This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Professional Lighting & Production magazine.
By Andrew King
Over the past few years, we’ve rounded up varied and diverse panels of concert LDs to give us an up-to-date snapshot of the live production industry and the tech and trends driving it forward.
This time, we’ve focused on a specific segment: the incoming class of sought-after designers and directors finding their way into the prominent roles once occupied by those who showed them the ropes. We touch on incoming gear and evolving workflows, to be sure, but also get into the changing dynamics of the business and how it might evolve in the hands of those inheriting it.
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 lighting design?
Jon Stanners: If I was to name a fixture, by the time you read this, it would be
considered old. What has definitely helped me and my business is access to accurate, real-time rendering. Being able to send an artist an exact image of what their show will look like, showing up with very little programming time, and having it look like what I presented is a time-saver on its own. I can be mid-show in Europe and be confident that my design for a late-night TV show in America will look like I want it to, simply because I was able to rebuild their studio to scale and send renders of each cue. I think this plays a big part in allowing us to have our work showcased properly, without losing artistic and design integrity.
Louise Simpson: I rely heavily on fade times and flat beams, and I have to say that it’s only been recently that I’ve actually used LED fixtures as my choice for profiles. They are finally feeling even and gracious. Specifically, the Mistrals and Khamsin from Ayrton. They are really killing it for me right now.
Joseph Morris: Honestly, being so new to this industry makes it hard to answer. I sort of just walked into all the new tech; it’s just the norm for me. I always hear rumours that eventually our lighting rigs will be IP address-based, but I feel we’re still a ways off from that. New technology seems to take a while to roll out in this industry.
Ishdeep Bhogal: In Winnipeg, you don’t always get to come across the newest toys to work with as much as you hear about them and view them at a show or online. The most practical product that I’ve used and has been the most useful to me is LED technology. Power consumption vs. how big of a punch they pack vs. budget is what it boils down to for me. LED technology is getting better and better annually and getting more incorporated by designers of all sorts from what I see and hear … Not only has it benefited me but it’s also changing the game in concert lighting design. You are now able to design rigs with more fixtures because of less power draw, less maintenance for bulb issues, fans are not working as hard because fixtures are running cooler, and are way more eco-friendly overall. To me that means less waste of power and bulbs. As a younger-generation designer, the idea of less consumption is trending around me and I think it’s great if we can do our part too.
PL&P: Thinking back on the last two or three years, which widespread trend in terms of tech, workflow, or industry relations has had the most significant impact on your work, or the concert lighting sector in general?
Simpson: Networking. Maybe it’s because of where I am now, but it’s at all levels of shows these days. Most venues and festivals are networked and as fixtures become more channel-hungry, it becomes a necessity. I’m almost grateful when I just have to deal with copper. Timecode is another thing that I am seeing more and more of. I know that most large-scale shows are using it, but I’ve seen a real trend of LDs being sent out with pre-programed rigs and they just have to press play.
Morris: I’d say the online community has really helped me in my workflow and programming skills. There are so many resources now that when you have a question, you can get an answer so quickly. It’s basically a necessity to be in those forums.
Ian Haslauer: Instagram. Many artists and designers are not only worried that their show photographs well, but that it photographs well on Instagram. I seem to be taking more and more of the colour blue out of my shows because of this. I also often set up a tech desk way off-centre during rehearsals to see what the show looks like from different vantage points in the arena.
Bhogal: One of the biggest trends I’ve caught onto and I could incorporate into my programming and designing is hybrid fixtures. More recently, I’ve been seeing the trend of rigs – notably festivals – with a just few types of lights. Roughly, it goes something like this: a sort of hybrid moving fixtures, which fills up most of the rig, some fun sort of wash bars that are maybe automated, GLP x4s or JDC1s, and bigger eye candy washes. Looks more exciting and smoother! Another trend that I’ve picked up on just recently is the incorporation of video and lighting elements together. Whether it’d be pixel-mapping or controlling video playback from the console, I’ve only started treading the waters of it. I realize this is a more complex topic to get into, but it’s becoming way more apparent in a ton of shows I’ve been watching that lighting pros are also doing video.
Stanners: I think networking is what has impacted me the most, and I’m not talking about IP addresses. I mean networking with designers, programmers, video techs, anybody. Everyone thinks differently and sees things differently. The fact that I can suggest an idea and have someone write me a LUA script 10 minutes later is crazy! Meeting people and being able to text them anytime with a question or a cool design feature has definitely had the most significant impact on my work. Sharing show files, macros, techniques, having real conversations with the people who design and build our products about what we need or are looking for… This is what has helped me build and practice my skills.
