Relaxing on the patio next to the pool in his backyard in Madera, CA, LD John "Ozzie" Osborne is only too happy to talk about his 22-year career. "I'm one of those fortunate few who actually gets to do a job that I love, and have a supportive family," he says. "I'm a novelty in this business, in that I'm as well-grounded as I am. It's worked out great, but it's a personal choice that one works at every single day."
The designer is pleased to converse about that decision and just about any other subject, from the current political situation to the best route to Yosemite National Park. He points out that his parents' house is just on the other side of the fence that encircles the home he shares with his wife Jo and his two children; the home from which he runs Ozterity Lighting. Getting back to the topic at hand, Osborne chooses to begin at the very beginning, a good place to start.
"I was born in Montebello, CA, in June 1952," he says. "Both my parents were born in California, so I am that rare breed of a second-generation-all-the-way-across Californian."
Osborne also belongs to a rare breed of lighting designers--those who work consistently in several different domains. His resume begins in the theatre and progresses through many concert tours, corporate events, and television shows. This year alone he has done projects for Reebok and Nike, lit several fashion shows, and successfully completed permanent installations for a few sections of Disneyland's Innoventions.
This auspicious career began after a false start in San Diego as a pre-med/ biology student ("I hated chemistry"), when Osborne moved up to Fresno near where his father had opened a glass factory. "I started going to Fresno State, and got involved in the theatre, with a total emphasis on directing, but you also had to take a number of classes in technical theatre," Osborne says. "I wasn't very good at makeup and my costuming skills sucked. No one would ever trust me with power tools, so I couldn't be a carpenter, and I was also incapable of wiring amps. So I became a lighting director. I always thought of lighting in directorial terms--ways to make the audience focus. I wasn't really much of a bump-and-flash designer, even though I did a lot of operas and musicals, so there was some glitz to the lighting. But most of it was very standard, what we learned in books, Stanley McCandless type of lighting."
Osborne finished the university's graduate program, then taught directing classes and ran an experimental theatre company. "I was very fortunate because Fresno had such a fine theatre program," Osborne says. "We submitted plays every year to the American College Theatre Festival, which would then take you up to San Francisco State, where the regionals would be. You would present the show, and if you won, you would then go on to present it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC." Osborne won several awards for directing and also one for lighting. "But I never thought of myself as a lighting guy--I always saw myself as the director."
After directing Oliver--"where we had 110 little munchkins using the song 'Tomorrow' from Annie as their audition piece"--Osborne next headed to Los Angeles for some new challenges. "Basically, I opened the Yellow Pages when I got there, and saw this company called Sundance," Osborne says. "I'd heard that they had done John Denver's tours, so I went in there and interviewed at 10am, and they said, 'Can you start at 11 o'clock?' "
Osborne started at the bottom--pulling cable in the shop--but soon worked his way up. Three months later he was chosen as one of the three-member crew for John Denver's next tour. "I had a fabulous time, but about 3/4 of the way through, the company went bankrupt," Osborne says. "Denver guaranteed all of our salaries, and we finished up. But then I came back, and had to start over. We'd done 38 different arenas in the round, and somebody tipped me off that Diana Ross was going on tour and her show was also in the round."
So the LD headed to Tasco, the company that was supplying Ross' lighting. "I went in, explained my qualifications--and they threw me out," Osborne laughs. "But as I was going to my car, Terry Price came out to talk to me and eight days later I was out on the road with Diana Ross as the number five guy on the lighting crew. Allen Branton was the designer."
"He was the lowest man on the totem pole, but he was the most motivated and he accomplished more for me and served the show remarkably better than anyone else around," Branton remembers. "When the tour cranked up again I asked Tasco if they could make him the crew chief because he was the obvious man for the job as far as I was concerned. We did the next two or three of those together and then he was my lighting director on David Bowie's Serious Moonlight tour. He and C.D. Simpson were out there together and that was one of the reasons that show was so successful. Those two were real theatre marines back in those days. Of course, now they are much more than that.
"When myself and/or David would decide to do something with the lighting," Branton continues, "they understood what we were talking about and believed in it--and if they didn't believe in it, they would talk me out of it. It was just a wonderful collaboration. I'd come back and visit the tour once a month or so and it was always better than when I'd left. Little nuances had been added; new discoveries had been made about how to do another moment differently. That was the first tour I'd done that I had had to leave, and I was terrified it would completely unravel. Not that I didn't trust them, but I didn't have any history of having done it that way, so I wasn't confident. And probably rightly so, because when I tried to do it on subsequent tours, it never worked quite as well. It's a very difficult thing to achieve the right chemistry with the artist and the people you choose. After that he did [David Bowie's] Glass Spider tour for me too--that's probably the last big project we did together. I was lucky that he worked with me as long as he did, because he was trained as a theatre director and he was always destined to be in charge of his own projects."
