This article originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of Professional Lighting & Production magazine.
By Andrew King
Looks like it’s officially a tradition…
For our first issue of the year in both 2017 and 2018, we rounded up a panel of some of the best and busiest concert lighting designers in Canada and beyond to help us identify current and incoming trends facing their sector, advancements in technology that have had a notable impact on their work, and more. In both cases, we benefitted from some valuable insight into the creative and technical sides of the business and were able to keep a close eye on those trends as they developed in the year that followed.
With that, and the fact that we’ve since had accomplished designers knocking on our door to take part, we figured we might as well keep a good thing going. We’re thrilled to bring you input from this year’s esteemed panel and look forward to following where things go over the next 12 months…
Howard Ungerleider is one of the most accomplished and in-demand lighting designers and creative professionals in the business. Under the banner of his firm Production Design International (PDI), he has collaborated with a long list of high-profile clients, including Rush, Tool, Kid Rock, and dozens more.
An in-demand lighting designer and production manager, Colin Moore has enhanced the shows of a diverse array of touring artists, including Billy Talent, Shaggy, The Strumbellas, Brett Kissel, and The Dirty Nil.
After spending much of 2018 on the road with Jack White, Michelle Sarrat has been focusing on local gigs and festivals around L.A. and Palm Springs and creating new video content for her “lighting-friendly” video library. She’s also gearing up for the upcoming Raconteurs tour, which kicks off later this spring.
Clare Mathison has been touring steadily as the lighting director for Little Big Town since January 2018. They just wrapped up the Canadian leg of The Breakers Tour on the West Coast in early March 2019. She has also logged her share of miles on the road with Kelsea Ballerini in recent years.
Having just wrapped a tour with Mother Mother (which featured a hand-crafted wooden set that was projection-mapped and can now be completely recycled), George Gorton is currently focused on architectural lighting designs for an iconic West Coast recording studio. He’s also keeping busy with builds and R&D for his Triangle Servers line of custom touring rackmount computers.
Gideon Ayesu is a Toronto-based lighting director who produces, designs, and integrates lighting, visuals, and production for a myriad of applications. Over the past year, he has designed shows and toured with the likes of Roy Wood$, Tebey, and KILLY. He has also collaborated on music video and live projects with Drake, Jay Rock, Langston Francis, and various projects with The JUNO Awards.
PL&P: What’s the latest product or piece of technology to hit the market that you’ve incorporated into your work with good results, or that you see as a potential game changer for concert and entertainment lighting?
Gideon Ayesu: I recently had the opportunity to use a brand-new grandMA 3 Light console from Apex Sound and Light for a one-off show with KILLY. It was great getting a chance to familiarize myself with the new hardware. The transition was a lot easier than I expected, even with the updated physical layout. It integrated seamlessly with the rest of my control package running MA2 mode. I’m excited to use the MA3 software on the new lineup when it gets released.
George Gorton: I have the Chauvet Strike 1 on the road and I abso¬lutely love it. I was curious to try them as I’d seen it used on a Kaleo tour and was so impressed. The dimming curve, the red shift LEDs … it is an incredibly versatile fixture. The strobe is great on them as well. Even though in concept it’s a simple light, the red shift producing the beautiful red glow at lower intensities is fantastic.
Clare Mathison: We used the Follow-Me remote followspot control system on a co-headlining tour with Miranda Lambert last summer designed by Fireplay, and I loved the flexibility of being able to turn any profile fixture in the rig into a followspot. This made the lighting design more performer-focused and we were really able to make everyone on stage look their best without relying on unpredictable local followspots and operators.
The last two tours we have also used MBox media servers, [which] provide all the features we actually need for country music shows with¬out too much extra to sift through. And because it’s MacBook-based, it’s a great portable option for a band that does a lot of festivals and fly dates.
Colin Moore: Over the past few years, I have been using more and more multi-pixel static lighting fixtures throughout most of my designs when possible. They are great pieces that can provide another level of dimension to a design. Besides what these fixtures can do for the visual look on a stage, what is really exciting is the level of control you can have over a number of platforms. With the advancements in network control within lighting consoles like the grandaMA2, it allows you to either control these fixtures straight from the console and even merge control data from other platforms like media servers. I love new lights – who doesn’t like a new toy? – but what I’m getting really excited about is new and exciting ways to control lighting and video elements that allow for a cleaner workflow in the creative process.
Michelle Sarrat: I am personally very impressed with and excited about the Robe MegaPointe. I’ve loved using the regular Pointe for years, as it’s a very versatile, compact, and bright hybrid fixture, which is great for smaller tours where you really need … a lot of bang for your buck. The only drawback was the limited colour selection, given that it’s a colour wheel fixture, but the MegaPointe has fixed that with its CMY system. It has a lot of neat effects too!
Howard Ungerleider: The new laser-diode video projectors have become a complete game-changer. The projectors’ colour and clarity become an inspiring representation of reality when used with animation or IMAG. The vivid, precise images will astound all who experience them.
PL&P: Thinking back to the last two or three years, which widespread trend in terms of technology, workflow, or industry relations has had the most significant impact on your work or the stage lighting industry in general?
