“Light Lunch” is a new feature we're introducing to the pages of LD which will, no doubt, spark some controversy. We witness a firsthand account of lighting professionals having an impromptu, honest conversation over lunch on a topic of their choice, and we transcribe it here for you — as if you are right there at the table with them.
We're starting this series with respected lighting designers Roy Bennett and Abigail Rosen-Holmes. These are their words, but they certainly did not intend to specifically call out any one company or product. It's raw footage at its best — straightforward and unfiltered.
Over lunch at Rain, a Pan-Asian restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, lighting designers Roy Bennett (Madonna, Josh Grobin, VH1 Divas, etc.) and Abigail Rosen-Holmes (Cher, The Cure, Janet Jackson, etc.) sat down to talk about the current state of the lighting industry. Both order the green tea noodle salad and then wish aloud that they could so easily find what they want on the current menu of gear being offered by the lighting industry.
Abigail Rosen-Holmes: I can't find lights that do what I want them to do right now, and it's really frustrating.
Roy Bennett: None of them will. You have to mix and match — each one does its own thing better than the other. I like Icons because of the brightness.
ARH: They're my favorites, because they do the most of what I want a light to do, but I can't believe that no one has made one that is even as good — and it's nearly 15 years old.
RB: Exactly. You know what my favorite lamps of all time are? Icons and VARI*LITE VL4s, even though they're old, and each has its own funny little quirks.
ARH: I have to fight really hard to use Icons sometimes because there is nothing to bid them against — and it drives me to one console.
RB: It is Icon-console driven, which isn't terrible, but then you are stuck with one console.
ARH: And they're not modernizing it anymore. The Icon was the best fixture and the best console in my opinion, and they abandoned the development. They're moving from being a gear manufacturer into pure rental.
RB: It was an LSD choice because they sold the company. They lost control of the R&D money. I don't find that whole PRG corporation a very good company. It pisses me off. I don't like the way things are run. But, I love all of those guys, and ultimately, it's about service. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't use PRG at all. I'd go other places.
ARH: Actually, now that everyone's gear is for sale, it's always all about the service — because nobody has gear to offer that nobody else can't get.
RB: That's true. You know, the [Martin] MAC 2000 is not a bad lamp. I've found that they're pretty reliable.
ARH: Sadly, that's one of the features I often care least about! The lights I choose have to work well enough to look good in the show — they can't be stupidly unreliable. But every time they take away the ability for a light to do anything fast, it's always for the sake of reliability — and at a certain point, I want the features back.
RB: I want faster color changing and faster gobo changing.
ARH: I want a bump to be a bump still.
RB: I want it to be as fast as possible so I can slow it down — we don't have the option of speeding things up. I say this to all the manufacturers who ask me what I would do to improve the lamp: put faster stepper motors in there. But that costs more money.
ARH: Really? Putting faster stepper motors in is that expensive? It's not more of a reliability issue? That's good to know.
RB: It's a software issue, and they will speed things up for you, but then it negates the warranty because it puts more wear and tear on the lamp. If they were to use a more expensive stepper motor, then it wouldn't be a problem — but then the overall price of the lamp goes up. So they're thinking, “Well, we do X amount of work in rock and roll, but then there are all of our sales in discos and shopping malls.” And I'm sure all of that far outweighs the live performance business.
ARH: That's why they should all have A and B versions of lamps. Because for music work, we'd all accept that the lights might break more often due to the higher demands placed on them.
RB: Right. Out of all the manufacturers right now … Martin, unbelievably, has stepped out of the mud and just kept going. It's an awesome company.
ARH: I agree.
RB: They really listen to you and try to do the best they can to meet your needs. As far as consoles go, the new [Martin] Maxxyz is supposed to be very good. They really listened to the programmers — they sent all of those consoles out and let people work with them for a while and then collected their feedback and sifted through it.
ARH: Have you used that desk yet?
RB: No, but I really want to. I just did this project at Treasure Island in Las Vegas — we relit the Pirate show. They'd never used automated lights, so they needed a new console. And our choices were a [High End Systems] Wholehog® III, a [MA Lighting] grandMA, or a Maxxyz.
ARH: The choices are terrible right now.
RB: I kept hearing these horror stories about the new Hog. It's a weird time because there is nothing that you can purchase that you can feel comfortable using.
ARH: Do you feel comfortable on the VLPS Virtuoso?
RB: It's okay for certain things, but it's not an extremely fast board.
ARH: Interesting. Because I think it's faster than a Wholehog. I have only one objection to it, which they could easily fix, and that's how it deals with intensity. That's what slows it down.
RB: I avoid it, frankly. And the Wholehog II has been the workhorse console for too long.
ARH: It takes 20 minutes to save on it when you're programming, and now it's non-functional on 80 percent of my shows because they have too many fixtures. They have to replace it. The old boards have suddenly aged out, and the new ones aren't quite ready to go.
RB: It's scary that there are only so many parts left for the old ones, too. There are only enough left for about 100 Wholehog II consoles.
