Since nostalgia for all things 80s is the current rage, it should be the perfect moment for Rock Star. This cinematic look back at the heavy-metal scene circa 1987 means to strike a comic yet affectionate tone, and present the arena excesses of its musical genre in all their overscaled glory. Concert sequences lighting designer Glenn Wade, working most closely with production designer Mayne Berke, has created a lighting rig and stage picture to reflect the name of the film's fictional band, Steel Dragon. Cauldrons glow and smoke on either side of the set, while a staircase designed to evoke a dragon's tail curls around the drum stand. Overhead, three large illuminated ring trusses give a Close Encounters-like aura to the image, and the entire set is backed by a 72'-wide by 36'-high (22×11m) wall of light. Awesome.

“The interesting part of the process was trying to stay true to what was going on with rock and roll, especially heavy-metal, lighting design of the period,” says Wade, whose background is largely in lighting for TV programs like The Jon Stewart Show, in addition to large-format slide projection work for rock-and-roll shows. “It was lots of PAR cans, and the rigs were all about big blocks of color, big blocks of light. It was during that period — 1984, 85 — that Vari*Lites were just starting to be used by metal acts. At first, the time period of the film had been a little earlier, and we decided, no, we're not going to have any moving lights at all. Once they shifted it to 87, we decided to get some moving lights in there, maybe do some movement in the cueing process. But we kept the automation to a minimum.”

The story of Rock Star, which Warner Bros. is releasing September 7, is loosely based on the history of the metal band Judas Priest. Mark Wahlberg stars as Chris, a young man from working-class Pittsburgh who heads a Steel Dragon tribute band. Described as the greatest heavy-metal act going, Steel Dragon is nonetheless cursed with a drugged-out screw-up of a lead singer. A dueling competition between the group and the Pittsburgh tribute band reveals Chris' uncanny vocal mimicry abilities: out goes the screw-up, and into the spotlight Chris is thrust. The movie, directed by Stephen Herek, goes to great lengths to achieve verisimilitude: Steel Dragon is made up of musicians from real heavy-metal bands, including guitarist Zach Wilde, formerly with Ozzy Osbourne, and drummer Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. Wahlberg, of course, has a musical (if not metal) background under the name Marky Mark. And Jennifer Aniston, cast as Chris' girlfriend, often played the girlfriend in real life before marrying Brad Pitt.

It was important for the look of the concert sequences in Rock Star to be just right. Berke, who was on the project several months before DP Ueli Steiger and gaffer Jim Grce, knew Wade from New York University. “We were in the graduate design program at NYU together in the early 1980s,” says the LD. “Mayne was a lighting designer as well, but at NYU he got interested in production design and pursued that, so he has a very strong lighting background. He laid out sketches of what he wanted the set to look like. He had this whole circle idea in his head, so that led to the three ring trusses. And he had the idea of these cauldrons, and a big dragon's head that snakes around the drummer.” The dragon's head turned out to be too expensive, so the designers made do with the dragon's tail staircase topped by a Plexiglas platform about 25' (7.5m) above the floor of the set. Otherwise, the design remained more or less true to Berke's original sketches. “It was great coming into this, because Mayne had very strong ideas about which way he wanted it to go,” Wade says. “We were trying to stay true to the period, which was basically, ‘How many PAR cans can you get into this rig?’”

About 1,300, as it turned out. PAR-64s not only fill the ring trusses and three side trusses in either wing, but also the back wall, which grew out of Wade's initial consult with Berke. “I said to Mayne, ‘This is great, but we need something in the background,’” says the LD. “He said, ‘Could we do a really big wall of light?’” Wade came back with the 72'×36' backing, which was eventually covered by 480 ACL 250W PAR-64s.

When the design was completed, the project went out for bidding. “The first quotes were about $600,000 for the rental package, for about eight weeks between rehearsal and shooting,” says Wade. “I think I sent a couple of the producers to the hospital with that quote. They said, ‘Get it down to $240,000.’ So we cut back on rehearsal time by two weeks, and started redesigning, toning it down a bit, getting rid of some bigger lights. I got it down to $340,000.” Several companies weighed in with bids, but often something was lacking. “I was really adamant to find a shop that had up to 1,500 PAR cans and 30'-diameter circular trusses; I didn't want to custom-build them, because I knew it would cost a small fortune.

