Lighting: Better Late Than Never


When it comes to advice, I'm a firm believer in the “better late than never” theory. With that in mind, let's talk about a topic near and dear to my heart: festival touring. The summer festival touring season is most likely coming to a close by the time you read this, but there are lots of radio station festivals on the horizon as we head into the holiday season, so don't fret the fact that you may have missed out on the gentle mayhem that can be festival touring.

Most of the articles that I write for this magazine are fairly self-righteous, pontificating ramblings that tend to steer away from the realm of technical advice and lean more toward leaving the reader dumbfounded by just how great I think I am. In the spirit of change, I've decided to take the opportunity this month to actually dole out some technical wisdom in regard to festival shows or, more specifically, the programming and direction aspects of them.

Truth be told, I'm constantly in a state of second guessing myself. The whole cocky attitude is just the standard subconscious act of hiding my massive insecurities. No matter how confident I feel, there's always this little voice in the back of my head that's asking, “Are you sure you really want to do that?” It's because of this that I never really considered my technique of handling festivals to be all that great. I just figured that I happened to skate through the shows relatively unscathed so it was an okay job. It wasn't until a particular show this past year that another lighting director had commented on how efficient I had been working at several festivals, and it made me really start to analyze how others were structuring their shows.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with how festivals work, it's really quite simple: an event is promoted where there will be multiple musical acts performing under the same production design. Obviously, everyone shares the same lighting, video, staging, and audio rig. As with anything, there can be exceptions to the rule, and this is often the case when artists insist on bringing in some theatrical element that will set them apart from all of the other acts. These elements range anywhere from adding a massive pyrotechnical display to the set, special staging elements that they may be traveling with, or perhaps artist-specific videos. Inevitably, the individual artists will be traveling with their core crew personnel. Aside from management, this will almost always include the FOH and monitor audio engineers and, in many cases, a lighting director.

The bottom line with all of this is that the lighting director is bouncing from production to production without the luxury of a consistent lighting rig. Each production will be drastically different depending on the budget. As one might expect, shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami tend to have fairly elaborate production designs, while smaller cities with a less direct influence of music management will have more constricting budgets. It is precisely due to the fact that you never get the same rig twice that it is imperative to have an efficient method of working. There are many ways to tackle these types of shows, and there is certainly no surefire wrong or right way to do it, but, for what it's worth, here's how I deal with it.

First off, Microsoft® Excel® is king. I'm no huge fan of Microsoft, but you've got to give credit where credit's due. Using Excel spreadsheets to get your general act together is a huge help. Festival set lists are usually pretty accurate. At the very least, you will have had song choices narrowed down for you by the artist into the possible handful of choices that they might play. Once I have that, I create a spreadsheet for the individual songs. Each sheet has column breakdowns, such as: Cue #, Description, Wash, Spot, Special, and Notes.

The first column is pretty self-explanatory. The “Description” column is simply to denote an Intro, Verse, Chorus, etc. The “Wash” and “Spot” columns are the most critical, and we'll come back to them in a moment. “Special” denotes any special effects or specific pickups that need to be taken into consideration at that point in the song, and “Notes” are simply that. A special note is sometimes required just to remind you exactly what you should be doing at that point in the potential chaos of the show. Perhaps it's a special musical note, the repositioning of a band member on stage, anything that can help keep you on track.

As for “Wash” and “Spots,” these are two types of lighting instruments that you're all-but-guaranteed to have on a festival production. Wash and spot fixtures with gobos in them are arguably the only consistent elements that you have from show to show, so they offer the most potential for giving your show some sort of visual continuity from night to night. It makes no difference if you're given High End Studio Colors, Martin MAC 2000s, Vari-Lite VL5s, or scrollers. You'll have the basics, and that's what you need to get a show done and done well.

With these elements in place, you can then start cueing each song within the spreadsheet based on a simple breakdown of the song, i.e., Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Outro. All this requires is simply sitting down with the music, listening, and doing a little typing. It's not rocket science. With the framework in place, it's time to get artistic on paper. Just start imagining how each of those lighting elements should be reacting throughout the song, fill in the blanks of your spreadsheet, and before you know it, you've got the first song cued. This is basically like using pre-visualization software, except it's all in your head instead of on a computer screen.

Once I've completed this process for the entire set list, I will often add an extra spreadsheet of specific lighting console fader and button notes. These would include audience blinder handles, various flavors of strobing, moving light shutter chases, color effects, etc. — basically anything that is easy to make onsite with limited programming time and will allow me to add accents to the show live. The key to all of this is to keep it simple. Use a cue list for the obvious changes within a song so that it can be made rapidly onsite, and then use the accent buttons or faders for the other nuances so that you're not spending all of your limited programming time trying to cue the living hell out of a single song. I've seen many an LD take the wrong road with this method, and they always end up with only one spectacular looking song and five others that do nothing but stink up the arena.

The next step is the daily implementation of all of this. Once onsite, you will be given an extremely limited time to input all of this information into the lighting console. In most cases, there will be a local programmer at the event who will be programming for you. Many times, the programmer will be more than happy to let you program your set by yourself if you choose, but I've found that it's usually much more efficient to simply direct the show's programmer, since he or she is already very familiar with the console's layout. The reality is that you've now shown up quite prepared to knock out your cues based solely on the elements that you've been given. If you're really on top of your game, you will have done some work in advance to find out who the lighting vendors and personnel are on the various festival stops. It is also becoming more common for these types of productions to use pre-visualization programming days, and many programmers are more than happy to take your advanced lighting notes and have them preprogrammed for you before you arrive onsite. This is a downright luxury, and there is absolutely no reason you shouldn't take advantage of it, if offered. Simply advance your notes, and your time on site will automatically be increased in your favor.

A quick pass to rough in all of the cues is what's needed first. After that, a second pass to fine-tune the rough transitions is required. The third pass is for adding your accent elements to other faders and buttons. The final element is the practice of playback. It's always best to leave yourself enough time to get the feel of how things have been laid out on that day's console. You'll find yourself jumping from a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 2 one night onto an MA Lighting grandMA the next. The physical layouts may be similar, but they're obviously not identical, so a little time spent gaining some muscle memory of where you've placed things on the desk is important. You don't want to be fumbling around during the set, looking down at the buttons, trying to find where you put that random strobe hit. Otherwise, the moment will be over before you can realistically hit the button, and things will have already gotten sloppy.

If you've pulled it all off just right, you will have some time to spare — won't be stressing out about cueing and won't be eating up someone else's programming time because you've come unprepared. The latter is arguably the most important, simply because being courteous to your peers is always the proper thing to do.

This method has been extremely successful for me over the years, but I admit that it might not be the best way for your particular work style. The bottom line is that you need to fine tune a method that works for you so that you can work efficiently under stressful time constraints to give your client the best possible product that you can provide. And if this advice comes too late for your festival touring season, don't worry. You've just been given a whole year to fine-tune your methods. Better late than never!