This article originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of Professional Lighting & Production magazine
By Andrew King
For our first issue of 2017, we brought together some of Canada’s best-known concert and event lighting designers to weigh in with some general thoughts and opinions on the current state of their business – everything from new tools and technologies to industry trends affecting their workflow to their thoughts on the incoming generation of lighting pros.
Having unearthed some interesting ideas and insights, we decided to repeat the process to kick off 2018, bringing together a new panel of reputable designers, programmers, and operators to gauge what’s in store for our industry in the next 12 months and beyond. From the importance of industry-wide RDM adoption to the ongoing benefits of LED technology to effective communication with clients, we cover a lot of ground on a wide array of topics to get you primed for an exciting year ahead.
Eric Bartnes is “still happily employed” by 54-40, one of Canada’s finest rock bands, and is a multiyear designer for Niagara Falls, ON’s annual Winter Festival of Lights, with over 175 fixtures lighting the icy mist at the top of Horseshoe Falls. He also teaches an increasingly popular advanced training course on MA Lighting’s grandMA and grandMA2 with media servers.
Brent Clark had a busy 2017, lighting the late Gord Downie’s Secret Path shows and also designing for and touring with longtime clients like Barenaked Ladies and Stereophonics, the latter of which currently has him out on a U.K. tour. He also designed a recent homecoming show for on-the-rise rock outfit Glorious Sons in Kingston, ON.
For over a decade, Stephan Gotschel has been touring with RAIN – A Tribute to The Beatles, for which he’s currently the lighting, video, and production designer and production manager. He began his career nearly 25 years ago with Canadian a cappella icons The Nylons and has toured with Daughtry, Michelle Wright, The Tea Party, and many others. He was also master electrician for several seasons of Canadian Idol.
Matthieu Larivée’s firm Luz Studio currently does over 50 projects per year, including Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill, the Polaris Music Prize Gala, Gemeaux Prize in Quebec, and others in addition to high-profile corporate gigs. In the music world, Luz had a hand in the latest BORNS tour and is currently collaborating on Jack White’s upcoming tour supporting Boarding House Reach.
A freelance lighting designer, programmer, and technician, Steven Smith has toured alongside the likes of Barenaked Ladies, Marianas Trench, Metric, and Great Big Sea over the years. He’s currently keeping busy with a full schedule of corporate gigs in addition to working on the NHL’s Stadium Series of outdoor games and their related concerts and events.
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?
Bartnes: I don’t see any new gear as a “game changer”; the trend is brighter and cheaper and that’s always welcome. In my field, I don’t always get to spec my rig, so in other words, I’m gear agnostic. I don’t care what the rig is, as long as it works.
Clark: The latest piece of gear would have to be the new Green Hippo media server. I think that’s a game changer for me. I am also really into all these little LED lights that are coming on the market. They are very cool and I love the size. I currently have about 64 [Robe] Spikies on tour at the moment and I love them. Also, the way lasers are being done now is a big change. It used to be so very convoluted to tour with them, but now they are a breeze to set up and most of them can be run via DMX.
Gotschel: I haven’t really incorporated any revolutionary product in my work lately, aside from moving mostly everything over to LEDs. The fixtures are lighter and use less power. Most of my work takes me to theatres, where I am hanging off of theatre battens. In these cases, weight is a major factor, and with lighter fixtures and less cabling, I find I can hang my entire rig everywhere I go. In the past, this was an issue at times and I would have to scale down the rig to save weight. This also comes into play with the LED walls I carry. They are becoming lighter while resolutions are getting finer. All this results in creating much larger-looking shows and giving the audiences greater experiences.
Larivée: I think that consoles are the biggest game changer. grandMAs have taken over the market with their original series, then 2 series by being able to program multiple matrices and a big quantity of lights. Now, grandMA3 is out because the multi-pixel fixtures are too hard to program. I think that the grandMA3 will define how manufacturers will produce their next fixtures, so for me, this is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle, from rock to opera, everywhere in the world.