“Then I went to ELS [North Hollywood-based Entertainment Lighting Services], and had a meeting with Paul Dexter [production specialist] and Sharon Johl [rental manager, film and video], and they were totally enthusiastic,” says Wade. “Paul has a background in heavy-metal touring and rock-and-roll lighting from the 80s. I said to him, ‘How would you do this if I was coming to you for a tour?’ He threw out a bunch of suggestions, and it just started formulating to the point that ELS got the bid for the show. They went out and purchased all 480 ACLs for the back wall; they had everything else. They didn't have circular trusses, but they had octagonal ones they could make into circular shapes. For the center truss, I wanted to get as many PAR cans in a radial fashion as I could, and he suggested laying it out in bars of six. Same thing on the side units: They knew how to lay it out fairly easily and still be structurally sound. The nice thing about this project was that, between myself, Mayne, and Paul Dexter, we basically had three lighting designers.”

The venue chosen for the concert sequences was the Los Angeles Sports Arena, which the company took over for 21 days. For audience shots, a promotional concert with four actual bands was held at one point in the stadium. “Originally, we were supposed to be looking at a full tour and four or five different concerts over a one-year period,” Wade says. “When they realized how much that was going to cost, they decided to shoot it all in one place, with a little redressing.” But a good deal of visual variety was built into the concert scenes through different looks in the five songs that were staged. “They were all very different,” says the LD. “One was a slow ballad number, and one, ‘Blood Pollution,’ was sort of the showstopper song — on a regular tour, it would have been the encore number, maybe. Paul Dexter and I sat down and had a long session of listening to the music, and playing with different looks we could accomplish with the back wall and the overhead rings. ‘Blood Pollution’ was like getting smacked on the head, so we used almost the whole back wall bathed in red. The ballad number lent itself to softer blue-greens and lavenders. A couple of the other numbers, we used maybe just a few bars out of that back wall, and the overhead rings more. The songs spelled it out pretty simply.”

Dexter made another suggestion regarding the back wall: “The original idea was one massive, cumbersome unit, 15 rows across,” says Wade. “Paul said, ‘Why don't you break it up into three sections?’ It gave me total flexibility — I could bring them in and out, do cueing movements. I took away the top row of cans and put Wybron color scrollers on, because that worked out as a very good backlight position for the stage. The rest of them become more of a graphic thing, with all the smoke in the air.”

The smoke spewed from the two 12'-tall (3.6m) cauldrons to the left and right of the drum stand; the set itself was built on a deck 6' (2m) off the stage floor, with the drum stand positioned another 3' (1m) in the air. “On the floor underneath the deck we put two 7k xenon Syncrolites as straight uplights coming out of the cauldrons,” the LD says. “The cauldrons were craggled open in spots for an industrial look, and the Syncrolites provided a way to light the inside.” Also, Berke mounted 60"-diameter (1.5m) mirrors on top of the two side lighting rings. “We would blast these Syncrolites up into the mirrors, which were remote-controlled,” says Wade. “They would bounce back down pretty much wherever we wanted” [most commonly, as a backlight for the band's lead singer], “depending on where we gimbaled the mirrors. We had color scrollers on the Syncrolites as well, so we were able to do color inside the cauldrons.” Two 7W Spectraphysics Mini Yag lasers also shot out of the cauldrons at various moments, and pyro effects periodically jazzed things up.

The only automated fixtures in the stage rig that Wade used as such were three High End Systems Studio Spots®, one in the center of each overhead ring. “We used those a lot, because they were in a perfect position,” says the LD. “I could get anywhere on the stage with them. They really did some nice accents and beams.” In addition there were 11 more Studio Spots and 12 Studio Colors® in a front lighting truss. “Mostly, the positions were just diagonal backs and direct down and backlight positions, so I added a front-of-house truss,” Wade says. “It was to cover myself more than anything else. I put it way up high out of any sightline, because I didn't want those moving lights to be in the shot. I said to Paul Dexter, ‘Look, as tempting as it will be to get these things to start flashing and trashing, we've got to keep it to a minimum.’ There were a few moments where we did a couple of sweeps, stuff like that.”