Indeed, by 1984, Osborne got what he considers his first big break, designing lighting for Duran Duran. "It was the hottest tour going, and we set so many world records--for noise, crowds, and merchandising," Osborne says. "They were a fun group of guys, and I really enjoyed it. They called me 'Granddad,' even in those days. And I was only 32 then, but they were 19, 20, 21, 22. Then I did a Herb Alpert tour and in 1985, I was subbing for Allen on Diana Ross."
In 1986, Osborne married Jo Oldani, who had been a production assistant on the 1985 Diana Ross tour. "And in 87 I fell out of a rig and broke my back," he says. After recovering, the LD next went out on the Glass Spider tour. "That was another cool show," he says. "You could watch it a hundred times and still find it interesting."
In 1988, Osborne became the lighting designer for Stevie Wonder. "It just doesn't get any better as far as magical moments at shows," he says. "You wonder when he's going on, what he's going to play, and when he's going to stop. I asked him for a set list one time, and he has never had one. We in the lighting business are driven by the set list. We know what the next song is by what it says on our computers and all the rest of it. But for Stevie, whatever he heard in his head was what he wanted to play next. He could really lead his band. Once you realized that the band was equally in the dark, it wasn't as bad. And it was always interesting. Right in the middle of a show one night, he did about 15 Beatles songs in a row. Other nights he'd just go off and decide to do country-western songs. Wonder became a nice oasis, really a wonderful guy, a brilliant performer, a true legend, and he was great to the family."
In the meantime, Osborne had called on his pals back in Fresno, and enticed them to tour as well. "About 11 different people I called and took out onto the road, although probably no more than three of them actually ever went with me," he says. "Somebody would need crewmembers and ask, 'Do you know anybody?' and I'd reply, 'Well, yes, actually.' And then they'd drag all their friends, too. So there's a huge Fresno contingent in the business."
While the bulk of his income at this point still stemmed from touring, Osborne was constantly looking for new avenues of work. "My daughter was born in 1988 and my son in 1990, so I was looking for ways to get off the road and do more one-offs. On a fluke, Delicate Productions, which had done Duran Duran with me, called me up, even though I had not worked with them since then."
The call was to light a movie premiere for a company in Los Angeles. "I went down and just clicked with that," Osborne says. "There is a philosophy about lighting these events that you've got to understand because a lot of times the acts may be Bette Midler or Celine Dion or Elton John--huge acts, but the number one priority is to make sure the centerpieces look good. The next thing you do is the bars--make sure that people can find their drinks and the buffet tables. So you had to allocate your craft and your resources, because somewhere down the line, a tiny percentage of the show was this performer. But these were pretty terrifying acts--the type that normally you wouldn't even think about lighting for less than $30,000 a week in gear, and here you've decided to light them with 24 PAR cans because there was always some cause benefiting from it. That's why they were there. Plus, they were only doing about four or five songs--I got that early."
Yet by hiring Osborne, the producers of these shows could assure the artists that a veteran concert LD was handling how their performance looked. "Not that I took it to the point where they didn't look good," Osborne says. "But I quickly realized that to make the client happy I just had to make sure the flowers look good for them, and then prioritized it so that everything else was at a professional level that would work. Because I understood it, I started getting a lot of jobs in that area."
Osborne points out that many LDs do these types of events well, but this area marked a new direction for his career. "I was forging new ground for myself here, and from these jobs, I landed a little show in Silicon Valley, as a favor for a friend," he says. "The plan was to show off a new computer server, but there was no budget, really--$2,500 to buy the gear, my services, everything. But it seemed interesting, and I probably wasn't doing anything at the time. Besides, I've never been money-driven."
Luckily for Ozterity Lighting, Jo is great at handling finances. "I honestly believe that when I go out to do something, I'm going to give it a 100%," he says. "My personality cannot look at a project and deem that it's a $50 design or a $100 design. By turning it over to the Missus, she plays the money side of it; she's much better at it. She'll say, 'If I'm going to give him up and he's not going to be with the kids, then it just costs money,' whereas I would sometimes just be enthralled with the project."
