Kieran Healy Takes American Idol from Broadcast to Concert Tour

The wacky world of reality television took on a new wrinkle last summer with American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, the US version of the UK TV hit, Pop Idol, in which amateur singers from around the country competed for a million-dollar recording contract. The twist was that, apart from the first two episodes showing the auditions in various cities and the initial winnowing from the 100 audition winners to 30 contestants, the show was broadcast live.

Also, the design of the show was meant to evolve from the bare audition rooms to progressively larger stages with more elaborate sets and lighting until the final voting performances at Los Angeles' new Kodak Theatre (where the Oscars are now held) and the reunion of the original 30 contestants at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

The person who was tapped for this unusual project is LD Kieran Healy, a veteran of many musical shows destined for television broadcast. “I was contacted by the director, Bruce Gowers,” Healy explains. “He did what's considered to be the first music video, Queen's ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ a precursor to the music video. He's one of the prime directors in this country, especially of music and variety-type shows.” Healy has worked with him many times before, including a Rolling Stones Pay-Per-View special and the ESPY awards.

The concept from the first was that the set and lighting design would build in production values each step of the way, to make it interesting for the home audience and to gradually accustom the amateur performers to bigger and bigger stages. Healy designed the audition spaces very basically with conventional TV studio equipment. “Every room they were going to had daylight coming into it, so, rather than correct the windows, we needed to use HMI fixtures to balance for daylight. That was a standard grip truck package that we hired in every city.” (In fact, the LD recently finished doing the same thing for the second season of the show.)

The second phase brought the 100 hopefuls to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, “a beautiful old theatre,” Healy says, which he deliberately underlit. “It was a very bare stage with a little bit of scenery, but very much understated while they whittled them down to 30. Then we moved to CBS Studios in Los Angeles. The initial set consisted of two rooms: One was supposed to look like a recording studio, and there was a room attached which was meant to be a greenroom.”

The latter was a living room-type setting where the contestants could relax and critique each other while awaiting their turns in the studio room to perform for the judges. “That room was initially lit with tungsten television lighting — fresnels, soft lights,” the LD comments. “When we added Vari*Lites® into the mix in the studio at a later stage, we corrected all those lights with full CT blue to make them a daylight source and balanced to the Vari*Lites. The result of balancing this way is that all of your arc sources — Vari*Lites, followspots, and projectors — now read in their purest colors and therefore look much richer and brighter.”

When the final 10 contestants had been chosen, the show upgraded to a more performance-oriented set (more like a touring stage set) and became more of a weekly variety special than a TV series. Throughout the show, the lighting crew included gaffer George Harvey, and lighting directors Harry Sangmeister and Matt Ford. Board operator was Leigh Clemmer, and video operator was Mark Sanford.

All through the series, Healy had to be careful of how he lit each person and the songs they chose to perform. “You didn't want to make one contestant look more spectacular than another, because it is a competition.” He had to maintain an even playing field for the contestants, “which is quite difficult, because music drives the lighting in so many ways. Depending on what a contestant had chosen, that drove the look of the thing, and some songs are easier to light than others. That was something we had to be aware of, not just in lighting but also in the audio and the direction. You couldn't appear to favor one contestant over another. And the fact that you're involved with these kids from beginning to end, you do naturally form an affinity for the more talented ones. So one did have to temper the whole thing with trying to be objective and fair.”

The LD had decided on a Vari*Lite package (supplied by VLPS Los Angeles) from the beginning. “I'm a big Vari*Lite fan,” Healy remarks. “I've used them since they first came out in 1981. I've been very familiar with the company from day one and they always give me great service. I think that the instrumentation is fantastic and I've never had a show go bad on me — I've never had any of their instruments break down or the board blow up, so the reliability is a great asset.”

He chose VL6C automated spots and VL5Arc automated wash units, making extensive use of their color-mixing and gobo-changing abilities for maximum flexibility. Again, the LD had to be careful to distribute effects equally among all contestants. “You had to be careful how much movement you put in a song, because people equate moving lights with spectacle and production value. You had to make a ballad look as good as a rock song, which presents a challenge. But, whilst it was an issue for the producers, it never seemed to be an issue for the contestants, which maybe means we succeeded.”

Other equipment Healy used throughout the show included Vari*Lite VL4 wash and VL6 spot luminaires, a Lycian 1,200W Starklite followspot, Strong 2kW Super Troupers, Robert Juliat Heloise 2.5kW followspots, and Reel EFX DF-50 Diffusion hazers.

At the Kodak Theatre, for the showdown between the final three and the deciding competition, “I had a bigger lighting budget,” Healy says. “We added pyro and I brought in the 3kW Syncrolites. They're monster, and actually it was a fairly risky thing to do, because something that bright would absolutely blow out the camera if you shot it into the lens. But they do give this wonderful beam/shaft of light that is incomparable. And I thought it looked good.”

