Lighting the Grammy Awards

in Production Profile

At the Grammys, Elton John and Ed Sheeran perform There are two things that you need to know about lighting the Grammy Awards, the 55th annual edition of which was telecast on CBS Feb. 10 from the cavernous Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. First, even though the venue holds nearly 20,000 when seating can be extended to include the floor (it’s less than half that for basketball and hockey — it’s a big floor), and the first 20 rows on that floor hold the crème de la crème of the music industry, the show isn’t about them. Rather, it’s about the 28.37 million or so pairs of eyeballs that the show drew this year, some of which will buy recordings that they might not otherwise have. The camera adds ten pounds and 10 million units of sales. On a less pecuniary level, it’s also about presenting a record industry as robust, creative and vital despite concerns about losses to piracy, a bad economy and growing consumer ennui.

If you were at the Staples Center, the Grammys were hard to see - they were too well lit.Secondly, you have to really know what you’re doing, because even though this is a show about music, the one thing that you can’t use to differentiate the 20 musical acts that are crammed into two and a half hours is the sound of the show. The broadcast audio has to be consistent throughout, constrained further by a mix in 5.1 surround that requires a lot of balancing and more scrutiny now that we are in the era of the CALM Act, meant to smooth out the audio levels between programs and commercials. In short, you’re left with lighting and projection video as primary tools to set the stages for the music artists and hold the attention of the ethereal audience.

Cameras, including one of three jibs, on the platform with house audio FOH positions in the foregroundHow this plays out was amply evident during the rehearsals for the show, which began the Thursday before the Sunday night broadcast and saw each act get 90 minutes of run-through time on the stage plus a full dress rehearsal the day of the show just hours before the broadcast. Watching the performance by Mumford & Sons of their hit, “I Will Wait,” it was virtually impossible to see the band, even though you were sitting within rock-tossing distance. Huge skypans — film lighting units with an upraised ridge around the outside used when massive, raw illumination power is demanded — joined light pods made up of “lots” of incandescent bulbs, in the estimation of one of the assistant lighting directors who had given up trying to count them, blasted the floor seating area from behind the band. These were further augmented by legions of moving-head fixtures that formed the grid behind the bifurcated stage set the show has used for over a dozen years that lets one band set up as another is performing. Vari-Lite VL5s, VL3500, VL3000, Atomic 3000 strobes, washes and spots of all types created a lighting stew on the stage, and Mumford & Co. seemed lost in an effect that was reminiscent of a camouflage technique tried by the Royal Canadian Navy in World War II that sought to make ships invisible by hyper-illuminating them.

The view from the stage shows the huge contrast between looking ad looking at the stage and being on itHowever, if you looked up to the left or right at the projection screens that flanked the stage high above it, out of camera range, you saw Mumford et alia, as clear as day. Forget the bespoke suits and the Anthony Vacarello gowns that would occupy the power seats on the floor come Sunday night — on this show, the camera is king.

PRG V676 lighting consoles were used to control the moving-head fixtures“This is not a show for the [venue] audience, unfortunately, and I feel bad about that,” observes Andrew O’Reilly, a lighting director who, along with Harrison Lippman, programmed and controlled the moving-light fixtures from a perch at the rear of the arena, both working from PRG V676 consoles. “We’re aware of that, but at the end of the day, this show is all about the camera. It’s difficult for the audience — either we’re blinding them, or the light level is too low to see much — but it looks great on television.”

Camera-friendly lighting was blindingly bright for viewers in the venue.A sense of a conflicted mission was palpable among professionals who have strong roots in both live events and television. “The goal is to deliver a product that would look on television the way a viewer might imagine that a concert environment looks like during the music segments of the show,” is how lighting designer Bob Dickinson threads this sensitive needle.

All of the lighting design and effects are created using television monitors in the broadcast trucks rather than live on the stage. According to lighting director Jon Kusner, overall light and color levels were established early on when the crews first entered the Staples Center. In this case, they were set at 40 foot-candles, and 4,200 degrees Kelvin for the color temperature. Those values are the values by which the lighting and cameras are jointly calibrated.