Also in front were eight 3k Strong Gladiator xenon spotlights, which, when combined with five Lycian 1,200W HMI followspots in rear positions, helped reach the exposure needs of Steiger's film cameras. The DP and gaffer brought along some Mole-Richardson nine-light Molefays for audience fill, positioned some film lights for even more illumination under the deck, and shot backstage close-ups with small lighting stands. “I was anticipating having a bunch of things change once they saw the whole setup,” says Wade, who was on staff for several years with Imero Fiorentino Associates, and then opened and ran Production Arts Lighting's London office for three years, but had never worked on a film before Rock Star. “But they were very pleased with it all.” Stage and film lighting were both programmed by ELS's Sing To on two Avolites Diamond III consoles, which were run during the shoot by Dexter.

By far the most unconventional light used in the Rock Star rig was a 60" carbon arc searchlight. This was Berke's idea, originally conceived for the cauldrons. “Off he went with his art department to Valley Search Lights, and got the old World War II searchlights,” says Wade. “There are still lots of them around, used mostly on film premieres and stuff like that. And he built those cauldrons so these things could fit in.” Eventually, the LD convinced the production designer that the 7k xenons would fill the bill in less unwieldy fashion. But there are differences, he concedes: “Xenons are just as bright, but it's not as big a shaft of light. These searchlights are amazing, because they've got a parabolic reflector that holds the beam like nobody's business, especially at the kind of throw distances we're talking about. It doesn't spread at all.”

So one of the searchlights was kept for a key moment in the film, when Chris makes his first appearance onstage, at the top of the Plexiglas platform. “A lot of this was coming from the director, who was really into silhouette backlighting,” says Wade. “Mayne kept referring back to something he had done with Jennifer Tipton years ago — ‘She did this amazing backlight. That's what I want! When this guy is standing up there screaming out this song, I want everything to be black except for that white light on the back of him.’” Herek weighed in with a request for the backlit Wahlberg to raise his arms in “Jesus mode, for a strong cutout of this bigger-than-life figure.”

At the beginning of the song, the LD says, “the rig starts out with all three rings positioned just above the ground. As the song starts, along with the effects and the smoke, the trusses rise up, the lighting cues start, and the trusses come up into their final position.” Backstage, the nervous protagonist is followed as he rides a lift up the back of the staircase to the top of the platform. “As the music builds up to this climactic bang of the drums, everything goes black.” The searchlight, already heated up and going, but covered by a douser, is suddenly exposed — a 60" beam with a 40' (12m) throw through the clear platform, a powerful single source projecting a perfect silhouette of the new rock star to his screaming fans.

Though Wade found some aspects of the film experience perplexing — why, for example, was the period setting suddenly moved up into the later 80s? — he completely appreciates the chance to create such an effect. “It's a dream come true that you could get away with this stuff,” the LD says. It sounds like the movie bug has bitten.

Contact the author at


Glenn Wade

Sing To

Entertainment Lighting Services (ELS)
Paul Dexter, associate design


536 1kW NSP PAR-64s
480 250W ACL PAR-64s
108 Wybron color scrollers for PAR cans
69 ETC Source Four PARs
25 Mole-Richardson 1kW nine-light Molefays
1 60" carbon arc searchlight
14 High End Systems Studio Spots
12 High End Systems Studio Colors
3 Syncrolite 7k xenon Skylights with scroller
3 Strong Gladiator III xenon spotlights
5 Lycian Starklite II HMI 1,200W spotlights
2 Avolites Diamond III consoles
9 ETC 48x2.4kW dimmers
6 ETC 6x6kW dimmers
24 High End Systems Dataflash AF1000 strobes
2 Lightning Strikes 70,000W units
2 Spectraphysics Mini Yag lasers
2 High End Systems F-100 fog generators