If you think the Rolling Stones never give up touring the planet, wait until you get a look at King Tut's current US tour. After stops in Los Angeles, Ft. Lauderdale, and Chicago, the tour heads to London and Japan. Not bad for a boy king who died over 3,000 years ago under mysterious circumstances. Heading up the design for Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs are AEG Exhibitions, Arts and Exhibitions International, National Geographic, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, McMillan Group, Inc., and lighting designer Rick Belzer.
A seasoned theatrical lighting veteran with assisting duties to such industry luminaries as Tharon Musser (They're Playing Our Song, Chapter Two) and David Hersey (Cats, Starlight Express), not to mention designing his own Broadway shows (Marlowe, Manny), and designing Andrew Lloyd Webber shows internationally including Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph, Starlight Express, and 19 productions of Cats, Belzer never understood the museum world's mentality of essentially wash lighting everything. “I try to focus on the objects and then wash the background,” he explains. “I fight really hard to have control over the elements. We have the ability to use gels and dim and really balance the background.” Instead, an edict came in to use the museum's track lighting (the Los Angeles County Museum Art for the first leg of the tour). “So at the end of the day, you're sitting there with a 20W bulb that's too bright, and I want a 10W bulb, but they don't make one [for that fixture]. Then you start to cut out a window screen and stick it in to the fixture to knock down the levels! In the end, after much haggling, we got 85% of the exhibit controlled as we originally wanted.” Sam Renbert was Belzer's associate LD.
According to the McMillan Group's Charlie McMillan who, with his wife Nancy, served as the exhibit's lead designers, the goal was to create a journey for the visitor that would take them from Egyptian bazaars to sweltering deserts to enclosed tombs and beyond and lighting was integral in achieving those environments. “It's an interesting mix because there was a delicate balance between traditional art museum lighting and trying to use lighting as a major design element,” McMillan explains. “The effects may be somewhat subtle but they were critical in telling the story and pulling the objects together to create continuity.”
As the title of the tour implies, the artifacts on display are not just from King Tut's tomb, but also from rulers and the time period prior to Tut's birth, especially his father, quite a controversial figure in his day. Visitors' first experience in the exhibit is a film that puts the viewer in the age of the pharaohs. For the theatre and the exhibit's entry, Belzer discovered a new way to bring subtle color into the scheme via Hurricane, UT-based SFX Lighting. Instead of using gels or traditional filters, SFX sprayed the desired color directly onto the lamp. The company custom sprayed 90W flood lamps that went into Lightolier PAR38 cans to match Lee 776, Belzer says. “They can match any gel color you want, and they just spray the bulb so you're not messing around trying to gel a fixture that wasn't meant to be gelled.”
Lightolier fixtures were on the museum's house track, and other PAR cans were Thomas Short Noses along with ETC Source Four® Lekos and PARs. Belzer used TMB baby PARs — 110V PAR16s with a 9° MR lamp — called Stubby PARs in tight spaces where there was no room for transformers. Heat was also an issue because Belzer certainly didn't want children to get their fingers burned. After searching high and low for the right 110V lamp, he discovered the Stubby PARs that were bright enough, were able to be gelled, and kept a 2” gap between the lamp and the fixture opening.
Once the film is over, the next step is the first gallery of the exhibit that McMillan says has almost the highest light levels possible for a museum in order to give the feeling of being in a desert. This gallery features the objects of everyday Egyptian life and is equipped with ETC Source Fours, PAR20 spots, Lighting & Electronics MR16 striplights, TMB and Thomas PAR56 MFLs, and Lightolier PAR38 spot and flood fixtures.
Another gallery has a more reverent tone in the lighting as it features religious icons from the era. “The lighting takes on a different quality and drops in levels because the objects needed less light and the feeling of the space went from a bazaar-like feel to formality,” McMillan says. To bring reverence to the artifacts, Belzer used Source Fours, BDI Lights PL-1000 pin spots, and MR16s. Meanwhile, another gallery is devoted to Tutankhamun's father and the color and saturation is more intense as the centerpiece of the room is a huge bust of the elder Tut with lighting created to mimic shafts of sunlight beaming down upon the statue. The addition of sidelight lets the lighting take part in the storytelling, McMillan adds. Again, Source Fours were abundant as were PL-1000 pin spots, PAR20 floods, and PAR16 spots.
