Car wars: LDs take new products for a test drive at the 1998 North American International Auto Show

For the past 82 years, the automotive world has been gathering in the Motor City to display its wares: cars, trucks, and the newest concept vehicles. What was once the North American Auto Show became an international event 10 years ago, about the same time the lighting industry as a whole began to converge on the Cobo Conference and Exhibition Center in Detroit. And each edition is more spectacular than the last. According to Curtis Everage, the Cobo Center's house stage electrician, "All the exhibitors involved in the Auto Show used lighting contractors this year."

The numbers are staggering. For the 1998 North American International Auto Show, which ran January 10-19, there were 40 exhibitors parked within the 600,000 sq. ft. (54,000 sq. m) of the main open view hall of the Cobo Center. There were also numerous displays in the Cobo's 100,000-sq.-ft. (9,000 sq. m) Michigan Hall, as well as in some of the 84 meeting rooms available. More than two dozen world premieres of vehicles and over 40 manufacturer press events took place, the latter during press week, which began January 5. Offsite, there were additional press events scheduled in Cobo Arena, the Renaissance Center, and the historic Fox Theatre.

Preparation for the show began early last December. "Our first day was December 8, when we started on GMC," Everage reports. The Mercedes and Nissan exhibits soon followed.

For everyone involved, the Auto Show is a twofold process. First there are the lighting displays that stay up for the duration of the show. These generally highlight the newest cars, trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles.

The second part of lighting the Auto Show is the press events, where the manufacturers pull out all the stops, creating media spectaculars to showcase their newest creations. It can take weeks to set up these grandiose events, some of which last only minutes. Then, all the equipment is either refocused and integrated into the public display, reprogrammed, or simply removed.

The show gets bigger every year. This year, Everage said, "We did setups in meeting rooms for press week, which was new." Also changing is the equipment used. "All I saw this year were ETC Source Fours, Source Four PARs, and PAR-64s," he says.

But ETC was hardly alone on the show floor; the list of lighting firms doing business in Detroit reads like a who's who. Vari-Lite Inc., Light & Sound Design (LSD), Upstaging, and The Obie Company were all involved, as well as local firms Fantasee Lighting, Tobins Lake Studios, and Light Source Inc., among many others doing drive-bys.

At the Vari-Lite office in Chicago, pre-production for the Auto Show began in mid-November. "The Auto Show is a big part of our year in Chicago," reports Eric Hanson, manager of Vari-Lite Production Services Chicago. He adds, "The trend seems to be more equipment but for a shorter duration; the bulk of our equipment is in for press days only." Between the Volkswagen, Chrysler Hybrid, and Chrysler Concept press events, Vari-Lite had out 72 VL5(TM) wash luminaires, 145 VL6(TM) spot luminaires and 20 VL5Arc(TM) luminaires at the Cobo Center. At the GM Global reception at the Renaissance Center, Vari-Lite also had 80 VL5s and 78 VL6s, as well as an Artisan(R)Plus console. Vari-Lite was also at the Audi exhibit for the full run of the show, with eight VL5s, 29 VL5Arcs, and eight VL6 spot luminaires run off a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console with an expansion wing.

Milford, MI-based Light Source Inc. stopped off at the splashily lit GMC Truck booth, a highlight of illumination at the show. The GMC Truck exhibit also used a number of moving lights, provided by Light & Sound Design in Nashville. This year, the exhibit included 22 LSD Icons(TM), 45 LSD Icon WashLights(TM), and 172 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, hung on 800' (244m) of minibeam truss and one 20' (6m) LSD circle truss. Rounding out the GMC Truck picture were 20 one-ton Columbus McKinnon motors and 18 half-ton CM motors. "It's amazing how important the Auto Show is," Light Source press representative Rick O'Neill marvels. "The amount of money, time, and effort spent on press events alone is equal to a Broadway production."

Upstaging of Chicago provided equipment for BMW (with Bela GmbH of Germany), Volvo (with Primetech of Sweden), and Johnson Controls. The Johnson Controls display included a 160'x30' (49x9m) ground-supported truss system grid erected in two of the Cobo Center's third-floor meeting rooms. The setup (which was only seen during press week) consisted of 120 ETC Source Four PARs, 20 Source Four ellipsoidals, and about 100 combined PAR-38s and -56s. "We used smaller fixtures because of the ceiling height," reports lighting designer John Bahnick.

Another strong presence at the North American International Auto Show was The Obie Company, who opened an office in suburban Detroit last August to better serve its automotive clients. Obie equipment could be found at numerous exhibits, including Acura, Chrysler, Dodge, Honda, Lincoln/Mercury, Mercedes, Nissan, Saab, Subaru, and Toyota. The firm had approximately 300 automated fixtures and 1,500-1,700 PAR cans lighting up the nether regions of the Cobo Center. According to Barry Rackover, regional sales manager at Obie, "The new trend in domestic auto show lighting is the European style of lighting," epitomized by the Coemar EHP (Exhibit Hall Projector). The Italian-made EHP, which is exclusively an Obie product, is a static 2,500W HTI fixture that operates like an ellipsoidal rather than a PAR. Almost 150 of the new EHPs were found at the Lincoln/Mercury, Dodge, Chrysler, and Saab exhibits.

