Designers offer tips, opinions, and predictions for lighting live events.
With rapid advances in technology, a challenging economic environment, and more demanding clients than ever before, how is the live-event lighting community coping? SRO's Sharon Stancavage recently polled three well-known lighting industry players to get their views on the state of their art.
The group that spoke with SRO includes seasoned pros whose experiences range from corporate shows to major rock tours to awards shows. They offer their views on a wide range of important topics, including collaboration, safety, budgeting, and technology issues.
Stage for the Celia Cruz tribute concert in Miami.
The trio includes Paul Guthrie, a lighting and projection designer for Fleetwood Mac and Sheryl Crow; Chris Medvitz, lighting designer for Nissan/Infinity at several auto shows, lighting director and programmer for Nintendo at the E3 videogame trade show, and a former LD/director/programmer for Lionel Ritchie; and Ben Richards, associate designer/LD/programmer for Matchbox 20 and LD/director/programmer for the band Dream Theater.
SRO: What direction do you see the lighting industry heading in coming years?
Paul Guthrie: I personally think the industry has hit a plateau. I can't think of anything else that can push it any further. The last part of the revolution might be flexible LED panels — basically an image that [serves as a] curtain that then turns into an LED wall. I love the idea that an LED video surface could be flexible like a curtain. It would be great to add 3D to an element that has been predominately perceived as flat. I've seen a great LED dress in use by the Blue Man Group, and Barco LED panels that can be linked with a curve, which I've seen at car shows. But I'd love to be able to introduce a softness or flow usually associated with drapes to a moving image screen while still keeping the super intensity of an LED wall. Being able to set up a large screen in the same manner that you currently set up a fiber-optic curtain would be great too, although I think that technology is still a few years away. With the video projection explosion in the entertainment industry, I would have to think that somewhere, someone is working on a cheaper, lighter, and smaller LED screen.
Chris Medvitz directed lighting for the Nintendo exhibit at the E3 conference.
Chris Medvitz: I think the industry is going to continue on the path it's going: We're going to see conventional lights continue to evolve, while I think that automated lights are going to become cheaper, better, brighter, and faster. We'll see more blending of automated and conventional technology, so we'll have more hybrid fixtures, like [High End Systems'] Catalyst and other video server products. We're on the verge of a new combination of technologies here, and I think just as we were 20 years ago with the advent of automated lighting, we're going to need some time to figure out what to do with it. I think it opens up a whole new world of possibilities, but on the flip side of that, many are putting things into the show in an effort to use this new technology, without thinking about it from a design standpoint. The Catalyst DL1 will probably make some progress here as people seem to be able to relate better to a “moving light-like” instrument that projects video. However, the server products are where the real possibilities are in my mind. There are so many ways of displaying video now, from moving projection to LED screens to large-scale, low-pitch LED displays like the Westerhagen screen [from Germany's XL Video], to flexible screens like the new Barco MiPIX flexible LED. All of these are really blurring the line between lighting, scenery, and imagery. I think there's a real possibility that we'll see video used as scenery, without the need for a video department at all. I predict that we'll see video departments ending up dealing with just cameras and image magnification on concerts, with the visual stuff falling to the lighting console for control.
SRO: Safety has come to the forefront latelywith the tragedy in Rhode Island and the lighting grid collapse in New Jersey. What are your thoughts on the issue?
Ben Richards: I believe the only enemy against proper safety is the lack of preproduction time for a touring production to properly merge different elements of a system together. Sometimes an extra week of time is the difference between a safe tour and someone getting hurt. One thing I have noticed recently is that venue architects are actually getting more involved in the process of advancing productions, which is probably a result of what happened recently [on the Timberlake/Aguilera tour]. Promoters are now asking production managers to work with building managers and their architects to overlay the tour's rigging plot on top of an accurate building blueprint, to make sure that everything can be safe. For safety reasons, every touring production should invest in a load-cell system [a digital dynamometer set up at each rigging point between the chain hook and the shackle/SpanSet, allowing technicians to determine exactly what everything weighs]. Especially now in the age of advanced motion control, the dynamic weights of trusses or pods [moving up and down] need to be documented in order to be passed on to promoters, building managers, and their architects. In the end, though, if the man who designed the venue can sign off on a touring production's rigging plot, the show should be cleared to set up.