ARH: I've never found the Hog II to be a particularly fast console, because you're working with that little touchscreen, poking and poking. When I sit next to anyone who has a Century display, I can hear them grabbing different things, and it seems to go substantially faster. I've been lucky enough to have the faster programmers on all of the desks, and the fast guy on the desk with the big old button layout always seems to leave the fast guy on the touchscreen in the dust. I would like whatever we get next to have a version with the buttons all right there, even if you don't keep it once you've programmed the show. I want all those buttons for programming.
RB: That's kind of what the grandMA is, in a way. That was their approach: hands-on, no soft screen.
ARH: Let's talk about the [VARI*LITE] VL3000™. It's so close to being really good; that what's wrong with it makes me really sad because it seems so stupid.
RB: I haven't used it yet.
ARH: It's in the “Cadillac” category of big, fancy, hard-edged fixtures. It has a beautiful, even field and nice color. And it also has an almost unforgivably bad gobo wheel design. Inside the unit, between each circle that's the size of a gobo, there is that much space again before the next gobo. So, it goes dark for the full link and even the roll in.
RB: Was there a reason why they did that?
ARH: There couldn't have been a good enough one! It can't even do a gobo roll to the next gobo in line without your entire stage going black. Who never needs to do that in a show? You have to turn them all off or it goes to complete black for a long time.
RB: Maybe the theory is that you would rent twice as many lamps to cover yourself, which is more money for them.
ARH: Actually, I'm sure it has to do with where they put their rotators. I will never specify that lamp right now. I can never afford not to get from one gobo to the next. The one other thing that's funky in the gobo wheel — there are three wheels, two rotators, and an effects wheel — is that …[VARI*LITE], in its hard-edged fixtures, tries to go for a really huge zoom, so there are only going to be some places in the optics where the gobos can focus at the same time. The wheels are a little too far apart to see the overlay, and I really need that. That whole gobo wheel section comes out, so they should go back to the drawing board because everything else about it is good.
RB: I just used the [Martin] Atomic 3000 strobes — they are awesome.
ARH: What else is new that's fun?
RB: The Mbox — it's much better than the Catalyst.
ARH: It can give you real video that you control in a lighting cue-based way, which is good. Still, running a live-time effect is never going to be the same as running a straight piece of video footage that you make.
RB: It looks like a gimmick. I know they're trying to sell it as more, but it's not as refined…
ARH: …as what you get when you make original video.
ARH: It will be bad if that starts to move money away from making real video clips the way they should be made because that's always going to be a more sophisticated approach.
RB: Any intelligent artist or management company is going to notice the difference.
ARH: It would be great if all those media servers — and some of them do it better than others — would let you make the real footage and then drive its playback from the lighting console as an afterthought but not use it as just a way to make video-style effects in real time.
RB: It's awesome for clubs because those folks aren't going to spend money on video footage, so it's a fun effect for those applications. It's an awful lot of streaming video. Now you've got lighting guys controlling video.
ARH: That's not necessarily bad; it depends on the operator's background. There was a long time when lighting designers did a ton of projection design.
RB: Oh, I know. But now that every company seems to be making its own digital media server, they are all tending to look the same.
ARH: That's the way I feel about standard gobo choices for lighting that have been around for a long time — for example, everyone has a spinny thing that looks like everyone else's. Now, every single lighting company has a digital media server. They've spent a ton of their R&D effort toward creating them, often to the neglect of the other products.
RB: It's a matter of priorities. It's good to branch out, but …
ARH: It's serious, actually. Here we are talking about how we don't have a hard-edged fixture that we love or a really good console. You just wonder what they were thinking when they decided that this other product was more important. A hard-edged light and a desk — we use those everyday, all the time.
RB: Right. You've got to get your basics and foundation on a steady course. They've got to make decisions on how to allocate their funds.
ARH: The other gear has just languished for years now — it's just sad, really.
RB: Well, there is always the race to be the first guy out of the box with the new, cool toy. Of course, we understand that, but it's a dangerous game. Everybody wants the new toy, so they figure if they're the first one out with it, then everybody will buy it because they're the first guys on the block to have it — until they realize that they've pissed a lot of people off because it's not living up to the expectations the way it should be.
ARH: I like the existence of the media servers; it's shameful that they've let so many other things slide.
RB: I'm not begrudging the progression. I've always been an advocate of that. But as far as the media servers go, the Mbox is a bit more refined in terms of what they've done with it. It's more graceful in some of its functions. It's not stuttering.
ARH: These media servers process all of this video information in real time, which is a fair amount of power.
RB: Then you have the DL1 from [High End Systems]. It's an LCD projector on a moving head. Interesting concept. It's their version of an Icon M, but it's not bright enough.
ARH: The Icon M in its last generation probably was bright enough — not bright enough for a stadium show or a super big pop arena show, but for everything else, it was bright enough.
RB: It was good for a theatre. I used them on Shakira, and it was interesting.
ARH: I really loved them, although they were pricey. Is there a fantasy piece of gear that doesn't exist that you would like to have?
RB: Not really, no.
ARH: Me neither! I just want the regular gear to be better.
RB: Anything that doesn't exist would be something purpose-built for a particular show. There are film lights that are cool — design shouldn't be all about automated lights, although they are great tools. Mainly, I'd just like for them to get the basics right. Please!