During his nearly four decades as a lighting professional, Troy Eckerman has had an extraordinary career working with artists including Barbra Streisand, Tim McGraw, Beyonce, Madonna, Metallica, Willie Nelson, Bon Jovi, Paul McCartney and others. Besides programming music tours, Troy also designs and operates lighting for a broad array of corporate events, award shows, tradeshows, television specials and architectural installations.
For the last 21 years, Troy has been president of Chroma Designs Inc., which is based in Spring, Texas and provides lighting design, consulting, programming and show operating services. He is also part owner of two other lighting and audio companies, yet somehow manages to spend nine months of each year away from home, balancing a seemingly impossible schedule of projects.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Troy during a rehearsal day for a corporate show in Atlanta, Georgia. I was interested in learning about the diverse elements of his professional life.
[MM] You seem to maintain an incredibly busy schedule. What are you currently working on?
[Troy] These days, I do a lot of corporate show design and programming, but I am also about to program the new Tim McGraw and Faith Hill tour. I have some work coming up with Metallica and recently toured with Barbra Streisand as her programmer and lighting director. Other than with Barbra, though, I don’t tour anymore. My last tour with anyone else was 23 years ago. I have too many other jobs to go on the road for long periods of time. Barbra only goes out for a few weeks at a time, so it works out well. It also helps that it is a completely first-class tour. We travel on a chartered jet and stay in five-star hotels every night, so we definitely live the good life!
[MM] It sounds like a touring dream come true. Can you tell us about some of your other career highlights?
[Troy] Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to work for some of the biggest stars on some of the biggest shows. There have been so many great things that have been a part of my life. I lit the Times Square New Year’s Eve Millennium show and designed and programmed Millennium shows for Mexico City, Philadelphia and Rio de Janerio. I actually stayed in New York to run the show on New Year’s Eve, though. It was quite an experience!
I designed and operated the architectural lighting system at the Coliseum in Rome and at Red Square in Moscow for Paul McCartney’s “Back in the World” tour . It was the first time any Beatle had played in Russia since they were banned in the 60s. I lit all the grounds around the stage, and it was incredibly exciting. I also did McCartney’s Super Bowl halftime show .
[MM] Clearly, you have had a fascinating career. How did you get started?
[Troy] When I was in my early teens, my two older brothers had a concert lighting and tour management company called Clearlight Enterprises that worked with many of the 70’s biggest artists, like Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson and Gary Wright. So, early on, I had a lot of close contact with the business. My brothers had a lot of rock ‘n’ roll history, and it just kind of rolled down onto me. As I often say, “I have never had a real job; I just tell lights what to do.”
[MM] Do you recall what inspired you to follow your brothers’ footsteps?
[Troy] Initially, it was the glamor and glory of working with big famous bands. As you get older, a lot of that goes away. I spent 16 years working for LD Systems in Houston, designing, programming and operating lights for bands throughout the 80s and 90s, and it was all pretty great. I still love my job and wouldn’t trade it for anything, but it has become more of a routine. Lighting a human performer is very different than installing architectural lighting. I enjoy them both, but that feeling you have as a kid at a big rock concert doesn’t last forever.
[MM] What are some of the differences between lighting places and people?
[Troy] I enjoy architectural lighting, because I know it is going to remain for many years. Assuming the client has the appropriate budget, you can spend a lot of time on a project and really do it right. Later, when you go back to look at those projects, it gives you a good feeling to see that your work is still there. Tours all go away; they end and disappear. Permanent installations, however, last and there is a lot of satisfaction in that.
For both architectural and entertainment lighting, it all starts with creating an environment and mood for your particular situation. I learned a lot from my entertainment work about how to create a mood for a song with colors and such. That same process applies to architectural lighting. The first thing you need to do is determine what you are trying to achieve and what you are trying to light. From that point, it boils down to the placement and selection of fixtures. After that,
it’s the color and texture, and then the gobos and such to finish the job. It’s a pretty intuitive process for me; nothing I overthink ahead of time.
[MM] Did you study lighting in school?
[Troy] No, doing the job has been my school. Working with all the guys who know it all has been the best education I could have possibly had. For many years, I just soaked up knowledge like a sponge. For example, I remember learning from Roy Bennett about strobe rates on strobe lights, on the speed to make them mess with the audience’s brain and eyes.
