It is pathetic how little I know about cars. I grew up in New York and, rather than admired, cars were something to be avoided. Even today, when I hear friends and colleagues discussing different design aspects of a new vehicle, I have trouble developing an aesthetic. “What a great rear end,” they'll exclaim. “But I am surprised at the casual application of European styling.” It sounds somehow obscene. Or like a joke. Or an obscene joke.

However, I love lighting automobiles; there is no discipline in industrial design I would rather pursue. When a producer calls with a new opportunity, of course I am excited. There is no business like new business. If the client then mentions it's an automotive project, I am thrilled. I start flipping through the calendar frenetically, hoping that I can make it work.

I think a lot of people feel this way. When I'm talking to colleagues and ask the inevitable, “What have you been up to?” I can see their eyes glaze over citing the usual: “I did a drug launch…a computer show…a financial meeting.” Before we all collapse into a coma of mutual boredom, someone says, “I just did the Volkswagen National Dealer Meeting.” Everyone perks up. “How was it? Any talent? Who was the choreographer? How were the reveals?” In a sea of sameness, car shows stand out as something to be coveted.

Let's examine this car show phenomenon. We'll look at the three main categories of automotive production: the national dealer meeting, the press event, and the auto show booth. For each, we'll compare the design aesthetic and challenges associated with that genre and then explore what it is about car shows, in general, that makes them exciting to design.

National Dealer Meeting: The Theatrical Reveal

I think it's important to point out that, in the United States, it is illegal for automakers to sell directly to the public. Ford Motor Company can't decide to open a Ford Store in your local mall and have Ford employees standing in the parking lot trying to sell you a brand new Escort. Therefore, they operate via a system of franchised dealerships, individually owned and operated businesses that sell the vehicles. The Ford dealership on the corner of your street is owned, most likely, by a person who is in that dealership right now, stressing about profit and loss, wondering how to save money on his cleaning service, buying newspaper ads, etc. All this is done on a local level, largely without the influence of the automaker.

The dealers are, in a sense, the automaker's customers. Therefore, the automaker has to convince them, in the short term, to order more Escorts for the lot and, in the long term, to trust Ford to remain a prominent brand relevant to their marketplace.

The national dealer meeting is the time for the automaker to sell his brand and products to the dealers, to explain that the new Escort is a great car and worthy of a major order. Also, it's a great time to explain how the brand remains salient in a sea of brands: “Stick with Ford. We are running national ads, kids love us, we are safety-conscious, etc.”

Dealers aren't required to attend these meetings, but when they do, they want to be entertained and excited about what they are seeing. Therefore, these meetings are very theatrical, more like a legit show than, I would suggest, any other kind of industrial. When I tell friends from the theatre that I work on corporate, these are the shows they picture — dancing girls, lasers, pyro, flying talent. It doesn't get better than this!

The introduction of each new vehicle model (a “reveal” in car-show parlance) often begins with a choreographed number, complete with a company of dancers, exciting videos, and driving, up-tempo music. As the soundtrack builds to a crescendo, the product is revealed, often in a surprising way. I've done shows where cars have popped out of a balloon, appeared from a scrim of water, risen out of the floor, and been lowered from the ceiling.

Following the reveal, there is almost always a “features and benefits” video that details what makes the product new and better than any other car before it. An executive will then speak about the car, highlighting that fabulous rear-end or European styling. There is also the inevitable presentation by a marketing executive who will screen the national commercial campaigns planned for the next year. Arguably, there is nothing more perverse than sitting in an arena with 7,000 car dealers watching television commercials played at 110 decibels, but I tend to look forward to it. It's unique to hear people applaud after a TV spot, but you get used to it after a while.

It seems pedestrian to suggest the biggest challenge of these shows is time. Since we look forward to them, it's often frustrating to realize that we aren't going to have the time we'd like to light each production number or perfect each reveal. Also, because there is top-notch creative staff involved, like real choreographers and creative directors, it's often frustrating to not be able to proceed slowly and collaborate to produce a more ideal show. When a person you respect says, “I'd really like some more contrast to pull out the upstage line of dancers,” it's disturbing to glance over at your client trying to hang himself because he is so over budget with overtime. “Er, let me cut down the producer, and I'll see if we can do these notes over lunch,” is often the best answer.

