Part 2 of our discussion with Richard Neville, lighting designer for the main stage for Ultra Music Festival 2013.
Live Design: Did you go any previz for the main stage?
Richard Neville: We did hours of pre-programming and are actually operating a full pre-viz suite on site. The entire show was drawn in VectorWorks and then visualized in realtime on our software, which worked incredibly well. The previz suites operated throughout the festival, and we received a lot of great feedback for the effort we put in; the visualizer file had the entire set, all automation elements, and an incredibly realistic fixture set.
LD: What were the challenges in the design process?
RN: Probably the biggest challenge we faced was getting everyone to realize just how big this stage was going to be and managing almost everything associated with this. With over 1,000 moving lights and a festival environment, keeping visiting LDs, equipment vendors, and artist managers up to date with a change is a major exercise. Our VectorWorks files are almost unmanageably large, and with 53 universes of DMX running, even a patch takes hours to complete. We preprogrammed for weeks beforehand and had 2,300 unique effects in the grandMA2 console, which is by far the largest number I've ever worked with.
While an outsider might be tempted to class all EDM as "techno" or as being "the same," it's important to recognize that there are a number of different styles within the genre, and there are subtle differences that carry all the way through to how we light the different acts. There are a number of musical styles on the main stage--dubstep, trance, commercial dance--and one act even brought a live band into its set. Trance is all about massive, expansive looks, and acts like Above and Beyond, and Armin van Buuren use huge gobo looks and almost theatrical color schemes. On the other hand, dubstep and electro house is fast, heavy hitting and very intense. It's important that the design could deliver all these different styles well because. despite what most people think, dance music isn't just about randomly flashing lights; there's a respect for the music and the artists that isn't dissimilar to any other kind of entertainment lighting.
LD: What about challenges or changes in rehearsals?
RN: When we actually took control of the rig, we had a couple of setbacks which seriously reduced our programming time. The first night we were on stage, we were very quickly shut down by the Miami Police department because we were lighting up a good chunk of downtown Miami. While I saw this as a bit of an accomplishment, the good people at Miami police didn't quite see it that way, so we had to stop programming and head back into the studio which became invaluable when we couldn't program outdoors.
LD: Was there any particularly new lighting fixture(s) that you found useful?
RN: The Solaris flare fixtures from TMB, mentioned earlier. Also, the Robe 100s are incredible. When we're throwing light out from the stage, only three fixtures read on the buildings of downtown Miami, some 1000' feet away: the Clay Paky Sharpies, Solaris strobes, and the Robe 100s, which is an awesome achievement for such a small fixture. The Robe 100's RGBW mixing is fantastic, they're fast, and we haven't had to swap a single fixture. [See Neville's detailed lighting plots.]
LD: Did anything in particular—budget, space constrictions, technical issues—affect your gear and/or design choices?
RN: Probably the only constraint I had to work with was one I set myself: that I didn't want to clutter the scenic design with lights. I was always aware that we were hanging big black lights in front of beautifully simple chrome pyramids, so I tried to keep the lighting fixtures in fairly unobtrusive positions.
LD: Talk a little about your color choices.
RN: Because the rig is so big, I've tried to keep color choices bold and overly simple. Big, solid color looks work really well on the stage during the day when we're competing with direct sunlight, but at night, we get to play a little more with different color combinations and effects. The best thing about having a huge silver set is that any color looks fantastic on it, but that said, we try to keep a bit of the Ultra identity by progressing through dark purples and congos more than other color schemes.
LD: What were the biggest challenges of this project overall?
RN: This project came up in an incredibly busy time for us. We started working on the project whilst in Dubai lighting the city's new year celebrations and had to deal with a modest time difference there. The design continued in January while we were working on festivals in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Once back at our office in Sydney, however, we started working 12-hour days on local projects, then coming back to the office at midnight when the east coast of the USA came online to start working on Ultra paperwork. It was great to finally get out here and be awake and coherent at the same time as everyone else.
I always find EDM events the most difficult but easily most rewarding to work on as a lighting designer. I do a lot of theatrical design, where we get months to rehearse and carefully plan and control every moment. Even concerts have rehearsal periods and defined set lists. As soon as you step behind the console at an EDM event, however, you're completely and utterly exposed. You don't know what track is coming up next or what the DJ is going to do--Steve Aoki spent a good chunk of his set throwing birthday cakes at the audience and crowd surfing on an inflatable mattress, for example--but you still have the same responsibilities as when you're lighting a theatrical production. There are emotions to support, scenic to light, and people to please. It's just at 128 BPM and completely changing every song. The upside of all of this is the EDM community is always incredibly vocal when it comes to production. We had people on Facebook and Instagram trawling through spy photos of the setup trying to work out what lights, automation, and effects were on the stage in the weeks during the build. So far, we've had an awesome response to the design by people on social media and in person, which makes the whole process for my team worthwhile.