I also used to pick Bob Dickenson’s brain, and once, when we were doing an Elton John television special at Madison Square Garden, he taught me about foot-candle levels. Another thing I learned at that show was when I walked into the arena and saw how the lighting system was completely asymmetrical. We had a whole lot of lights hanging on stage right, and I couldn’t grasp why. Bob explained that 90 percent of the camera shots are of Elton John sitting at the piano. From that point, I learned to hardly even look at the stage during TV shoots and instead focus on the monitor, because that was what everyone at home would be seeing.
[MM] Having learned so much from other lighting professionals, what words of wisdom do you have for the next generation?
[Troy] Always keep an open mind, listen to the people that have been doing it for many years—assuming that they know what they are doing; sometimes it’s hard to tell.
On the programming side, the most important thing is being prepared, having your lighting console 100 percent ready and laid out before you make one cue. If you are prepared and organized, which takes hours and hours, you can become very fast and proficient with your work. Make sure all the palettes are there, the groups and the layouts. That way, you can work more efficiently with a lot less stress.
Artistically, I have learned to stay away from a lot of multicolor cues. Two or three colors are about the maximum you probably ever want to use at a time. Beyond that, the look becomes very multicolored and the songs start to look the same. Another important consideration is maintaining consistency throughout each song. Don’t have a song change to eight different colors and then do the same on the next one, because you are going to quickly run out of places to go. Keeping consistency within the songs, within a color palette, makes each one distinct and better overall.
In a show, you might have hundreds of different colors, but you want each song to offer something different, and that’s done mainly with color. Next, it can be the gobos you choose to use. Then finally, the fixtures you select make a cue look different as well. I have been to so many gigs where, after five or six songs, I have seen every color palette imaginable, and the rest of the show starts to look the same.
[MM] What dictates the colors you select for a song?
[Troy] It’s just the feel of the music and the words. Is it a happy song? Is it a sad song? That matters a lot. Sometimes I do shows for bands whose songs are in different languages. I always ask for translations of the lyrics, so we know what they are about. If the band is singing about a tragic situation, you probably don’t want pink happy lights!
[MM] Are there any new lighting trends that are impacting your work?
[Troy] Most of them have to do with LED technology, which I’m sure everyone in the business would say. But now, they’re getting to where you can better control them. Manufacturers are putting LED technology in all the lights, and they are getting bright enough, while the lower power consumption and heat savings are revolutionizing what we do.
LED saves clients money on power usage, especially at tradeshows and conventions. Buildings and convention halls charge a massive amount of money for power, but you can save a lot by using LEDs. And, LED technology is fast. The strobe light effect from LEDs is faster than you could ever get in the past, with any other mechanical light. They’re also smaller, weigh less and there is no ballast, so they are really changing the industry.
Projection coming out of lights is also is changing things. You can really tell a story with them, and the possibilities are as unlimited as your imagination. It just takes time.
[MM] Is there a new direction you think lighting technology might be headed in?
[Troy] Some people might think this is silly, but for engineers to figure how to bend light would be incredibly cool and change everything. Everyone, including myself, laughs about it, but I would never say never. Someday, someone will figure out how to take light 10 feet and then move it in a different direction. Apparently, they can make it work in some very specialized laboratory environments, but not commercially. Making light go around objects and create new kinds of graphic effects in midair would definitely be the next big thing.
[MM] Tell me about your company, Chroma Designs.
[Troy] Actually, there are a few companies I’m involved with, but Chroma Designs specializes in lighting design and sales, and mainly works with big churches, corporate installs and buildings. I am also part owner of a rental company called Visual Integration Concepts, Inc. Our moving light rental stock is all Martin by HARMAN, which we are very happy with. We have MAC Quantum Profiles and MAC Quantum Auras. Martin lights are dependable, bright, quiet and fast. Another important consideration in our industry is knowing you can rent a light all over the world. Consistency definitely saves on programming time, and you can get Martin lights just about anywhere!
I’m a really big fan of the MAC Quantum Profiles, because they’re LED and excellent for smaller corporate shows in the ballrooms and convention centers. I did a Microsoft show last year and had a bunch of MAC Quantum Profiles in the Orlando Convention Center for about 10,000 people. They were the hard edge light, and they’re perfect.
[MM] Are there any final thoughts you would like to share before going back to work?
[Troy] I would like to say how much I really appreciate all the people I’ve worked for through the years. The designers have been so nice and great to work with, and I have learned so much.
I’ll be the first to say that I take good ideas from friends I work with and use them in my shows. I’m not stealing their ideas; I’m borrowing them! And, I would expect people to do the same with my work! If they see something they like, it will not hurt my feelings if they do it too!
Many thanks to Troy for sharing his insights with us. Are you a lighting programmer, designer or director who tours and does installation work? Share your thoughts about their differences in the comments.