The live broadcast aspect is what made the show must-see television for the viewing (and voting) audience, but made it that much more challenging for the lighting team, who never knew week to week what would be asked of them. “That's one of the things that was fun,” says Healy. “You're flying by the seat of your pants. The typical day was, we'd go in and figure out what we were doing that day and rehearse with the kids. They would get up to three rehearsals for each song. Everybody had the same three goes at it, and that was it. We went on the air at 5:00.”

Because Healy and company didn't know what songs would be performed until the day of taping, programming time usually turned out to be about 10-15 minutes for each song. “In fact, a lot of it was decided as we rehearsed,” he explains. “You watch the first pass of the song and you're reliant on the programmer being quick. Sometimes in the morning they'd hand you a CD of the songs and in that first couple of hours with Harry or Matt we would have time to discuss it and I could leave them to program while I went off to make other lighting adjustments. But a lot of it was on the fly, quite literally.”

The music was pre-recorded except for one episode that had a big-band theme. Other themed episodes included 1960s and '70s nights. “You try and set the appropriate mood for each theme week. This is where you've got a terrific advantage with computerized lighting; you can make those changes so quickly. It works for you and it works against you,” Healy comments. “Producers have the idea that because you've got computerized lighting it's instant lighting, and you're lucky to get any programming time. You're reliant on your programmers, and you have so little time to create. When you're under the added stress of a live show it puts even more pressure on you, and any mistakes you make are going out on the air.”

But more important than equipment, color, and gobo choices is “managing the situation properly, managing the people properly, and getting the job done staying within budget,” Healy says. “To me, it's what I do for a living, and I approach each job in what I hope to be a professional manner, and in that sense they're all the same. Obviously each one has its own special set of challenges, but that might be more of trying to get on with the director than it is about the lighting. You're involved in a business that is full of compromise, and that can be on a personal level as well as a professional level. I think anyone that comes into the business that thinks it's all about pretty colors and being creative should know that it isn't about that, it's about compromise and doing it to the budget and getting it done in a certain time frame.

“What ends up paying off for somebody like me who's been doing it for a while,” he continues, “is that your experience can carry you through in a very pressurized situation that's given you no time and no money; you can draw upon your experience and allocate things in a correct manner that gets you through it. I learned lighting the hard way, but you can go to college and learn the theory of color and what this lamp does and what that lamp does, but nobody teaches you how to deal with some of the mavericks in the business and some of the idiots you come across. Those are life lessons that you learn along the way; you just try and manage situations in the best way you can so that you get the best product you can. The other important thing is to surround yourself with the best people. Those people — George Harvey, Harry Sangmeister, Matt Ford — they're your lifeline when you're wallowing in it.”

Healy was involved in two other designs associated with the show but not part of the competition: the reunion of the original 30 contestants at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which had a completely different set, and the current US American Idol tour, the design of which is an adaptation of the UK Pop Idols touring set and lighting, originally designed by Pete Barnes. “Pete Barnes sent over his plot and then myself and Eneas Mackintosh — he's an excellent lighting designer himself — the two of us collaborated on adapting Pete Barnes' design for the tour over here.”

All in all, the LD says, “It was a good challenge and it was a fun show to work on. You do actually get wrapped up in who's going to succeed and who isn't, and of course all the crew takes bets on who's going to win that week. It was a very nice show to work on and be involved in and I had a great experience with Eneas Mackintosh putting together the touring part of it; he was a great pleasure to work with, a very talented guy.”

Kieran Healy was born in Cork, in southern Ireland, but grew up in London, England. When he was 12 years old he acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I had a beautiful soprano voice,” he says. “It was actually more of a singing part than acting.” He made the transition from center stage to front of house when “at the ripe old age of 12 I observed that the actors came to the theatre on bicycles and the stagehands drove up in Jags.” Plus, “of course, my voice broke so I didn't have this beautiful soprano voice anymore, and I just gravitated to the technical side,” specifically, audio.

He got into lighting because “I got thrown out of audio,” he laughs. “I was working for the Who's mixer, Dick Hayes, and I kept blowing up the amps because I was plugging in the speakers incorrectly, and he, in a very kindly manner, suggested that he didn't think my future was in audio and I should try lighting. In those days, lighting was the bastard son — audio was much more important — so he felt I could do less damage in lighting.”

His first gig as an actual lighting designer was in 1979 when he was production manager for the Who. The band was doing some warm-up shows in New Jersey before a week at New York City's Madison Square Garden. At the last minute, the official LD wasn't allowed into the States because of visa problems, so Healy was enlisted to fill in. “I fooled around on the lighting board; I'd never really worked one before. We then moved over to Madison Square Garden. We found out this LD wasn't going to make it, so it fell to me to do the lighting. About 6:30 in the evening it was myself and Tom Littrell and the late, great Kirby Wyatt and a couple other Showco guys all trying to get the focus done, and then Tom Littrell gave me a quick primer on how to run the Showco board. The next day there was a good review in The New York Times and it happened to mention the lighting. Daltry came up to me and said, ‘Right, you're the lighting designer.’ And that's how I started.”

Contact the author at aslingerland@primediabusiness.com.