When it comes to lighting, set, and projection design for concerts, there are a lot of technological firsts that happen on the road in our industry. While using hundreds of PARs for concerts used to be the latest and greatest in concert design, we've come a long way, from the introduction of moving-mirrors, to moving yoke lights, to the integration of video via media servers and LEDs.
UK-based architect and production designer Mark Fisher notes the biggest change in technology right now is the rise of LEDs and their lower price, allowing increase of use in more applications, “undoubtedly to be followed by three dimensional options or non-planar shapes is a better way of saying it,” says the longtime production designer for The Rolling Stones, as well as the designer for Pink Floyd's The Wall arena tour in 1980, among others.
“These things always appear in the entertainment business first because we have such an appetite for novelty,” Fisher continues. “When we opened U2's POP Mart tour, it was the largest touring LED screen in the world. Only a band like U2 could command something of that scale, but now, it's commonplace. If you think back to things like the Pepper's Ghost effect, we all exploit technology, and that tradition will continue.”
Justin Collie is principal performance environmental designer at Artfag, which has also just announced a partnership with Stuart White to form Control Freak Systems. The point of the new company is to develop Artfag's design philosophy into custom control solutions, including both hardware and software. These designers are designing not only shows, but also how they control their own shows. “Production design is in a constant state of flux, what with the rapid pace of technology and the innate desire for the new and unseen,” says Collie, who has designed recent tours for Bon Jovi, Beyoncé, and Mariah Carey, to name just a few. “I guess at this time, we see the merging of design disciplines with LED becoming part video, part lighting, part set,” he adds.
Lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe, who often collaborates with Fisher on tours for The Rolling Stones, recently designed lighting for the London leg of Live Earth, the 24-hour, seven-continent concert series that took place on July 7 and aimed at promoting a greener world, both in everyday life and in production. He notes that we all see that the lines between video and lighting are blurring, but that LEDs are really now a third element altogether. “The boundaries between these three disciplines continue to blur,” he says, “probably tending to favor LED, but only when the new products actually deliver the promise in terms of brightness and clarity.”
Fisher's biggest concern is not the technology, but the policies. He notes that in Europe, changes happening in health and safety restrictions, combined with concern for the environment, are changing the face of production, the scale of shows, and how they're toured, from how he once knew it. “There are both creative and administrative changes in this,” he says. “Safety will force a degree of planning which will be a huge change for many in the business — as well as a degree of providing much more information in advance. What seems to happen with a lot of businesses is that the cost of entry slowly goes up, because even though, for technical reasons, it becomes easier, it ends up becoming more expensive. This is going to make it more difficult for unqualified people to get started in the business. More qualifications require more certifications even at the ground level.”
Fisher envisions more rigorous certifications for actual hardware for safety purposes such as rigging, which he notes he would never contest, but there is another change that doesn't sit so well with the designer. “The idea of a 16-year-old with some problems who leaves home and finds his place in a lighting company, only later to become a great designer — that part will change, and it's a shame,” he says. “Most of the people I've worked with through the years — well, we were all absolutely unemployable in our teens!” He adds that the industry doesn't seem like it's as welcoming to those who aren't academically backed or certified in some way. “I already see it being eroded, which is a shame,” he says. “It's becoming homogenized and made like it's all going into banking. What we do is simple. It shouldn't be made to be difficult to get into.”
There will always be a need for hardworking crews, as all designers agree, but even those members of the production team are changing. “Crews now have to understand the technology that they use, but they still have to be much more than simple repair and installation people,” says Woodroffe. “The need for positive, able, good humored, and resourceful people will always be there to support a designer and his aspirations.” Fisher adds that he also sees this changing with the aforementioned increasingly stringent requirements. “We have fewer young, crazy people,” he notes. “People used to join a crew as much for the entertainment value as for a job. Once it becomes more of a job, it will change the type of person doing it. I think there's a value in the more rough and robust side of it as a sort of training ground for people who then become self-sufficient. There's a value on the wilder side. Most of the people I've met never had any formal education and went on to achieve these great things.”
And with such rapid advancements in the technology available, does it ever mark a change in how designers work? How much does emerging technology change or drive design, or are the two mutually exclusive? “We can pretend not to be affected by technology, but even the most traditional lighting designer is using intelligent lighting and digital desks and dimmers,” says Fisher. “To say we live in a technologically neutral world is not right, but the technology can't drive the creativity. If U2 hadn't had the ideas at the time of satirizing commercialism, we would never have imagined a huge LED screen. It's always just a tool.” Collie concurs, adding, “One hopes that technology does not drive the concept but rather is used to implement it.”
The designers seem to hold on strongly to their creative sides, rather than rely on the constant barrage of new tools available. “I try not to be led by the technology,” says Woodroffe. “It's always useful to have new and improved tools, but I'm much more interested in the story that we're trying to tell.” But what does it all mean to our future? “It's hard to say where technology will take us, but in the immediate future, I see more use of interactive elements within show design — the ability for performers and/or audience members to effect the visual output in real time,” says Collie. “Will there be drastic change? No, maybe, yes. Who knows where the technology will take us, but just look at where we were a decade ago.”
Woodroffe adds that robotics is an area to keep an eye on for the future, having already seen progress in the last few years in theatrical productions on Broadway and in London's West End. “Look out for lights that move through space, rather than simply within their own spheres,” he says.
And the role of the designer itself may, in fact, evolve along with this blurring of technologies and, perhaps, responsibilities, according to Collie. “On the one hand, the role of the designer has been constant since the invention of theatre — ‘make it look fabulous.’ On the other hand, how they do that is constantly evolving in terms of the tools available for use. One must always be able to work within new paradigms. Change is good.” Woodroffe notes that the designer's place hasn't changed very much, but that shows are really just getting better all the time. “He or she is still responsible for the creation of a show and then delivering it on time and on budget,” he says. “There is no doubt that, with more experience, the quality of design is improving all the time.”
Fisher also notes that he feels a sense of ownership, of sorts, about the role of the designer. “Having grown up helping to create the role of designer and knowing I was always competing with someone the band knew personally — it's not really a formal status,” he says. “On the one hand, I'm competing for jobs with people like LeRoy Bennett and Jeremy Railton, but on the other hand, my client could meet someone on a plane and think that person has a good idea and hire him. For now, certainly in the popular end of the entertainment business, I feel like I occupy the status of ‘cowboy.’ We don't have a rock and roll union!”
What has yet to change is the dedication and enthusiasm this industry elicits from its programmers, designers, rental houses, and professionals on all levels, but if changes make anyone consider new frontiers outside the industry, at least one designer isn't going anywhere soon. When asked if he will always stay in production, Collie simply challenges, “Try and stop me!”