Moving light programmer Harrison Lippman“There’s no formula for this; it’s just an understanding of what the camera will see and interpret,” says Kusner. “Once you establish the color temperature base line, how we deviate above or below it — cold blue or ambery warm — becomes the creative esthetic.”

Spotlights, some of which were PRG Best Boy spots placed strategically to take advantage of their intensity and precision framing, were on individual performers, but they were at significantly lower levels of intensity than would be used at a typical live concert. The lighting for the show was as much a part of the scenic design as it was for illumination.

“It’s about finding the [lighting] relationship between people, [video] screens and scenery,” Kusner explains. “For instance, if people are lit very brightly, it can underwhelm the video screens on stage.”

A Complex Process

Sting and Bruno Mars at the Grammys. Photo courtesy of The Recording Academy/ a look for each artist begins weeks and months ahead of the show itself. Artists and their representatives, including in some cases the artists’ own lighting directors, met with Kusner and Dickinson. The show’s director, Ken Ehrlich, may also contribute ideas. Music segments with complex scenery, such as the stylized urban background constructed for fun.’s rendition of “Carry On,” may have to wait until the pieces are constructed before a fully coherent lighting plan can be composed.

fun. performs “There’s no one person dictating lighting looks,” says O’Reilly. “We try to use different tools to create different effects and looks combined with everyone’s ideas, with constant creative tweaks along the way. On a show like this, with so many acts in a finite period of time, it’s easy to fall into using the same tools and same looks over and over. You have to work to make each one be its own set piece.”

Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z at the Grammys. Photo courtesy of The Recording Academy/ of the challenges for lighting professionals on this show is that instead of looking directly at the stage to see the outcome of their tweaks, they instead watch it on video, using LCD monitors at each lighting station that can see the same multiple camera shots that the director sees in the main broadcast control room. In some cases, lighting will follow video, such as the transition to a sepia tone that marked the antic performance of Justin Timberlake. Light levels had to be adjusted to accommodate the suddenly monochromatic look of the video. In other cases, the lighting systems were adjusted with the look of the video in mind. On Mumford & Sons’ segment, the massive skypan light units behind the band were lined with gold-leaf reflectors, which assistant lighting director Mike Berger says gave it “a nice tungsten kind of feel, something you don’t see on television much anymore.”

The view from the moving lights perch at the back of the auditoriumThe Dress as Canvas

If the live audience was at a bit of a disadvantage at times when it came to seeing reality on the stage, they were also the beneficiaries of a nicely heightened surreality, courtesy of some very sophisticated video effects. Two segments of the show demonstrated a satisfying conflation of creative and technical prowess. During her performance of “Blown Away,” Grammy winner Carrie Underwood’s gray/silver gown was transformed into a canvas for a series of projected visual effects, culminating in a swarm of butterflies that flew from the dress to the huge LED screen behind her. Underwood’s own creative team, along with producer Ehrlich and art directors Alana Billingsley and Brian Stonestreet, conceived the concept. The graphics were loaded onto a pair of PRG Mbox EXtreme V3 media servers provided by Nocturne Productions that were synched to timecode generated by the same Avid Pro Tools audio system that was used to play prerecorded audio for the show, including the backing track to “Blown Away.” According to Tim Kubit, the engineer in charge for AEG/Ehrlich Productions, two Barco HD-20 projectors had to vie for a highly precise piece of real estate on the already crowded ??truss above the stage so that they would hit Underwood exactly as she stood on her mark. The transition of the graphics from the dress to the LED screen, provided by American High Definition, was accomplished via a fiber backbone and a GakWorks dissolver system, also synched to the Pro Tools time code and the EVS broadcast servers.

Patrick Boozer, lighting director and console operatorGrammy winner Frank Ocean’s segment, later in the program, was just as challenging. The singer would step up from beneath the stage to a DJ booth-like, waist-high enclosed stand set in front of a an LED screen. The stand held a keyboard, and microphone was set atop it, podium style, and it had its own LED screen on its front panel. Each screen had a feed from a media server; the background screen had a running sequence of scenes that evoked the title character of the film Forrest Gump, also the title of Ocean’s song, while the screen on the front of the enclosure had the legs of a man doing a steady trot, scaled through a Folsom ImagePro. Ocean had a video monitor secreted in the enclosure so he could see how to physically synchronize his motions to those of his video “legs,” while the camera angle kept his torso in line with those same legs.

