Have you ever noticed that a bad gig can start off fairly normal? You may have no clue that you're headed into a job that will soon be filled with problems and challenges. But if you light a lot of shows, sooner or later there will be one where you need to use everything you've ever learned just to keep your head above water. I think back on a project so difficult it still makes me cringe to this day.

The job was a press conference for a major computer introduction. Unafraid of the painfully literal, the set was a giant PC: a 60'×30' stage deck as the keyboard, the center stage front projection screen as a PC monitor, and two additional RP screens right and left of the stage. The show itself had a few corporate executives speaking and several videos, closing with the center FP sheet disappearing, a huge flash moment, and the actual PC sitting within the frame of the giant scenic monitor — about as straightforward as it gets.

When I arrived in the room, well after load-in was underway, things initially looked good. The truss and lights were in the air and presumably functional. However, I started to feel a twinge of stress almost from the second I crossed the threshold. The lighting fixtures were trimmed too low, and they blocked not only the top of the set — a forgivable indiscretion — but also the critical client-driven images on the screens — a felonious offense.

As I let my eyes drift down from the sightline disaster on the screens, I noticed there were beige walls surrounding the screens, as well. It didn't take a glance at the paperwork to “remember” that I forgot to light these screen surrounds — uh oh.

On my walk to begin confessing my problems to the electrician and rigger, I looked up to realize that the angle of the front light was far too steep. If unchanged, all of the press footage would be unusable because the eye-sockets on the executives would be darker, well, than the screen surrounds.

I've had the pleasure of working with a lot of people, and I've been through some difficult shows with many of them. Ask anyone who knows me, in the time of trouble, the first thing I do is panic.

As lighting designers, we typically like to think about the “D” word — design — and consider subtle or applicable manipulations of color and angle, culminating with a picture that supports our objectives. However, there is always more. We all love to paint and finesse with light, but in a pinch, our creative sides need to focus on solving problems to make sure the fundamentals are handled. In lighting design for corporate/industrials such as this one, I'd suggest these fundamentals usually include:

  • People and set must look good, live and on video.
  • The product and its reveal must look spectacular.
  • The projection screens and projection cones must not be blocked.

If I did nothing, I would walk away with pulling off only the second item and fail at the other 66% of my responsibility.

My brain was racing. I wanted to know what went wrong. Why didn't the riggers hit trim? Why didn't I see the side flats on the scenic plans? Why did I put the front-of-house position in the wrong place? I wanted answers, but that wasn't relevant. I needed to prioritize a list of problems based on the fundamentals above and decide what was feasible within the budget and time frame.

The problems as I saw them were four-fold: The front light was too steep; the lighting fixtures were in the projection cone; the screen surrounds were unlit; and, finally, I was infringing sightlines to the top of the set.

All of these problems were fixable, given enough time and money. Like most events, we had neither. Sweating, I briefly described the challenge to my moving-light programmer. He quickly solved the lack of light on the screen surround. He removed some fixtures from the grid, added a few spares (don't tell the shop!), and considered the problem solved. It would be a “streaky” treatment but hugely better than nothing.

As I walked across the venue toward the production electrician, yellow pad and plot in hand, he sensed something was wrong — maybe it was my “Orphan Annie”-dot eyes. He smelled my fear as I described my woes. His reaction to the lights being in sightlines was to laugh, and I realized the obvious: There was no fix short of raising the ceiling or chopping off a couple feet of scenery. He offered to rig fixtures in the projection cone on pipes, raising them higher. We discussed how, during focus, to finesse a “drop off” near the top of the set, keeping the lighting grid infringement to a minimum. Aware of the timeframe, he proceeded to get the crew moving, gathering the hardware and initiating the fix.

Meanwhile, my neck was getting sore from staring at the lighting grid trying to conjure a way in which the presenters' eye sockets would not look like Luray Caverns. Looking up, it was clear FOH could not be moved. Rigging points did not exist where I needed them. The angle was so far off that to extend pipes downstage even 6' to 10' was not enough. Individual arms, or tail-down pipes, were out of the question — the proper angle would be too low, blocking the view of screens from back rows in the audience. The only other position was a sound-delay truss 50' further away than I needed it. Sherlock Holmes said, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains — however improbable — must be the truth.” How can advice from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle possibly be useful, you ask? To that I respond, “Take advice from a 14th-century logician, William Ockham, whose Ockham's Razor tells us that all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one.”

This was not the best fix, just the best given the conditions and time constraints. For those who don't normally light corporate gigs, an important factor comes into play: 90% of the time, 10% of the stage space is used. In other words, you can't fix it all, but fix at least that 10%. If time permits, fix more. Most of all, hope you don't have a presenter who can't stop walking.

Filling in the eye sockets with eight ellipsoidals from the sound-delay truss would work. If I brought them up to a level of more than 15% during rehearsals, the presenter would scream that there was a train coming at him. So I kept them on submasters and waited for the gig to bring them up just enough to fill the eye sockets acceptably. Fortunately, during the show, a typical executive was too involved in presenting to notice lighting; frequently, they are like a deer in headlights. Our head electrician jumped on the changes and had me focusing in about an hour.

During programming sessions, the moving-light operator and I created fair, as well as bad, cues. We found ourselves working extra hard to make transitions interesting, probably because we didn't like the looks. We spent an especially long time on the reveal itself. We had 40 high-output photo strobes hidden and aimed at the product. As the reveal soundtrack came to a predictable crescendo, the photo strobes created the impression of a thousand press photographers taking pictures.

After the flash factor, on the final chord, a single ellipsoidal front-lit the computer while a second from a right-back position made a clean, simple beam, showcasing the product against the black background. In this case, it was the perfect “hero shot.”

After the gig, the producer and the production company owner expressed their thanks. They were very happy with the lighting. Please don't get me wrong; this was not even close to my best work. In fact, it can be safely said that 40 photo strobes and two ellipsoidals were the only reason my client was ultimately happy. All the damage control kept a relatively inferior-looking job from outweighing the finale.

While this tale offers some specific examples of problem solving, it also reminds me that I'm not the only LD in the room. By marshaling my crew's experience, our collective professional approach ultimately made a successful event. The lesson learned is crystal-clear: Don't be resigned to problems. Don't panic; start innovating. Stick with problems; you may not completely fix them, but remember, everything you do is likely to be an improvement.

To give you an idea of how frequently things can go south, I'll probably get calls from 20 production electricians and moving-light programmers who will read this and say they remember the gig. Another 20 will remind me of worse situations.

John Ingram is a founding partner of Unlimited Visibility Lighting Design (www.uvld.com) and a two-time Emmy Award winner.