Ungerleider: The use of LED products has been ever-present in our changing lighting industry. There are many variations and choices when selecting the new technology. I am a firm believer that the lighting tool you choose has a specific function for an exact application. Now that we have many diverse fixtures that use an incredible quantity of DMX channels, the call for multifaceted lighting consoles has stepped up our game. The ability to not only control all of your lighting, but also your media servers and laser systems has given the director amazing control over his or her productions.
Ayesu: It’s been great seeing LED source fixtures with comparable and sometimes even better output and optics flood the market at various price points. This has led to more options for rentals as well as seeing more current fixtures in even mid-size venues.
Gorton: I would say the number of operators purchasing MA Lighting wings or consoles in general, and the now widespread use of MA3D and the ability for many operators to program and practice at home, has really introduced a whole new generation of programming skill that is pretty impressive. Access to this technology can be a barrier when a console is $30,000 to $50,000 or more, but if someone can buy a console for $10,000 and make that back over a couple of years of rentals and touring, it certainly seems to make sense. In turn, the availability of these consoles for people who don’t want to make that investment is also higher, creating a more skilled user base.
Mathison: It seems like there is an increasing emphasis on how live entertainment designs will look on social media. We’re not only working to make things look good live and on IMAG, but also on cell phone cameras, because this is the way a lot of people – clients included – see and remember the shows.
Sarrat: I think my favourite widespread trend has been the inclusion of so many more kickass lady LDs and programmers in the industry. When I first started, I was very often the only woman in any class I would take, or at any lighting industry event. I’m so happy to see a new crop of amazingly talented, hard-working ladies coming up and giving the complacent dudes a run for their money!
Another of the main new trends that I’ve been seeing and also hearing a lot about is the concept of lighting not just for the live audience, but also for social media. More and more people are basing design decisions on how it will look on a cell phone camera, which, for better or for worse, makes a lot of sense in the Instagram-centric world of the current generation, where it sometimes seems the picture of you being there is more important than your actual experience. Having spent the last year working for an artist who places a premium on the live experience to the point of employing Yondr to keep people’s phones out of play, I haven’t had to deal with that as much, but it’s definitely something that I think about now when I do other gigs.
PL&P: From your perspective, what do you anticipate will be the next major technological innovation that will have a widespread effect on your and your peers’ performance and workflow?
Sarrat: Although I personally haven’t seen them, I’ve been hearing a lot about new lights based on laser technology, which sounds very intriguing. A lot of my industry friends are saying that will be the next big thing.
Ungerleider: Moving forward, I would love to see semi-transparent video screens and holographic image projectors blended together. I would enjoy using a transparent and bendable video surface that will incorporate holographic and three-dimensional video elements with a seamless setup and strike configuration.
Ayesu: A standardized protocol for integration between media servers, automation control, and lighting consoles.
Gorton: Generative video and camera effects and integrating these effects with lighting. It is already emerging with platforms like Blacktrax and D3/Notch, but I think the generative elements of sets, video and lighting, automated followspots, etc., are all really on the horizon and will become more accessible. I’d also say that automated rigging becoming more available is another exciting trend which we will see more of in the coming years
Mathison: I would expect the continued blurring of lines between lighting and video. Plus, more LED and maybe more interactive live video manipulation.
Moore: I think the next big shift will be in networking, and how prod¬ucts integrate with one another. I believe, and hope, that in the next few years, you won’t have to be an IT wizard to build a network for your shows, and maybe consoles, fixtures, media servers, etc. will all work off the same network protocol and just talk to each other organically. I also find that networking is an area where many lighting techs lack knowledge. I know the world of audio has already started this process with the Milan protocol; if that works, it would be a great model of the industry coming together to create something magical.
PL&P: I think it’s fair to say that lighting equipment and concepts are more accessible to more people now than they have been in the past. Has this had a tangible effect, positive or negative, on your interactions with clients over the past few years, as far as discussing concepts, getting a clear idea of what they want the show or project to look like, etc.? If so, how has that affected your work, for better or for worse?
Moore: There is almost a fan culture around lighting and visuals that has emerged lately, which is kind of exciting. It pushes us “older” folks to keep it fresh because there is more young talent coming up than ever. I think this is really just a result of social media and the access to countless videos of spectacular lighting and visual presentations – not to mention that teens are starting to learn programming language in school, and some of that can either be used directly in the lighting world or is at least training young minds to think in that context.
Pertaining to my interactions with clients, I think social media influences and drives their vision forward as well. I am currently working with a new artist that wants to do something cool and interesting with their keyboard stands. They want a visual effect “eye candy” to not only give the stage some flare but also to hide some of their cable mess! But what is great is since they have access to Instagram and YouTube, we can bounce ideas back and forth with videos instead of drawing on napkins or in MS Paint.
Ungerleider: For starters, I am a bit frustrated that with all of these items as available as they are, they’re actually numbing our ability to create artistically meaningful shows. It has become too easy to just throw together a series of lighting fixtures and run them through an effects generator to create a sea of madness rather than a thoughtful artistic creation. Some of the new technology actually helps you with quick requests that clients want and need, but can also detour you into cutting corners that may not turn out well artistically.
