From the Egyptian pyramids to Kremlin Hall, lighting design has led Bud Horowitz to the far reaches of our planet. Out of the 70-plus countries he’s visited, 40 have been while serving as lighting designer for world-renowned instrumentalist Yanni, who Bud has toured with for nearly 20 years.
With a penchant for the theatrical, Bud acted and did stage lighting while attending college at UC Santa Barbara. He then segued into building theater sets in Santa Fe and Southern California before hitting his stride with concert lighting.
In addition to Yanni, through the years, he has designed lighting for artists ranging from Devo and the Brian Setzer Orchestra to Andy Gibb, Toni Tennille, Stevie Wonder and Natalie Cole. He has also toured as a lighting director for numerous artists, including Styx and Bette Midler. However, Yanni’s uplifting global style, elaborate production approach and closely knit family of musicians and crew have been particularly compelling for Bud.
As he was recently completing preparations for a U.S. and Central American tour, we had an opportunity to spend an afternoon discussing his colorful career and thoughts about lighting.
[MM] What makes the role of a concert lighting designer unique?
[Bud] Lighting is magical—and particularly, lighting musical performances. People ask, “How do you really know what light you need to have where?” Sometimes the hardest thing is figuring out what that song wants to look like. Sometimes, I just know. And sometimes, I’ll need to sit there with a lighting rig and a board and play the song over and over until I find the hook. Almost always, a song will have a hook—a recurring lighting movement that’s perfect for it.
I can teach someone how to sit at a console, how to point a light this way or that, how to change a color, but not to see what a song translates to in lights.
Usually, I see the lighting in my head before I start working with it, and I’ve had artists ask me how I know what color to make a song. Yanni once said to me, “This new song of ours, you have the perfect color for it.” And, I responded, “You probably see a sunset and hear music. I hear music and see colors.” Sometimes, I just know what color the song wants to be. And certainly now, the tools to create what I see in my head are greater than ever.
[MM] You started your career building sets and using lighting to enhance theater productions but ultimately opted for touring with musicians. How different are they?
[Bud] In many ways, it’s the same thing. So much in music depends on who the artist is and the type of venue they’re playing. When you’re doing smaller places, there’s an opportunity to use theatrical lighting to create intimacy and focus everybody toward the artist. Whether it’s with musicians or a story being told in a play, I live for creating that intimacy.
It’s more difficult to pull off in stadiums, because with that huge scale, you lose all the intimacy. If you light an orchestra from one side or people from one side in a theater, it has impact. In a stadium, it looks like something’s wrong. Instead, in stadiums, you create emotions as spectacle—look at the Stones or AC/DC or Beyoncé with her zillions of miles of LED. They’re entirely very different approaches.
I think of being back in college when I really gravitated toward the ability to direct attention and invoke emotions with lighting, like bumping to red to change to another feel and location, or to go from a moment of realism to a moment of fantasy. Those things stay with you.
[MM] How dramatic of an approach do you take with the lighting design for Yanni?
[Bud] There are songs in his show that are designed to look very theatrical, and others that are more rock ‘n’ roll. There are songs that have a Chinese feel or Latin feel, and it’s my job to accentuate whatever he’s doing.
At the same time, what’s also really important, because Yanni talks to the audience a lot, is to make him look great on camera. When we do arenas and some large theaters, we’ll use IMAG screens. So, especially then, he has to look like a million bucks, so we can really zoom in on him.
Recently, we’ve been doing more theaters, and the feedback that we’ve gotten from his fan base is how much more they enjoy the intimacy. If you’re playing a 3,000-seat theater, nobody’s more than 100 feet away from the stage, as opposed to the Staples Center, where you’re looking at a stage that’s far away and people are mainly watching screens instead of the stage. That gives me the freedom to use a more theatrical approach.
[MM] How is it lighting locales like the pyramids, where the setting plays a major role in the show?
[Bud] These international places each have their own set of challenges, and certainly, the pyramids were no exception. The pyramids and the Sphinx already have some lighting on them, basically just floods that go on and off for their sound and light show. But, when they’re lit for the show, nothing else is and lighting levels are relative. What might look dim in a relatively bright environment, if everything else is off, is going to look fine. Your eyes compensate. But, with our lights, it was obvious the pyramids didn’t have enough light or enough controllable light for us to use what they had for the camera [the show was shot for television]. We ended up bringing in 24 searchlights from Germany just to light the pyramids and the Sphinx.
The large pyramid of Cheops was visible behind the stage, a kilometer behind the stage. Another pyramid was way off in the distance on stage right, which we used their lights for, and the third pyramid was just off stage left. The Sphinx was pretty much just up stage right.