PL&P: Where do you see the biggest differences between the way you and others in your cohort approach your work, be it designing, programming, etc., compared with designers/directors a generation ahead of you? Does it ever make for tension, conflict, or ideally, more interesting collaborations?
Morris: I find the way I use my console to be different from most LDs I meet. Being a drummer for most of my life has made me look at lighting a lot more rhythmically. As far as what sets apart the younger generation, we had the blessing of growing up with computers already in front of us, much like the consoles we use. I think that makes learning consoles easier in some form.
Haslauer: The one thing I like about the Canadian industry specifically is that we are all friends and supportive of one another’s work. There is one particular artist I work with that went to a Katy Perry show and said that they wanted their show to look like that. While our budget had many fewer 0s, I used this as an opportunity to explain the benefits of timecodeing a show. I now try and timecode whenever I can, which sometimes limits the pool of people who want to be involved in the project.
Bhogal: What I’ve learned from working with the people at the top was when they were my age, lighting was a lot different. They didn’t get all the resources, toys, and technology that surrounds me now, but they also were surrounded by this rock and roll tour life, which is becoming rarer these days. Personally, I always try to establish a positive environment when it comes to working with others.
Programming-wise … there’s a point where some techs choose not to care or delightfully accept that I may be quicker at establishing looks and getting through a show. I also try to incorporate traditional/older styles of lighting with the newer styles of programming. Usually, when there’s more time for programming, there are plenty of times where the older generations of techs and I will share stories, collaborate, and create resourceful, fun ideas and designs.
Stanners: If there’s one thing I’ve learned about designers, directors, ops, and programmers, it’s that we are all very different than other pros in the show industry, regardless of age. Instead of competing and complaining about other peoples’ work like some audio people we all know, it seems as though we’re always observing, learning, and teaching. I have yet to meet someone I worked with that I’ve had a really bad experience with. Whether I’m designing for them or programming to their design, there’s always something cool to be learned about why a certain fixture type was used in a specific location, or what macros were built to make programming quicker.
I think the differences may be less about generation and more about types of design. My business partner, James Moore, comes from a theatre background. He and I have had countless arguments which always end with us learning about each other’s styles, and integrating some of it for our own. I remember the first few times I did lighting for broadcast. I had no idea that a few great looks is all they want, and having 80 perfectly-timed cues for a song is not needed, or appreciated at all.
Simpson: If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that everyone does it differently – be it software for designing or pre-vis and console layout. The generation ahead or behind or my current peers all look at it and work differently. I revel in it because it means that there are always questions to ask and new things to try.
PL&P: How well-versed are you with adjacent technologies/disciplines, such as video or set design, rigging automation, etc.? Do you find a more expansive knowledge of these disciplines beyond “traditional” stage lighting is critical to landing projects and making them successful these days?
Haslauer: I find the easiest way to get a better understanding of other disciplines and the bigger picture is to go see as many shows as I can to see what other people are doing. When most artists choose a designer, it is often because they like a big picture idea; it’s not usually because they like a cool lighting rendering, so anything and everything beyond traditional stage lighting is incredibly critical to landing projects.
Bhogal: Automation, video, pyro, lasers, confetti… You gotta have it all, right? And more strobes, right? Recently, every time I’ve laid eyes on massive productions, whether it’s a tour coming through or videos on the internet, it’s never just lighting that creates the wow factor anymore. Automation is a growing trend and it just seems more common nowadays. In fact, my first tour had an automation rigger, which taught me a lot about rigging and the responsibility that comes with it. I found that having some knowledge in rigging – especially designing rigs that are hung or automated – is a huge bonus. Similarly, I also found having some experience in video is resourceful for designing any size of show. Whether it’s projection or video walls, there could be so many looks or new designs someone could pull off even by just knowing how to run trippy pictures on a music store projector.
Stanners: I think this is no different than keeping up with new fixtures and consoles. When something new comes along, it’s your choice to learn and accept it or get left behind. The reality is that our clients see all of these products on other shows and, at some point, may want to integrate them. I would much rather be able to understand it all and include them in the show than try to talk them out of it for the simple reason that I haven’t done my research. Everything is moving at such a fast pace that everyone wants their show to be more than that. They want to create an experience, a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end. Creative video walls are being dragged in bus trailers and put into 400-cap clubs. Automation is being used in any theatre that can handle rigging. It’s all part of this experience, and we tend to be the ones who end up designing and running most of it!
