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LDI Speaker Spotlight: Michael Stiller, upLIGHT

As LDI2017 rolls around, we’ve been profiling some of our conference participants, such as lighting designer Michael Stiller, IESNA, LEED AP  Partner & Principal Designer, upLIGHT, who will be speaking on Lighting Public Space Experiences: An In-Depth Look into the Process of Developing One-of-a-Kind, Place-Making Experiences with Light with his partner at upLight, Greg Bloxham.

Stiller is a lighting practitioner, media designer, interactive technologist, and teacher whose career over the last 30 years has spanned the worlds of architectural lighting, experiential environments, theatrical presentations, television, and motion pictures. Live Design caught up with him for a chat about his career and session at LDI.

Live Design: What was your path to becoming a lighting designer?

Michael Stiller: My life in lighting began at ten years of age when my parents took me to the theatre in New York. I immediately noticed the lights were doing something…turning on and off in recognizable patterns. I was enthralled.  And I have been involved in lighting ever since. My very first paid gig came about when, as a member of the “lighting crew” in high school, I was asked to remove the school auditorium’s glass red, blue, and amber rondelles—if you can remember those—from the R40 striplights in preparation for a Westchester County Philharmonic rehearsal. After that, the Philharmonic paid me and a friend $50 to come in and do this each time there was a concert.

I attended a liberal arts college with no theatre crafts program, but remained active as a lighting tech and designer in the extracurricular program run by the school’s TD. After that, it was lighting my friend’s shows and making little films as visual set pieces in the downtown NY dance and performance art scene, where I am still active. A desire to earn a better living led me to seek work in the world of corporate industrials and television. I did some time as a film gaffer as well, especially during the late 80s and early 90s when everyone was shooting music videos on 16 and 35mm. All of this set me up with the skills I needed when opportunities came along to provide theatrical-style lighting design for feature films, especially the large-scale concert sequence in the movie Music & Lyrics

At the same time, my industrial work led me to the world of architectural lighting when an agency client for Motorola’s corporate events was asked to take on the experience and exhibit design for their science museum-format visitors’ center. More permanent installation and experiential projects followed, and I found I liked the pace and enduring nature of this work. Being a lighting geek, I discovered that in addition to the sexier projects where we’re using light to help tell a story, I was also interested in the science-of-sight based practice of specifying white light for everyday architectural applications—including the newer fields of sustainability and lighting for wellness.

Add to all that my early interest in filmmaking and the growing convergence between lighting and video systems, and the scope of my practice now encompasses all of the above, including full-on entertainment production design.

LD: What are some of your most notable projects?

MS: 85 Broad Street, a public space experience, (IES Illumination Merit Award); Rocktopia, television special and tour (coming to Broadway in March); The Microtropolis, an experiential launch event for Microsoft Windows 8; The Motorola Innovation Center, a science museum format visitors’ center; Music & Lyrics, feature film concert sequence with Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant.

LD: What are the ABCs for good lighting design?

MS: I think the ability to go in with a strong idea and then be able to change it; to do the homework, develop a concept, and then commit to a process; to be unsentimental about your work and willing to throw it out and start over—these are the qualities most important to make one into a good designer of any type.

85 Broad Street

LD: What are the design elements and fixtures on the 85 Broad Street project?

MS: The 85 Broad Street lobby and exterior is a privately owned public space in a 1980s era office building that sits on an historical site and literally has a 400 year-old street running through it. The building owner’s brief was to transform this staid corporate lobby into a 21st century destination to attract the creative technology workforce flocking to this rapidly changing neighborhood.

To do this while honoring the history and story of the site, the designers developed a sophisticated map-themed schema that incorporated various media streams to drive nontraditional displays and animate two large-scale architectural lighting sculptures. In addition to the general architectural and exhibit lighting, and some custom chandeliers, we specified a few hundred Philips Color Kinetics Fuse fixtures to illuminate dimensional relief maps that covered most of the walls, Martin by Harman VC Strip system components for a massive RGB lighting sculpture running the length of the main interior corridor, and the Philips Vaya system for an even larger animated sculpture that encircles the entire exterior of the building.

The entire project is remotely programmable thanks to Interactive Technologies' Cue Server system and custom DMX relays by City Theatrical.

LD: Has the advent of LEDs changed the way you design? If so, how?

MS: The advent of LEDs has provided us with a new toolkit, and made it possible for us to achieve results we wouldn’t have dreamed of once upon a time, but I wouldn’t say it has changed our design process. We still engage with our clients the same way, examine the design challenges, and propose solutions. And then the collaborative fun begins!

LD: What will you be discussing in your session with Greg Bloxham at LDI2017?

MS: Greg Bloxham, co-principal designer and my partner at upLIGHT, and I will be talking about our process for designing public space experiences. These are one-of-a-kind projects that usually rely on some degree of customization—whether it’s a control system we build or lighting components we work with a manufacture to create and then integrate into a sculptural form. We will be presenting in-depth case studies of 85 Broad Street and the Tiffany Flagship Holiday Façade. And maybe give you a sneak preview of new projects currently in the design and construction pipeline.


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