Being a lighting designer guarantees one thing above all others: You find yourself away from home an awful lot. Our clients are based all over the world, and the projects they call us to light often take place in some strange, exotic place. One of the top questions I'm asked about such gigs is, “How do you find lighting equipment in remote locations?”
First of all, I am one of those people who prefer to rent gear from a company I know well and truck it 1,000 miles to a gig, if necessary. I prefer this approach to trusting a local mom-and-pop lighting company to meet my specs.
There are huge advantages in this, the first one being the comfort factor. For instance, there's one specific company I use for any gigs where the budget fits. All of its gear is first rate, and the technicians they send out are proud of doing a quality job. If I rent gear from them, I know it will show up at the same time, in the same truck, in the same condition I always expect. I know I will not see anything other than the gear I specified for the job, and it will load in smoothly.
Often, though, clients balk at the idea of hauling lights long distances. Spending a single buck on freight is unappealing to them, and because they're the people paying me, I will look into the other viable options.
Options and Risks
One option is to use one of the huge, worldwide lighting vendors. There are a few lighting companies that have offices located in numerous cities around the United States and elsewhere in the world. These companies have a lot of resources, and can find you any piece of gear you desire. The biggest asset of using these companies is that they will find all the equipment you requested. Need 1,000 moving lights for a show? No problem. Need 12 techs? They'll find them.
They are usually competitively priced, and if you're “in” with a reputable salesman you trust, everything usually will work out fine. I say “usually” because, too often, there are snafus that come with using these mega companies.
Among the risks of using this approach, however, is that the vendor will find your lights by sub-renting units by the bulk from other vendors. Such lights, therefore, might end up trucking from some lighting shop you never heard of straight to your gig, complete with dim lamps and broken parts.
The other downside is a familiar complaint I hear all the time: The equipment tends to appear at your venue in waves. In other words, if you're missing some cable or a few lights, “Don't stress, they'll be here in a truck tomorrow.” When this happens, I get flak from the client about the extra charges for more Teamsters or stagehands to unload stuff that should have been here and hung yesterday.
A saving grace in this situation is that these companies usually have really good electricians who can make anything work, hopefully in a short time. If you do a lot of work with the same salesman and crew chief from one of these companies, your comfort factor is usually high, and you will continue doing business with them.
Often, I'm forced by budgetary restraints to use a lighting company who is located near the gig. This is especially true when doing shows in Podunk or in Third-World countries. There are a few ways to approach how to spec gear for these gigs. First, I will send them a plot with a wish list of fixtures. This is the gear that I would love to see at the show I am designing. I will usually hear back from these companies within several minutes of my last email, asking about substitutions. “Can we use moving lights that we already own? Why do you want Mac 2000s?”
This means that I sometimes have to substitute the lights I want for inferior ones they own. If I don't, they will sub-rent them from someone else and mark the price up. I can't blame them — everyone does this to make a living. They might even slip behind your back and tell the client that he or she doesn't really need all this special gear — that they could do the job with what they own. This is the quickest way to get blacklisted from my book of vendors, but it happens.
But part of my job is to make it look good with whatever lighting is available. So another thing I will often do is have the local lighting company provide me with a list of everything it owns that is in working condition. You must specify “working,” or you will get a list from a salesman who doesn't realize that the 12 Intellibeams in the corner of his shop have not worked since 1999. I have made this mistake a few times.
Once I get the list, I revamp my lighting plot to include stuff they own and then negotiate. “You say you have 20 six-lamp bars? Bring them over. You have only narrow-type bulbs for them? Buy some bulbs.” They are out of 12in. mini-beam truss, “but can we substitute some big bulky 30in. trusses that we own?”
I'll say OK to all this, but now I want some PAR cans with color changers on them to illuminate these structures that I didn't want in the first place. This works out well for two reasons. First, the local company owns all this stuff, so it doesn't cost them anything to sub-rent or buy gear. Second, I benefit because I now have some extra lighting elements to work into my show.
Finding a local professional lighting company is usually not hard, but finding a high-caliber one is not easy. The producer for any event has to hire a local production coordinator to get labor, catering, and other things necessary for any show. This person will normally be able to provide me names of local companies to contact. I always ask if there is one particular, reputable person I should deal with. They always have a name of someone I should ask for. I will then talk to this person and feel him out to see if he is actually in-tuned to what I want or if he just wants to rent some old gear.
Another useful way to find reliable people in strange places is to use the Internet. In particular, there is a professional lighting forum called The Light Network. It's a free forum available to anyone at www.delphiforums.com (click on “entertainment”). There, you will find an active online community consisting of thousands of lighting individuals. You can post any lighting question there and be assured that a few people will reply. I have posted there looking for lighting contacts in remote places like Africa, and people on the network have come through for me. And because it's a free place, people will give their honest opinions and tell you to use a certain company at your own risk or sometimes steer you toward a little gem of a company that will do a fine job. Also, most companies check this site weekly, and they'll often contact me after seeing my posting, offering exactly what I'm looking for.
Nook Schoenfeld is a 20-year veteran of the concert touring industry. He divides his time between teaching lighting and designing lighting for concert and corporate events. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org