This article was adapted from a Learning Session with Lauren Sego, owner of Little Lighting Strikes lighting design and programming services. While studying Theater Lighting Design at CalArts, Lauren began her career operating eSports streams. Since graduating in 2016, she’s provided lighting design and programming for music tours, festivals and TV appearances by Janelle Monáe, Tegan and Sara, Rebelution and others.
It can be challenging for beginners and students to start working as a touring lighting designer. When you’re just starting out, it can be difficult to know where or how to begin designing your first tour. In this blog, we will explore tour design basics including:
- Mental preparation
- Getting to know the artist/creative team
- Logistical preparation
- Design process
- Design presentation
- Real-world examples
Understanding these basics will help you when working as a lighting designer and give you the confidence to create an amazing show.
Mental health is an extremely important, yet often forgotten step when it comes to lighting design and touring. Acknowledging mental frustrations is tough, and it’s sometimes even more difficult to open up about them. Many lighting designers can struggle with their mental health. Some common struggles you may experience include:
- Comparing your design/creative decisions to other designers and putting yourself down
- Feeling inadequate from not knowing where to begin or what to do
- Struggling to perfect a “process pattern”
- Feeling like you are unable to show off your unique talents in your design due to budget or venue constraints
It’s important to talk about any issues you are struggling with because the more we talk about it, the more we can feel unified. Remember that you are valid in your concerns and that you are not alone. Not every design-process experience is a comfortable one.
Getting to Know the Artist/Creative Team
For your first design, it’s very important to get to know the artist and creative team you will be working with. Reach out to whoever hired you to ask them about the tour team and who will be involved in the creative process. Likewise, find out if you will have direct or indirect communication with your artist. Some artists like to communicate with you directly, while others will communicate through management.
You should also find out how involved the artist will be in the design process. Some artists like to be involved, while others leave everything to the creative team. Likewise, some creative teams brainstorm ideas together, while others will provide production elements for you to design around. Other times, you may have creative control over the entire design.
You should also learn your team’s communication preferences. The team could communicate via phone, email or a shared online folder. It’s best to be consistent with your team and keep all of your files organized. You should always have backups.
Once you meet your creative team, you need to get information from them to help you with your design. You should ask them questions, including:
- Are there any reference photos or videos of past shows that I can see and understand the nature of the artist on stage?
- Is there a story or flow to the production that I need to be aware of?
- What is the setting and is there a production design reference I can see?
- What are some show elements I should be aware of, such as dancers, props, intermissions, solos, etc.?
- Is this tour representing a certain album or musical selection from the artist?
These questions will help you better understand the artist and their show before you begin designing. Likewise, you should also follow any requests you receive from the artist and creative team. Examples of common requests include:
- Keep the artist lit from the front at all times to ensure visibility in photos
- Reduce the number of fixtures on the ground to maximize performance space
- Side light is incredibly important for the dancers
- Provide fog machines for specified songs
It’s important to remember that every artist is different, and every request comes from a different reason. As a touring lighting designer, be open to following artist guidelines. Likewise, if your artist is giving you full control, ask them questions and keep them updated along the design process. You may add an element they’ve never seen before, which they might want more or less of. Whatever the scenario, it’s the artist’s show and it’s your job to make their dream happen.
In addition to communicating with your artist and creative team, it’s just as important to talk to your crew when going through the design process. Your production manager, tour manager and fellow crew members need to be aware of the artistic and functional integrity of your design. Depending on the role, it’s also their job to help you execute the design vision as consistently as possible from venue to venue. They’ll also be around to make sure it gets packed right and travels safely.
If you are going on tour, get to know who else will be in your department. This will also help you figure out what your team is capable of building. You should always keep an open mind for structural or logistical suggestions—you never know who might offer a good piece of advice that could save you some time.
In addition to your team, you should also talk to crew members in other departments that have setups on stage, like the guitar tech or the wardrobe team. They may need important pathways or areas clear, but well lit. Sometimes compromises will need to be made so the show works for everyone. You should keep discussions open and always have contingency plans. Likewise, when it comes to the artist, creative team and touring crew, make sure to always save contact information whenever meeting someone new.
After you understand the vision for the show from the artist and creative team’s perspective, you can start going through the logistics to help you put your design together. Essential logistics include:
- Design Fee
- Venue Information
On any size tour, the budget will affect your design. You should acknowledge the artist’s requests and prioritize them before fully tackling a design idea. If you design before talking with the artist, you may have to spend unnecessary time altering and cutting elements in your show.
