There's an art to designing and executing creative lighting
under taxing circumstances
No matter the event, large or small, when it comes to designing lighting, significant obstacles always get in the way. If the world were perfect, of course, all my concepts would easily be achieved each time. But, of course, the world is not perfect. In reality, there are many conditions that will have a severe effect on any show's design. Among these conditions are three basic elements that can adversely impact your show at any and all venues: power, rigging, and the weather.
I recently worked with Mike Mahoney and John Bahnick of Upstaging Inc.'s lighting division on a large booth for a conference at McCormick Place, a convention center in Chicago. The Siemens Medical booth we were working on fit into a space of 100'×225.' Our job was to brightly illuminate their array of radiology machines and cast light on individual set pieces located in the booth.
After meeting with the client, we had a good idea of exactly which areas of the booth needed to be illuminated. All the house lights would be killed prior to the show opening, and our fixtures were to be the sole source of light. We therefore drew up a plan in a CAD program, utilizing 180 ETC Source Four fixtures and 30 automated lights.
Right away, though, we discovered a major obstacle: the booth did not have enough A/C power (amperes) to run all the lights that were needed. Adding more power would have been an easy solution, but the cost would severely cut into the overall budget, ruling out that possibility. Solving this problem therefore fell solely on Mahoney's shoulders.
The first thing he did was study the plot and cut any fixtures that weren't designated to a particular area. Those were few. His next step was to start thinking about two important lighting fixture choices: the lens and wattage of each lighting instrument used.
There are several different lenses that can go into most professional fixtures. These lenses will change the size of the light beam from very narrow to wide. The wider the lens, the wider the beam spread from the fixture. The idea was to see if there were any areas where one lamp with a wide flood lens could cover the space where two fixtures had been allocated.
That was a good start, but we were still overloaded. This is where bulb wattage came into play. Normally, we would focus the lights, then walk around the booth adjusting dimmer levels of each fixture through the lighting console, until the desired look was achieved. This time, however, we had to rethink that approach. Ahead of time, we needed to decide how bright each fixture should be, based on the wattage of the bulb that was used. ETC fixtures can take 375W, 575W, or 750W light bulbs. There were only 144,000W available for the 210 lighting fixtures. So we had to decide in advance how brightly each area needed to be lit.
Venue to Venue
Another major obstacle faced in our industry is the fact that all venues are different. Many shows travel from city to city, of course, and the theaters, arenas, and convention centers where they are heading always differ drastically in how people can rig and fly their sets, lights, sound, and video.
A perfect example of this is the band 311, who I've lit for in the past. This band normally plays a large arena one day and a university gym the next day. Their lighting designer, Jason Bullock, therefore has to face different conditions on a daily basis and must plan accordingly. Jason and I normally design and program a lighting rig that looks big in an arena, where you can pick and choose where to hang your trusses. But in the back of our minds, we are always thinking, “What the hell are we going to do when we get to those gigs in Podunk?”
One of the obvious things we do is use moving lights for 311's touring show. This way, all the lights can be focused from the console and adjusted on a daily basis to wherever you end up hanging your trusses. Every morning, the setup crew walks into a different building, assesses the available rigging, and makes these decisions. Where can we hang motors to beams and lift our lights, for example. Often, the facility lacks structural beams where we want to fly something. Therefore, we often have to use some sort of ground support system to lift trusses. These are usually upright trusses with giant bases and legs, complete with cranks or motors attached to them. They are heavy and time-consuming to construct. While often necessary to use, I have never met anyone who likes to use them on a regular basis.
What I like to do is hang trusses from other trusses. If I walk into an old theater, and they only have four rigging points in the building, I don't just think of it as another day with two straight trusses. I will fly one 40ft. span of truss and suspend two others from it using wire rope.
Another popular workaround is to stand your normally flown trusses on end. Attach it to a floor base, or secure it in some other safe fashion, then hang the moving lights anywhere you can. Half of the battle is adapting to the day's conditions and getting the lights somewhere useful on the stage. The other half is modifying the scenes you will use each day. It's up to the designer to refocus and redesign his lighting looks for that particular day.
Weather is the most adverse condition that can impact any outdoor event.
Five years ago, for instance, I lit the outside of the Georgia Dome for a Super Bowl using many Xenotech 7k searchlights. A freak snowstorm hit the area that week and wreaked havoc on our plan. A crew of lighting techs used a crane to individually lift these enormous light fixtures onto the perimeter of the stadium's roof to get everything up and running three nights before the game. The idea was to set up the Wholehog lighting console in the parking lot, and through the use of a wireless DMX, I would focus and program the lights on the top of the Dome.
The first problem was the cold. The touchscreens on the console would not function at 28 degrees Fahrenheit. I solved this problem by relocating the console to a van with a heater. It warmed up, but we still had problems with the wireless DMX antenna hanging out of an open window. Then, it started snowing hard. The DMX would not transmit through the snowfield. Next, came the task of getting 600ft. of signal cable from the van to the lights on the roof. That involved climbing trees, lampposts, and running cable across access roads, but we got it done.
The next problem was the fact that the lighting instruments were exposed to the elements. The one thing we knew was that we could not turn these instruments off for the next few days. The heat from the arc lights was all that kept the parts from freezing. I programmed the lighting cues so that all lights would move, change color, and utilize all their functions every few seconds. This helped keep the majority of them working for the next three days.
The other thing the crew did that day was build cardboard huts around each light's base to keep the snow out of the electronics. Once the lighting design approach was programmed, I was able to move the console into a room on the roof and run the event smoothly.
Nook Schoenfeld is a 20-year veteran of the concert touring industry. He divides his time between teaching lighting and designing lighting for concert and corporate events. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org