Auto Show Booth: Corporate Challenge

The national auto show circuit consists of three (or four) major shows each year, as well as countless minor ones. The major shows are in Detroit, Chicago, New York, and to some extent, Los Angeles. Of all these events, none is larger or more important than the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) held in Detroit. Although it's the hottest auto show in terms of its press coverage and the products introduced, the show is in January, and it is very cold… very, very, very cold.

If people think of national dealer meetings when they think of industrials in general, there is no doubt that, when you tell people you light cars, they think of booth lighting or lighting a display of products seen by the public. Auto show events are huge and take months and months of pre-production. The Detroit show loads-in before Thanksgiving, when it is cold, and loads out in mid-January, when it is arctic.

The brief here, of course, is to light the products. There are no dancers or talent to worry about, no creative directors. You do have about a million cars to light, and all of the competition is within arm's reach. There are also extremely complex booth elements to light, involving everything from walls of fire to waterfalls. And video, both high and low resolution, is becoming a bigger and bigger component.

The challenges in these shows are substantial. Although there are no creative directors to disappoint, the automakers are on site from the outset of the project and, as end clients, they are free to make changes throughout the load-in. This means that the light plot you've developed to treat 50 cars may have to be changed 50 times as, inevitably, 10 cars get moved once, and one car gets moved 40 times.

The methodology on the floor often reminds me of doing architectural installs. It's as close to construction as you can imagine: everyone is there to do a job and do it well. However, no one has the slightest concern as to how his work may affect others. If the display company gets a punch list of 15 things to accomplish on an overnight call, and the 15th thing is to move a car that will have to be relit, you can guarantee they'll do that at the end of the call without telling you. You will, of course, notice it has moved out of your lighting just after you break your crew for the night.

These events bring together the best and brightest in the display industry, as well as the inevitable conglomeration of trades needed to put these shows together. We all are used to dealing with union labor and, indeed, prefer it on projects. However, it can be complicated to distinguish between a laborer, a carpenter, and a decorator when you just need a hamper moved so your lift crew can get into position. But as strict as the work rules are in Detroit, Motor City feels like a hippie commune compared to Chicago and New York.

The Press Event: Lighting The Message

Finally, there's the press event. These events have an almost opportunistic feel to them. All of the automakers have booths at the auto shows, and the press is going to cover the auto show. Why not invite them in a few days early to cover what's coming? Of course, the automakers don't want the press just randomly walking around reporting on whatever they feel like. Therefore, each automaker holds a press conference where they do a short presentation for the press and one or two reveals of the new products they will be introducing at the show.

I enjoy these events immensely because they often combine the best elements of the national dealer meetings with a relatively short running time for the show itself. For example, a press event may stage a reveal complete with dancers, pyro, and lasers if they are really trying to capture the attention of the press. In past years, cars have driven through plate glass windows or up the sides of buildings, spun around in an actuator and, this year, been revealed in a pile of dirt hosed off by the New York City Fire Department.

The challenges of these shows abound. Of course, there is no more time to rehearse these events than national dealer meetings. There are additional issues, too, because you are often doing your show in the real estate occupied by the booth itself. Once your show loads out, the booth guys need to come in, set their cars, and be ready to open to the public the next day. This means that you often have to integrate your system with theirs, always physically, but sometimes, you'll share consoles and gear. This means inevitable design compromise, but this sort of collaboration has always existed, and people work hard to get along.

I think what makes these projects so exciting is that, in all three applications, the lighting is critically important to the success of the show. In the dealer meetings and the press events, we get to tap our theatrical aesthetic to pull off a show that is interesting and entertaining. At an auto show, the lighting is what distinguishes one booth from another. It's what draws the public from one automaker into your client's booth.

Most importantly, the automotive world is a field where design is critical. When you walk through the North American International Auto Show and look at the quality and vision that goes into the displays, it's stunning. The best and the brightest have come together to create something truly impressive. As lighting designers, what we bring to the table is the ability to enhance that vision, to help tell a story or add drama to an exciting reveal or a branded message.

It's great to work with a team on a show that has entertained the audience, an audience that is either paying to be there, in the case of the auto show, or that is there by choice, as in the case of national dealer meetings. These projects bring us back to our entertainment roots. By creating an exciting show that people will remember, we can walk away satisfied and proud.

Gregory Cohen is a partner in UVLD. He has lit automotive projects for Volkswagen, Volvo, Mazda, Kia, Acura, Hyundai, Honda Motorcycle, GM, Daimler Chrysler, and Ford Motor Company. Visit his website at www.uvld.com.