For a gallery devoted to burial and the afterlife, the light levels reach a new low, so to speak. This gallery was a challenge because of the room's shape — a cartouche or irregular oval — with projected images of Egyptian hieroglyphics depicting various stages of the “journey of the dead” from a central point in the room. Attempts to create the effect using Source Four Zooms and gobos were not getting the desired effect, and Belzer was preparing to cut it when Frans Klinkenberg from Angstrom Lighting invited Belzer to his shop 20 minutes away. Klinkenberg had modified a Selecon Pacific Zoom to hold 3×4 slides, thus creating a projector. “The optics are unbelievable,” Belzer says. “You don't have any fall-off at the edge of the image; it's sharp across the whole field. The lensing is amazing, and they go from 30° to 75°, which I didn't even know you could get. We put one up [in the gallery to try it out] then we bought [five] the next day.”
The various hieroglyph projections were created by McMillan on his laptop, printed up on film, and then put into the projectors to see how it looked on the walls. “We spent a couple of long nights doing that,” McMillan says. “But the end result was pretty cool because it adds to the stylization of the tomb and makes the objects themselves important.” Once the achieved result was created, the film was sent out to be made into a slide overnight. “You didn't have any time to deal with waiting for a glass gobo to be made, then sticking it in, and seeing that the keystoning is still messed up,” Belzer says.
Glass fiber optics supplied by Lighting Services, Inc. provided extra punch in a gallery devoted to Tut's legacy. “We wanted to get as much light as we could on the objects while also keeping the color balance,” McMillan says. “Ken Kane [LSI's vice president of product and market development] stopped by the studio often and the package they gave us was simply flawless. We got exactly what we needed from those glass fiber optics.” LSI supplied the FOMH-150C Illuminator, Custom Glass Fiber Optic Harnesses, and FOLE adjustable spotlights.
Unlike traditional exhibit lighting where there may be one or two instruments trained on an object, Belzer ended up hitting some objects from six different positions to get all the little details. “It's much more about control, dimming, and different angles,” he explains. “It helps to have a soft glow on the floor in a dark room. You aim a light on a teeny detail, and it just pops out. It just becomes richer. The gold on an object becomes that much more gold.”
Belzer programmed Tut on a ETC Express™ 250 console and switched over to a SmartFade, which was originally only used for backup in the theatre. Budgetary constraints did not allow for a console purchase, so the Express 250 was rented until the tour opened. He is hoping to get an Express 250 once the tour settles in Ft. Lauderdale so he can have plenty of submasters when the inevitable phone call comes to make the hieroglyphics brighter. “I'm a big ETC fan,” he says. “I've been using their consoles for 20 years; it's what I spec on my touring shows.”
Aside from lighting the objects, the biggest challenge the design team faced was dealing with the curators. “They were concerned with the archival accuracy of color,” McMillan says. “A lot of people involved in this were from entertainment field and [the curators] were afraid we were going to bring in disco balls and lasers.”
According to Belzer, who will have lit seven different exhibits by the end of 2005, too much of the focus in traditional exhibit lighting is on the objects and nothing else, and by providing ambient lighting in other areas and not just typical white light from tracks, a better balance in the space can be achieved. Belzer, who also designed the lighting for Titanic: The Artifacts Exhibition, which is selling out on various tours around the US and the world, feels that introducing a more theatrical style of lighting to museums will make the exhibits more appealing for the average person. Considering Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs received a glowing review on the front page of The New York Times — mentioning the lighting three times — Belzer may be onto something.
Tut & Company stays at LACMA until November 15th. Then moves to the Museum of Art in Ft. Lauderdale, The Field Museum in Chicago and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia before traveling abroad to London and Japan.