Chatting with Jeff Ravitz, creative consultant for the first-ever Concert Master Classes
LD: Tell us about how you became a lighting designer?
JR: I loved the theatre and wanted to be a part of it in any way. I had nobody to counsel me, so the obvious path to begin the journey was to be an actor. I grew up close to Manhattan, so I had access to Broadway as an occasional treat, and when I saw those shows, like the original productions of Fiddler, The Odd Couple, Man Of La Mancha, etc, I was fascinated by the lighting. My high school had a few border lights and Lekos, period, so I had no idea of how lighting worked.
At Northwestern University, I concentrated on acting, but because I had to solve the mystery of how lighting worked, I took every class and independent study. Also, my roommate happened to be future Broadway designer Craig Miller, who arrived to college already knowledgeable in the subject, and he talked about it non-stop.
So, I did summer stock every year and, of course, you do everything there. And, after I graduated and began finding acting jobs, I filled in the gaps designing lighting. All my friends knew it was my real passion, anyway. Well, one day, the Grateful Dead came through, and Candace Brightman’s lighting transported me somewhere I never knew I could go. It was “tangible” lighting, often just for its own sake—beauty-color-gargantuan scale-bumps and flashes-beams in the air-wonderful lighting. Not at all as I had been taught, to make the lighting invisible. Well, that did it. I had to be a part of whatever magic had brought this kind of design to Planet Earth.
A month later, I answered an ad in a local arts newspaper for “national recording group looking for lighting designer.” First, I drove the van all night, then I set up the drums and piano, and then finally, I got to hang about 15 lights and run two shows a night for about three years—heaven.
LD: What was your first “big gig?”
JR: I had developed a good reputation around Chicago and became friendly with the Styx band and crew. One day, they needed a new LD, and I got the call. We supported huge groups like Aerosmith, Rush, and Kiss, but we also did our fair share of our own headline shows in smaller towns and venues. I still had the theatre in my blood, and that really drove my design aesthetic. Plus, Styx was über theatrical, and I think we were just looking for each other all those years and didn’t know it. Once they started talking about their ideas and I began to get inspired, we went on to become one of the biggest headline acts of that era with some pretty theatrical rock shows.
LD: What is different about concert production today than it was when you started?
JR: Intelligent lighting, for one thing—except for our last tour in the ‘80s, we accomplished all our lighting conventionally. In the earliest days, our tours even pre-dated the existence of color scrollers. If you wanted two colors, you needed two lights. The setups were huge if you were a big act, just to get the variety needed to get through a two-hour show. And, you just had to think differently in the design phase back then. If your show was just six washes and some followspots, perhaps a generic design would work, but I liked very complex cueing, which required a lot of specials and odd focuses, angles and hanging positions. That meant really thinking my way through the show in advance to decide exactly where each light should be to give me the look and effect I wanted for each moment of each song. I had to visualize the entire show, just as I might do for a play or musical. Today, to a large degree, I think it’s more possible to hang lots of automated fixtures and then decide what to do later in the game. Because if a new, last-minute idea occurs to a designer who has automated fixtures, he or she has a decent chance of making that idea happen—more than if you have only fixed focus conventional lights.
Computers and fax machines didn’t exist at the beginning, either. So, communications on the planning end of the business was quite a bit slower, and therefore, the expectation of instantaneous results was more in line with reality. Even the largest stage setups were about 25% smaller. When I look back at old plots, as I’ve done recently, I’m amazed and amused by what I thought was “big” back then.
LD: Who inspires your work?
JR: I’m a fan of the Masters and always hearken back to great art like Rembrandt and Vermeer. It’s based in nature and candlelight, but always dramatic and meaningful. In the lighting world, I have so many idols. I don’t want to leave anyone out, because there’s a potentially long list. People who stand out from the days when I was most influenced are moving light genius-pioneer, Jonathan Smeeton, Broadway designer Jules Fisher, and breakthrough designers Steve Cohen, Peter Morse, Alan Branton, and Marc Brickman, but there are many more. And, don’t let me forget to mention my inspiring lighting professor, Delbert Unruh.
Lately, I’ve concentrated on television lighting, and that’s been a wonderful evolution in thought process and design style for me. To think in terms of the close-up and the wide shot is a revelation of what light can do. As a live show designer, my lighting was cinematic, I think: I directed the audience to see a close-up when I selected one thing on stage to the exclusion of everything else. Then, I showed a wide shot or a two-shot, etc as I determined how and where to focus attention. Now, the camera does that, and every audience member is in the front row, seeing detail that requires sensitive, precise lighting to convey drama and beauty. I’m very lucky and thrilled to have the opportunity to work in this field.
LD: Tell us about the Concert Master Classes? It must be fun to be heading up this first-ever event of its kind.
JR: It’s an honor and a chance to pass along and share knowledge and ideas. I’ve always thought about the many, many things that I’ve learned by hard core experience and how long it took. But, today, there’s too much for young designers to master before they can successfully practice their art. So why can’t we “cut to the chase” and reveal some of those processes so they can learn from our experiences? That’s paying it forward, in my mind, and it serves to make the entire industry better. I’m very excited for the chance to craft the Concert Master Classes and make them better each successive year.
LD: What’s the coolest innovation for concerts you’ve seen in the last five years? In the last year?
JR: There are so many things, but the work that’s being done with video as background and scenic elements has taken concert visuals to an entirely higher level. I’m thinking of low and high resolution screens, but also low resolution LED fixtures that can create scenic elements unto themselves but are actually lighting.
I do think, or dream, that the future will be digital lighting fixtures that are bright enough to give us the output we currently expect from typical 700W-1,500W intelligent fixtures and have the capability to deliver standard lighting and colors, or patterns and video, all from a digital server. It just makes sense that we are heading in that direction—less moving parts, more choices.
LD: What do you plan to discuss at the first-ever Concert Master Classes?
JR: I’m going to open the session with an overview of design and quickly get to today and where we’re heading. I want to explore the mentality of supporting the music with lighting, what works and what doesn’t, visually, and why we might use one sort of fixture “here” and a different one “there” on a particular lighting system.
Then, I’m going to introduce our illustrious faculty and give everyone an idea of what they will see and hear over the next two days.
LD: Who’s session are you looking forward to hearing at the Classes?
JR: Okay, now I’m choosing which child is my favorite! How can I do that? But, to be honest, I’m quite interested in the topics of Interaction of Designers and Programmers, as well as the sessions that give a glimpse into the brainwaves of some of our favorite and most respected designers like Peter Morse, Anne Militello, and Paul Dexter. Butch Allen and Bob Bonniol are on the absolute cutting edge of today’s design aesthetic. Butch is an “auteur” of design, and Bob makes digital images that take video to another level. So, I can’t wait for their talk. You know I’m in love with the idea of how to light a live show for TV, and Lee Rose is one of the best. I’ll be taking notes, for sure. But, when all is said and done, we all want to get paid, don’t we? That’s where Michael Brokaw and Jim Moody will give us some insights and tips on how to be businesslike and solvent! So, I’ll be looking forward to all the sessions, honestly!