All eyes were on the music industry on Sunday, February 8, when the 46th annual Grammy Awards were televised in high-definition by CBS from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, with hot acts on the bill like OutKast, White Stripes, Beyoncé, and 50 Cent. The production design was also a winner, with sets designed by Steve Bass and Brian Stonestreet and lighting by Bob Dickinson. Two 100'-wide multi-screen “bat wings” served as projection surfaces over the performance stages for an aerial, high-tech look.

“The production designers wanted to present a more tangible experience for the audience,” says Dickinson, explaining that Bass and Stonestreet stepped in for long-time Grammy designer Bob Keene, who passed away last summer. “Both had worked for Bob in the past, and their combined experience was fantastic,” Dickinson adds. Their concept included a wrap-around audience and a mosh pit in front of the stages, with a central awards stage flanked with two performance stages that were a necessity for a show with this amount of live production.

“This is the fifth year that the Grammy's have been done in an arena rather than a theatre,” says Dickinson, noting that the loss of Keene “was quite dramatic for our little industry. He was always stretching the format to bring the Grammy's into the world of dual and triple stages. He spearheaded this movement in awards shows. The arena has the scale that sets this genre of awards show apart and adds to the energy. It wouldn't work for the Oscars.”

This year's designers also minimized the architecture on the stage in terms of scenic design. For Dickinson, this opened the door to approach an awards show in a whole new way. “I was worried that our work on design shows was all beginning to look the same,” he says. “We do what's expected, what the producers are comfortable with.” As Dickinson does a raft of awards show every year, including the Academy Awards, he was ready to experiment with a new look.

“I decided to be more experimental with the exposure or contrast the light radically,” he continues. “That is traditionally considered a no-no in our industry, but I was allowed to try this kind of creative shenanigans this time, thanks to the producers.” To get the high contrast in the lighting, Dickinson would set the camera iris to a certain aperture, then play with the light levels, sometimes leaving just enough footcandles on a person accepting an award. Sometimes, he'd lose the performers altogether for a minute. “Then they would move, and you'd see them in an incredible haze of white light,” he says. “As long as the video operator didn't change the camera, we could play around with the light levels.”

For “Seven Nation Army/Death Letter,” the edgy songs performed by the White Stripes, there was no scenery and just two people on stage. “It felt like we wanted to fill the space,” says Dickinson, “yet I didn't want to use traditional shafts of light or gobos.” Instead, he took a Martin Professional MAC 2000 placed upstage center and focused it directly into the camera to increase the intensity. On other songs, the lighting was more underexposed on the singers' faces by hitting them from very extreme angles with very little fill light. “This is less traditional than making a big statement with color,” says Dickinson. “I used the lack of light to set the mood. The production designers forced me to be creative as there were no vertical planes to light, and the light reads only on the people.”

The color palette was based on the decision to use white light as the reference point. “I allowed the music to dictate the color for any particular song,” says Dickinson. “You can't do a big power ballad in soft lemon, and you can't shake things up too much.” His rule of thumb is to use rich, cool hues for ballads and slow songs and warmer, more energetic colors for the up-tempo songs. “Yet nothing is etched in stone,” he warns.

Replacing traditional scenery were the two “bat-wings” made of projection screens, as well as a large disk-shaped set piece that looked not unlike a flying saucer that tilted and moved. “The designers resisted pigeon-holing the set into a style,” says Dickinson. “There is no real architectural reference. I found it very whimsical and attractive in its whimsy.” At first, the design concept was to light the wings with ancillary projections, but, eventually, the projection concept became more integral to the show, and many of the acts used custom projections.

Projection technology, provided by the California-based company American Hi Definition (AHD), included 32 Lightning three-chip projectors by Digital Projection International (DPI) of Kennesaw, GA, for a mix of standard and high-definition serial digital video and graphics imagery. Ady Gil, co-owner of AHD, served as the projection engineer for the show. The projectors had double duty: 24 were used for the bat wings and the remaining six on four HDTV screens.

