In the past, the role of lighting designer in live events was well defined. As the industry changes and technology evolves, however, a new generation of lighting designers are stepping forward to play a variety of more flexible roles in a myriad of situations, requiring a wider range of skills than ever before.
Lighting designer Christian Choi is part of this new breed. Choi, whose company, Choimation, is based in Laguna Beach, Calif., has worked in a variety of media, including television, theater, and concerts. In the corporate world, Choi has worked as a programmer, designer, and video content creator. SRO recently caught up with him after one of his latest corporate gigs — back-to-back concerts associated with an organized labor event — to discuss the tools and techniques he employs as a modern LD on live events.
SRO: You were recently involved with a rather complex event. What made it particularly challenging?
Choi: The concerts — there were actually two — were associated with an event staged by a service union called SEIU (Service Employees International Union) (in San Francisco). They're mainly security guards, dishwashers, maids, and janitorial staff. It's a once every four years event, and they rallied for more health insurance and walked up and down Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and all over the place to rally for worker's rights.
The events were produced by RK Productions (New York), namely Ricky Kirshner, Amy Giao, and Rena Koval. Rena was the genius behind the whole production and meticulously coordinated every detail of it. John Calkins was the scenic designer and Thomas Mahler was the art director.
The events were two arena-sized events. One took place at the Oakland Arena, and one at the Bill Graham Civic Center in San Francisco. They were done on back-to-back days with a single mammoth lighting system for that timeline (used at both venues), consisting of over 200 moving lights and two Catalysts (media server units from High End Systems, Austin, Texas), with four-drive RAID arrays, as well as IMAG featured on both of them. I also had to design the system so that there would be some semblance of a cueing structure that I could use on the second gig, rather than starting from scratch. Although I did vary cue structures drastically at the second venue, especially with the Catalyst, but at least I had a base to start from.
SRO: This sounds like a fairly substantial rig. Was that the original plan?
Choi: Actually, it didn't start out that big. In fact, at first glance, I thought it was going to be a largely conventional job with a few automated fixtures here and there and Catalyst.
SRO: When did you start working on the nuts and bolts of the project?
Choi: Discussions for the events started about a month prior to it. The lighting budget was basically split between the two venues, and each was allocated an equally small share of funds to produce a light show per each large venue.
SRO: How did you cope with the budget issue?
Choi: There was no way, considering the size of each venue, that I would have gotten even a sliver of the right-sized rig and a Catalyst for the proposed budget (for each event). Therefore, in an effort to expand the lighting system to be able to accommodate both venues with a right-fitting lighting design, I suggested that we combine both budgets and truck the entire rig from the first venue to the next.
We had a day off in between anyway, and the rental still fell within a week, so it actually made sense to do this. This meant that all the rigging, lighting, and Catalysts had to be re-packed into the trucks as if they were going to be loaded into a fresh venue. But I had to share the same system, configured completely different than the first venue's version, to accommodate the major differences in each venue. Everything had to be carefully planned for this to work on this scale with the little time that we had.
SRO: Are there any tricks to making a limited budget work with your artistic vision in such situations?
Choi: Accepting sacrifice is the biggest thing. In most cases, if you know your lighting fixtures well and you are fairly keen on how much light you'll need just to get by lighting something, you can usually carve out an affordable solution, even if it means turning a few automated fixtures into smaller automated units or conventional units, or just using less fixtures all-around.
Begging and pleading with your vendor sometimes helps. I've learned quickly that making the budget work to everybody's advantage is an art form that takes up most of my time, and my vendor's time as well. The last thing I cut are my crew — I'd rather have them employed instead of a couple extra (High End Systems) X.Spots, although sometimes you must make small cuts there too.
All artistic vision aside, you will at some point in your career encounter a situation where it is absolutely impossible to adequately light an event at all with the given budget. At this juncture, it's up to you to either pass on the job, or take it on the pretense that the client knows that the lighting will not be adequate for the event.
SRO: Tell us more about the back-to-back Bay Area concerts themselves and how they went.
Choi: The first show was the big rock concert at the Oakland Arena featuring Lionel Ritchie, Yerba Buena, and Wyclef Jean. The second was a smaller concert spread out over a larger area at the Bill Graham Civic Center in San Francisco.
First, we had to produce a concert for the convention-goers at the Oakland Arena. The arena rig was supplied entirely by Susan Tesh and Gary Farrell of VLPS Los Angeles. The Oakland event featured the Catalyst and IMAG. The screens and a camera system were supplied by Big Screen Video of San Francisco.