Simpson: Honestly, not very. I mean I can put together a video wall and integrate video into a show, but I haven’t had to for a while. The clients that I work with don’t require it – or if they do, they bring in a team that I work with. It means I get to focus on what I really love: lights. Having said that, I’ve seen some really cool stuff happening with automation recently and I think that’s what I want to work with next.
Morris: I started out being an all-around tech. That meant audio, video, lighting, and rigging. I think it’s really important to understand the basics of other departments and how they work. I’ve been on some movie sets as a console operator and it’s a totally different world. I’ve taken ideas and skills from both the concert and film worlds and put them to use in my daily shows.
PL&P: Obviously, you can only speak to your own experience and those of people around you, but generally speaking, what would you say were the biggest challenges or barriers to entry you encountered on your way to becoming a lighting designer/director? Do you find there are sufficient education and/or mentorship opportunities available to people choosing this career path?
Bhogal: I would say one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced and continue to face is getting my name out there. Whether it’s easier or harder to do in a bigger city and market [than Winnipeg], I’m not sure. To illustrate, there are many times working touring shows locally where, as much as you wish you could prove yourself worthy to someone or even establish a face to remember, it’s hard to find those times to show what you’re made of. It’s tough to not be overlooked as another annoying kid. Personally, I’ve seen and tried to establish the balance of not being too annoying but annoying enough to show you mean business. It’s a fine line to walk on, especially when you hear that the tour might be looking for a young candidate. Finally, coming from Winnipeg, we don’t always get the [tours with] big budgets. You just do with what you can, hoping it can open some more eyes while bringing some attention to what you do and creating that name for yourself.
Schooling and education paths to becoming a lighting designer never played in my favour. Financially, it was never feasible for me to move out to a school that taught the live concert lighting I wanted. I also learned over time from past generations that working your way up, paying your dues, and honing your craft can get you where you want. I attended the school of hard knocks and found it way more rewarding. So far, I’ve found myself to be at the same level, if not more advanced than colleagues that went to school and have established a good career in the industry in different departments. I believe that there is enough education available out there for this career path, but that the valuable experience and [real-world lessons learned], you can’t find in a classroom.
Stanners: Everyone learns differently, so it’s hard for me to speak on behalf of conventional education and mentorship. Although I definitely appreciate everyone who took chances on me at the beginning, most of my learning had to be done on my own. Either learning opportunities around me were slim or I didn’t really know where to look for them; I can’t quite remember. What I do remember, however, is a lot of trial and error, trying to get access to the few consoles we had around, reading, watching videos, joining countless Facebook groups, talking to every LD that came to the venues where I worked as a stagehand – anything I could do to learn something new. In this regard, I think the biggest challenge I encountered was myself – having to keep myself on track, always looking for something new to learn, and not giving up. I spent way too long programming chases before I even discovered what an FX engine was, and this was years before I even touched my first MA2.
Simpson: Ugh. I mean there is an obvious answer here. Being taken seriously as a female LD has been an uphill battle. It has and is changing; there are more and more women, but I definitely have to work harder to prove myself. There were a few great people who really helped me and showed me the ropes and gave me opportunities but there was a lot I just had to teach myself. I wish there were more resources specifically for women to learn this industry. I was on a tour where every department had female representation last year. It was the best; we all learned and shared so much.
Morris: I remember having to be persistent with contacts for gigs. The old saying is true: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” I’m still really persistent [laughs]. As far as mentoring opportunities, I didn’t encounter any. I just keep learning new things from everyone I meet. As far as barriers, the best way to overcome those is to not doubt yourself and always be confident in your abilities. The only way to learn something is to go and do it.
Haslauer: I think one of the biggest challenges I had and still have is finding opportunities to collaborate on projects. Often because of budget, it’s hard to justify bringing somebody else into a project, but I never regret doing so. I have always been more creative when working with somebody else and strive to do this as much as I can.
From time to time, I get people who email either me or the designer I am working for and ask to job shadow me for a day. Every time this happens, I think to myself: “Why didn’t I ever do that when I was a kid?” This turned into, “There is no reason why I can’t still do that,” and by doing so recently, I have learned so many new things from my peers and made new friends in the process.