Smith: For me, RDM [Remote Device Management] is the tool that the industry has been waiting for. It’s not fresh off the line new, but it is still fairly rare to come across and manufacturers are doing their best to incorporate it into their products. Once the bulk of fixtures available support it, and as we move over to compatible opto-splitters, I can see it saving a great deal of time and energy both during set-up and for troubleshooting. Being able to easily select all fixtures on my rig and change the mode or address is amazing. The feedback system is great and allows me to quickly see where certain problems are and adjust quickly. The only problem for me right now is that it’s a little basic. Many items don’t let you access every option through RDM that is available on the display, and it can be a little slow at times on the console end, but I believe as the manufacturers start working on this, hopefully talking to each other a bit, then we will see great improvements as the technology grows.
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?
Bartnes: The only trend in the last several years is that I’m more expensive than the younger designers. It’s a sad twist of fate that production companies will use and abuse your youth, and as soon as you are a “made man,” they will replace you with cheaper talent.
Clark: I think it’s been the advent of LED technology – not to have the power draws that we once had and to be able to have many lights for the same cost as a few. It makes a small show look so much bigger for the same cost and it's not as damaging environmentally.
Gotschel: I’ve been getting more and more into creating my own custom video content and have been incorporating that into my designs. LED video walls are not that new to the industry, but they have become a lot more affordable and more shows are starting to use them, even on smaller scale shows. By creating my own content, I have full control in achieving the looks I want. Lighting fixtures can only go so far in recreating what I imagine; video walls help get me a lot closer to those goals.
Larivée: LED tape. It’s now well controlled, has some flicker free options, and pixel mapping. We can design fixtures with LED tape, incorporate them into floors, desks, acrylic tubes to simulate a pixel-mapped LED batten, set pieces, etc. Very versatile and changing the lighting industry. Used to be a “gag” but it’s now a precise tool.
Smith: The largest trend of the last three years or so would have to be LEDs, hands down. The technology only keeps getting better and better and has allowed rigs to drop down to a fraction of the power draw that they previously would have used, not to mention the amount of cable and power distribution that you can save on. Having the option to run them on 120 V or 208 V is a great tool to have for those last minute-changes, and the colour mixing has vastly improved where you can get a good white out of them now. The one issue that LEDs have caused though, would be the number of channels required for a show to get full utilization. Luckily the console manufacturers are adapting as well and giving more and more available outputs onboard and easier networking methods to expand your show.
PL&P: From your perspective, what do you anticipate will be the next major technological innovation that will have a widespread effect on you and your peers’ performance and workflow?
Bartnes: I’d like to see RDM [more widely] implemented. It’s so poorly adopted with most manufacturers that turning on RDM is just like disabling your rig. I get the concept, but its application is a total ass pain.
Clark: The next major change I see will be the way consoles interact with the lights and scenery. You already see a bit of this in RDM, but I think the next thing will be the ability to tell the console what you are using and it will talk to the fixture and know where it is in the rig in a 3D space, then it will automatically download its info to the desk and the programmer won’t have to tell the console which lights they have; the desk will just know when it gets plugged in.
Gotschel: 3D hologram technology would be great. Yes, there have been advancements in a form of this technology, but I’m talking about holograms on a much larger scale.
Larivée: Followspot automation is one thing. We are slowly getting multiple suppliers working on a pilot system to run moving lights to lose the spot chair operator. It changes the quality of execution and the result of the show. Also, LED profile fixtures. They’ve worked hard on getting LED profile fixtures [over the years] but now we are starting to get some powerful and nice options. It will reduce the power consumption and overall maintenance, so it will affect our daily schedule. It will also bring more moving lights into theatres.
Smith: I’m not sure what the next major technology will be. It is more important now than ever to understand networking and how to manage and distribute the vast amount of DMX that can be required these days. With a variety of protocols being used today – often a few at the same time on the same network – it is good to know how to deal with the traffic and help keep collisions to a minimum. In the next few years, I believe we will see these networks and the gear used for them better modified to our industry standards, especially for use with LEDs and media servers and the large number of channels that often comes with them.
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?
Bartnes: If clients didn’t know what they wanted before, they still don’t know. I have adopted the strategy of asking artists what they don’t want as opposed to what they want. Most don’t know what they want, but they sure know what they don’t like – for example, no blackouts at the end of songs, no strobes, and no red and green outside of Christmas shows!