LSD is another national name that had a considerable amount of equipment hanging from the ceiling of the Cobo Center. Along with its moving lights at the GMC Truck exhibit, the firm also had a number of fixtures at Infiniti, Chevrolet, and the display for GM Concept:Cure, a high-profile project raising money for breast cancer research.

The Chevrolet exhibit was a bit more extensive compared to the GMC Truck and the Concept:Cure displays. Steve Llorens, LSD project manager for Chevrolet, reports that the display used a total of 45 LSD Icons, 14 LSD WashLights, 70 Source Four ellipsoidals, 21 A.C. Lighting Chroma-Q color changers, and six Altman nine-lights with scrollers. Add 1,000' (305m) of minibeam truss, 60 CM one-ton motors and one Icon Console(TM), and the result was a display that covered more than 37,000 sq. ft. (3,330 sq. m).

LD Tom Bagnasco, who has worked on the Chevrolet exhibit for the past nine years, has cultivated an excellent working relationship with his clients. "We give them what they want and then enhance it," he explains with a smile. "We've stayed on the cutting edge and our shows are getting bigger and better--we bumped this one up one-third from last year." Lighting a vehicle is also something of a challenge for the designer. "Glass is a problem," Bagnasco says. "You have to watch your angle of attack and try to eliminate as much visual noise at possible." Bagnasco also adds, "I've never had a bad show at home. We have one of the best labor pools in Detroit." Which isn't a small compliment for the home team, coming from an LD who has done the entire auto show circuit: Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Cleveland.

Fantasee Lighting of Ypsilanti, MI, also had a considerable presence on the show floor. Its clients included Pontiac, Buick, GM Advanced Technology Vehicles, Michelin, Hyundai, Suzuki, Ferrari, AM/General, Hummer, ASC, and UAW Ford.

The Pontiac display had "a sinister, rock-and-roll feel," says Jeff Alder, the head of Fantasee's Pontiac lighting design team, and used the key colors of red and black to create an almost heavy metal feel--no pun intended. "Up until now, the Auto Show has been just white PARs on cars; now it's evolved into elaborate theatrical events," Alder says. "It was much more of a corporate look. This year, we used more complex, active stage lighting."

One of the most critical times in the show is the transition between the press events and the standard Auto Show displays. To make this transition, most of the displays either strike instruments entirely or refocus what's already up in the ceiling after their particular press event. Things are a bit different at Pontiac. To handle the often time-consuming and labor-intensive transition between the press event and the public viewing of the Auto Show, Alder simply created a plot that covered both events. Instead of refocusing, the Pontiac design team used a different program for each event. The exhibit itself included 10 High End Cyberlights(R), 23 High End Studio Colors(R), 60 ETC Source Fours, 50 Source Four PARs, 20 PAR-56s, 40 PAR-38s, 12 High End Dataflash(R) AF1000 xenon strobes, two High End Nebula(TM) diffusion hazers and, a bit later in the design phase, three Morpheus BriteBursts.

"This year marked the premiere of the BriteBurst at the Auto Show," Alder says. The BriteBurst is a remote-controlled 1,200W HMI light source that generates 1,000fc at 70' and is available with a 12-frame color changer. In the end, though, regardless of what exotic equipment is lighting the displays, Alder's final word is that "it all comes down to the execution of the design."

The design of the GM Advanced Technology Vehicle display, another Fantasee project, began a mere five weeks before its press event. According to LD Stefan Graf, the president of Fantasee, "We usually don't get involved until everyone else on the project has signed off. This time, we got involved in the project while it was still a sketch." That, according to Graf, enabled him to do most of his lighting internally. "The architecture becomes the light fixture," he states.

The display used 11 High End Intellabeams(R), eight High End Cyberlights, 12 High End Studio Colors, eight High End Color Pros(R), nine 6' strip lights, 12 Dataflash AF1000s, 16 ETC Source Fours, 24 PAR-64s, and 20 PAR-38s. "For this exhibit, our design direction was youthful, exciting, and playful," Graf explains. He and programmer Robert Wertheimer conjured these emotions through the use of secondary colors, pastels, and fluorescents.

"Generally, what we're doing is retail lighting," Graf begins. "The cars are the stars and we don't want the lighting to be distracting." Graf and his design team (most projects at Fantasee are team designs, rather than the work of a single designer) must be doing something right--they were among the first, almost 20 years ago, to incorporate theatrical looks into the automotive lighting world. And based on the success of this year's show, the theatrical stylings they and other firms incorporated in this year's model will continue on the auto show circuit for some time down the road.

Sharon Stancavage is a concert and theatrical lighting technician working in Detroit and the surrounding area.