Adam Levine and Alicia Keys at the Grammys. Photo courtesy of The Recording Academy/“Space is really at a premium on the Grammy stage,” says Kubit, noting that Ocean’s rear LED screen had to be suspended from the truss above it as ground-mounting it would have hobbled scene changes, and the enclosure had to be mounted on a cart, with a snaked fiber connection to its media server.

Many of the crewmembers for the Grammy Awards telecast are regulars on the awards event circuit, and several of those spoken to here went right to work the next week on the 2013 Academy Awards show. But the Grammy Awards remains the most intricate of these shows: it has to take a star-studded, highly scripted live music concert and keep it as exciting as possible for those in the venue while accurately translating it for the far larger audience on television. No small feat, but few better than these guys can pull it off. Perhaps the title of Elton John and Ed Sheeran’s duet on the show was meant for them: “The A Team.”

The cool bluish tint comes from lighting that leans towards the blue end of the spectrum to match the color of the graphics on the stage, says lighting designer Bob DickinsonLeapfrogging Stage Setups, Audio

Mixing from a pair of Music Mix Mobile (M3) trucks, broadcast music mixers Eric Schilling and John Harris continued to refine the ping-pong approach they’ve been taking to the Grammy rehearsals for the last several years. It reflects the stage design, which is an A and a B performance stage, side-by-side on the main platform, so while an act is rehearsing or performing on one stage, the other stage is being prepped for the next show. All audio and other signal connections are organized on wheeled risers or carts, rolled on and connected in a choreographed ballet of stagehands and electricians.

Scores of moving-head fixtures made up the backstop lighting gridUntil 2008, a single truck was used to mix all of the rehearsals and later the actual broadcast. That year, as a way to expand the number of musical performances during each show, they experimented with a matching pair of trucks. Truck one would mix the day’s first rehearsal, which would be recorded through the van’s Avid Profile desk to a 160-channel Pro Tools system. The mix came together during the approximately one hour allotted to most acts, with Schilling taking input from the artists’ own FOH mixers and/or record producers. Once the rehearsal was over, the Pro Tools tracks are ported via MADI over fiber to the second truck where Schilling fine-tunes the mixes, whose moves are saved in the consoles’ recall memories, while Harris starts mixing the sound check of the next artist. The two repeat this leapfrog process over and over as each artist comes in for rehearsal. This arrangement has allowed the number of musical performances on the show to increase, to a high of 22 in 2012, from 16 in 2008.
All photos courtesy of The Recording Academy®/ © 2013


Lighting Designer: Bob Dickinson

Senior Lighting Director: Jon Kusner

Lighting Directors: Travis Hagenbuch, Dave Thibodeau

Lighting Director/Programmers: Andy O Reilly, Patrick Boozer, Harrison Lippman

LED Programmer: Eli McKinney

Gaffer: Robby Lindsay

Best Boy: Allen Sisul


2 PRG V676 consoles

1 PRG V476 console

1 ETC EOS console

4 PRG Mbox EXtreme media servers

220 Vari*Lite VL5 fixtures

195 Vari*Lite VL5 ARCs

125 Vari*Lite VL3000 Spots

125 Vari*Lite VL3500 Washes

35 Vari*Lite VL3500 Spots

35 Vari*Lite VL3500 Wash FX

12 PRG Best Boy 4K spots

30 PRG Bad Boys

95 Clay Paky Sharpys

130 Martin Atomic strobes

100 Coemar LED Pars

500 Versa Tubes

150 ETC Lekos

44 MR11 2’ strips

22 MR16 6’ strips

50 Pallas lights

6 Lycian M2 truss spots

6 Strong Super Trouper? followspots (2K)

5 Gladiator followspots (3K)

30 PAR bars

8 Reel EFX DF-50? Diffusion hazers