Good news! Somebody just contacted you about creating lighting for a major band. Now what? What do you do next? I recently chatted with several of my peers — industry people who specialize in designing lighting for rock shows — and asked for suggestions on what steps to take upon being offered a major tour to light. Following are their tips and mine.
The Initial Call
Michael Keller, Aerosmith's longtime LD, still tends to go into shock when someone offers him a major gig. He says his first response is usually to pick himself up off the floor. But Abbey Rosen Holmes, Cure's LD, sums it up for all of us in the industry. “I get really excited and immediately find and start listening to that band's music,” he says.
At some point, you will have to speak to management, if not the artist, so you can get a feel for one another. Sometimes, the initial vibe that you give your prospective employer is more important than all of your ideas and beautiful drawings. After all, if they don't like you, they're not going to want you to design for them.
Before you meet anyone, you should prepare yourself by listening to the band's music. Here's what Joel Reiff, Korn's LD, does: “I check out the band's back catalog of CDs for artwork, or just to get a feel of where they are coming from visually. Another thing I'll do is check out their website.
“Next, I try to speak to their management to get a feel for what the band likes as much as what it doesn't like. If I know LDs who have worked with the act in the past, I'll touch base with them for any enlightenment regarding the band — if they are friends of mine. I won't cold call someone for this,” he says.
It's also a good idea to visit the Pollstar website (www.pollstar.com) and click on the band's schedule. This site shows you what size venues you can anticipate playing if you get the gig, which, of course, will reflect on the lighting budget. One of the first things that concerns Keller is whether there is any video being used in the tour. Is it theme-based film clips or artist magnification? Placement of lighting instruments will change depending on these considerations.
The bottom line is you should get a feel for which direction the artist is heading. Do they want dark and moody looks, or flashy movement with lots of strobes? Van Halen's LD, Ethan Weber, always tells the artist: “No matter what, I am always striving to create theatrical looks. That always makes them feel like I know what I'm doing.”
Getting the Gig
Congratulations, you landed the gig. Butch Allen, Metallica's LD, jokes that this is the stage when he calls his wife and says, “Honey, take down the ‘for sale’ sign on the house.” But the bottom line is that now you have to get busy.
If you are playing clubs, you need a practical and totally adaptable lighting idea. Because of size restraints, your light rig will probably be different every day, but you want to keep to some sort of theme. If you are in theaters or arenas, you need to find out what the set will be. Your light rig should reflect something cool that fits in well with the rest of the stage. Or the lights may be the set. In addition to lighting the artist, considerations must be made for illuminating the scenery.
Holmes tries to envision the whole look of the stage. “What different looks I can create depends on where I actually place the lights,” he says. This is true for all of us. The first thing a designer needs to do is figure out a truss configuration that fits in with the set and venues you will be playing. Do I want three straight trusses, vertical towers, or the ever-popular horseshoe configuration? Symmetrical trusses or not?
I usually prefer asymmetrical layouts where I can come up with abstract looks. Some designers — Peter Morse and Jon Pollak come to mind — are masters at achieving asymmetrical lighting looks, though they normally work with symmetrical light rigs. By symmetrical, I mean that the trussing and light placement on stage-right is a mirror image of what the designer has placed stage-left. Some artists demand symmetry. If that's what they want, I bow and give it to them. Otherwise, I look to the world of the abstract.
If there is video involved in the show, you should find out where the screens or LEDs will be placed. There's nothing worse than video and lighting competing against each other. You can hang four trusses downstage of a 40'×20' video wall and never see a light beam the whole show unless the video blacks out, so place your trusses accordingly.
It never hurts to surround the video screen with moving lights. Place trusses to the side of the video source so the beams cut in on the artist at an angle. This way, they will be seen by most audience members.
Mike Ledesma (Gloria Estefan's LD) suggests that designers always consider floor lighting with a design. “It is often the sexiest part of the show. Lighting the artist with side lighting and floor accents is a great way not to compete with video,” he says.
Find out if you can place any lights directly into the set. Little Martin Mac 300s and VL6s are perfect units to hide in set crevices and between amplifiers. Blinder lights built into stairways are always a big seller with up-and-coming bands.
Light the specific set. Period. The quickest way to get sacked from a gig is by ignoring the set. Some designer and set company went to great lengths to come up with a theme, and it's all for naught if you keep that set dark. I usually make sure to have enough instruments on the downstage truss to front-light the set, as well as the band simultaneously.
Floor and side lights downstage can cast great shadows across set pieces. If there are runways, get some practicals built in, or strategically place moving lights at the ends that can shine straight down them.
The lighting plot is the first thing you draw. I usually draw three concepts and see which one the artist leans toward. Many lighting designers in the concert business draw in a program called VectorWorks from Nemetschek North America, Columbia, Md. With this program, I import a set/building drawing, and then layer my lighting trusses on top of it. Once I have come up with a truss layout, I have fun filling in fixtures wherever it feels right. Once this is done in wireframe, I can send it to any lighting company or the production manager to see what the weekly cost of such a project will be, and whether or not my budget is in the ballpark.
I then do some work and turn my drawing into a 3D model. After that, I export the whole file into a program called Cinema 4D from Maxon Computer (Newbury Park, Calif.), also a Nemetschek company. In this program, I can attach textures to the set, paint the stage, play video content, turn on, gel, and focus light fixtures. It cleans up the drawings, allowing me to then turn them into photorealistic renderings.
Present them to the proper people, go into production, and as Allen says, “Take a deep breath and hang on for dear life.”
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. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org