In the world of a professional lighting designer, every day is a new challenge. Touring lighting designers are faced with the difficult task of traveling to a different venue every night, working with different lighting rigs, and bringing it all together in just a few hours—all while trying to provide the artist and fans with the best experience possible.
This blog will break down common challenges industry professionals face using examples from working designers, and discuss solutions—from the earliest stages of budgeting and designing, to day-of-show programming hardships.
One of the biggest (and most common) challenges for any lighting designer is budget. You can conceptualize a stunning, elaborate, beautiful design, but if the tour can’t afford it, the world will never see it. Sometimes management will want to see a design before the budget is in place. Often, though, by the time you’re designing, the tour will already be on sale, so you can at least get an idea of the size of venues being played. If you don’t know the budget, you can protect your design (and your heart!) by creating a design that has a few built-in, would-be consolations so you can drop an element or two and keep the rest of your design. Also, knowing the average costs of rental gear gives you the ability to meet budgets more readily with specific gear requests and substitutions.
When you have a shortened budget, talk to the artist to see what elements of your design might be the most important to them. When I was working with electronic duo Sofi Tukker, the budget came in after the initial design, and they had some very specific requirements for what they wanted out of the show. The budget did not play nicely with these requirements, but we were able to maintain the most important elements of their vision.
Scenery can be your best friend when you’ve got a tight budget. You can do a lot with very little, even DIY-ing some elements for a unique look. With Sofi Tukker, my design partner helped me bend some pipes to hold the jungle mesh and we got some really cool looks out of it.
Another factor in design is stage size. Booking agents often don’t think much about production when booking a band into a venue, and the designer ends up having to figure out the best way to get the point across without consistent stage sizes. One day you’re squeezing into the stage in a dive bar, and the next you’re trying to fill a massive outdoor stage at a festival. The artist, of course, wants both shows to look incredible and unique to their aesthetic.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about this industry (and design in general) is to do your homework. Research the largest and smallest venues on the tour and create a scalable design that allows your show to grow and shrink seamlessly. This might mean removing one of many set carts, having extended cable looms so you can spread your lights out on a larger stage, or even having a backdrop with less important design on the edges that can be folded over and can fit in a smaller space.
While designing with Jimmy Eat World, I needed to design for clubs, an opening slot on an arena tour, and festivals on the same tour! I chose design elements that could easily be adjusted for any of those venues, with a few different location options for each of the fixtures to fill in whatever space we had that day without losing any of the programming.
Occasionally, if there is any semblance of a lighting budget for a festival, you might be able to convince the lighting vendor to bring some additional fixtures that match your own so that your show can be scaled up with minimal effort.
Some artists may only want their show to contain a specific color palette- Jack White is famous for each of his bands having a specific color scheme. Some artists may have had a bad experience with lighting in a previous show. I’ve heard from many artists who do not want to use white light because if used improperly, it can wash out everything onstage and ruin any vibe. It’s your job to make the artist feel comfortable on stage, so if it means no white lights, that’s what you have to do!
The key to these types of problems will be your relationship with the artist and/or management. Find out the reason behind their aversion so you can work around it (or with it!). Did someone take an unflattering photo of them in a specific color? Find another photo of someone looking amazing in that color. Is it their design aesthetic? Great! Figure out how your vision and theirs can work together. Whatever it is, knowing the reason behind a requirement will help you find a solution they’ll be happy withIf you’re still feeling held back by design limitation, try using other attributes of your fixtures to create specific, big moments. If you can’t use white in your show, you could do a *zoom pop* to create that same big moment, or you can flick a gobo in and out to accentuate something in the music. If you can make the show look great within the rules they give you, you can keep that gig for a long time.