It is much better to blend the new school technology with old school design concepts. This creates a completely alternative concept that will push you towards the future of designing.
I am also very pleased with all of the new software that has been created lately. These amazing tools help you to visualize, create, and render concepts that help your clients understand your vision that de¬fines their concepts. All in all, I am pleased with how technology is mov¬ing forward to allow us to have vision and passion with all that we do!
Ayesu: I would say this has had an incredibly positive impact on being able to communicate throughout the design process. Clients and artists are better able to express their ideas and concepts. There is far more information available online in terms of references and also multiple options in terms of pre-vis software, which has made communication more efficient.
Gorton: I think being able to articulate as clear a picture as possible of what the client is paying for is best. Any advances in this technology are always welcome. I often think about the day when I could have an artist put on a VR headset and watch their own show from any seat in the arena through a visualization and how powerful that would be for showing concepts and ideas in action.
Mathison: Things can move quickly when clients are informed enough to know exactly what they want and how realistic those wishes might be, considering the restrictions of their current budget, personnel, venue, etc. Ideally, this leads to more productive conversations be¬tween designers, technical professionals, and clients, and smaller gaps between expectation and reality.
PL&P: Considering things like a grasp of common technologies and tools, available education and training, etc., do you think the barrier for entry into lighting design and operation is higher or lower now than it was, say, five years ago? In your experience, what’s specifically contributing to that, and any tips or advice for people looking to get a start in stage lighting?
Mathison: I would guess that the barrier for entry would be lower, considering a wider base-level understanding of technology and pro¬gramming in younger kids. Also, cultural trends towards more fluid, gig-based careers and increased travel might lend well to this type of work. But while you can learn a lot about anything in school or on YouTube, having a career in lighting ultimately comes down to meeting people in the industry and working gigs, which probably hasn’t changed a ton in the past five years.
Moore: As I mentioned, there is a pretty rad lighting design fan culture, with younger techs, designers, and programmers coming up fast, and they usually know way more than me! This is great, but I urge them: please don’t put the cart before the horse. It is incredibly important to not just jump on a console and take opportunities to just be a tech. I am not saying that you need to “do your time,” but it is so helpful to understand the nuts and bolts of how a rig goes together, and how to do it the right way. Jumping directly to a designer role will often just lead to headaches when building rigs. I’m not saying this is right for everyone, but I believe learning how to walk before you run will pave the way for success!
Sarrat: Oh, I think it’s way lower. Before, you had to actually travel somewhere to take a class on a console and they were prohibitively ex¬pensive, so you could only get practice if you had access to a shop that owned a console you could play around on. Now there are so many tutorials and classes available online, like the wonderful ACT Academy and webinar series that ACT Lighting offers for the MA consoles, and with the stellar PC/Mac versions of console software that are available and the comparatively lower price of USB wings, it’s not a huge buy-in to own your own gear that you can not only practice on at your leisure, but also use for real shows.
I also always tell people who want to learn programming that they should read Brad Schiller’s fantastic book, The Automated Lighting Programmer’s Handbook. It’s not console-specific and clearly explains all the basic programming lingo and concepts, like HTP vs LTP, etc. Reading that before you take a class will help you get a lot more out of it, and help make the information download stick!
Ungerleider: Right now, I feel that with all of the availability of new equipment along with educational materials that never existed before, we are in a much better position than ever for employment. More and more companies are consolidating and looking for young, eager, and intelligent people to help them run their companies in many diverse areas. Opportuni¬ty abounds for the people who have committed themselves to learning and understanding new programming techniques and software applications in all aspects of our industry.
I sincerely encourage anyone who has passion, musical abilities, and com¬puter skills to get involved with this awesome industry, but remember that nothing will come to you unless you put the effort into making it happen.
Ayesu: The number of work opportunities available has rapidly increased in the past five years, definitely making it easier to enter the field. I feel a lot more up-and-coming artists are interested in adding visual elements to their live shows as well.
In terms of tips and advice, I would always encourage anyone interest¬ed in starting out to spend time working in a major production shop. The experience and work ethic I learned in my time in shops when I started out has been invaluable in my career. Also, never be afraid to hit up anyone you look up to in the industry for advice. I was pleasantly surprised how helpful and friendly a lot of people I looked up to were when I finally worked up the courage to reach out.
Gorton: It’s hard for me to speak to the barriers now as it certainly has changed from when I started. It certainly seems like more people are interested in this industry now than a decade ago when I started touring. More competition is an aspect to entry, but on the flip side, speaking purely to the music touring world, smaller bands are trying to carry an LD or a small package with them because they are not hauling around massive lights or needing large amounts of electricity to operate and the cost of rentals seems to be more within reach. Admittedly, time-coded shows have also played into that. I think that people starting in this industry have an exciting path ahead with loads of amazing technology emerging all the time. With all the resources available, soak up as much of that information as possible, even if it’s not equipment that is in reach for your use today; understanding what is coming is great knowledge to have.
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Professional Lighting & Production magazine.