(Justin Timberlake “The 20/20 Experience”)
Since leaving Leeds for London in the late 90s, Nick Whitehouse has been on a remarkable journey of being in the right place at the right time. His first long-term client, Coldplay, paved the way for ongoing work with Justin Timberlake. He has also worked with Jack White, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Prince and many others. Now living in America, Nick and his new company, Fireplay, are at the top of their game, providing lighting, production design and creative production services to an ever-expanding roster of touring, stage, broadcast and architectural clients.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Nick about his impressive body of work. Fireplay had just completed an eight-week tour with James Taylor while providing creative production services for Thomas Rhett’s arena tour and working on a production design for an upcoming Killers’ tour.
[MM] You cover a tremendous range of territory with your lighting work. Is there an underlying connection between the projects you work on?
[Nick] For me, personally, I like to do different things. If you do the same things day in and day out, no matter how cool they are, you don’t learn anything. You only learn by doing things that are new and different. During the last few years, I’ve learned more on a tiny theater show on a cruise ship than doing big arena shows, because I had already done those.
[MM] Is every show and project different?
[Nick] It is, and it needs to be. That’s one of the things that defines me and my work. As a lighting designer, I approach everything as its own individual project and never reuse an idea twice. I always try to be unique and come up with something that fits each particular project.
[MM] What initially inspires that approach?
[Nick] It can come from a lot of places. Sometimes it’s the artist you’re working with. Sometimes it’s something cool you’ve seen that you think might fit a project. I start each one with a blank piece of paper and go from there.
[MM] Do you have an established process that helps you get from that blank page to completion?
[Nick] Not really. I think that if you define the process of how you work, you’re always going to bring an element you’ve used before, because it’s part of that process. Each time I approach something, I approach it entirely differently.
[MM] What initially attracted you to working in lighting?
[Nick] I went to college in Leeds, and they had a great drama department. They had just built a theater and needed a lot of help to turn it into something usable.
I was never really into the drama side of theater, it was always the technical side for me. I loved what you could do with technology to entertain people. I was mesmerized by how you could change people’s environment and make them happy. I kind of threw myself into it without knowing anything and learned as I went along. I always thought I would do something with computers, but when I found lighting, I knew it was what I wanted to pursue as a career. I tried everything I could to make it happen.
[MM] How did you make it happen?
[Nick] There weren’t many big acts playing in Leeds, so I decided to take a couple years off and go to London to try and get involved with as much of the technical side as I could. I went to bars where bands played, venues that needed people to push boxes, and lighting and sound companies needing crew. Basically, I offered my help to anyone who would take it. A year later, I became the house lighting designer for The Forum [now the O2 Forum] in London. It was one of the venues where all the big bands played, and I spent two years working there.
[MM] What led you to eventually leave The Forum?
[Nick] Besides being the house lighting guy there, I also worked on tours, freelance at festivals and for bands, things like that. I was probably working in five other venues besides The Forum. I always tried to work on shows I could learn from. That’s how I met the lighting designer, Brian Leitch. He kind of mentored me, and I did a lot of shows with him. At one point, Brian found a new band he thought could be the next big thing and wanted me to work with him on it. He told me that we needed to bring them something different. We worked together, and the band turned out to be Coldplay.
It was 2001, and Coldplay was playing small clubs and universities and hardly drawing any crowds. Within a year, though, they were doing arenas all around the world and took me with them. I had been in the right place, at the right time, knowing the right people. It was my break into the industry. Eventually, Brian didn’t want to tour as much, so I took over more of Coldplay. Eight years at the start of my career was 100 percent Coldplay.
[MM] Is that when you moved to America?
[Nick] It was when I started spending a lot of time in America, because Coldplay was really big here. Right afterward, I worked on my first Justin Timberlake tour. He saw Coldplay perform in Tokyo and hired me from there. I spent most of the next three years in the States working on Justin’s “FutureSex/LoveShow” and made the move.
[MM] I imagine that working with Justin meant having a substantial lighting budget and being able to develop your ideas on a larger scale.
[Nick] It was my first opportunity to do that. Coldplay came from the English background of, “We’ll play on a stage. We’ll put some lights and a screen on it.” Justin was more like, “Here’s a little company called Tait Towers. We want a custom stage. Go and have fun. Whatever you need to do, go figure it out, and we’ll do it.”
[MM] Is that how you began taking a creative producer role?
[Nick] It was the start of it. On Justin’s tour, I met Steve Dixon, who really helped me develop my career. He was Justin’s tour director and taught me how to make the financial side work. Seeing how he worked and produced those kinds of shows allowed me to understand the producer role.
I never really wanted to become a producer. At the time, I was the lighting designer and had some input into the production design, video screens and all those mechanics. Many years later, though, I realized I had learned enough to take a producing role.
[MM] You and your partners recently started Fireplay. Was the goal of the company to formalize your producer role?
