At the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) 2001 this past January, the president of Nissan Motors took the stage and uttered the words, “Nissan is back.” Over two days, Nissan and Infiniti unveiled a range of vehicles, including the “Z.” More importantly, this was the first showcase of the new Nissan brand, which revealed an impassioned, innovative attitude in the company and its cars.
Confused? Did you just check the cover of the magazine you're reading to see if it's Business Week, Advertising Age, or Motor Trend? Why does this kind of a paragraph even belong in Lighting Dimensions?
Corporate theatre is a growing and vital source of creative and financial opportunity for theatrical professionals. Billions of dollars pour into trade shows and corporate events around the world. IBM alone does, on average, three to five trade shows a week somewhere in the world. If the industry keeps going this way, I can guarantee that any theatrical professional will sooner or later work on some kind of corporate event.
I must admit that, up to three years ago, I thought the phrase “corporate theatre” ranked up there with “airline food” and “rush hour” as king of the oxymorons. I thought designing for it would be as exciting as watching a commercial of paint drying. Since I was working in concerts, film, and television at the time, I thought industrial work would be boring. I was wrong. The process is different, but no less rewarding.
My entry into the corporate world was when I signed on to be an LD for Juice Creative, the lighting design and theatrical production wing of the George P. Johnson (GPJ) company, an international event marketing and exhibit company whose clients include Toyota, Nissan, Honda, IBM, and Siebel.
Designing a corporate event is a lot like two strangers meeting on a train: The language barrier can be immense between the business and the theatre worlds. Phrases like “branding initiative” and “return on investment” have to translate into concept sketches, story treatments, and light plots. The last few years I've been part of a team that has become savvy in creating events for our clients, like car manufacturer Nissan and its luxury division, Infiniti.
The account executive heads our team — there isn't really an equivalent to this position in the theatre. They are the main interface with the client. They sell the concepts, and receive and filter the information. They are ultimately responsible for the budget and execution of whatever it is we do for the client, and they are the ones who assemble the creative team. The GPJ account team for Nissan and Infiniti consists of five people headed by executive sales director Chris Murphy.
Heading up the creative team is our producer, Patrick Stansfield, widely known for his work putting together worldwide tours for clients like Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. He is directly responsible to the account team in conveying that the project is on track and on budget.
Our creative director is Jeffrey Hornaday, who in the concert world most recently directed the Backstreet Boys' latest tour [see page 66] and has directed everyone from Reba McEntire to Madonna. Jeffrey's primary job is to head the team to generate the concepts, pitch them to the clients, and listen to the clients' feedback. His is the first and last voice in creative decisions. Jeffrey brings a quality of reassurance to the clients that the events we create for them are the best they can be.
Our production designer, Julia Zarro, is critical in not only designing the event, but also in heading the team that generates the renderings with which we sell the concepts. Charlie Whittock, our technical director, not only ensures that everything is installed and works, but is responsible for budgeting and managing all the labor involved in putting our event together. For a corporate event, all the carpenters, electricians, stagehands, projectionists, forklifts, engineers, drivers, and everyone else can add up to a bill in the six figures. Managing it well can be the difference between an event's fiscal success or failure.
I'm the lighting designer. Designing lighting for corporate events has proven to be radically different from concerts in many ways. First of all, the planning phase is very long. I started hearing about the January 2001 event in January 2000. Second, everything can be very expensive. Nissan and Infiniti do one show every year that, if you break down what it costs to prep, ship, hang, power, rig, and focus each instrument, it can cost $1,000 per PAR can.
Corporate events are, more often than not, done in convention halls, ballrooms, or other unconventional spaces. In a theatre, you take for granted wings, fly space, backstage areas, green rooms, dressing rooms, control booths, and seats for the audience. For industrials, you have to bring in or build that stuff yourself. More often than not, I have to use part of my lighting budget to hang truss and soft goods to create a temporary theatre within which to stage our events.
Nissan first approached the account team in January 2000 to look into the feasibility for this event. Over the course of the spring and summer of 2000, we were steadily fed a stream of background information on the products we would be revealing. More importantly, we were being told what the new Nissan “brand” would be.
Theatre professionals, welcome to what's currently the single most important marketing term in business today that's crucial to understanding your potential clients: brand. Why do some people read Elle and others read Vogue? Why do you prefer certain airlines over others? What do the kinds of shoes you wear say about you? Why do you always buy the same bottled water?
The answer is brand. Companies spend millions of dollars each year to associate certain emotions and experiences with their identity. Apple associates with creativity. Nike equals athletic excellence. Visa is accepted everywhere, MasterCard is for those priceless moments in your life, and American Express carries with it the cachet of success and achievement. When you buy a Rolex, you're not just buying a watch, you're buying into a statement about yourself that you're making to the world.
After decades of declining sales, Nissan was looking at NAIAS 2001 in Detroit to relaunch its brand, reinvigorate how it is perceived by the public, and resuscitate its business. To those of us on the creative team, that meant we had to deliver, in a live setting, the emotional context within which to reveal these vehicles to the public.
