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Lighting Inside the Lines

by PLSN Staff • in
  • LD at Large
  • November 2017
• Created: November 9, 2017
Illustration by Andy Au

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Creating art while working inside client-imposed limitations can be more difficult than coloring inside the lines of an M.C. Escher painting. Constraints would seem like the last thing you’d want or need while embarking on a creative project, but they’re actually beneficial when it comes to doing beautiful work. We all know what it’s like to be paralyzed by a mountain of insurmountable options and opportunities. Restrictions take away some of the choices available to us, and with them, the fear of making the wrong choice. Working within the confines of artist restrictions can be taxing, but with these few ideas, I hope to make it minimally more palatable.

‡‡         Where’s My Haze?

I have embarked on my second major North American arena tour that has one special restriction. No haze allowed. No hazers on stage, no hazers backstage and no hazers at FOH. The only particles allowed in the air during the show will be composed of nitrogen, oxygen and argon. At first, I was saddened to hear about the lack of atmosphere. However, I’m not a singer. I cannot attest to the effects of haze on my vocal chords because I am positive that I would not sound any better with or without haze. I am equally terrible in the shower with and without hot water. So, after two years, I have finally come to terms with the enforced restriction. Therefore, I have to abide by the wishes of any performer who chooses to forego the DF-50s.

I now regard the lack of haze as an obstacle that I have overcome, and I’ve become a more versatile programmer for it. Since my 80-ish Mythos beams are virtually invisible in the air due to the lack of particulate, I needed to create a scene using different techniques. I still light objects and people with my fixtures, but my single downstage center beam will be lost and my artist will look small on an arena stage. Instead, I use a properly placed video clip that draws attention to the artists the same way lighting would.

I also use video haze. I have a folder of different haze opacities and densities in my video library. I use them to overlay haze onto my video content. These haze clips give the illusion of haze onstage without offending my artists. Thankfully, I haven’t had to pull a fire certification for my video haze yet.

I light the scenery. Without a buttermilk sky to create color and emotion, I have to use whatever is available to create atmosphere. I make sure to wash the drapes, the ceiling and the walls with color. I use a rotating gobo with a soft pattern across the stage whenever appropriate. I light the band with different colors to create a mood. Lately, I have been using automated framing shutters on the back cyc to create squares and circles that expand and contract with the tempo.

‡‡         Where’s My Color?

I have done other shows where the client refused to allow me to use any color other than cool and warm white. I programmed a fashion show launch in Los Angeles and we were afforded 78 Claypaky B-Eyes, 24 Ayrton Magic Dots and 300 Revolution Blade HD LED Strips. As I started to load my standard hard drive of media content onto the server, I was informed that we were limited to white. My first question was, “You mean for the fashion show right?” “No” was the answer from the client. “White is the only color that we will use for the entire performance.” I sheepishly responded, “Can I flash to red during the chorus?” “No” was the response again, and every time after.

Without the use of multiple colors, I would have to rely on my other lighting techniques to wow the audience. Without having to worry about my color palettes, I was able to devote more programming time to tempo, timing and patterns. I have heard that when a person loses their vision, their other senses become heightened. I felt the same way while running this show. My sense of color had been lost so my sense of timing was escalated to super human. I was nailing the hits like Neil Peart on his birthday. Instead of flashes of color, I would use intensity bumps and pattern shifts to accentuate the big hits and crucial tempo changes.

Knowing full well that my good friend and lighting/production designer Marc Janowitz had dealt with similar situations, I reached out to him for some expertise on this subject. Janowitz, who is creative director at E26 Design, solidified my opinion by saying, “The music drives the visual, not the other way around. Let the music set the tone.” He continued by explaining, “Not every musical note, hit or sound on stage needs or deserves a visual response or counterpart. After a while nothing in a song has any real impact or meaning if it’s drowned out in a cacophony of lighting”

‡‡         Where’s My Intensity?

If those constraints weren’t tough enough, the hardest restriction that I have ever had to deal with was the inevitable “No front light.” There are a handful of artists who know that the audience wants to see their faces, but they just don’t care. These artists want to create and play music for their fans in a theatrical setting without any of the theatrical lighting. These maestros want their fans to follow them on social media but not the followspot. They would gladly play their music in a dark room while hiding behind their own speakers in order to avoid being blinded by the key lights. Lighting can still be powerful without full intensity. As lighting professionals, our job is to manage darkness as well as light.

Janowitz backed me up by saying, “When you look at the stage and you can’t figure out what you need to add to make it look right, the answer is simple. Start taking things away. If you end up with one backlight per band member (or even just one light only) you just might find your ‘aha’ moment.” He continued by saying, “Rarely do I start a song with any handles at full, and rarely ever do I write full intensities into any cue.”

Artists who don’t enjoy being blinded are usually the ones who don’t want their audience blinded as well. I have several clients who don’t like to be blinded by the front light and they surely do not want their audience blinded by the back light. I recently did a show where that was the only rule given to me by the artist. “No lights in the audience.”

Janowitz eased the pain of limiting my position palettes to the stage by saying, “People rarely leave a show thinking ‘man I wish that more of the music was accompanied by an abrupt visual accompaniment’ but I’m sure some people leave wishing that they hadn’t been subjected to light beams in their eyes for two hours straight”

‡‡         Where’s My Conclusion?

I have done shows where I have been granted full flash and trash ability and shows that require me to brainstorm better ideas. I find that abiding by a few restrictions make the creative process a little more enjoyable and the final output is usually something I’m more proud of.

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