For live events, a design team works together to build a unique array of lighting, audio, video, and effects to create a cohesive show for the artist. The team consists of various lighting roles, including the show designer, lighting designer, and lighting director.
In addition to designing and implementing all lighting elements from pre-production stages to the final show, the team works alongside the other departments – audio, rigging, carpentry, and video – to contribute to the overall success of the production. This article explores the various roles of the lighting design team and illustrates how the team members collaborate to build an amazing show. Later, we’ll uncover how the lighting and creative teams for Aerosmith’s Las Vegas Residency delivered a world-class production.
Lighting Team Roles
Show Designer / Creative Director
The show designer, or creative director, oversees all creative and design elements. This is a very big role as all other departments will report to the show designer – not just the lighting departments. They make sure that all of the creative elements of the show fit together. For smaller tours or bands just starting out, the show designer will have additional roles and may act as the lighting designer, technician, or programmer. The roles will vary based on the scale and budget of the tour.
The lighting designer is the person responsible for designing the lighting rig and show looks. Sometimes the lighting designer also designs video and set elements, but this varies based on the scale of the tour. The lighting designer is usually involved from the start of the design phase, pitching ideas with the show designer and the band. The role can be challenging because you will need to build the lighting rig around other stage elements, like the PA, set, or backline.
There are two different approaches to being a lighting designer that are used frequently in the live events industry: a touring lighting designer and a designing lighting designer. The touring lighting designer is generally more hands-on and will:
- Design the show
- Rehearse the show with the band
- Tour the show
On the other hand, the designing lighting designer will:
- Design the show
- Rehearse the show with the band
- Execute the first few shows on tour
- Pass the show to a lighting director to run the show on tour
These two approaches will vary depending on the show and the availability of the lighting designer. Some designers prefer to build the shows before the tour, while others prefer to finalize the design during the first few shows on tour.
As a lighting designer, you also need to decide if you want to structure your show using timecode or make it fully operated. If your show is structured with timecode, the cues are triggered via pre-recorded timings. If your show is fully operated, the cues are triggered manually by the lighting console operator, which could be you or a lighting director; both options will deliver a good show. However, it’s always best to have someone behind the console who can operate the show without timecode, just in case of a computer failure.
The lighting director is responsible for executing the show during the tour. Sometimes this role is hard to define as responsibilities change, based on the scale of the tour. The lighting director can also be the lighting designer, operator, or programmer. However, in general, the lighting director doesn’t design, so it can be hard to input your creative ideas in this role. Nevertheless, it’s a good role to establish relationships with an artist and lighting designer, in addition to getting familiar with lighting consoles and touring. Never underestimate the value of a good, reliable lighting director.
As the lighting director, your relationships with the artist and lighting designer are extremely important because you’re the person executing the show every night. During the tour, you may be asked to add new songs or change things in the show. You must do your best to implement the lighting designer’s vision while also appeasing the artist. While you want to have a good relationship with the artist, they are your employer, so let the artist dictate the constraints of your relationship.
Case Study: Aerosmith Residency
To help illustrate how these team members interact, we’ll review the roles and responsibilities of the creative team for the Aerosmith Residency at the Park MGM in Las Vegas. The team featured a large crew, including the following roles:
- Creative director
- Art director
- Assistant director
- Production designer
- Lighting designers
- Lighting director
- SFX and laser designer
- Content creation
- Laser programmer
The Lighting Team
The lighting team consisted of two lighting designers, Steven Douglas and Nick Whitehouse, and one lighting director, Cosmo Wilson. Cosmo was a good resource for the lighting team because he’d worked with Aerosmith for a long time. He knew what the band liked, so he was able to act like a “translator” for the band’s shorthand comments about changes. Likewise, Cosmo knew that the band might play certain songs that weren’t on the initial setlist, so the lighting team was able to create looks for those songs beforehand.
The Design Pitch
The creative producers and directors pitched an idea for the set built around the classic Aerosmith ‘Wings’ logo. They also pitched an A-shaped thrust coming off of the main stage as well an extended ramp, up to the third level of seats that descended from the roof for the last song.
The Design Process
After the initial pitch, the lighting designers came on board to design all of the lighting elements. Because the stage design was built before the lighting design, the designers had to create a lighting plot that worked around the set, which was challenging because the logo and automated truss reduced the overhead space for them to hang lights. The lighting designers needed to find places to put fixtures that wouldn’t get in the way of the automation or be blocked by the video wall, logo, or other automation trusses.
