LD Noah Mitz Q&A: Lighting The 66th Annual Grammy Awards Show

Lighting design firm Full Flood, Inc, takes on large-scale, live-for-broadcast events the way other designers take on repertory theatre, a new show every few weeks, but with the added pressure of a different venue each time and two audiences, one live in the room and the other numbering in the millions on TV. 

Full Flood’s projects range from Olympic Ceremonies to various Super Bowl Halftime Shows (including that Halftime Show, featuring Prince and an actual flood in torrential rain) and various other high profile broadcast events from Democratic Conventions to music specials like Adele One Night Only at Griffith Observatory. Awards season lasts all year at Full Flood, with repeat work on the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, Tony Awards, and Emmy Awards.

Noah Mitz, lighting designer and part of the Full Flood creative team, talked to Live Design about his work on this year’s Grammy Awards, his fixtures of choice, and how a free breakfast kick started a his high-profile career.

Live Design: How did you get into this part of the industry after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University?

Noah Mitz: Gary Smith [legendary executive producer for live events and specials beginning in the 70s and 80s] of Smith Hemion came to speak at Carnegie Mellon. He was producing the Tony Awards at that time [Read about his work on the awards in 2003 here] and he came to give an open lecture and a few of us went. At the end, people were asking questions and he said that he was staying over at the Hilton and if anyone wanted to come over at breakfast he would keep talking about the industry. We were all college kids and it was an offer of a free breakfast so about five of us went and continued chatting with him. At the end, we shook hands and my friend said, “Hey, can I intern on the Tony Awards?” He said, “Yeah, contact this person.” I decided that sounded fun so I asked if I could intern on the Tony Awards, too. He said, “What do you do?” and I said “Lighting” and he told me to email some guy called Bob Dickinson and to tell him that Gary sent me. That was my intro and of course Dickinson ended up becoming my mentor and a good friend and colleague. I had to chase him down, but I did get to intern for him around 20 years ago on my first Tony Awards.

At the time I graduated there was just so much work going on in this field that, although I had some projection projects I was hoping to do in New York, I thought I would just give this TV thing a try.

LD: Projection is a much larger part of the Grammy Awards now.

NM: Sure, projection on the Grammys came back in a big way, this year it was all front projection. Thankfully, that technology has caught up to where it's bright enough that we don't have to re-light the whole show around the projection. Now we just make small adjustments for camera. It's a cool-looking set that weighs a lot less than if they had used LED screens. These can fly out when needed, and in venues like Cyrpto.com where we have strict rigging weight limits the front projection treatment is the only way for this show to accomplish such a large display surface.

LD: The venue for the Grammy Awards is the Crypto.com Arena, which is essentially an ice rink/sports facility. How do you approach venues that are not designed for entertainment?

NM: You know, Crypto (formerly the Staples Center) is one of the better ones. Crypto's is one of the friendlier ones in terms of power, loading dock access etc. Usually, it comes down to rigging as these shows are so heavy. Capacity limits in certain buildings can change how we design depending on what the limitations are.

But in terms of looking like a sports arena, we can do some things. For the Grammy Awards, we installed a kind of balcony rail of JDC Line 500 fixtures on custom brackets around the upper wall of the concourse to define the bowl of the venue, giving some definition to shape the room.

LD: Full Flood works with PRG a lot, is that helpful knowing the vendor?

NM: Yes, they were a big supporter of Bob's career and they've supported these shows through my entire career, too. So we have a shorthand. They know what these shows take from an infrastructure and staffing side, even though the Grammys change a little bit every year. Having that shorthand is important because, not counting the show day, we were only in the building eight days, from the first lighting truck with cable. Nine days including the show. Load in is three or four days, and technical set up, then we have three rehearsal days.

LD: I was at two rehearsal days and there were racks of Ayrton Perseo fixtures sitting backstage so not sure if they were waiting to go in the rig or were on a cart.