For the Silicon Valley project, Osborne presented the producer with four different good looks. "If he'd wanted five, I would have been in trouble, because there just wasn't enough gear to do the fifth one," he says. "But they were happy to have more than one. And Chris Korody, the producer, was just thrilled with it. He said, 'Someday I will get a project that means something, and I will call you.' I said, 'Sure, Chris,' took my $50 and went home. Then, in 1994, I was out with Luther Vandross, and I got a call from him to interview for the rollout of the Boeing 777. I asked him later why I got the gig, and he said I was the only person that admitted that I didn't have a clue how to light a 220'-long [67m] plane. They also said that everybody else they'd interviewed had been reluctant to share their ideas."
Korody was the artistic director and Dave Richenbach the technical producer for the launch. "That show had some special demands on it: It was for 100,000 people that had to see the jet, and the show was really a huge bit of magic," Richenbach says. "Fundamentally, the presentation of the jet was sleight of hand, and it was completely dependent on projected imagery and lighting. Monty House, the executive producer, and I got together and interviewed a lot of lighting designers and directors--there are so many good ones--and we met Ozzie in this process and we were really impressed with his sense if humor, his sense of the moment, and his ability to tell a story. He's quite a storyteller. It's reflected in his work, and when you have a story to tell and you're dependent on the lighting to support that, he's wonderful.
"He did a fabulous job on that show--we had grown men, aeronautical engineers, weeping uncontrollably because the presentation of their new jet was so moving for them," Richenbach continues. "That was a big success and beginning of a really great relationship."
Since then Richenbach and Associates have worked with Osborne on a number of projects, including the 1997 Super Bowl Halftime show. "That was a huge challenge because it's both a live show for 90,000 people and a televised event--and television and live show lighting are quite different. He met that challenge really well."
Osborne marks the Boeing 777 rollout as the show that allowed him not to tour anymore. "I still did some little tours, and I enjoy working on them, but I've gotten more into the corporate event arena," he says. "I've spent more time with the family, and not touring leaves me open for these opportunities."
On the grander end of the scale of those opportunities lies Osborne's work for the annual Bakersfield Business Conference, which requires him to handle the lighting for 52 tents. "The main tent is 720' long by 208' wide [219x63m], and there is a sit-down dinner for 13,000 people," Osborne explains. "We do about nine hours of top-paid speakers, who have included Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Gerald Ford, George Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. Mario Cuomo is there quite a bit. We'll have Rich Little and Phyllis Diller for a little entertainment, then news personalities such as Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, or Rush Limbaugh. It's an amazing day that starts at 9am and goes until 9pm, then culminates with some big performer outside at another stage. There's one big stage and another smaller stage, where we do beach music bands, and then we'll have Sheena Easton or Dionne Warwick. There's a number of smaller stages where you get great motivational speakers who are not necessarily famous but are really good. So it's fun."
The rest of the 51 tents are broken down into slightly smaller proportions: a dozen are 100'x300' (30x91m), a few more are 150'x400' (46x122m) and 25 are 20'x20' (6x6m) or 20'x20'x40' (6x6x12m). "So you're basically reaching in and pulling out every trick in the world to try to light all these different tents, because money is always an issue," Osborne says. "Also, you learn not only how to delegate, but also have other people join in with the vision. Rather than telling them what to do, you're getting them to participate. Both the NFL Experience and Bakersfield have been instrumental in helping me learn how to do that."
Mike Wharton of Lighting Technologies recalls that he first met Osborne when he was doing the NFL Experience, which is a corporate party/trade show at the Super Bowl. Since they met eight years ago, they have worked on projects such as the Reebok Supershow, trade shows for Siemens, and the Sony Park for the E3 show in Atlanta. "John is great to work with because he's very professional and also very easygoing," Wharton says. "He's very decisive about what he wants, and achieves his goals without any stress involved. I had another LD tell me once that he felt happiest when the client was happy, management was happy, and he was happy--and John seems to achieve that each time he goes into a project."
Yet Osborne will be the first to admit that achieving that level of satisfaction--especially on big shows--is hard to pull off from a design angle. "It's amazing how difficult it is to get somebody to see your vision, and these shows taught me a little about the essence of what the vision is, or what is crucial to a project for it to have my stamp," he explains. "You can tell a Branton, or a Patrick Woodroffe, or a Willie Williams because there is a certain style that delineates how we view the world or how we approach something. Within that, there's a moment where it's important that it somehow reflects me."