It was a fun show, and I basically winged the whole thing. My system came online at around lunchtime the day of each show. Doors opened at 6 p.m., and there was the usual six-hour frenetic push to get my bag of tricks and base looks into the console. My Catalyst looks were already in the desk, so all I had to worry about next was getting the rest of the rig to sing. Any sized lighting rig can be turned into a show in a few hours if you know how — incorporating Catalyst adds a lot more to the challenge.
SRO: Is Catalyst affordable for corporate events?
Choi: Yes, absolutely. Especially in comparison to what else is currently being used out there. This job is the perfect example of a job that wouldn't have had motion graphics on the screen if it hadn't had been for the affordability of Catalyst. They would have instead gone all IMAG. The Catalyst units I rented from VLPS came loaded with enough stock content to really make the event look great, and at a low cost. Granted, there are ups and downs to using purely stock content, but you can alter it and layer it to an unrecognizable piece of recycled content, so the sky really is the limit.
SRO: What is your general approach to programming video content for this type of event?
Choi: With these shows, the approach I took was to build about 20 master looks, each with multiple layers of content spanning from referenced organic mountains or clouds to psychedelics to digital motion graphic looks, and, of course, logos. I allocated eight faders on my desk to bring up the intensity for its relative layer, while always having my first layer playing in the background. This way, something would always be on the two 15'×20' side screens no matter where I switched.
Since I knew nothing of the music before the actual show, my first priority was to evaluate the type of song, switch Catalyst pages to an appropriate one, then go to an appropriate lighting cue and play the song with all my auxiliary bumps and ballys (moving lights and colors around a room). It was actually a lot of fun.
SRO: Tell us about lighting the San Francisco show.
Choi: The Bill Graham show was mainly a party concert featuring Morris Day, War, and a DJ. The Bill Graham show was spread out across one huge main room and two smaller rooms with a few hallways of coves in between. Curtis Hague of Riverview Lighting (San Francisco) did me a favor and gave me a deal on some lighting fixtures for the entranceway. Riverview also supplied a tech for the 24 extra (VariLite) VL 2000 spot and washes, and really helped us when it came to the push.
The Bill Graham show had one 15'×20' screen in the center and 12 small screens configured into these cool pods. They were all fed with Catalyst and IMAG. The pods were supplied by Island Creative Management (San Francisco) and were very cool-looking with Catalyst playing in them. The way we had the video system set up, we could switch to some screens with IMAG, some with Catalyst, or all with Catalyst.
The lighting rig was spread out across the entire room, rather than constrained just to the stage. I also had many floor lights in the hallways and in the side rooms to create a moody atmosphere for the alcoves and eating areas.
We lost one of our main techs that day, though, and that really put us up against the gun. I was rolling around my desk, programming the alcoves with a big smile on my face thinking, “In five minutes the doors are going to open.” The doors opened, I had one more room to program. People started walking in to eat, and I was very obviously standing there programming as fast as I could so we could get my desk and all its cables out of there in time. I finished the programming a few minutes later, and we packed it up and got out of there.
From there, I went back to programming the main room. Most of my looks from the arena were intact, but I needed to re-focus and build new looks to accommodate the differences in venues — this one had a dance floor and miles of round tables surrounding it. I also had to balance my spots and get my intercom working to everybody. We then had 30 minutes before show time. Thankfully, my lighting director Tom Thompson was there. He balanced the spotlights and got the intercom working while I kept programming. The show went off without a hitch.
SRO: What was the key to making these events successful?
Choi: Listening to what the client wanted, making it happen, and exceeding their expectations — on time. If the client wants changes, your ability to roll with the punches also helps. I can definitely attribute the success of these two very difficult gigs to the level of professionalism and steadfast dedication of the people that supported me in this endeavor.
SRO: From a technology standpoint, where do you see corporate events heading?
Choi: I can see Catalyst and other video servers making their way into the corporate world (more regularly). Cue-based video in total synchronicity with lighting is an appealing thing on all levels, including corporate. Though I don't do a whole lot of corporate events, as many as I'd like, I can see that there is definitely an area where Catalyst would raise the bar of the overall look of corporate events, and at an affordable cost.
Sharon Stancavage is a freelance writer based in Detroit who has written on a variety of industry related topics for publications in both the United States and the UK.