Even as a child, celebrated lighting designer Jeff Ravitz loved theater and the way diverse artistic elements came together to create a show. Later, playing in rock bands and understanding how good performances involved more than just music, Jeff couldn’t resist integrating lights into their gigs, thus setting the stage for his life’s work.
With decades of designing for mega rock artists Styx and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, among others, Jeff continues to create tour lighting. In recent years, he has also become a sought-after specialist in lighting live events for television.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Jeff to delve into the creative and technical processes, and underlying inspirations that, since the 70s, have underscored his work.
[MM] Since you first enrolled in Northwestern University to study theater lighting and design, something about lighting must have deeply resonated with you. Can you define it?
[Jeff] To me, lighting is not only a statement but a way to express myself in an artistic way. I’m collaborating with other artists, so whether my designs are applied to music, a scripted piece or a scenic element, I get inspired by their work and react to it with lighting.
Lighting is about revealing objects, people and situations in a meaningful way. During a concert, the lighting often changes every couple of seconds. Some changes are tied to musical accents and some take their cue from the lyrics. That dynamic has always excited me. It’s all in the way you reveal something. Is there a truth being told, prompting a broad reveal? Are you masking something with your lighting, which motivates a partial reveal? Are you creating a close-up for the audience, directing their focus? At any given moment, lighting designers, like cinematographers, can create close-ups or a wide shot, helping the audience to know what’s important to see— that is one way we are able to make our statement about the material.
Some of what resonates to us about lighting is intangible and personal. There’s something fun about applying color to a certain song in a way that might be totally different than what another designer would do. Exploring color is a wonderfully satisfying bit of sensory adventure, and when we use color to accent music, it can feel like we’re playing the music ourselves; that’s something I’ve always enjoyed.
[MM] Was the first major band you designed for Styx?
[Jeff] I toured with a few acts prior to Styx, but Styx was my first really big client. When I began with them, they had a national presence, but they had yet to break through to being the major stars they became. Over the course of the first two years I spent with them, however, they rose to that level, and we had a fantastic time, suddenly enjoying larger budgets and receiving lots of media attention.
[MM] Did you have a similar experience with Bruce Springsteen?
[Jeff] When I began working with Bruce, he already had a big cult following. But, as the Born in the USA tour progressed, from early 1984 through the end of 1985, he transformed to super-stardom, and we [his support team]were there to see it happen and enjoy being part of it. That phenomenon has happened more than a few times to me. It’s a lot of fun, and there’s no feeling quite like it.
[MM] For decades, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have played the largest venues in the world and are currently on a stadium tour. What does it take to illuminate such huge spaces?
[Jeff] Because stadiums are so expansive, it takes that many more lights to cover the stage and the enormous audience, who are a big part of the show for Bruce. He likes being able to see the crowd and to turn the concert into a communal experience, making the audience an intrinsic part of the show. We have about 450 lights on the current stadium tour. Bruce likes to run to the furthest boundaries of the stadium on either side of the stage, so we’ve got all these ramps and runways to lead him there. In addition to general coverage, we edge-light all of those runways to make the environment look even bigger and festive and dramatic.
For arena shows, we use 30 percent fewer lights as we do in a stadium. Inside an arena, everything can be suspended from the ceiling beams. You can’t do that in an outdoor stadium. So, we carry the entire stage and roof to create an overhead structure that is ground-supported on enormous posts and truss towers. Stadiums and arenas have somewhat standardized sizes, so for the most part, the daily setup is routine. However, there are just enough unique differences to drive our site coordinator and production manager a bit crazy.
The selection of lights we use is very important; I choose each of them for a specific purpose and for what each does best. The decision might be based on brightness, beam size, weight or whether it will fit into a particular space. We use a lot of the Martin MAC Vipers, and we love them. They were chosen specifically to backlight band members. They’re bright enough to still be punchy from 30–50 feet away, and of course, all the features of the lights are used—the color changing, pattern projections and effects. We also use a lot of Martin MAC Auras. They’re compact and fit perfectly into tight spaces in our scenery. They’re bright, have high color quality and generally do exactly the job they were intended for. Martin products are a very important part of our tool bag.
