The strange world of rock and roll lighting design

posted by Jeff | Sunday, August 13, 2023, 9:44 PM | comments: 0

While I don't have a ton of happy memories from my high school years, I very distinctly remember some of my rock and roll lighting fantasies. In the 1988 to 1989 time frame, there were these awesome videos from Def Leppard and Pink Floyd on MTV  The former went all out with an arena tour in-the-round, while the latter brought automated lighting in a way that had not been seen before. A year or two later, I sat behind the lighting guy at the Ohio State Fair for a Mike + The Mechanics show. When Depeche Mode's Violator came out, I had not yet seen them, but walking to school, listening to the album on my cassette Walkman, I would imagine light shows, especially for the song "Clean," which I routinely approximate after showering, to the embarrassment of my son.

Younger, naive me thought about how great it would be to be a rock show lighting designer. Realistic me also understood that probably a dozen people in the world were doing it at the scale of shows like Pink Floyd's Delicate Sound of Thunder tour.I don't have deep history on the profession in those days, but I know that Vari-Lite was basically the only game in town. They owned the whole ecosystem, making the light fixtures, which were apparently very failure prone, as well as the control consoles, and even the operators and techs. It was a package deal. Those Floyd shows, if you watch the video, had that big circle behind the stage, and they were flying clusters of the lights over the crowd,. It was totally epic. To see those big, chunky Vari-Lites moving around, that was cool.

I imagine it was pretty hard to get into the business in those days. And even for much of the next decade, lighting was usually a bunch of trusses packed with short parabolic mirror lights, with a color gel in front. Theatrical lighting was a little easier to get into, but schools and college venues often had a limited number of analog dimmers, and worse, analog controls. I remember my high school went digital shortly after I graduated, and the dimmers occupied a small rack. The board had about 40 faders, a tiny text LCD, and non-volatile memory that could hold like a hundred cues! I did the design for a few community theater shows on that gear. I vividly remember manilla folders full of Rosco gels, and I had their swatch book.

These days, there are relatively inexpensive lights intended for DJ's and such, like those I bought last fall, and there are even cheaper options. There's also a whole world of cheap knock-offs made in Asia, which is the same place that much of the US stuff is made, but with presumably wide differences in quality. Then there's the pro stuff that costs often thousands of dollars per unit. There are a number of European manufacturers making the bulk of the touring gear. As far as control goes, there is readily available cheap stuff that can run on tablets, and the big pro market share vendors have software-only solutions that do about the same as their physical consoles, only with limitations in how much you can control. I wrote about some of that last week. What I'm getting at is that you don't have to be in a secret club to start learning.

For example, I watched an interview with a guy who started as a pro lighting designer and programmer at the age of 50. That dude has a $60k console and hires himself and his gear out. On the cruise, I talked to one of the Disney creative execs about their gear, and he enthusiastically mentioned that they're always looking for people at all levels, even part-time and for contract work. You can probably see where I'm going with this. I have the means to learn all of this stuff because I could buy the tools.

And here's what I hate about getting older, is that it keeps getting harder to be an idealist and optimist. Grownups pretty easily get into their routines. I tell myself that's not me, because look at me, I still want to discover new music. But I also get a burrito every Thursday and get kind of annoyed when for some reason I can't.

I've taken on a lot this year. In addition to the base responsibilities of being a parent and having a day job, I'm making a movie, still writing software and I kinda want to do this too. Oh, and I'm taking on extras at work, too, like being asked to join the DEI council. But you know, maybe me and my laser enthusiast buddy can pitch Taylor Swift to design her next show.


No comments yet.

Post your comment: