It's the Client's World. You Just Live in It.
“Please, please, no mayenta!” pleaded a young pop star in her native Colombian accent. This client was trying to attain a rock-and-roll look while fighting a valiant battle against a potential bubblegum pop image. Magenta lighting, in her opinion, would have pushed her right over the edge into Britney Spears-dom.
“I really like the monochrome looks,” she told me. “Just use one color at a time like they do at CBGB's. And I want to use red for all the songs.” This was not a request that was going to help our ongoing efforts to create visual depth.
The next meeting was all about aerial beams. The client said, “I don't really like gobos. Can we just use open beams the whole time?”
Ahhhhhhhh, the joys of designer/client collaboration.
In a production meeting like this, there is always potential for the Hindenberg equivalent of clashing egos. After all, you've been hired to create a beautiful show for your client, and you know damn well how to go about it. You're an artist just like the one you're lighting up, and the last thing you need is someone telling you how to do your job.
However, things don't have to be as difficult as both parties sometimes make it. Although this process can be a true test of patience on both sides, it also has the potential of being an extremely fun and rewarding experience if you keep the right attitude.
There is one critical point that comes into play during a situation like this. As much of a cliché as it may sound, the customer is always right. And even when he or she isn't exactly “right,” the customer must always end up happy. So how do we get there with a minimal amount of fuss?
The fine line a designer must walk is a delicate balancing act. On one hand, you must provide what clients ask for at a moment's notice so that they are pleased. On the other hand you must try to be completely honest in a way that they can truly understand.
Seasoned designers will keep this in mind because even more important than indulging whims on specific colors or effects is maintaining the integrity of the client's image. Sometimes he or she doesn't know what looks best when standing front of house, no matter how well you try to argue your case.
Since, by nature, lighting designers envision the outcome of a show in their heads, they don't necessarily need to see the finished product in order to be sure they're creating the proper lighting environment. However, the collaborating partner in these situations is usually a musician who, by artistic nature, visualizes through sound. In short, LDs think with their eyes, while musicians think with their ears. Keep all vulgar comments to yourself, please!
When dealing with performing clients, the lighting designer has a lot of responsibility for an artist's live visual presentation. With something as simple as a change of a hue, the efforts of hair, makeup, costume, and set design pros can be lost, or worse, made to look completely ridiculous. Because of this, the LD is arguably the most “in tune” with the overall stage picture and, thus, is usually the best judge of how the artist is being visually represented.
He or she is also one of a myriad of opinions in the artist's camp. First, there are management personnel, then record company executives, and the omniscient stylists of hair, makeup, and clothing. Of course, there's the front of house engineer who is always ready to lend some design tips. And let's not forget the drummer's girlfriend, who should probably be given the front of house audio position, since she insists on knowing how much better the whole thing should sound.
The latter, of course, is usually extolling infinite production wisdom, usually after making comments regarding the lighting guy's ATM at the front of house position. That piece of equipment is professionally referred to as a Wholehog, madam.
With this much unsolicited input, egos can flare up pretty quickly. This is when the lighting designer must make one of two critical decisions, either by putting a foot down to cease all the meddling or by smiling and accepting any suggestions that come along.
Choosing the proper response really depends on who's making the suggestions, because, as I stated earlier, the customer is always right. With this in mind, if the hair stylist is berating your work, a can of Aquanet to the temple might not be all that detrimental to your gig.
However, if the artist is intent on creating the show by using you as a means to simply recreate his or her vision, then a judicious coat of tact and patience might be the way to go. After all, no matter how many sales reps juice up your ego, in the end, it's never the Lighting Designer's World Tour that's going out on the road.
Try not to lose sight of the fact that you are only a cog in this entertainment business machine that we all flagrantly refer to as “art.” If you ever find yourself questioning this at any point in your career, just head over to New York's Times Square on any given weekday afternoon, look for about 700 teenagers in the center median waiting for MTV's TRL to begin taping, and ask how many of them know your name. It will truly bring your head down to proper size. Not that I've actually tried this or anything. I think, I like, read about it in Lighting Dimensions or something.
So when the artist points at that magenta color onstage and suddenly likes it, just do what I do: say it's “salmon” and quickly re-label the preset accordingly. If she doesn't buy it, tell her that it would be your financial pleasure to make it whatever color she would like. If she ends up looking ridiculous, you can laugh all the way to the bank knowing that she's done most of your work for you.