articles in college and thinking people like us made all the decisions and, “How cool are these lighting designers with their totally art-based decisions?” Then you work in this business, and you realize it's not even close to the case. Sometimes, you can't even choose the vendor you want because so-and-so knows this person, who's friends with that one…
JL: Professor Jackson teaches theatrical reality!
SJ: …and managers want big LED walls because they feel they have to compete with other acts, and on and on it goes. So, it's a rare thing that you get to take an artist somewhere unique and not just go for bigger, better, and “I need more.”
JL: We all have our own styles and looks, and we couldn't not do that style if we tried. It's like you develop a copyright style that people recognize. Even though you try to do something different, we still have stamps of our style.
SJ: A certain attitude that sets your work apart.
JL: But, you also may have a 19 year-old who really likes the look of a kabuki and doesn't even know it's called a kabuki…
SJ: …or that it's a 300-year old trick…
JL: …and he's signing your paycheck! And if we're so smart, why do they have the big houses? So, who's to say we're right or not? All we can do is try to come up with something we think is right for that music and that artist and that song. And if they say we're wrong, then we're wrong. That's it. You take Barry Manilow. He knows his audience.
SJ: Yes, he certainly does.
JL: So, anything Barry tells you “is not right for him” is not right for him.
SJ: You have to listen. He has 30 years of knowing what his audience is all about.
JL: Right. You may think you have the hottest new bell or whistle, but if he doesn't think so, that's it.
SJ: And back to media servers, I'm not sure if this sort of technology can ever become organic — likened to digital versus analog — because with moving lights, there's still a real tangible, tactile quality to the show.
JL: See, but you really came up through the programming school. I'm an old fader jockey. All that button typing that you see as a matter of preference seems very cold and impersonal to me. The act of pushing the fader as I'm hearing the music end seems much more organic to me. So, I guess I've finally gotten old.
SJ: I just think something like an [Apple] Quicktime movie is just harsh in any environment, no matter what surface you project it on. It's just a digital image. I would rather see someone do some great thing with a Pani projector. Many video-driven shows look like they were just done in [Adobe] Photoshop®, probably by someone who's just always worked in Photoshop, but it just always looks harsh to me. And sometimes it's an appropriate choice to do “harsh” but not in every show.
JL: The appeal to me with media servers is more variety.
SJ: Well, that's my point. There is no variety out there.
JL: If there's not variety with media servers, it's lack of imagination of the users, because there's certainly an endless stream of imagery. You could do something different if you wanted to, but it takes a whole lot of time to do it right.
SJ: At the end of the day, the tools aren't the issue.
JL: They never are. That's why I hate gear!
SJ: Back to our original premise: we hate gear!
JL: The most dramatic thing to me is still a guy on stage in a bright spot, and when he raises his arm, it creates a giant shadow! And the music, of course — that makes it. There's a guy and his music and one light, and then, everything else is secondary.
SJ: And it's not about gear. I still think it was great when I was in school, and they didn't let us use the venue that had the good stuff. That's when you really learn how to light a show and the critical choices you have to make. I'm not worried about designers who have learned about color and have that real knowledge of lighting. But some people don't have that background or the understanding that we don't have to just use gear for gear's sake. Doing that makes a show stale and lifeless, with no real composition. It's a live show, and it's supposed to be alive and a different experience every night.
JL: Yeah, and it can fuck up at any moment…
SJ: …and has! And you have to have that flexibility to not bury yourself in technology and gear. Let it ride! That's the best part of the show — when you have to start making it up as you go.