LD Alex Skowron Explains the Lighting Approach at Group's 2003 Convention

During the last week of April thousands of members of the National Rifle Association descended upon the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., for the organization's annual meeting, exhibitions, and ceremonies. This year's event was perhaps the biggest in its 132-year history. Whatever people think of the controversial group, its annual conference is routinely a major event, offering a wide range of presentations, entertainment, speeches, activities, and technical challenges for those staging the event. Industry veteran Alex Skowron has served as lighting designer for the convention for the last seven years, and SRO recently spoke with him about how he executed his concepts for the job.

A variety of presentations, including a flying bald eagle during the national anthem, were staged at the NRA convention.


How did you get involved with the NRA?

Skowron: I've been associated with them for seven years. I was hired to light the event by the show's producer, Nancy Martin, who represents Ackerman McQueen. Nancy oversees every minute detail of the convention, including hiring myself and the technical director, Kevin Sullivan, to bring her visualization to reality.

SRO: Are you only lighting firearm exhibits?

Skowron: No, far from that. A big portion of the convention floor is set up to display all kinds of guns, hunting gear, taxidermy, etc. But that is done under house lighting. The public wants to view all the hardware without any visual interruption. My job was to light up three main rooms, as well as the interior and exterior of the building.

What made this year special was that 2003 marks the year that Charlton Heston retired from his position as president of the NRA. He had been their spokesman for six years. So on Friday evening, 8,000 people attended a gala event that was a tribute to Heston, concluding with a concert by country singer Toby Keith.

SRO: How did you figure out the design for the show?

Skowron: I first started meeting with Nancy and going over concepts in October. A company from Chicago called Production Plus was picked to supply all the scenic elements, including a massive array of projectors and screens. In order to figure out the proper lighting, I started by viewing the CAD drawings of what the set would look like. Usually, the set determines where I can place the lighting trusses to squeeze in light sources. Once we saw the stage concepts, the next thing was a trip to the actual location to do a site survey. I find that no matter how well you go over details on a show this size, you always overlook potential problems if you don't go to the site and visualize everything while standing there.

I had a good idea of how to approach the lighting, so at this point, I contacted a colleague of mine, Mike Mahoney, [to be lighting crew chief] and we flew in to survey the building. Mike is associated with Upstaging Lighting out of Chicago, and has been my right-hand man on this project for years. This gig is important to me, so I chose Upstaging because they have the quality gear and support I need.

We put tape marks down where the intended stage will be placed on the floor. I then observe where the beams are located in the rigging grid. Because the set is over 20ft. tall, it's important that all lighting trusses fly above that. Because the ceiling is not as tall as I would like, I searched for beams where I could hang the motors that would hoist the lighting trusses to their maximum trim height.

SRO: So you had a basic truss layout in mind?

Skowron: Sure. Keep in mind that on a Friday evening, this room was hosting a gala event, followed by a concert. Less than nine hours after that, the room had to be turned around into the annual NRA members meeting. That meant that certain props and Toby's set would have to be struck, and a dais and podium set up in their place.

I designed a horseshoe-shaped upstage truss. It followed the contour of the set and enabled me to have a bit of structure to get away with some side lighting. The center of the stage contained a large projection screen with a custom surround that brought the structure to the roof. I was barely able to sneak trusses in above it.

In advance, I conferred with Toby Keith's touring LD, Eddie ‘Bones’ Connell. I added colored PARs to set him up with some fixtures similar to his touring rig. I hung moving lights in key positions, knowing they would light set pieces during Heston's award ceremony, and then swing around and light the band when they hit the stage.

SRO: I noticed a lot of audience trusses and lights.

Skowron: The NRA likes to archive all of their events. With this being such a big occasion, they hired a top-line video director named Steve Paley. He, in turn, brought in his crew, including all his operators for a six-camera shoot. With this in mind, I had to keep the audience lit consistently, but be able to adjust the lighting to any level instantly. When a cameraman is upstage and shooting downstage at Mr. Heston, the camera needs to see something in the background. Otherwise, he looks like a talking head in black space. Plus, I like the look of light beams fanned through the air. I also needed that light for the members' meeting the next day. I ended up adding an extra 30 Mac 500s to add texture to the audience. But in the end, they turned out more important for guiding the bird.

SRO: The bird?

Skowron: As part of the opening ceremonies, a live bald eagle was released from the stage during the national anthem. The bird needed to see a distinctly lit path from the stage to the other end of the floor, where his handler was located in a perch atop a scissor lift. The room needed as much light as possible, but the path of travel had to be brighter. We rehearsed this for hours. The arc lights were focused in a close path between the two points, and it worked flawlessly. The camera people always had light on the eagle — a big crowd-pleaser.

SRO: What other fixtures did you use?

Skowron: For this event, I relied on High End Systems studio colors to paint all the scenery. For hard-edge instruments, I chose Martin's Mac 2000s. I needed the punch of brightness that lamp delivers in order for all the custom gobo patterns to be seen. I used these same instruments to illuminate the building's front for the banquet dinner on the closing night.

For conventional lighting, I used hundreds of ETC fixtures to evenly control levels of light everywhere. Because of the video, I added 30 Altman 2K fresnels to cover any dark spaces the camera might pick up. I had four xenon spotlights in the house to pick up key people, but they were mostly for Toby Keith's performance.

SRO: What else challenged you at the event?

Skowron: Every year, they close the convention with a banquet dinner. A separate room, stage, and lighting system needed to be set up. Key speakers talk, firearms are presented to people, and this year's main entertainment was The Oak Ridge Boys. This room is predominantly lit in red, white, and blue, as patriotism was the theme of the evening.

All in all, it took five semi-trucks of lighting and eight upstaging techs working around the clock to light it properly.

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 nookld@aol.com.