Most of the time, budgets for smaller tours usually include emergency funds that should be allocated for last-minute additions, repairs or mistakes on the road. It’s important to ask your tour or production manager if your budget includes this emergency fund. Usually, you should aim to be under budget, but it’s good to know how much wiggle room you have so you can plan accordingly.
One of the hardest challenges when it comes to budget is figuring out how to accommodate artist requests. If the artist asks for more than you can afford, do your best to accommodate in creative ways—try to give the artist different options.
Likewise, you should always budget for spares. You should have an extra fixture for every type of fixture in your show, a backup console, spare projector, haze fluid and anything else important you are carrying. Gear can malfunction, so it’s important to be prepared while you’re on the road. Nevertheless, spares can add up quickly, so try to under budget when you’re designing so you have room for spares.
It can be challenging and intimidating to name your design fee for the first time. The design fee is a payment you receive for your work on the design, usually separate from the money you receive from touring. Sometimes the budget includes a design fee in addition to all other costs. However, this varies based on the tour.
Some lighting designers may hear the budget and show information and then name their design fee based on those elements. Others may have a base number they always work from and then add from there. Sometimes the design fee is based on a combination of these things.
How you name your design fee is up to you and will require trial and error and adjustment as your career progresses. Here are some questions to consider when naming your design fee:
- How much creative research and time will I be putting into this project?
- Will I be doing the drafting and rendering for this project by myself or will I outsource help?
- How many hours per week/month do I intend to spend on this project?
- How much should I charge for change fees (fee for having to change or rework the design after it’s been finalized)?
It’s important to understand that early design opportunities might not have large budgets and you may not be promised a design fee. You may want to take a gig with a small design fee if you see potential for growth as a designer with that touring camp. It’s up to you to decide what is best for your financial situation.
It’s important to research the venues that the tour will be visiting. You should look at the stage dimensions of the largest and smallest venues. Look at the width, depth and trim height as well as fire curtains, ADA walkways and any other common structures that can affect stage size.
You should find out the rigging capabilities of each venue, as this will also affect your design. You will probably use some of the house rig, so you should know what fixtures will be available to you. Likewise, you should see what your site lines are, as this will vary per venue. Find out if there are existing legs and borders, which are curtains commonly used in many theaters and could block your lights. In addition, see if there are designated areas for changeovers, backline worlds, or other backstage activities.
It’s best to make a spreadsheet with all of this venue information. The spreadsheet can help you figure out a design that is capable of expanding or shrinking. Continuity between venues is extremely important when designing. You shouldn’t design something that is so complicated that you have to change it at every venue.
Find out how your gear is getting transported between every show. Your tour may use a semi, trailer, box truck or van. It’s important to know if you will be sharing your truck/trailer space with another department so you can discuss how to pack your truck/trailer. Learn the dimensions of your road cases and truck space to help you figure out what is achievable for the space you have. Your gear vendor can help provide road case information and dimensions. You may have big design ideas, but if you can’t travel with your rig, it won’t work for the tour.
Reaching Out to Vendors
Lighting vendors will provide rental gear for your tour. When choosing a vendor, send your list to multiple vendors. This is a good way to gauge your rental costs and helps you rent all the gear you want without needing any substitutions. If one vendor doesn’t have all the gear you want, it’s likely a different one will.
However, when you are contacting multiple vendors, it’s best to note that you are bidding the tour amongst other vendors. This may return better pricing, but not always. You should always follow up and thank all the vendors for their time, even if they are not the vendor you choose. Even though you didn’t rent from their company, you are creating a relationship with the vendor for years to come.
You should also consider routing when choosing a vendor. If you’re touring North America, you should choose a vendor that has multiple locations and/or partner locations in other continents to ensure quick turnaround times.
Vendors are there to help, so don’t be afraid to ask questions or request demos with their products. Likewise, be open to suggestions from their team about how they can make your rig easier to build and your truck faster to pack.
Laying Out Your Confines
Once you’ve gathered information about your artist, creative team and logistics, make sure you have all of the information you need. Sometimes, starting the creative process can be difficult, so ask yourself when and where you feel most creative. You may prefer to work at certain times of day, at home, or perhaps in a coffee shop. Likewise, you should try to eliminate distractions while you’re working on the design. You can also look for outside sources of creative inspiration. It’s good to research what other designers for similar artists have done, along with creating mood boards, photo collages or other creative outlets.
Developing the Design
When you start designing, you should consider the following questions and suggestions to help get you started, including:
- Have you been granted any wiggle room from the rest of the team to alter the current production design to fit lighting needs?
- After lighting the setlist, can you diversify your rig to accommodate for different types of songs/scenes? How similar are the songs – top to bottom?
