Riding the Vapor Trail

Howard Ungerleider Reunites with Rush

It's been, as they say, a rather long and somewhat unusual trip for lighting designer Howard Ungerleider. He started in the industry nearly 30 years ago as a talent agent, and, in the early 1970s, was assigned to a new Canadian band. “I was sent to Toronto to look after what they called the next Led Zeppelin,” Ungerleider explains. That group was Rush.

Going from talent agent to lighting designer is a bit of a jump, but one that Ungerleider accomplished fairly easily. “When I was an agent, I used to go out to shows all the time, representing a lot of artists, and, of course, they'd ask you what you thought of the show,” he explains. “After a while, I almost became like a consultant for these bands.” Ungerleider also had an interest in the technical aspects of the industry and when the agency broke with Rush, he stayed with the band. “Knowing them for so long really helps it all to gel — there's a real comfort zone between the band and myself,” Ungerleider adds.

Ungerleider has many collaborators when he designs for Rush. “[Frontman] Geddy Lee and I sit down with our team — Norm Stangl, from Spin Productions, a filmmaking company, and Allan Weinrib, [a producer with graphic and web design firm] Unplugged TV,” he explains. “Geddy has specific ideas that he wants and we also take elements from the album cover and try to bring it to life.” Also on the team is Ungerleider's assistant, Matt Druzbik.

One of the most unique elements of the show is the visual content created by the firm Derivative of Toronto. “They're computer software developers who create these visuals called synths — they're very abstract, full-color, sometimes 3D, synthetic animation that you can put on an LED wall,” Ungerleider says. “While the synths are on, Jim Ellis from Derivative controls the changing of it on the fly, so every night is a little bit different.”

Ungerleider is using the High End Systems Catalyst for some of his visuals, and some other applications as well. “We had Tim Grivas and Richard Bleasdale, who are High End Systems programmers, write time code so they could control the Pinnacle Digital Video Effects machine the video crew uses, which enables us to crossfade and control all the digital video effects from the lighting console,” he comments. There's also live video, directed by David Davidian, who works under Ungerleider's direction. “We have three elements to the visuals; they all go through the Catalyst and I can pick and choose which one I want — Derivative, live, or Catalyst,” notes Ungerleider. The Catalyst system is also being used instead of a click track or time code. Ungerleider uses it to fine tune his video roll cues with the songs, creating a perfect integration between video and music. “It works great, as long as I'm on time,” he jokes.

It's been five years since Rush has been on the road, which is five years too long for many die-hard fans. “Rush actually spans generations of fans, and now parents are bringing their kids to see them,” notes Ungerleider. Vapor Trails, the title of the band's current CD, also gave the LD a place to start his lighting design. “Because the name of the tour is Vapor Trails, I immediately envisioned layers of curved trussing, as sort of a trail,” he explains. “We have three curved trusses and a straight truss upstage. I'm staggering them from 28' to 36' [8.4-10.8m] in height, and each one sits on top of the other,” he explains. Rounding out the rig are two side trusses that “house two spotlights each and five Studio Beam wash lights. Across the back truss I have a dozen Turbo Cybers and 24 Studio Beams,” he concludes.

To achieve his vapor trail concept, Ungerleider turned to a variety of instruments. “I loaded up the front trusses with MR-16 striplights. I did a double row of those that I had completely rewired, and added about 40 of the new Martin 3kW Atomic strobes,” the designer explains. If the rewiring sounds easy, it wasn't. “Regarding the MR-16 striplights, this is something I've wanted to do for a while, and I had them specially wired; it took months to wire these things to make them do what I wanted,” he adds. The rewiring created an unconventional abstract chase sequence based on three groups of five that's both unique and memorable. Ungerleider is also quite a fan of the Atomic strobe. “They're one of the few strobes that would not thermal out and they look unlike any other strobe. At times they're so bright they almost simulate a lightning strike,” the designer says. Working in conjunction with the MR-16 striplights and the strobes is a variety of High End and Vari-Lite products. “It's a rather asymmetrical look,” he notes.

Ungerleider had the luxury of choosing various brands of equipment rather than going with a single supplier. “I use the lights that I legitimately feel will do the job,” he explains. “Not all of my tours use the same lights. I'm very up on High End gear — I think they're one of the best companies. I also find that nothing comes close to Vari-Lite's colors.” This past spring, Ungerleider's company, Production Design International, held a WYSIWYG retreat, which brought a plethora of gear right to his doorstep. “We had, I imagine, every lighting board, every piece of equipment you could possibly have, set up in our showroom for WYSIWYG,” Ungerleider confides. “I had the opportunity to look at all of the lights and it was really a great experience.”

For his color palette, Ungerleider turns to color theory combined with a bit of physiology. “I use a lot of colors that affect the opening and closing of the retina when I use them back to back,” he explains. “When certain colors are used back to back — like cyan and magenta — when you crossfade between them quickly, it will affect your retina and create an internal movement in your head. I blend a lot of these retinal fatigue colors back to back when I'm doing the show, which actually affects your vision and creates movement.” Ungerleider's retinal fatigue colors are mostly saturates, which he naturally favors. “I like to design with saturates because I find that it gives you a three-dimensional view of the stage,” he explains. “In fact, if you combine your saturates well, you can actually create depth perception or forced perspective.”

Geometry also plays a role in Ungerleider's design. “Angles are very important. I find that if you use yellow and blue together, it's a classic combination that will wash to white, but if you use them from different angles, they'll actually blend,” he notes. The curved trusses give the show an additional boost, creating a variety of visual perspectives.

The show, which is three hours long with a 20-minute intermission, covers 29 songs a night, and is heaven to Rush fans. “At the end of the night, if someone comes up and says, ‘I loved the lights,’ you know you've really done something special,” Ungerleider concludes.

Contact the author at [email protected].


Lighting Designer/Director
Howard Ungerleider

Moving Light Operator
Matt Druzbik

Lighting Crew Chief
Rich “Itchy” Vinyard

Lighting Technicians
Jamie Grossenkemper, Keith Hoagland

Master Electrician
Shane Gowler

Head Rigger
Ken Mitchell

Brian Collins

Tour Manager
Liam Bert

Production Manager
Craig “CB” Blazier

Production Assistant
Karen “KB” Blazier

Lighting Vendor
Premier Global Production Company

Lighting Equipment


High End Systems Studio Beams


High End Systems Litho Cyberlights


High End Systems Turbo Cyberlights


High End Systems Studio Color 575s


High End Systems Catalyst


Vari*Lite VL2202s


L&E 6' MR-16 Mini-Strips


Martin Professional Atomic 3kW strobes


Coemar Panorama (dual 575) Cycs


Lycian M2 Series 2.5kW spotlights


Chainmaster 1-ton hoists


Show Designs custom 30"x26"x8' PGP IntellaTruss


Show Designs custom 30"x26"x10' PGP IntellaTruss


20"x20"x8' utility truss


Flying Pig Systems Wholehog ll consoles with expansion wings


Quantum Energy 48-way distros


ETC 96-way dimmer rack


Reel EFX DF-50 hazers


High End Systems F-100 foggers