Small Show, Big Looks


Small Show, Big Looks — that was the topic given to me for this month's bit of wisdom. Discuss the challenges that you face when there's very little to work with and a whole lot expected. The fact of the matter is that I feel completely ill equipped to write this article. I'm blocked. I got nothin'! All those years of telling the new guys, “If ya can't pull it off with 12 PARs, then you shouldn't be in the business,” and here I am stumbling to find words to put on paper.

I'm in the middle of pre-viz sessions for a rig with over 200 moving lights…and it's a one-off. It isn't even a tour. These are the times that make you reexamine where your career is. These are the times that make you feel like a fraud, like everyone's going to find out you really don't know what you're doing. You're the man behind the curtain, hiding behind technology all this time. You're convinced that you've simply been pulling the wool over people's eyes all these years.

This is the beginning of a spooky story that people tell their kids. Parents warn their children, “Don't get too comfortable with your talents because when you do, bam, someone will come along and ask you the one question that will uncover you for what you really are,” and then you shake your head and realize that you're simply in a Nyquil-induced haze with the beginning of the latest strain of flu kicking your butt.

Let's first examine what defines a “small show.” Is it the scale of the production? Is it the hype and notoriety of its marketing? Is it the amount of gear used? Well, it's probably all of these things, but in the end, it's really all about budget, isn't it? The typical “small show” is a show that everyone wishes were bigger in all its glories — bigger venue, bigger sets, more lighting, more time to rehearse, 5.1 sound, etc. Well, welcome to the club! I haven't been involved in a production yet that didn't want more. Whether it's a corporate industrial with animatronic puppets or a 20-truck concert tour with live animals, there's always someone wishing he could get just one more thing into the show.

So when faced with the limitations that come with a small show, how do we create big looks? I guess it all goes back to that saying about being able to do it with a few PARs. You simply shift your focus toward making the overall picture look beautiful instead of the minute details that come along with more gear.

Over the past few years, I've noticed a repeated design flaw in various large-scale productions, and I've caught myself falling into it at times as well. Designers will very often get too caught up with the technology available to them. The end product becomes compromised; its beauty fades as the technical trickery hanging around the stage is increasingly more exposed. It's very easy to get caught up in making your technology do all of the tricks that it can, simply because it can all be done at the spin of a console knob. An interesting dimmer chase here, a wild movement chase there, color chases throughout the musical number, etc. — in many instances, the application calls for it, but more often than not, if all those bells and whistles weren't there, the designer would be forced to step back and look more closely at the overall picture.

Interestingly, the very same trick to making big shows look beautiful is what makes small shows look big. Stepping back and looking at the overall picture is a major key to success when dealing with a smaller project. Many refer to it as the “broad stroke,” or breaking down what may be complex into its simplest form.

This concept stems from where many lighting designers started out: nightclubs. Let's take a legendary rock ‘n’ roll nightclub venue such as the late CBGB in New York City. This club was where legends were made. On any given night, you could walk in there and witness a local up-and-coming band play, followed by an unannounced appearance by some legend. At the height of CBGB's popularity, the lighting system was comprised of no more than approximately 20 PARs over the tiny stage. Now, pick up any issue of Rolling Stone magazine, and you're likely to see some iconic photograph of a rock god performing at CBGB. More often than not, the image will be memorable not just for its subject, but for its color tone — the strength of a bold blue, the sexiness of a steamy red, the raw anger of a blast of stark white. These were basic colors that didn't just set the tone of the scene. They conveyed the raw emotion of the performance in its simplest glory. They took a stage that was smaller than a large LDI trade show booth and made it feel like Madison Square Garden.

But there was more to it than that. There was also the underlying perfection of timing. A small show that doesn't have a lot of gear or technology to spare will almost always have cue timing to its advantage.

The personification of molding simple looks with cue timing was never more apparent to me than when I was given my first opportunity to work with lighting designer Tom Kenny, whose credits include working with music industry icons such as David Bowie and The Who, albeit two artists that don't do very much in the way that we would define as “small scale” today. On this particular occasion, I was invited to do some programming for him at Madison Square Garden with a lighting rig of modest size. The Who was performing, and Kenny wanted me to set up the lighting console for him to play back that evening's performance. I was over the moon about the opportunity. Not only was it a chance to work with The Who, but I was also getting to work directly for one of the most hailed lighting designers in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. The anticipation of what I would learn was killing me and even more was the anticipation of showing off my technical programming prowess. Oh, the tricks I would make those lights do! “He'll be so impressed,” I thought. Well, as has been the case so many times throughout my career, school was in session, and I was back to being the student yet again.

The lesson can be summed up by the programming process of The Who's “Baba O'Riley.” We stood in front of the console, and Kenny spoke to me in his Irish accent: “Okay, Patrick, take all of the lights, and make them red.” I accommodated, and he said, “Great. That's cue one. Now make them all blue.” I pressed the blue preset. “Great, great. We'll have plenty of that. That's cue two. Now make them pink.” Feeling somewhat dejected, as I wasn't doing something more elaborate with my programming knowledge, I pressed the pink preset. Kenny took a look at the stage and said, “Nah, a bit feminine for this tune. Make them red again.” So I obliged. “Perfect, Patrick. That's cue three. Label that list ‘Baba O'Riley.’”

Three cues? Two colors? Was he kidding me? I couldn't comprehend how this would work. Then, the show started. Not only did The Who sing that song as if they had written it the day before, but those three simple, bold looks were the most striking cues I'd ever witnessed because of the timing in which they were taken. Kenny executed the cues with such precision that to add anything else would have completely distracted from the performance. It was one of the most valuable lessons that I was ever taught. There was something else, though. That simplicity allowed something else to happen without distraction. It allowed the talent to speak for itself. This was a group that could have played under the house lights and evoked the same response from the crowd. They didn't “need” lighting, but it added an amazing amount of theatrical impact and, more importantly, did so without distracting from the performance.

Making small shows look larger requires more refinement in implementation than knowing how to stretch equipment to its limits. If the gear can only do something as simple as changing color, then so be it. Use those colors wisely. Execute the cues precisely. Step back, and examine the overall picture, not just what can be added, but also what can be taken away. When you're trying to tackle a design that you insist needs more gear, just contemplate the approach of an artist's broad strokes, but never do it when you've got the flu because cold medicine does nothing for your design choices. Besides, you should be in bed resting.

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