We met at least once a week through the year. Especially through the spring and early summer, we digested the mountain of information from the client about the product and their needs and expectations. We knew from the beginning that we would have two different press events. On the first day we would be unveiling the new Nissan models. Infiniti's day would be the day after that.
We were getting the word from our client that product would be king. The purpose of the press event was not to distract with gags, but to support the vehicles we were revealing by providing the proper personality and context for them.
We brainstormed. Our account team had an eye toward feasibility and client need. The creative team was looking to match concept to message. The producing team was looking to keep the budgets sane.
After extensive research and innumerable creative sessions, at the end of spring we came up with three different very rough concepts for each event. After talking with the client, we narrowed it down to one concept each for Nissan and Infiniti.
Our renderings for the Nissan event started off a bit flashy. Our concept was that from the innovative spirit of Nissan would emerge the Z and the other new vehicles. The Infiniti event was about refined luxury and featured huge expanses of space in front of a giant video screen that would provide environment and context for the vehicles revealed.
We came up with renderings, generated a proposal package, and in a momentous meeting, the account team pitched the concept to the new president of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn. In the corporate world, it's not enough to win your battles. It is just as important to pay attention to how you win them.
He liked our ideas and endorsed them. He felt confident that no matter what events we created, he was sure that we would properly support the vehicles being revealed. His key point: He was more concerned about the message he was going to deliver than the theatrics of the event.
Translation: Our number one priority was to support the message. Theatrics were not essential.
About this time, we figured out we were overbudget. As we dove deeper into the mechanics of our concepts, we were uncovering more and more logistics problems in converting from the Nissan to the Infiniti event.
In the middle of summer, less than six months away from the event, we realized that we had to dramatically rework the concept. The problem was — and this can be death in the corporate world — we had already sold the concept to the client.
This is where the account team and the relationship with the client becomes crucial to the creative development of the project. Inadequate relationships can sabotage the best-intentioned concepts. Chris Murphy and his team bravely went to the client to say that we had to rework things. And, because of our great history with them, they gave us the blessing to do what we had to.
We moved the design of the Nissan event closer to the Infiniti event. They would both feature the 60'-wide by 15'-high (18×5m) video screen. Differentiation between the two events would come primarily from video content.
My first, most important tasks were to define the lighting design intention as part of the overall event intention, and to make sure we could afford whatever I came up with.
It was clear to me that this event was all about the vehicles. It was also clear that video and not lighting would carry the load of the emotional content on these events. And that defined my list of priorities. The vehicles were going to be spinning on turntables and had to look pleasing to the eye, to still cameras, and to video. The cars had to look great.
I had to balance the light levels on the vehicles to the video screens behind them. The cars had to look great.
I had to light executive speakers, and they could end up anywhere on that stage. The cars had to look great.
I had to support the differentiation of the two press events in an economical way.
And, by the way, the cars had to look great.
I assumed all along that I had to have an automated lighting system to illuminate this event to give me instant responsiveness to client requests. I settled on the High End Systems Studio Beam™ as the fixture of choice.
From a financial perspective, my lighting supplier partner Tobins Lake Studios (probably the best unknown lighting company in the United States) sourced a package of them at a great price. From a design perspective, the fixtures had the right light output. Most importantly, the quality of light that comes out of them is clear and consistent. Their low profile allowed me to maintain the clean look I had built into the rig to keep design consistency with scenic and exhibit elements. Working with my lighting supervisors, Michael Keller and Ryan Nicholson, we took the zoom lenses out of the lights to keep the beam spread wide and even, and to remove any potential color cast.
Traditional automotive lighting theory says that you should ring the car with lights and fill in evenly all around the car. I needed a different approach. Nissan was emphasizing the new design and form of its vehicles as a hallmark of the aggressive attitude it was bringing to the market, and traditional lighting methods didn't quite support that.
I chose to move lights out of the backlight positions and into toplight. This shifted the emphasis. The toplight brought out the forms of the cars. Focus was now not on flat illumination but on feel, emotion, shape, and design.
Our events were a triumph. From the opening video to the president striding onstage and confidently announcing “Nissan is back,” the electricity and energy we created with our press events was felt throughout the automotive and business worlds. We hit a home run with the world press and, more importantly, with our client. Everyone came out smiling.
Success in corporate theatre is measured much differently than in the concert world I had been used to. In concerts, success can be measured by ticket sales or in deafening applause. Now, instead of audience reaction, I look for media coverage for my personal and professional satisfaction. A press event, after all, is all about generating favorable coverage for my client and its products. Right after NAIAS, we were reading review after review, even from rival manufacturers, that Nissan had created huge buzz in the industry. The event was being featured in numerous news stories.
My personal “applause moment” came as I was boarding a plane a month later to light another event. As I settled into my seat, a familiar orange form caught my eye across the aisle. A man had brought the latest Motor Trend magazine to read on the plane — and there on the cover was the Z that I had lit just a month before. I sat back and smiled, knowing that I had done my part in making that possibility into a reality.
Arnold Serame is a principal lighting designer for Juice Creative and can be reached at email@example.com. Jeff Granbery, who took the photos of the event for this story, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.