Do Too Many LDs Throw Effects at the Audience?

Paul Dexter may be one of the most outspoken guys in the lighting industry. In print and in person, he's rather witty, but beneath it all is a sharp-eyed observer of the world of lighting, especially on the concert scene. From his desk at ELS (Entertainment Lighting Services) in Los Angeles, where his title is production design associate, Dexter has a clear view of what's going on in the industry. He oversees a wide range of projects, from sales and rentals of lighting equipment to design consultation and on-site coordination. He also occasionally takes on a freelance lighting design job. At LDI2002 in Las Vegas, he will present a panel entitled “Stop That!” Ellen Lampert-Gréaux has a pre-LDI chat with Dexter to find out more.

ELG: What do you mean by “Stop That!”?

PD: I've noticed that a lot of LDs have an overwhelming desire to overuse moving lights and it diminishes their effects. They have become so rapid that fundamental theatre has taken a back seat to how many times the stage can change in one song, so “Stop That!” The drama of a show is achieved by big contrasts. Contrast provides a comparison. The art of maximizing one simple effect into explosive drama has just about vanished. It has reached the point where my favorite part is the blackout at the end.

ELG: How do you feel about the advent of moving lights in the concert touring business? Have they replaced PAR cans and is that a good thing?

PD: Moving lights are, arguably, one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century for theatre and touring. They are exceedingly flexible, but they are not a lighting panacea. Many lighting designs these days use moving fixtures as the primary light source, excluding conventional fixtures. Unless you are lighting a set most of the time, it creates an air graphic that results in a very clinical, geometrical look. There's far too much of it out there. Has it replaced the PAR can? No. PARs have an entirely different beam shape, intensity, and color temperature. You need to mix intelligent fixtures with PAR cans to achieve still layering and dimension and provide a contrast for moving-light special effects.

ELG: Can you develop the idea of contrasts and layers in lighting? How do you mix moving and still, or intense and soft?

PD: It is possible to alter depth perception using intensity variation, soft beams, and color mixes cut with hard-edged beams. Create a stage picture and make it still. Does it look good to you? Okay, then leave it alone and let people appreciate it. Intensity and movement will be valued more if a still scene paves the way for it. The manipulation of high contrasts is the key to achieving the best dramatic effects.

ELG: How should a designer pace a show and keep from revealing all in the first five minutes? What do you mean by foreplay in terms of concert lighting?

PD: How come you can ask me two questions at once? Stop that! First, avoid playing lights like music. Let entertainment be entertainment. You are there to complement and add value to the performance, not become a member of the band. Second, list all of your available effects. Obtain a song list and organize them in places where they can be the most dazzling. Then write yourself a script for every song and stick to it. Foreplay is a sex analogy that I use relating to a lighting approach, writing a business letter, or organizing my day. If your approach is to go into the bedroom and climax as quickly as possible, chances are your partner will soon become your ex-partner. No! It's all about build-up and stretching out your assets, saving the best for last. Trust me, if you don't already know, it's better. Start prioritizing effects in this way and your show will immediately take on a new energy.

ELG: How do you build an element of surprise in your shows?

PD: I study my show and build it with a beginning, middle, and end. If you take a rig full of effects that you could potentially extend out over an hour, but instead opt to give away the prize in the beginning, you're boring and I am going to kick you out of my bedroom. I often see so many consecutive contrasts in light and movement that it desensitizes audiences and keeps you from pulling off something simple.

ELG: Is there a better way to design?

PD: Let me see what you have to offer. Give some foreplay and hold your effects close to your chest. For example, what if you had moving lights in the rig, but didn't use them until the fifth song? Then, in the middle of the fifth song, at the start of a dynamic guitar solo, black out everything and sweep all your moving fixtures to the guitarist. People's hearts will drop to their stomachs. Save another huge effect and hit them again in the same song about a minute later. You've reserved until then and now, out of the blue, big drama. Pacing your show with tease and foreplay, using less gadgetry in the beginning, will pay dividends. Your sex partner will come back for more too.

ELG: Do you have a “pet” technology — lights you love to use — and why?

PD: I don't. Once the foundation of practicality and general coverage is established, I fill in with little lights like the PAR-20, ropelight, strobes, sometimes fluorescents, or hide a Molefay somewhere. Little accents can make a normal scene really pop and produce a surprise element.

ELG: What are some of your favorite recent projects?

PD: Rock Star, the movie, and Hiro Yamagata's exhibit, NGC6093. They were two totally different projects with sky-is-the-limit creative collaboration with some incredibly talented artists. I learned a lot.

ELG: How were they equipped?

PD: Rock Star involved a retro, mid-80s PAR can rig with 1,200 fixtures, about 20 moving lights, and 13 tons of rigging and truss. Yamagata involved 120 moving lights of five varieties.

ELG: Good contrast? Good foreplay?

PD: As far as contrast, I could let effects out early for the movie, because we figured the edit room would take care of the reveals. In this instance, the LD was not the arbiter of foreplay. I used full stage looks and big changes most of the time. NGC6093 was all about contrasts. Lighting would move from dark and serene, with wavy laser projection and slow-moving water simulation, to chaotic strobing with 25kW Lightning Strikes units. It was very disorienting and the foreplay concept went right out the window.

ELG: What's up your sleeve for the “Stop That!” panel at LDI?

PD: We — LD Phil Ealy, Dizzy Gosnell of Bandit Lites, and I — are going to take a rock song, strip it down, and script it, revealing our tricks along the way. We will build the song on WYSIWYG, demonstrate the process, and the audience will see a finished, polished light show. Dizzy is very funny, Phil is serious, and I will be the mediator, making sure that we accomplish a beginning, middle, and end.

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