[Nick] We started Fireplay because there was a need for it. I think everyone knows that during the last few years, the industry has experienced a massive shift. When I started with Coldplay and the early Justin Timberlake tours, tours were meant to promote albums, so artists could generate income from album sales. Tour budgets and what artists did on the tours didn’t matter in the way they do today. All that mattered was that they drove people to go and buy the album. That was what the music industry was all about.
Today, it’s completely reversed. Artists don’t make money selling records. They make it selling concert tickets. Again, I think that being in the right place at the right time, I saw an opportunity to deliver that creative producer role and say, “I can help you walk away from your tour with some cash in your pocket rather than breaking even.” That’s where the creative producer role came from and is kind of where Fireplay came from as well.
I had been working with a group of people who helped me deliver that to my clients, and likewise, I helped them deliver it to theirs. We saw that managers, record companies and artists wanted to go to one place and say, “This is how much money I have. This is the show I want. Make it happen.” It led to the formation of Fireplay. Three of us started it in January. Now we’re up to 10 people and can take on all kinds of projects. It isn’t just about music anymore. It’s also about architecture, events and family entertainment.
[MM] How much of an idea for lighting or design does an artist typically come to you with?
[Nick] It’s really artist specific. I’ve had artists say, “I want an amazing show. I don’t care what it is. Go make it.” Then there are those who say, “These are the ideas, can you make them happen?” It can be completely formed or nothing at all. Some want to be there every step of the way. Others only care that it looks good and people like it.
The most successful shows that Fireplay and I work on are when the artist is involved, takes ownership and everything is personalized for them. The lighting fits the album and music. Everything means something. The more theatrical side of me says that it’s better to collaborate with everyone involved.
[MM] Can you give me an example of how the collaborative process with an artist has worked?
[Nick] Justin is a great example. We started with “FutureSex” in 2006 and then did “The 20/20 Experience” a few years ago. When he finished the “The 20/20 Experience” album, he came to me and said, “When I was in the studio, I was thinking of you. We called this ‘20/20,’ because it was music you can visualize.”
He came to us with ideas of different places he wanted to go with the show and what it was about. We spent all of January and February in L.A. working through it with him, while he rehearsed with the band. Every part of that show either came from his idea or an idea of ours that he liked and tweaked. We really achieved something on that show, because people thought it looked different and had gone somewhere else. I think that was because it was tied so closely to Justin and his music.
[MM] What are you currently working on?
[Nick] Now, with the company, it’s not just me taking on one or two projects a year like I used to. We have so many things going on. Thomas Rhett is out on his first arena tour, which we designed and are reworking for the fall. He’s growing and his audiences are growing, so he wants to add more production and budget to the show. We’ve supported him through the last three years and are really proud of where he is now. He’s one of those artists who likes to be involved with everything and has great ideas.
We just completed James Taylor’s eight-week tour of arenas and ballparks. We designed and creative produced the show for him. It was his 70th birthday, and he used the opportunity to take his show to the next level and do something cool.
We’re also working on a production design for The Killers. Their lighting and production designer, Steven Douglas, has been a friend since the Coldplay days. We used to work in the venues in London and hang around together. He wanted to bring the show to another level and asked us to collaborate with him.
[MM] Do you feel the same passion for other projects as you do for music?
[Nick] I take projects because they’re interesting and a challenge, not because of money or status. I’ve never been that kind of person. With broadcast and theatrical projects, it has always been about working with someone I want to work with, a type of show that interests me, a script I like or something that requires an interesting technical visual. Projects like that give us new tools and allow us to learn things we can bring into other areas we work in.
There are things I’ve done in theater I realized we could use in music and the other way around; techniques from music shows I’ve brought to theater, things that traditional lighting designers wouldn’t think to do. It’s kind of a cool position.
For example, we did a burlesque show in London, where we used the coffin lift from Britney Spears’ show and made a dancer dressed as a nun rise out of the stage. People in the theater world wouldn’t normally use that kind of gag.
[MM] Considering these various applications, how has Martin lighting been part of your work?
[Nick] When I first got into moving lights, Martin MAC 2000s were always in the rigs. They were one of the only options, and I still like really them. I think what Martin did with the MAC Viper, though, was fantastic. Martin is a great brand that makes great products you can rely on. They’ve always supported me whenever I’ve needed anything, and that’s really important. Just today, we were working on a series of one-off festival shows for Justin, and they’re all Martin fixtures.
[MM] Do you program the shows you design?
[Nick] I design all my own stuff and program 95 percent of it. I have programmers and operators I work with, but most of the time, I’ll do the programming, because I find it easier and faster than trying to tell someone what I want. Sometimes you have to try something 10 ways before it actually works how you want. I’m always very hands-on. More recently, with the smaller stuff we do, I’ll design it and have someone program and run it for me. But clients who come to me for me always get the same service, whether they’re playing to 100 people or 100,000. I always design and program their entire project.
Many thanks to Nick Whitehouse for sharing his story. Are you a lighting designer who works as a creative producer? Share your insights in the comments.