Richenbach believes Osborne's signature style goes back to storytelling, and their most recent project together is a perfect example. "Innoventions at Disney is supposed to provide guests with an experience that is part of a story and there is a lot of subtlety involved because there is nobody there to explain it to them--you have to get it from the environment, the surroundings," Richenbach says. "Ozzie's ability to use light and color and movement in the lights was critically important in establishing the emotion in the spaces. Ozzie has another wonderful quality which as a technical producer I really appreciate: You can give him a really big project where you pull out all the stops, such as the Super Bowl show, and like all good designers he'll keep throwing lights at it until you tell him to stop. Or you can put him in virtually the same situation and say, 'Ozzie, you've only got eight lights to do this--make it beautiful.' And he will. That's a really special quality for a lighting designer because he doesn't complain or throw up his hands, he just goes away and comes up with an elegant solution using whatever resources he's given."
Having begun his career when lighting technology existed only in primitive forms, Osborne has no problem switching between high-tech and low-tech projects. "I honed my craft doing a bunch of bands and shows with very few instruments," Osborne says. "For me, technology just allows me to be more flexible. On Serious Moonlight, it seemed like every night we'd find some new and exciting technique, but now most designers have their own gunnysack of ideas. But more often than not, it tends to be building a number of looks and prioritizing them, and being able to go to the client and better fulfill what the client wants. Early on you fulfill more what you want, and you build the show that way. Now it really allows you to give the client some real options. When they want to do things differently, you can roll with those punches.
"I did a show the other day with no technology in it," he continues. "Doing the show was not a problem, and getting good looks was fun, as I was trying to remember how to recreate looks. But there was a knot in my stomach because if the client had come and wanted changes, we would have had to get out the ladder and rehang the lights."
When he has a fair amount of free choice in a design, the LD usually employs about 24 pieces of technology in a show. "Obviously, some shows have in the hundreds, but 24 allows me to create a menu for the client to look at and select which items they want to do, and then I can just tweak those," Osborne says. "I'm not really driven by technology. When I go to LDI, I go there with one project inmind. The year before I was getting ready to do the Super Bowl Halftime show, and since I very seldom use really big lights, I spent the whole time there educating myself about them. This year I was getting ready to do a show that had some blacklight, so I spent quite a bit of time looking at some of the newer UV filters and the new paints."
While the LD doesn't go out searching for new technology, he enjoys testing it out. "I really like to use it as much as possible--but I have operators now, who are constantly showing me the latest wizardry," Osborne says. "And I own WYSIWYG at home. So I just want the light to come on and do whatever I want it to do. I have no desire to be the guy that hangs it or programs it. I normally have a picture in my head that I am interested in trying to create, but very seldom does the finished product look like what I've started. As soon as I see it in the real world, I tweak it.
"I still like my PARs and lekos," Osborne continues. "Touring with Ronnie Wood in 1994 was the most fun I've ever had touring-wise, because we just took me and four lekos. I would just make up a design every single day, wherever we were. Sometimes we were in big clubs and I could design really cool looks, and other times I only had 12 fresnels. He was really understanding, and it was fun to invent something new every day."
This love for spontaneous design made the LD's latest project, the Compaq, Honeywell, and SAP spaces for Disneyland's Tomorrowland Innoventions Designs, such a formidable task. "I loved all the challenges of doing a permanent install as opposed to a temporary lighting design," Osborne says. "But I'm perplexed as to whether I hated it or loved it, because all of the restraints were so frustrating. I really like being a fighter pilot and all the rest of it. This was hard work and it challenged me to go back and reeducate myself in a way I hadn't done in many years. And it was another leap for me in that OSHA and UL drove the project more than the design did. I had to spend a lot of time reading books and studying fire and safety guides and looking at cut sheets. And every time I thought I had a pat, artistic answer for a problem, there was some technical reason as to why I couldn't do it that way, so I had to go back and recreate the result in a totally different way.
"I hated that I had to work so hard, but I loved it in that it challenged me to grow and be a better designer," he continues. "My basic philosophy has been that you cannot create from a vacuum, and everything we do is stepping stones from what we've done before. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel--but this caused me to reexamine what a spoke and a rim was, so it was pretty close to reinventing. In the end I felt that I rose well to the challenge and I'm looking forward to some new projects in permanent installations because I feel that I'll be coming at them from a much better place."