Some artists have design requirements that are more emotionally based. They may be incredible at creating music in their basements, but too shy to look into the faces of their adoring fans. This is a really personal issue for the artists and can be very embarrassing, so it’s a big trust exercise between the artist and the designer. If they don’t want to be able to see the audience, look at the show from a theatrical standpoint: most theatrical performances don’t extend past the proscenium, so this is an easy way to keep the artist comfortable in their own stage environment. Light up some scenery, or use video at a lower level so the bounce doesn’t light up the audience. If the show needs something more lighting-heavy, try to create positions that do not expose the audience- more vertical, or side-to-side lighting, or if the mood is right, lasers. Not every audience wants to be blasted in the face with lighting all the time, and not every show requires it.
No Follow Spots
What do you do when your artist doesn’t like followspots? They can be brutal and alienating for an artist. However, some artists (in contrast to the ones who feel strong stage fright) need to feel that connection to the crowd in order to thrive onstage. So what do you do when your artist bans them from use?
Depending on how your artist moves on stage and how dynamic the show is, you might be able to get away with not using a followspot. If your artist stays on center and is rooted to a microphone location, a leko will do the trick. If they wander all over the stage, you can get away with a full-stage wash. If the issue is only the harsh angle of them, and you have the budget, you may be able to get away with using robospots from the downstage truss.
But what if none of those solutions work because your artist is in a boat?
In 2018 we designed a rolling, 6’ tall boat for our singer to float around the audience in. Followspots hadn’t been an issue for him for the last few years of shows, but something had changed recently and he decided he didn’t want to use them at all…but he still wanted to be out in the audience. In a boat.
To make matters worse, we were in varying sheds every night and even if we could convince him to allow spotlights, we couldn’t necessarily hit the location of the boat every night, as its size limited where it could travel. We tried adding wireless LED pucks into the corners of the boat, but the artist had lyrics at the bottom of the boat for a cover he was doing at the time, so the lights made it difficult for him to see. They ended up getting kicked over, or having towels thrown onto them… so we were still stuck with our dark boat.
We did get lucky when the artist asked the audience to put up their phone lights. It’s a common gag in shows these days, but it paired incredibly well with our struggles and created one of the most memorable moments of the tour.
Eventually, we were able to talk the artist through the issues we were having, and he allowed us to use spotlights just for the moments while he was out in the boat. Opening up those conversations to artists and management to discuss these challenges can really make all the difference.
Haze is great. It creates a ton of depth for lights to play in, instead of limiting them to the surfaces they project on. But some artists cannot stand it. They don’t like how it feels, smells or how it looks. Again, having conversations with your artist and/or management to better understand the reason behind the aversion will help, and there is a chance that you can talk them into using it. But if there’s no room to budge, you will be tasked with finding other ways to create a full-looking show that is just as engaging.
Cycloramas, backdrops, scenery, and video are my favorite ways to deal with a lack of haze. You don’t have those lovely aerial beams to look at, so you need to fill the space with other things to project on or look at. Some lighting fixtures have more interesting faces, just remember to use lighting positions that are visible and interesting without constantly blinding the audience.
I’ve been working with Ben Folds for the past few years and it’s just been him and a piano, so when I was hired, he told me no haze, as he didn’t want to create a *BIG ROCK SHOW* look. I was so excited to have the gig that I didn’t even question it.
Late last year, while we were on tour, he came up to me to tell me that he trusted me and if there were things I wanted to get a bit more creative with, I should experiment with them. I asked him if I could try using a little bit of haze. He responded that that was fine, but that I should know that he has been known to make up a song during the show about how crappy the haze looks when he can see big puffs of it, and that I might get that song made up about me in front of thousands of people. I politely declined.
Challenging, but immensely enjoyable.
Of course there are many other limitations and challenges that one might come across when designing a lighting show. Things are constantly changing, and the designer must adapt to meet the artist’s needs along the way. However, designing has been one of the most fulfilling and satisfactory experiences of my life, and I’d gladly take on any of these challenges the next time a design is needed.
I hope you enjoyed this article, but I also invite you to view my full (very exciting- there’s a Wheel of Fortune wheel!) webinar, Creating a Production and Lighting Design to Take Advantage of Show Limitations and Challenges.