Designers On Design: Jeff Ravitz Q&A 

Jeff Ravitz has had a remarkable career in lighting. As a designer his work spans several different niches within live entertainment, some of which didn’t exist when he graduated from Northwestern University, a few he helped develop from infancy, and all which have benefited from his creative approach.

Jeff Ravitz

Although he is known for lighting Bruce Springsteen and other large rock tours, most audiences will have seen his work on TV, making sure the event looks as good for the camera as for the eye.

Over the years he has mentored and nurtured the talents of other designers, including Kristie Roldan, who is now a principal show lighting designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, and Mike Nevitt, principal designer and president of Crossfade Design. Ravitz is also the author, with James Moody, of Lighting For Televised Live Events  and the winner of multiple Awards including Emmy Awards and a Parnelli Award for Lighting Designer of the Year.

Live Design talked to the founder of Intensity Advisors about getting started in the business, the technology that has influenced his designs, and what makes his brain tick.

Live Design: When you first graduated, where did you see your career headed?

Jeff Ravitz:  When I got out of school, there really wasn't much in the way of work other than theatre, ballet, opera. I was not aware of things like corporate shows or really big rock productions, the things we all take for granted as part of the constellation of jobs to be had these days. It was pretty much theatre — that's what I was interested in, and what I was trained for.

However, it didn't take long for the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, and other prominent bands like that to start splashing out new technologies while they were filling arenas and stadiums, which led to new opportunities for lots of us.

I was living in Chicago at the time as I stayed there after college, and I saw an ad in one of the local arts newspapers seeking a lighting director for a national recording group. I thought it sounded interesting and I was far from working steadily! A friend and I had started a touring theatre company that kept us busy but not really in groceries. So I answered the ad and got the job with a very promising local Chicago artist, Bill Quateman, who had released an album on Columbia Records. So, there I was, on the groundest of the ground floors you could possibly be on.

The  production expanded quickly. I happened to own 10 or 15 Lekos and I built a homemade console, which worked for club shows, and we rented more as the production became a little more sophisticated in bigger venues. I got to know all the vendors in Chicago, including Upstaging when it was just three brothers (Robert, Gary, and Don Carone) running the operation out of a garage. I bumped into Robert on a show I was doing with Bill. We exchanged numbers and I began crewing with them, including on one of the first, and amazing, Kiss tours. That’s where I came to the attention of Styx, a fast-rising recording band based in Chicago — so I was in the right place at the right time for once!  Suddenly, I was designing and touring with a big national act.

LD: How did the transition into live for broadcast happen?

JF: Back in college at Northwestern, there was a film and TV department, and I stuck my head in there a couple of times but it was never of any interest to me. Then there I was, in the early 80s, on the road with big rockers and —bam—  MTV happened. It was a major force for promoting albums, so everybody had to do a music video. Suddenly, we had video crews coming to our shows to videotape the live show, or we would go into a studio for a scripted video that would include a concert scene. I would watch these teams with great interest, and a few that saw my live shows later said they wished they had incorporated the artistic elements of the live version. That triggered something for me, and as these videos became more and more predominant I started participating more in the lighting process and learned on-the-job about color, exposure, and angle  for TV versus live, and I began to accumulate a few credits. I was working for Shania Twain when she had a TV special and I learned so much from the television lighting director. My first MTV video lighting credit was probably Styx’s “Come Sail Away.” 

I was the lighting designer, not  the director of photography, and this experience moved me forward. I had enough to really start building a resume. My big opportunity came with the partnership with Jim Moody, an established concert designer who had already made the leap into studio television as well as live entertainment television. I learned so much from him, sanding down the rough edges of my [television] technique. You learn by doing, and I worked on live entertainment shows being shot for television, either designing from scratch or adapting an existing concert for the camera.

LD: Your career has spanned at least two big changes in the tools you design with and for: LEDs and IMAG.

JR: The techniques and the basic principles of design and the math/science part of it are the same whether the source is LED, tungsten, or discharge. Each requires adjustments for their color, output, and beam quality. As for IMAG, in the early days, some venues had scoreboards with IMAG screens for basketball and hockey games etc. When they started making them available for our concerts it provided an interesting education, because I could see exactly what the “camera” results of my lighting were: what was flattering, what worked, what wasn't even visible or was overexposed. I could see it on the screen instantly. Bruce [Springsteen. Read about the latest tour here.]  was the first act that I worked with that actually carried them [projection IMAG screens], although he was concerned it would be distracting. But ticket demand was too great and he couldn't avoid playing stadiums, so that became a nightly education for me. Obviously, you have a monitor on broadcast projects but when you can see image magnification night after night without the pressure —in those days—  make it look like a television show, you could really see how lighting can be changed by the camera, as I looked at the enormous image magnification on his face or hands on the guitar. I realized I could actually make the lighting look good for the screens and also the live audience. That was a big light bulb moment.