Considering how varied Osborne's resume has become, and how happy Disney is with the finished result, a similar project is bound to come his way in the future. "When I think about it, it's amazing to me that in the course of a typical month, I will do five shows that are completely off-the-wall between what they are," he says. "Last March I did an Armani fashion show at the Museum of Modern Art. Then in the midst of that I did the Reebok Super Show. Then I was doing Nepcon, a corporate event, and running next door to do Disney, and then flying back to New York to do the television special for the Council of Fashion Designers. But now I'm at a point where it's this huge balancing act. Which sometimes I do okay and sometimes.... Well, we probably all don't do it as well as we'd like to. I'm thrilled with it, though. I really love my life at this standpoint."
Lighting design credits unless otherwise indicated
1997 Super Bowl Halftime Show, Fox Diana Ross Television Special, Australia
1993-96 The Emmys Craft Awards
1992 Super Bowl Tailgate Party, TNT Diana Ross Television Special, Australia Olympics Hall of Fame, TNT (lighting direction) Spinal Tap Live from the Royal Albert Hall, NBC (lighting consultant) Super Bowl Tailgate Party, MTV (lighting consultant)
1991 Comic Strip, Fox (lighting consultant)
1989 Stevie Wonder Live from Wembley, BBC (lighting director)
1988 The Judds Special, ABC (lighting consultant)
1987 David Bowie Glass Spider Special, ABC (lighting director)
1984 Duran Duran: Reflex and As the Lights Go Down
1998 Disneyland Tomorrowland Innoventions Designs: Compaq, Honeywell, and SAP spaces
1996 Architectural lighting for Bangkok Music Casino
1994 Holland America MS Ryndam Theatre Lighting Design
1996-97 Diana Ross, Luther Vandross
1994-96 Stevie Wonder
1994-95 Anita Baker
1993-95 Natalie Cole
1994 Al Jarreau, David Sanborn, and Luther Vandross
1991-92 Diana Ross world tour
1992 Ron Wood world tour Spinal Tap, The Tour Stevie Wonder
1991 Anita Baker Live at the Kennedy Center Wynton Marsalis
1990 Anita Baker world tour Stevie Wonder Characters tour, Japan
1989 Debbie Gibson Electric Youth tour Stevie Wonder Behind the Iron Curtain tour and European tour
1988 Stevie Wonder's Characters world tour
1987 David Bowie's Glass Spider world tour (lighting director)
1986 Diana Ross tour (lighting direction)
1985 Diana Ross American and European tours (lighting director) Power Station Get It On tour
1984 Duran Duran world tour Herb Alpert
1998 Sony Playstation, Atlanta
1993-97 Bakersfield Business Conference The Emmys Governors Ball
1996-97 City of Hope Inner City Games, Las Vegas
1997 Lincoln Mercury Dealer Meeting, Diana Ross NATPE Warner Brothers TV NATPE Fox Network
1994-97 Reebok Super Show
1996 Apple Corporate Meeting Boeing 737 Rollout
1994-96 Dream Halloween/Children Affected by AIDS FOX TV Winter affiliates meetings
1993-96 Fox Upfronts
1996 Grammy Awards Party at the Biltmore Valley Children's Hospital Black Tie Bash WB TCA Pasadena
1995 Apple Corporate Meeting
1994 Boeing 777 Rollout
1992-93 Super Bowl Tailgate Party
1986 Coca-Cola Centennial Closing Party (lighting director) High Desert Music Festival Rock Revival (lighting director)
1985 Live Aid/Duran Duran and Power Station (lighting director)
Movie and Theatre Premieres
1996 Evita The Hunchback of Notre Dame, St. John the Divine
1995 The Lion King, Las Vegas
1994 Interview with the Vampire The Pagemaster
1993 Sunset Boulevard opening night gala
1992 Grand Canyon Medicine Man
1998 Armani Fashion Show CFDA Awards Chanel Fashion Shows in San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Toronto
1996 APLA Todd Oldham
1995 APLA Gianfranco Ferre
1994 APLA Isaac Mizrahi
1993 APLA Calvin Klein
1992 APLA Jean Paul Gaultier
1993 I'm Getting My Act Together, Once in a Wife Time
1986 America Sings (production and lighting designer, director)
1980 Two by Two, Fresno State, director
1977 Oliver!, Good Company Players, Fresno (director) Hay Fever and Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Fresno State (director)
1976 Jesus Christ: Superstar, Fresno City College and The Lead Rings showcased for the American Theatre Association/Los Angeles (director and lighting) Bear Valley Music Festival Puccini Operas (designer)
1975 The Liberty Dance of Henry Sparrow, Kennedy Center Award of Excellence, Washington, DC (director)