(Concert Photography: Todd Moffses)
Sooner Routhier is an extraordinary visual artist whose love of lighting has led her to also excel in production design and stage direction. A native of Northern Vermont, Sooner now resides in Nashville, where she co-owns SRae Productions with her long-time business partner, Robert Long.
Sooner’s passion for lighting was ignited as a high school senior when she saw her first rock show—the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness tour. She was active in her school’s tech crew and knew how to operate a lighting console, but observing lighting director Lawrence Upton’s use of color, and his ability to accent music with lighting cues, raised her enthusiasm to a new level. Her mind was made up, and her sights were set on becoming a concert lighting designer.
Since then, Sooner has designed for a variety of artists, including Rage Against the Machine, The All-American Rejects, Rhianna, Mötley Crüe, Disturbed, KISS, Jay Z and others. Recently, while working on the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience, a new Lady Antebellum tour and several other high-profile projects, she generously took the time to discuss her path, passion and process with us.
[MM] It sounds like your interest in concert lighting started when you were quite young; how did you find your way into the profession?
[Sooner] I was a pretty big nerd in high school and learned I could get extra credit in my dance class if I joined the tech crew. I thought it would make me more well-rounded and maybe help me get college scholarships. By joining the tech crew, I not only learned to dance, but also how to light the body and how music has different shapes and colors. My dance instructor was also the tech crew advisor and taught me how to lay out music and cueing. I fell in love with it.
I ended up going to a small school in Northern Vermont called Johnson State College to get my Associate’s Degree and ended up being on the lighting console every single day, learning more about the technical side of things. At one point, they had a college spring fling concert and a band called Strangefolk came to our theater. New England Audio Tech brought in supplemental lighting and audio gear for the show, and I ran the console for the lighting guy while he focused. He had labeled everything with gel color numbers instead of names. Instead of red, blue and green, it said Roscoe 27, Roscoe 80. I knew all of the color numbers, so when he called out “green,” the fader went up and green came on. He seemed really surprised. Later, I ended up talking to him and asked if he was doing other shows I could shadow him on.
I ended up working with him on concerts every weekend for about three months. It became such a regular thing that when summer came, I offered to move to New Hampshire, where they were based, to work with him for a summer job.
It worked out, and I was hired. After two years, I finished Johnson State, transferred to Emerson College and continued at New England Audio Tech. At some point, a band called Chevelle came through, opening for another band. They had a headline tour coming up and hired me to do their lights. It was my first tour, and I met Robert Long on it, who became my business partner. We’ve now been working together for about 11 years.
[MM] Can you describe how you approach a new design project?
[Sooner] We’re all about applying the brand of an artist to their live show. If you can push the brand in live visuals, you’re helping the audience connect the live show with the artist’s brand.
One of the things we do is look at all the imagery that’s associated with the artist’s new album or single, or if there’s some kind of campaign they’re doing. We might not use the exact look of the logo or album cover, but there are always things to pull from and be inspired by.
I try to gather as much visual information that I can—YouTube videos of past shows, a new album, recent photos, their Instagram feeds or Facebook—and get a feel for their marketing. I take those images and apply them to 3D drafting, where I start drawing shapes. From there, it evolves it into something that makes sense with the tour budget and the number of trucks that we have. That’s where my business partner really comes in handy. On one hand, Robert is extremely creative, but he’s also a very strong production manager.
[MM] Can you provide an example of how you use existing brand materials in your design work?
[Sooner] Sure. We did a Pentatonix tour last year and if you look at their latest album cover, they’re represented by five different colors—blue, gray, green, yellow and pink. We represented gray with white and Congo dark blue and programmed the entire show, around those five colors of light. Every song was either a combination of two of the colors or a solid blue, green, pink or yellow. We matched the colors on the album as closely as we could in each fixture and never used red, amber or tertiary colors. It was very monochromatic and looked great.
It was funny; I asked the band if they noticed how their entire show was only five colors, and they were shocked. Luckily, the cueing was diverse enough that each song looked different. But still, every single live picture on their Instagram and Facebook was represented by at least one of the colors from their album cover.
[MM] Besides branding, what other elements impact your designs?
[Sooner] The music is always the thing you start with. Sometimes I listen and instantly think of color and shapes and so on; I’ll know if a song is clearly a red song. Sometimes it’s literal. If it’s a song about fire, you don’t want to make the lighting blue and green. Other times, it takes listening to an album over and over again to drill it into my skull until it eventually just comes out. Sometimes artists have their ideas and know what they want. In that case, you go with what they say, and it becomes a matter of collaborating with them.
[MM] How has being a lighting designer led to working in production design and show direction?