[MM] Whether it’s with Bruce Springsteen, Styx or any of the other artists you have worked with, what kind of cues do you receive from an artist and their music that inform your approach to the lighting?
[Jeff] Listening to the music and getting an initial mental and emotional response to it is, of course, the first step. I’m listening to tempos, taking note of specific words and absorbing the stories being told by the lyrics. I’m studying the style of the music—all the elements that will guide my thinking about angle, types of lights and the look I want to achieve. Once I’ve done that first analysis, the next steps involve very basic considerations, such as who’s on stage, where they’re positioned, whether there’s scenery, and all the other logistical and practical matters. Then I need to back that into the budget.
If I do get the opportunity to speak to the artist, I hear right from the horse’s mouth what they’re hoping their show will look like. Some artists speak in vague poetic terms, not necessarily in lighting terms. They might, for example, refer to something in nature that excites them. There may be a piece of art that they would like the design to suggest. On the other hand, some artists are very experienced with lighting and can get very precise about specific moments of the show, so the ability of different artists to communicate really runs the gamut. Some have specific preferences, and hard-and-fast rules about colors and angles they want me to use or avoid. Others may have ideas that are unrealistic artistically, physically or in terms of cost. But sometimes, those situations can provide the inspiration to solve problems with the resources at hand.
There are certain artists who want nothing to do with the lighting. They might give me one or two requests and then leave me and my team to our own devices, because they’re much more concerned with other aspects of the production. Or, maybe for one misguided reason or another, they just trust me to put something together that’s going to accentuate the on-stage performance just as it should be. Trust? Really? Amazing.
[MM] You’ve spent a major segment of your career in tour lighting, and now you’re also working in television. How different is it for you?
[JEFF] I do a lot of different kinds of TV work, but in the last several years, I’ve developed a specialty for live entertainment that’s being shot for television, and there are a number of things that need to be considered. A lot depends on the style of the show. There are more traditional shows versus the edgy, creative performance-based shows, but regardless, you’re always looking for the best angles and color. One of the most important considerations is establishing a good balance of intensities, so that there aren’t lights that are considerably brighter than others, because the camera has a hard time simultaneously resolving super bright and super dim things that are in the same shot or frame. Dynamics are fine as long as they are within the camera’s limits.
[MM] Is it artistically more liberating to be working in a strictly live format?
You might think so, because you’re not beholden to those ground rules that you need to obey when you’re working for the camera, and you can move off in directions that you might not ordinarily
be able to. But I’ve found that since I’ve moved into more television work, that even when I do a show that’s strictly live, no cameras involved, I’m still keeping it visually clean and filling certain parts of the space like I would for the camera, and it actually seems to serve my live show in a positive way. A carefully designed TV show can still work really nicely for a live audience.
[MM] Technology is continually evolving. What do you see as the future of lighting?
I’m ever-amazed by the technology that the manufacturers come up with. In my fantasy life, though, every light would be more lightweight but nevertheless, even brighter. I see the future of lighting to be in lights that actually can project a video image. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re projecting a moving image, but I do think that a lot of the mechanical parts inside lights will someday succumb to lights that are completely digital.
[MM] Does your passion for lighting carry over to your own home environment?
[Jeff] It does. Over the years, I’ve worked on some residential lighting projects, and some of the designs have entailed massive budgets and some pretty fancy things. For my own home, I don’t have the same resources to do all that my clients can afford, but I attempt to create a really nice atmosphere with lighting that can be taken down to feel cozy or up for being brighter and more task-driven. I minimize glare and maximize atmosphere. The lighting in my kitchen is really good for working and also for being comfortable. I’m very sensitive to what my home environment is like, and I love having layers of light with a little bit of visual relief here and there. It works for me, for my wife and even for my dog!
Many thanks to Jeff for shedding light on his great work. Are you a lighting director, programmer or operator with a vision for the future of lighting technology? Share your predictions in the comments.