Clark: I think that has helped people to a degree to know what lighting concepts are. I also think it’s just that people know more now. They see more shows so they get ideas from those and it’s very easy to search for anything online, so it's very easy for people to come up with a concept. It then becomes one of the designers’ jobs to educate the client on what is possible and what is not.
Gotschel: I find that most clients I have dealt with understand lighting technology to some degree, but with all the new innovations that have come forth in the past several years, they don’t really understand everything these newer products can do. The other factor is that many clients I’ve dealt with have a difficult time conceptualizing three-dimensional space. I still create renders and occasionally set up shop demos, or send videos to explain my ideas. The accessibility of this information hasn’t really changed how I deal with clients. They still have general concepts they perceive and I still interpret them as best I can.
Larivée: It is fair, and I see it as a good thing. People are better educated. Before, we were doing things on our own. Now, clients, even audiences have seen things and know what we are talking about. I think it’s great because we can talk with an artist about certain effects and they will have a good idea of the result – same for producers or managers. Audience wise, they have high expectations. There’s YouTube, so they’ve seen a lot and it’s pushing us to come up with new visions.
Smith: I’m not sure if it is the popularity of consumer LEDs or something else, but it seems like clients today are more aware of what products can do and what they want on their show. With that, along with the amazing visualization software available, it is much easier to show a client your concepts and give them a very realistic look before they spend all their time and money on something they are uncertain about. At the same time, I find some clients try to find much cheaper options, often believing that all brands of technology are the same. It can be a very difficult time explaining and convincing people that it is worth the money to bring in the right product the first time instead of going the cheap route just to cost more in the end and often still not give the image they were looking for.
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?
Bartnes: As far as barriers to entry, they are still there. This is a difficult industry to succeed in. If you want to be an LD/operator, you have to stop taking gigs that don’t put you behind the light board. Over time, customers will only call you for board op gigs so it’s a multi-year transition.
Clark: I think it’s way easier to get into stage lighting these days. With the advent of technology, it becomes very easy for someone to hook up a laptop and run lights. But to that end, I think the art of lighting a stage is being lost. It’s so easy to make the lights do things that people sometimes forget that there is something happening on stage; operators are too busy pointing the lights in your eyes and seeing what their console can do.
My advice has always been: if you are looking at starting out in this business, go work in a shop for a while. Coil cable. Do what needs to be done and, above all, listen to people. There are some very smart people out there who are more than willing to share their knowledge. I have gotten more than a few gigs by just being in the shop, visiting and prepping gear. If people keep seeing you, they will hire you.
Gotschel: I think there are a lot more professionals offering private training courses than there ever were in the past. The internet and social media has played a major role in this. Social media offers free advertising, and online courses can easily be set up. My advice to anyone starting in the lighting industry is to do your research. Don’t go for just anyone offering a course; look at reputable companies. Now, that will only take you so far. The rest comes down to experience.
Larivée: Yes and no. It used to be more a “vibe thing” than now. Lighting was more abstract and vague. LDs were doing plans with stencils, jumping on projects because you knew someone. Now, you still jump on projects because you know someone, but you have to nail it. We have less time and way more technology in our hands. Programming a lighting desk is way more complicated than it used to be. I think that younger lighting professionals are more educated and they are not afraid to ask questions. I feel that the youngsters are prepared and it helps that technology is a heavy part of their lives.
Smith: I believe it is easier than ever for people to become designers, programmers, and operators. The technology has come a long way with the software available to us that greatly improves the visualization of what we are designing and programming. You don’t need to know the right people or live near a rental shop to be able to learn a console; you can simply download the offline editors or PC versions and start teaching yourself how to program.
The console to use these days seems to be the grandMA2, and I’m sure the MA3 in the next two or three years, and MA Lighting has made it that much easier to learn by providing free access to visualization software for their console range. MA3D is a great solution for those who can’t afford WYSIWYG performance. For beginners, there is nothing more helpful than actually being able to visualize what you are trying to do and see how your commands respond without a rig in front of you. In addition, the amount of knowledge on websites and in forums is insane. There is a great network of professionals out there that is more than willing to help you if you find yourself scratching you head.
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Professional Lighting & Production.