[Sooner] Robert is a production manager, and a lot of it comes from that. There were a couple of projects where he was in charge of hiring the designers for bands, and we decided to do it ourselves. I knew I could draw scenic pieces and just started doing it, drawing shapes and trying to fit video inside them. It was sort of an organic process that advanced our company’s growth. Now we’re doing a lot of show direction, commanding the entire flow of the show, which is fun.
[MM] Is your goal to continue in that direction?
[Sooner] We really like to make things cohesive, and the best way to do that is by deciding how the show is going to start and end, and establish how each song is going to look all the way through, from moves onstage to lighting, video and everything.
As our show direction continues to evolve, I’ll also always be a lighting designer. That’s never going to go away. Sometimes it’s difficult, because there are so many hats to wear. There would be no way we could handle show direction, production management and production design if we didn’t have an incredible team. Typically, I get the initial ideas going and draft up the basics in Vectorworks, then hand them off to our incredible associate designer, Mack Geasey, which allows me to focus on things like the business, scripting, video content or dealing with animators.
[MM] Do you typically work with the same lighting directors on different tours?
[Sooner] It depends on the client; some artists have a lighting director. We always like working with lighting directors who are already in place, because they know the artist better than we ever could. Also, it’s fun to meet new people, because the relationship can be amazing as you develop the creative of the show with them. Then, after the tour is done, and their artist goes dormant for a year, we’ve got that lighting director to put on other accounts.
Sometimes an artist will be looking for an operator, and we’ll have a couple in mind, figure out who is the best fit and see if they’re available. We have a bunch of lighting directors we work with and have gained others on various projects.
[MM] What about programmers?
[Sooner] Gone are the days when I could say I push my own buttons. I’d like to program my own shows, but it’s difficult, because I just don’t have enough time. We have a handful of programmers we work with, although I like to do as much as I can. If I do have time to sit down behind the console and put in two or three days programming a show, I usually do. I like to keep my programming chops up, so I can do it if I need to.
Also, sometimes it’s difficult to explain what’s in my brain for a lighting cue. I get really frustrated if I can’t formulate the sentence to make it happen, so I’ll just sit down and do it.
[MM] Let’s talk about some of the projects you’re working on. What can you tell us about the upcoming Game of Thrones tour?
[Sooner] It’s full on; we’ve been creating the entire show with the composer, and our hands are in every aspect of the show. The composer gets us the music, and we figure out all of the show direction—lighting, video, automation, pyro, scenic, everything except the engineering. One of our partners and I sat down and wrote a 40-page script and created a spreadsheet format of the entire two-hour show. We’ve got the whole thing visually referenced in a massive show book of renders. We’ve been working on it since April; by the time the tour ends, it will have been a year.
[MM] What other projects are you gearing up for?
[Sooner] The Weeknd is a big one for us right now. It’s nice, because our role changes per client and, for The Weeknd, our team is just doing the lighting design and programming. We’re collaborating with Es Devlin, who is an amazing scenic designer from the UK, who I’m so inspired by. I love her work and love working with her. That tour starts on February 17
We also have Justin Moore and Cole Swindell going out this month, and we’re doing full production design for each of them. The Lumineers had our design out on the road last year, and we’re expanding that show a bit by adding some video elements, so that’s going out. Also, we just started working with Lady Antebellum.
[MM] Looking at your recent work, LED fixtures seem to play an important role in your designs. Has LED lighting altered the landscape for you as an artist and in concert lighting overall?
[Sooner] I think it has changed the landscape quite a bit. For me, a lot of it is color. With LEDs, you can do a lot of fast color chases, which are really, really fun with a rock band or pop artist. You can quickly flip between colors, and it can be on beat, and that’s a big deal for me. Obviously, with environmental issues, power is an important consideration these days. The amount of power LEDs take up in a rig is good. We love that we can put a lot of them in line and daisy chain them. You get really cool, big sheets of light; it’s really nice.
[MM] How has Martin lighting supported your work with LEDs and other fixtures?
[Sooner] We use Martin quite a bit and have VDO Sceptrons on a large number of projects. Currently, we’re using them on five tours. If you can use a light that looks like a different shape—not just a source with a cone of light coming out of it—it’s really cool. Sceptrons are linear, look like neon and you can make them into a scenic element if you put them in a certain form and do a little custom framing. Not only being a scenic piece, but also a lighting scenic piece, where it can have function is a big deal for us these days.
We also had a lot of MAC Vipers out on tour last year. The MAC Viper Profile has always been a go-to fixture for us, because it’s reliable, has a great gobo package, is bright, fast and efficient for arena shows, and works well for artists who don’t have massive budgets.
The MAC Quantum Wash provides a beautiful wash, and we’ve recently used them on several accounts, including the Pentatonix and Lumineers tours, to create really nice watery looks with the different rings and shape feature.
Many thanks to Sooner for discussing her wide range of projects with us. Are you a lighting designer or lighting director who also works in production and set design? Share your insights on wearing multiple hats in the comments.