- Is the artist trying to paint a picture with words or lyrics? Is there any consistent symbolism between songs or even acts?
- Is the artist trying to elicit any emotions?
- Is there album art or marketing art that inspires you? Does the artist follow a specific trend?
- Find the two most opposing songs in the set and imagine an environment to light the artist in each of them. This could be in a stage design sense or a literal sense. The environment could be the beach or the mountains. Think of different colors and textures that can help capture these environments.
- Listen to each song thoroughly and make a list of design choices you think would work well, then try to find consistencies.
It can be overwhelming to choose fixtures for your design because there are thousands out there. To allow for a more cohesive look and a higher quantity of each, limit your fixtures to three or four of each type.
Likewise, you should also consider power consumption when choosing your fixtures. Smaller venues may not have a large reserve of guest power, so make sure your fixtures can operate with the power supplied at the venues you are touring in. You should also consider cable packages, power distributions and other items to help you power your gear. These items will take up space in the truck along with your lighting rig, so be sure you have enough space if you’re choosing lights that need them.
It’s best to look for hybrid fixtures if possible. Hybrid fixtures have moving heads that can output a spot, wash, beam or some combination, making them useful for many applications in your lighting rig. You should ask the vendor for a demonstration of fixtures, so you can compare and get a clear understanding before signing off.
Consider how scenic elements could assist in progressing and completing your design. Scenic elements might be helpful additions to tours that don’t have a large budget or room in the trailer. You can use scenic elements as canvases for light. Likewise, backdrops can help fill the space on stage.
When choosing scenic pieces, consider how light can alter the piece. A light may shine through or reflect off of a scenic piece, or the light could expose different textures, changing the effect of the scenic piece in your design. In addition, custom scenic elements like backdrops, set pieces, drumheads, rugs and mic stands can add uniqueness to the show.
Presenting your design is important, especially when you’re starting out as a lighting designer. It’s a good way to show the artist and creative team that you know what you’re doing and establish more trust in your work.
Presenting First Looks
Once you have one or two solid ideas, present a professional document to your team. It’s best to create a template file to import and layout your design ideas in a professional presentation. The document should include the following:
- Explanation of artistic choices
- Renderings showing both partial and full integrity of the rig
- Choose a few songs to highlight and showcase your programming intentions through renders
- If you have time, draft a truck pack (vendors may do this for you)
Send your ideas and drafts to your team as soon as you are comfortable with them. It’s also important to include photos and basic information of the lighting fixtures, so those approving can have a better idea of what they will look like on stage. Be open to suggestions from your team after presenting your first looks.
Presenting the “Final” Design
It’s important to present your final design to the artist and creative team, even if changes are made after submitting it. Using your template file, you should continue filling in more information and more renders. The final presentation will show how your process has progressed, which will look good in the eyes of your client.
We will look at a real-world example of my first bus tour as a lighting designer. The tour was the ‘Long Live the Chief Tour’ in 2017 with the artist Jidenna. On tour, the team consisted of existing creative directors and production designers. I was the only person on the lighting team.
The requests from the artist and creative team included the following:
- Be able to accommodate moody, low-light looks and upbeat songs
- Use lots of haze
- Include a silhouette look at the start of show
- Use a limited number of towers/flown lights to not block video walls (depending on venue)
- Use a limited number of ground fixtures to maximize dancing space
- Have fixtures dedicated to lighting props
The tour transportation allowed for one trailer for all the lighting, backline and audio gear. The venue sizes ranged from clubs to theaters, so the lighting package needed to be able to expand to fit both spaces. The tour had a small budget, spread over two months.
When I lit this tour, I prioritized the haze, side lights and prop lighting on the vendor quote before seeing how much was leftover in the budget for more fun stuff. There ended up being 11 ground lights and one hazer for the entire tour. We rented a large, white cyc, or cyclorama, to place behind the band in venues that didn’t have any video walls upstage. A cyclorama is a large stage curtain made from unbleached canvas, muslin or filled scrim and used for projection or lighting purposes.
I was able to use two ground lights pointed at the cyc to provide a large silhouette/backdrop to fill the space and give the illusion of a bigger lighting/production package. If we couldn’t hang the cyc, I would tilt the ground fixtures forward to shine through the band.
Likewise, I utilized existing road cases from the backline to elevate stage lighting when applicable. I used two side lights, small LED pars for props and moving lights upstage of musicians, to fill gaps. I also programmed some of the light from the house rig to use in addition to my touring rig.
I hope you enjoyed this blog, but I also invite you to view my video version of this presentation by watching my Martin Learning Session webinar video replay: ‘Tour Design Process Basics for Beginners and Students’.