The bat-wing screens towered over the stage, with trim for some of the lighting instruments as far up as 80'. Dickinson worked with Ed Kish of Kish Rigging in Simi Valley, CA, to create custom lighting trusses that would enhance the design. “We played around with the truss design and didn't want to destroy the grace of those wings,” Dickinson explains. As a result, a series of long trusses echo the shape and energy of the wings, with organic shapes that bend to follow the wings.

In fact, Dickinson needed some pretty serious trussing for a rather large lighting rig. “I may have hit a record for moving lights,” he says, his rig just shy of 1,000 automated fixtures (see equipment list). “The rig is fully automated, except for some audience lights. This gives me ultimate flexibility, and we have to hang fewer instruments, which is important given the time restraints.” The lighting equipment was supplied by VLPS in Glendale, CA.

Dickinson worked with programmers Andy O'Reilly and Matt Firestone (see crew list), each running a Virtuoso VX console during the show. “Two consoles, two go buttons,” says Dickinson. “The consoles were not slaved, as there are slight timing adjustments to be made throughout the show. One console might wait for the scenery to clear completely, while the cues on the other console have to come in immediately.”

Two programmers are required for the sheer size of the show. There is actually a third programmer, as well, Gil Samuelian, who runs another board for the conventional lighting. “One programmer could never enter all that information,” Dickinson adds. “Each one can be working on a different sequence. They make my job rather easy.”

“Without a doubt, the Grammy's is one of the largest shows produced,” notes Susan Tesh, general manager for VLPS Lighting Services. “On all shows, but especially one this large and this high-profile, strategic redundancy and back up is paramount. Live-to-air shows rely on sophisticated system control that minimizes single points of failure. One advantage of the Virtuoso's networked distributed processing system is the redundancy, status and performance feedback of networked components. The bi-directional and loop properties of the Virtuoso network allow continual active redundancy and system information which allows for trouble shooting of any component failure before it effects other networked components. This capability can be achieved over long distances and cannot be accomplished in a standard DMX system. Using the Virtuoso system allows creativity to come first.”

“The biggest challenge, by far, is the amount of time we have,” says O'Reilly. “There is just a seven-day window when there are no sports events at the Staples Center. We have a three-day load-in and three days of rehearsals and camera. Then, we go live on the seventh day. We often work double shifts trying to make seven days into 11 or 12.”

While O'Reilly and the other programmers/board ops are in the building, Dickinson is primarily outside in the remote broadcast truck, so that he sees what the camera sees. “We do TV shows of this nature all year,” says O'Reilly. “There is a formula: award, performance, bumper shot to a commercial. We know the basic format, and we just start punching the cues in. Most of the programming is done during rehearsals with the cameras. Bob comes and looks at what we have done and adds comments about color, for instance. It's a collaborative process.”


Lighting Designer

Bob Dickinson

Lighting Director/Virtuoso Programmer

Andy O'Reilly

Senior Virtuoso Programmer

Matt Firestone

Conventional Board Operator

Gil Samuelian

VLPS Account Manager

Susan Tesh

VLPS Lighting Crew Chief

Steve Oleniczak

VLPS Lead Techs

Dave Serralles
Mike Prosceo

VLPS Techs

Kenny Ackerman
Adam Burton
Geoff Smith
Mark Villa

VLPS Account Manager

Susan Tesh

Selected Lighting Equipment

Wash Luminaires
394 Vari-Lite VL5
163 Vari-Lite VL5Arc
159 Martin MAC2000
Spot Luminaires
33 Vari-Lite VL6C
72 Vari-Lite VL7
102 Vari-Lite VL3000
6 1.2kW HMI Lycian Starklite truss-mounted
9 2kW Strong Super Trouper II xenon long-throw
1 ETC Obsession console
2 VLPS Virtuoso VX G5 control systems
404 1kW Thomas, Tomcat, TMB ProCans, PAR64 on 70 lamp bars
125 Martin Professional Atomic Strobes
156 ETC Source Four 19° ellipsoidals
7 500W Palace single-cell cyc lights

16 × 6' Altman and L&E Ministrips
ETC 48-way Sensor dimmer racks

Lighting Company VLPS Lighting Services & PLS