SRO: What about budgets and overall costs?
Medvitz: It all comes down to the money. How much a fixture costs affects how much it rents for, which affects how far my budget can go. Especially in this time of recession, all corporate clients are pressuring their designers and vendors to do more with less. You have to stretch the money and be efficient with your budget. I think, generally speaking, I always try to stretch equipment to be the most efficient as possible. Moving lights and consoles play into that a lot. I certainly spend a lot of effort trying to determine what's necessary, and different ways of doing the same thing in hopes of finding similarities between objectives. I also try to work things out on paper as far as possible, so you don't go into programming rehearsals saying “OK, what should we do here?” I think that with all the flexibility in moving lights, there's a tendency to wait to make decisions until you absolutely have to. That's fine and luxurious, when appropriate, but more often than not you just can't afford to do that. I find myself planning out scenes or songs in a show on paper, even when the entire rig is automated. It might appear that I'm under-using the rig at times, because I'll refrain from using all the possible variations. Now, along with that comes the ability and willingness to change your mind if a client doesn't like your work, or it's just not working out on stage as it did on paper. However, I always go in with one or two layers of gear that can be eliminated. By doing this, I automatically create a set of priorities within the design.
Sheryl Crow on stage with lighting design by Paul Guthrie.
Richards: Ticket prices are at their highest points ever, but it seems that production costs are kept at a minimum, and adequate wages are harder to negotiate. Why? Agents, managers, artists, merchandisers get most of the rewards, while vendors and crew work harder for less money. Of course, when you're designing a lighting rig, the rule of thumb is to start with much more than you really need. If you think a design should have 40 moving lights, 10 strobes, and a medium conventional lighting package, there's no reason to draw it up like that and send it out to bid. The vendor quotes might be too high for the band's budget, and both sides will ask you to start cutting gear.
SRO: What are the key pieces of gear you rely on most frequently?
Guthrie: The High End Catalyst and the Vari-Lite VL 3000 are two of my favorites. Catalyst gives a designer the ability to synch video with the show while still keeping some flexibility. It's also great for creating complex sequences on the fly. I can compile six clips for a song and have the Catalyst jump to any clip at any time, as well as add effects and vary speed. I like being able to get into rehearsal and compile sequences that will match the music, and having the flexibility to change that with a couple of button pushes. The looping feature is also great for times when the music has a tendency to be different each night. I also love being able to pull video files straight off my Apple PowerBook and move them into the system for projection immediately. I've always liked the way that Vari-Lites move, their colors, and optics. The VL 3000 has all those, with a super bright source. They have also refined some features that were lacking in previous models.
Medvitz: I'm a designer who looks at things and chooses equipment based on the right tool for the job. What I'm trying to accomplish comes first, and then what tools I need to do that are derived from that. I like the High End Studio Color fixture a lot, especially for concerts. On corporate gigs, I use smaller units like the High End Studio Beam. I've also been using the TMB PowerPAR 575 a lot since it has a daylight color temperature.
Richards: This might sound strange coming from an LD, but I rely heavily on my custom Future Sonics in-ear monitor system, which blends a gated intercom feed with a clean mix of the show in my ears. I have never heard a better sound, and it helps to concentrate on the show, timing for the cues, and spot calling without hearing the open mic of the intercom during the whole show. I'll always travel with this system. I was fitted for the ear monitors by a professional ear specialist in New York.
SRO: As a programmer, what technology excites you?
Guthrie: If the Vari-Lite Virtuoso got an effects engine and fixture re-mapping, it would be insane. If the Whole Hog were bigger with a channel select, that would be brilliant.
Medvitz: I think the new Martin and Flying Pig consoles are taking many of the same steps in the right direction. They're both trying to remove the layer of translation that a programmer has to deal with in taking real-world values to control parameters. With these new desks, we're going to be dealing with actual colors, rather than cyan, magenta, and yellow levels, and “gobo one, rotate forward at 5rpm,” rather than “values” on gobo control channels. They're also pushing the limit way out there on expandability. We're now going to be able to have multiple programmers use multiple desks to build one show that can be played back off a single console without being limited to four, eight, or 12 DMX universes.
Sharon Stancavage is contributing editor for Lighting Dimensions magazine and has penned articles on a variety of topics for numerous trade publications over the years. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org