NM: They were on carts that went up just for Billy Joel. That's the big complexity on the Grammys, making the changeovers in a small amount of time. The whole thing is just about speed, so our job becomes ‘how do we produce results at that pace?’ During rehearsals, which are for sound and other things as well, the challenge when an artist asks for something is whether we can do it fast enough. We're lucky if we run through each performance three times. We work with our notes and information from the artists and then after the dress rehearsal we get a report and another two hours to refine everything before the house opens.

For the most part, the performances are mapped out creatively, so we have a zoom conversation or an email to give us some direction. What are the screens going to look like? Where is the action happening? Which side of the main stage?  What are the lighting references or mood they're trying to create? Dua Lipa’s performance [in the cage] on the satellite stage was fully realized in storyboards and video, including that structure, so we knew the concept of the jungle gym. But it's not like a festival where artists come in with a lighting package and a board and kind of plug in. It's all in our world.

If something involves set pieces and dancers, like Fantasia, we knew where the performance started and ended and that she would go through the audience. Occasionally the artist changes their minds, which is their prerogative of course, so we need to be aware of that, but many of them rehearse offsite so by the time they get in the building they know exactly how things will go. Rarely, there will be a drastic change and we all jump on zoom and talk about whether it's realistic or not or how we can support the idea.

Sometimes we don’t even have the music if it’s a new track, if it’s a new track there are times it is not released until rehearsal, but it is a live show and we want it to have a live performance feel. There is a spontaneity about it that I don't think we want to give up.

As part of that live feeling, we want to see the audience in the room’s reaction. But we can’t just throw a bunch of light on the nominees at the tables out front or they would disengage and it wouldn’t feel like it's a party anymore. We always go out in the room to test out the lighting, we look at skin tones, and whether it’s a distraction in the seats or if the audience feels on display.

LD: In addition to the Ayrton Perseo what are some of the other fixtures you were working with?

NM:  It’s a big list but here are a couple of the workhorses. Our primary profiles are VL2600s and it is our go-to because it has framing shutters, it's bright, it's fast, and it's really reliable. With a short time in the building, we don't have time to fix broken lights so reliability and weight are a big consideration. We’re always at the limit of what we can hang. It covers everything from the audience to toning the set and picking out angles on the outside of the gramophone sculpture, so it reads on camera. It is the Swiss Army Knife of the of the plot and they are spread out between our FOH trusses, over stage, and a few floor lights..

We had X4 bars outlining the performance stage trusses and then Solaris Flare strobes that give us most of our music tempo accents. The audience in the upper sections of the arena is lit with the B-Eye K20s, and where the video screen curves and meets the floor, there's a permanently installed continuous line of the JDC Line Strobes. They're really low profile but extremely bright and give us a permanent position to be able to keep tempo that we don’t have to set up and remove during the show. You can see them very clearly in the Jon Batiste tribute.

We do use new fixtures, in the past, we were the first to use Claypaky Xtylos for a TV big show when they came out    but there is no time for experimentation. We need to be comfortable with how a fixture behaves on camera, not just in the demo room, and our programmers need to have that familiarity.

LD: Do you have a seasoned crew for the Grammy Awards?

NM: That's how we get it done! Andy O’Reilly, who's one of our lead programmers, thinks his first one was 96 or 97 and his experience is invaluable to a show like this.  I'm almost at 20, obviously in various positions. It's not unusual to have people who have done this 10 or 15 times. Our other programmers Patrick Boozer, Ryan Tanker and Erin Anderson are all seasoned professionals who have amazingly fast hands and incredibly skilled eyes.  Our lighting directors Madigan Stehly, Will Gossett, and Hannah Kerman have years of Grammys under their belts and have all come up from assisting positions so they know the team quite well. Bryan Klunder, who is an experienced lighting designer in his own right, joins the team each year to help wrangle the performances.

LD: Favorite moments?

NM: We were really proud of the Billy Joel piece. Steve Cohen, his lighting designer, sent some videos of what they wanted, a big opening moment with Billy lit with a followspot with the audience behind him.  Billie Eilish used some special camera technology that gave her performance a soft and distorted look around the periphery, and we lit that to meet those new camera requirements, we were really proud of that outcome.