Most people not affiliated with the Reform Party took note of its August convention mainly because of the turmoil surrounding it. Who was the legitimate candidate, Pat Buchanan or the other guy? Was the real convention even happening in the spotlight at the Long Beach Convention Center, or was it down the block? At least this kind of thing enlivens the political scene, and can be viewed as a refreshing alternative to the scripted, rehearsed, unsuspenseful, and too-ready-for-primetime quadrennial parties put on by the Republicans and Democrats (the latter greeted at the airport by the LAX Gateway Enhancement Project covered as the main part of this story).
As for lighting designer Jeff Ravitz, he could have used a little less suspense and a little more scripting. The Reform Party convention opened its doors to delegates and TV cameras at 3pm, Thursday, August 10. But because of a food convention set up in the hall through Wednesday, August 9, says Ravitz, "We came in at 12:01am Thursday and began a normal load-in that, under any other circumstances, you would have wanted three days to do - two days just to get the equipment in, and another day to get it all wrung out to the point where you felt like you had a decent-looking event. We had 15 hours to put it in, and then somehow manage to be awake and alive enough to see it through to the end of the day."
Everything happened on an accelerated schedule with the convention. Production designer and technical director Chris McGregor's company First Call was brought in just eight weeks prior to the event, when the venue was not yet certain. McGregor is also a lighting designer, but he says given the scope of the project and the schedule, "I felt I would be spreading myself a bit too thin" to work without a separate LD. "I asked Dan English at Morpheus Lights to recommend someone," McGregor recalls. "I said I needed someone pretty high end with a high tolerance level for ridiculous situations." He defined ridiculous as: "big project, low budget, no time whatsoever, but make it look like it cost a bloody fortune and took a week to install." Ravitz, a partner in Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth Lighting Design Inc., was the man for the job.
The first challenge was the space itself. At about 80,000 sq. ft. (7,200 sq. m), the Long Beach Convention Center hall is big, but much less so than the Republicans' and Democrats' counterparts. Though the budget was touted as being one-tenth of the Democratic convention amount, the requirements were the same, says Ravitz: "to make sure that the stage looks as perfect as possible, to make the political figures look good, and the whole set look pleasant for the [live] audience as well as the television audience. Then there's this massive audience area that needs to be concentrated on, so the camera can see reactions. And at the Reform convention, there were a lot of reactions."
The major party conventions were held in sporting venues, with in-house lighting systems to illuminate the floor along with the LD's augmentation. But at the Long Beach Convention Center, says Ravitz, "basically what we had above us was warehouse lighting that wouldn't have been pleasant or proper for television." In addition, "we had a very, very low trim - 25' (8m) to the low steel. It was 35' (11m) to the ceiling, or high steel, and 10' below that were the low beams." Compounding the problem: "The grid comprises 30'x30' bays (9x9m), and to fit all our trusses within these bays would mean we couldn't have any truss greater than 30' long. Yet we were lighting an area that was about 400' long and 200' wide (122x61m).
"One of the other disadvantages of having such a low ceiling," the LD continues, "is that, by the time you get a 5'-high stage, that only leaves 20' to the low steel, and there were scenic elements that were higher than that. So we found ourselves in the position of having to co-exist with some high scenery around the stage, and trying to fit lighting positions without either blocking the scenery or being blocked by the scenery. When we did our site survey, we decided that the requirement to have all the lighting up within these 30'x30' bays would really only apply to the stage area, so that we could make sure the lights were sufficiently above the scenery, and out of camera shot. There were a significant amount of lighting positions and trusses over the audience that we decided could hang below the low steel on long continuous runs. We thought that, prior to the food convention, we could get this lighting in and suck it up to the low steel."
It was a nice idea, but it didn't work out that way - the food convention disallowed it, saying that lighting trusses would get in the way of their banners. "That put us back at having to either get everything up above the high steel, or not put the lighting up until the day of the show," says Ravitz. Hence, the 15-hour marathon, which included rigging 74 points for lighting, as well as installation of scenic, audio, video, signage, and confetti, on August 10. "We were able to do a prerig and get motors in before the food convention," Ravitz says. "But there was not one solitary light in there prior to load-in day. We not only had to get hundreds of lights in, and more than 500' (152m) of trussing, we then had to focus it all."
Morpheus supplied the bulk of the lighting system. At first, Ravitz was only going to use automated lighting for about 25-30% of the rig, but he says, "as we got closer and closer to the event day, we realized that in order to focus the couple hundred PARs that we were planning to light the audience and banners and things like that, it was going to take more crew than we had available. So we made a decision in about the ninth hour [figuratively speaking - not the day of] to substitute moving lights for just about every fixed light. It was mainly for convenience, to be able to focus remotely from a lighting board, rather than having ladder crews all over the arena a couple of hours before the doors opened."
Audience lights at the convention were mostly soft-edged Morpheus FaderBeams, along with Morpheus PC Spots and some ETC Source Fours. "We came from all possible sides," says Ravitz. "The audience was basically frontlit, so reverse shots from the stage would allow their faces to be seen. Then I would have them backlit for a while, to give them a bit of relief and not just keep blasting light in their faces."
On the stage, "we used Source Fours throughout," says the LD. "I wanted the color temperature the ellipsoidal could afford, plus the beam control you can only get with that." Backing the stage were red-white-and-blue scenery flats. "I tried to give them a little bit of highlight and low light, so the background didn't just go totally flat and dimensionless," Ravitz says. "There was a huge flat in the middle that had a large round LED videoscreen above and behind the candidate. Then there were a series of flats tiered back, one behind the other, going all the way to outside edges of the stage. We had to tinker with that to really get it right, to give it some edge lighting. We started messing around with it whenever we had a little free time."
Ravitz kept color to a minimum in the lighting, though he added more as the convention went on. "On the third day, we put some color into the walk-in," he says. "In the PC Spots we had some flag gobos and star gobos, and we colored the audience to give it a little depth and fun." For the convention's final ballyhoo, the designer employed Morpheus BriteBurst 2000s, which also could be swung into place to light up scenic elements that hadn't been anticipated. With continual changes in the convention program - entertainment that was supposed to take place on one side of the stage, for example, ended up in the dark reaches of the convention center - the flexible moving light system was particularly effective. Everything was run from one console, the Morpheus MP500, which was programmed by Mike Hall and situated at the back of the hall; there was neither truck nor studio on-site.
By the time the Reform Party convention ended August 12, Ravitz had become a master improviser. Among the many unplanned elements were audience microphone positions, from which delegates cast their votes. "We had no idea where that was going to happen," says the LD. "It ended up happening right in the center aisle, and we had to sneak out there at the last minute and swing some lights around, just before that area went on camera."
Even things like Buchanan's big entrance were done fairly on the fly, "and we just had to hold our breath and keep our fingers crossed," Ravitz says, adding, "I had just seen the Republican Convention, and nothing seemed haphazard about that." Of course, that's all to the point: "I guess ours definitely couldn't be criticized for being too rehearsed."