In terms of LEDs versus non-LEDs, there are specific challenges in fine-tuning the color, and the more limited spectrum of LEDs must be reckoned with, but the fundamentals remain the same.

Sometimes you need something with more brightness than even the best LEDs can offer, just for a stab of light or a long distance throw. We do have sixteen discharge lamps on [Springsteen’s] stadium tour. We also have a laser-source moving light, Xtylos from Claypaky. I was looking for a texture of light that didn't exist in any of our other fixtures, and it had to be rated IP65 for the outdoor shows, so the Xtylos Aqua version fit the bill perfectly. There was a bit of management sentiment against anything with the word laser in it because it sounds a like an effect, which is characteristically “un-Springsteen-like”! But I got the approval and they have been looking great.

In the studio we generally don’t use anything but LEDs. It saves a lot on power consumption as well as air conditioning. In the last couple of years there hasn't really been anything for my studio shows that I felt absolutely required a tungsten source. LEDs have, amazingly, provided all the tools we need.

LD: What other changes in technology have had an impact?

JR: Camera advancements have made a gigantic difference in our lives, as the cameras not only require less light to have a really high-quality picture, but, also, the cameras themselves —with a good video engineer —can help with coloration and many shortcomings that the production environment might impose on us.  

LD: You still work on opera, in addition to the rock tours and studio work.

JR: Well, just to be clear about it, I was adapting the operas for television and having a ball doing it. Sometimes I’ll work closely with the theatrical designer, but in some cases, that designer is quickly on to their next project, so they hand us the plots and wish us luck, as they imagine us shredding their design to bits. We don’t. The idea is to retain their design but make it work for the TV viewers. It is completely different from designing a concert because there is an element of reality in supporting the narrative. So using some bolder colors from their theatrical design may not work as well to translate a particular true-to-life setting. That’s the tricky part. But I always enjoy working with talented designers, and I try to take what they have done and carefully make it read on TV as close as it would look to the live audience.

LD: What would your advice be to young people entering the business now?

JR: Do as much as you can to gain experience. We all learned by doing, especially when first out of school, whether we were working for money or not. Often we learn by falling flat on our faces. You have to learn to correct your mistakes, or adapt quickly even when it isn’t your mistake. For example, in a multi-camera shoot if you light a moment for a particular camera shot and they don’t use it you must adjust quickly for the shot they do use. And if something is unlit for TV it can look much worse than it might to the live audience. The camera is very honest!

LD: What is the difference between lighting a live music performance and a stand-up comedian? You have a lot of televised comedy shows on your resume.

JR: It's interesting, the act has to look good on TV but the live audience has to relate to them. Stand-up shows are getting bigger and bigger. It used to be just a comedian in a nightclub, and now they're playing arenas with elaborate scenery and video screens. But at the very core of it you are lighting talent so they can connect with the audience. I love that challenge.

Lighting the audience in a rock show makes them feel as though they are part of the performance, which can be seen by the artist, which then intensifies their energy. In a comedy show, on the other hand, the producer and the director want to see the crowd, but for the artist, that can be uncomfortable. There's always that one person who's not laughing even if 500 people are falling off their seats with laughter, and it can throw comics off their game. We have found different ways to backlight or sidelight the audience, giving just a little edge of light around them so they don’t feel too exposed laughing at a politically incorrect joke, and the artist can only see the big reactions but feel the atmosphere. Then, of course, you need a big bank of lights to show off the standing ovation.

LD: Do you have a loyalty to a particular brand of fixture?

JR: Not really, because I’m fortunate to work with all the best manufacturers’ equipment. Obviously, when I work on a big rock tour or awards show I want a complement of powerful moving lights, but for floor lighting I tend to like really small things I can hide onstage. I don't like to see big, clunky moving lights sitting on a stage. The technology still amazes me even after all these years. I came from the gel generation, so I love how we can change color right from the console.  We might warm up the artist or change an amber to a pink on the background scenery just based on how it looks on camera versus how it looks in the room. And no need to call out the ladder crew!

But sometimes we might be working in a production-unfriendly environment, such as a few years ago for Lucia Micarelli’s PBS special at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara.  

There was almost no place to put any lighting because of the wall and ceiling of orchestra baffles. I discovered we could slide the upstage baffles apart just enough to poke a bracket through and hang a light. I took some calculated risks because I didn't want visible hardware in in the shot that would compromise the clean look of the stage. But finding those solutions really makes my brain tick.