It became a matter of siting all those fixtures properly, and we used a wireless DMX system with repeaters, so we could control them from our position. And, of course, we had no time to really do any of this. I think the lighting for the pyramids arrived a day-and-a-half before we shot the rehearsal. I didn’t see the follow spots turned on until an hour before we shot the dress rehearsal, so I never got to meter them. I had to assume that the color correction would be right and see what happens.
So, basically, we had one night of lighting the stage and the pyramids, and tried to balance the two without seeing it on camera. Actually, I didn’t see it on camera until the dress rehearsal. And, even then, I didn’t have a working TV monitor until the second show. Our video director had brought over cameras and his guys, but we used all local switching gear, etc. We shot it with 4K resolution, so the lighting was very important, but an educated guess at that point.
[MM] Is working internationally typically that difficult?
It makes my life hell sometimes. When we tour in the U.S., obviously we carry my lighting rig, so it’s the same every day. The only thing that differs is the theaters and how things are going to fit.
When we travel internationally, all I carry with me are the consoles. The production manager, Ernesto Corti, and I do a lot of advance work, though. We send the promoters our drawings, my plots and equipment specs, and I usually get something back saying we can give you these lights but not these. On a good day, they’ll hang my plot with just some fixture type differences. With consoles these days, I can go in and easily do a swap in the console. I still have to fix gobos and colors and stuff, but hopefully the patch that they give me is accurate—which sometimes it isn’t—and then hopefully their gear works. That’s an easy day.
I have days when they’ll tell me they have one thing, and I get there, and they have something completely different and, hopefully, I’ll have fixture profiles on the console for those lights. Sometimes I’ll get a list with some weird Chinese fixtures or some other unusual fixtures, and I’ll try to have someone build profiles for my console. Sometimes, I’ve just got to figure it out.
The tough days are at venues where stuff just doesn’t work or the lighting is terrible. Or, we go into a place where there’s a house lighting system that’s not even close to mine in terms of fixture layout. There are over 2,000 cues in Yanni’s show—it’s a very cue-specific and timing-specific show. If my timing is off by a second, it’s obvious and looks wrong. We’ll be somewhere like Kremlin Hall in Moscow, where they have six trusses of lights over the stage, and I’ve got to sit down with their plot, hopefully beforehand, and figure out which of these do I want to make my numbers 101–106? Which do I want to replicate as those numbers? It’s a whole mind exercise of doing that and, if I do that correctly, then all I have to do is fix it when I do my focuses, and everything will fall into place.
But you have to be careful about duplicating a light. [Because] then, all of the sudden, your beautiful one light, a down light on a percussion solo, is now four lights coming from different directions.
[MM] You’ve had a very diverse career, how long have you been with Yanni and how did you end up on his team?
[Bud] I started with Yanni in late ‘97. I got a call from a friend who did wardrobe for him and, at that time, Yanni had just done his famous Taj Mahal and Forbidden City shows and was looking for a new lighting designer. I knew they were talking to a number of people, but I sent in my resume and two weeks later, got a call from Peter Morse, who I’d worked with for many years, saying they just hired him, and he asked if I wanted to go out and do Yanni with him. So, Peter designed the show, and I did the tour from 1997–2005. In 2009, Yanni did a different variety tour with four young singers, called the Voices Tour, and that was produced by Disney. They had Roy Bennett design that one, and Gary Westcott ran it, so I wasn’t involved. Then, they called me in the beginning of 2010 and said they were radically changing the show, moving from arenas into theaters and asked if I’d be interested in redesigning the show for theater. So aside from the Voices Tour in 2009, I’ve run all of Yanni’s shows since 1997.
[MM] How has Martin Lighting supported your work?
[Bud] The MAC Viper is the best hard-edged moving light in the market. I think I have 27 of them on Yanni’s shows. I use them for an effect light, for Yanni’s key lights and for all my orchestra key lights. I used to use the VL 3000 Profile, and it’s a great light, but the Viper is smaller, faster, lighter, brighter. I think it’s a little bit more controllable. I love how flat the field of it is when I use them for key lights.
[MM] It sounds like your life has been quite an adventure. Is there one thing about lighting that appeals to you most?
[Bud] I’ve always been sort of artistic, but I also love computers. I love the way things work, and I think lighting is such a blend of using technology to achieve art. Since I was at UC Santa Barbara, where we had the second Colortran memory control console ever built, I’ve always been fascinated by the mix of technology and art involved in lighting.
Many thanks to Bud for the fascinating insight into his work. Are you a lighting designer or director who has worked in difficult locations? Share the challenges you faced and your solutions in the comments.