Forging Ties and Gigging Safely

in LD at Large

Illustration by Andy AuI read a lot of interviews with production designers in our business. I listen to them at speaking engagements. I see their posts on social media sites. They remember to credit their programmers and production managers, but it just seems like they never mention the countless individuals whose input was necessary for their vision to ever reach fruition. Most designers are not engineers. That’s why we put those little waivers on our plots that say we accept no liability for the structural design or integrity of a project. We just had the design concept. But we all need a team to cover our butts.

Indispensable Helpers

So as I get emails from young designers asking how to pave the way for their careers, my opinions may differ from the majority. I tell them they need to start forging relationships with certain people and rental companies. People who know how to construct stage sets, video walls and lighting rigs safely. It’s one thing to say, “I need some space age laser pod hanging upstage somewhere over there” and another to find someone to figure out how to execute this design properly.

Over the years, I have found that there are three separate groups of people that I recommend these youngsters start getting to know. These are the production vendors, the technicians  and the gear manufacturers. These people will help you through your entire career and believe me, you will need them.

Often, enough you find lighting designers who tend to stick with one particular company. One might think they do this because they feel that company gives them the best-prepped system in the world on every tour. Of course, that is a good reason, but me, I like to use certain companies because they know all my design quirks and me. They are aware of how I roll and exactly what I need. Through years of working with the same account managers, I don’t have to remind them that I need all the unmentioned things that will be necessary for my design to become reality and stay within my budget. They may offer valuable swaps in gear that will allow me to afford my rig. When I design something and submit a plot, I don’t include a lot of bits in my list of gear. Someone has to add in all the fall arrestors, horizontal safety lines, ladders, spare fixtures and countless perishables to get a budget straight. Someone has to tell me, “Hey dude, this looks great on paper, but we will need to add this and that to make this production happen.”

They Have Your Back

For the same reason, I have forged relationships with crew guys. I like seeing familiar crew faces on my tours. Mike Hosp, Russ Felton, and Mario Marchio each work for different lighting vendors. They each know every little metal bit, cable widget and custom clamp that their respective employers own. Whenever BML does a show for me, I know that Russ will have carefully looked through my plot and added what I forgot. Once on site, I will inevitably see some aspect of my design that I overlooked and, of course, think that I have totally screwed the pooch. Then Russ will walk over with a smirk and state, “I caught this. I brought something with me just in case of this scenario.” I cannot put a price on this. Instead of me looking bad, he and BML look great. Love those guys. Same with Hosp. I must call that mook (Chicago slang for knucklehead) once a month with a question on whether or not I can do something structurally. If there’s something he hasn’t done before, he will set up a demo in the Upstaging shop and tinker with metal bits until he has constructed a safe design. That company has my back.

Last year, I designed a tour with a couple trucks full of lights and set. I hung everything but my mother in law off the rear truss. I had set carts full of lights and video panels. When I got to rehearsals, I was informed that the set carp who was going to deal with the carts had been replaced by a tee shirt girl, as their was an issue with bus space. Before I could go off on the PM, Mario was at my side volunteering to erect the set and look after the video. That guy and TMS had me covered from the get go.

I have used Dean Thomsik as my master electrician for years. He may not be the most popular guy on the crew (he wears a kilt to load-in, but we don’t let him climb ladders), but he hustles, is always in the building and does a flawless job with cable management. When he’s done loading in, he doesn’t go to the bus. He starts tweaking with the house spots hours before the show. I don’t have to ask, he just covers my butt. A good crew will keep your gear working and, despite what some LDs say, they are not expendable. If you treat your crew with respect, they will bend over backwards to make your shows look good. You can’t put a price on that.

More than Just Gear

Lighting manufacturer reps are important in my life. They send me their latest toys to check out, they answer the phone immediately, and whenever I have a problem with new gear, they will sort me out in zero time. That’s because we are friends with a tight-knit relationship. I like them all, but I simply adore the guys from Martin Lighting. Between Noel, Gary, Louis and Matthias, they have bailed me out for years. Besides spec’ing their consoles and fixtures because they are workhorses, I spec them because those guys are part of my support team. When I can’t find a vendor who has the fixtures I want available, they provide me a list of everyone who does have them. Heck, they even help me negotiate pricing by playing the middleman in my discussions with some vendors. I highly recommend that every young designer get to know some of these people. They want to know you.

The Price of Safety

Safety concerns have been brought to the forefront of many designs this year, and for good reason. Things that were once generally accepted as being safe are now being closely monitored. Whether it’s OSHA, a particular state’s commission or a self-appointed safety czar with a website, someone is watching your production. But I have to wonder if these people are looking in all the correct places. Reputable lighting companies have spent a fortune replacing spansets with gakflex. They have updated motor systems to make them comply with the standards outside of America. All these things have a direct effect on your show’s budget, and we must factor them in.

Production managers demand fire certificates for soft goods. But do they ask for my motor certificates that authenticate that each winch has passed its yearly physical? Everywhere I hang a rope ladder, I am required to hang a fall arrestor. But every day I watch unprotected video techs climbing the back of their walls to troubleshoot. Last month I watched audio guys climb up the sides of speaker arrays to plug in a cable or put a chain back in a motor bag. These guys are 30 feet in the air with no lifelines attached, but nobody is bitching. Won’t be long until audio engineers have to sacrifice a couple sub bass cabinets on their show to pay for the safety equipment.