The lighting designers created a lighting plot that used house lighting fixtures as well as rentals. They chose to have a large run of fixtures on an upstage truss for rear coverage and follow spot positions. The plot also features five trusses over the top of the logo to allow lights to beam through. Additionally, the lighting designers used side trusses for key light positions for band members. The main band members were lit with follow spots from positions inside the house.
The lighting designers put together a floor package for the show to provide more illumination. The floor package featured several Martin MAC Viper AirFX fixtures, which offer large beams, class-leading output, and a wide array of gobos. In addition, small fixtures were built into a piano, which rose from the floor for certain songs in the show. Overall, the floor package was minimal because the band members regularly moved around the stage, so the lights needed to be tidy and tucked away.
It was challenging to design around the automated truss built into the set, but the lighting designers utilized their own automated side-ladder walls to work around this limitation. They designed three side ladders on each side of the stage, which were good for wide looks. However, this created a logistical movement challenge for the stage manager because the side-ladder walls needed to fly in and out throughout the show. Nevertheless, the team was able to work together to coordinate automation cues to successfully use the side-ladder walls.
When approaching the design of this lighting plot, the lighting designers knew the show would be executed from the same venue every night, which made it easier to design because they didn’t have to consider moving it to different venues. Usually, you’d have to account for transporting the gear and loading it in and out of different venues every night.
Once the design was finished and approved by the producer and creative director, the show’s production manager sent it to vendors for bids. PRG became the vendor to supply the gear and technicians. Aerosmith had worked with PRG before, so Cosmo, the lighting director, was able to request a specific crew chief, Tom Bider, that he’d previously worked with, making things easier because they had an existing relationship.
Before rehearsals started, for about five days, the lighting designers designed the show on MA 3D, a lighting visualization and pre-programming software. They knew they had about two weeks to design the show with the full rig in rehearsals, but they wanted to have a basic show design completed before rehearsals began. They created looks for every song in MA 3D, which they used during rehearsals. MA 3D was helpful because they were able to move automation in their model, so they could see what it would be like during the show.
The lighting designers also had recordings and video content from the content team, so they were able to match looks while pre-programming. Likewise, the laser programmer had some ideas for looks that the lighting team was then able to use to build the design.
While the final show was scheduled at the Park MGM, the venue was unavailable for extended rehearsals, so the crew had to rehearse in a different Las Vegas arena. There were some issues in rehearsals, like challenges with the trim height because the rehearsal space was smaller than the show space. The team was not able to move things in the way they would in the final show, and the rehearsal space did not have enough space for the logo. Nevertheless, the band and creative team were able to rework things to work in the smaller space.
It’s important to remember that things can change significantly in rehearsals. The artist can see renders of the show design, but it’s completely different in person. Ideas can come during rehearsal when you can see everything clearly. For example, the creative team decided to add elements to the VIP bar connected to the stage.
After rehearsals in the other arena, the crew loaded into the Park MGM. All of the automation, cables, and dimmers needed to go into the rig on the roof, which took a few days to load in and tech. It was the first time they had the full PA and trim, so they were now able to see how the automation performed in full. Likewise, it was the first time using the house fixtures and follow spots.
There were some minor issues with the PA once they got into the Park MGM. Some of the PA cabinets had a specific mix based on the instruments on stage, but the lighting trusses blocked them, which affected the overall audio mix. The lighting and audio teams had to work together to find a new place to move the lighting trusses in order to make the audio work.
In addition, the lighting desk was now further away than it was in rehearsals. In rehearsals, it was around 50 feet away, but for the show, it was around 120 feet away. This changes how you see the lights, which could change your cues. The lighting team had to re-write some cues and change things up until the last night of rehearsal.
On opening night, there were some minor issues with a few fixtures. The lighting team utilized a spare console, so they were able to seamlessly fix cues and reset fixtures on the second console while the show was happening. Executing the show can be trial and error because it’s hard to know what will work until you try it in show conditions. The show was constantly being updated with little tweaks to make it better each time. Overall, everyone on the design team contributed their expertise to put on a successful show.
I hope you enjoyed this article, but I also invite you to view my full Martin Learning Session Webinar video replay: ‘Working Together as a Team: Show Designer, Lighting Designer and Lighting Director′.