This year's models: The 1999 auto show circuit revs up with innovative lighting


Traversing the exhibits at the 1999 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), held during the second week of January in Detroit, one couldn't help but notice three of them. Warm pastels invited patrons into the Nissan exhibit. Floating wings hovered over the Mercedes area. And the massive Ford exhibit was seemingly endless.

Ford featured a 400' (122m) honey-colored wood staircase at the south end of the exhibit, which led the public up to a 400' metallic bridge that spanned the length of the display. Over 45,000' (13,716m) of cable was used in the display, and 5,500' (1,676m) of truss was suspended by more than 100 one-ton chain motors. Below this mass of equipment were the brands known throughout the world: Lincoln, Mercury, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Mazda, and Ford. All shown together for the first time in company history in a single display that covered well over 80,000 sq. ft. (7,200 sq. m), used 800,000W of power, and took over 20,000 man-hours to build.

"This is where the industry is heading," comments Barry Rackover, vice president and sales manager at The Obie Company office in Troy, MI. "Soon everyone will be displaying all of their brand names under one roof." The Obie Company provided the lighting support for the Ford exhibit, and worked with Exhibit Works of Livonia, MI, and design consultants Imagination of London, which has a long-standing relationship with the Ford Motor Company in Europe.

The exhibit had a very European feel, which is to the credit of lighting designer Mike Sobotnicki of Imagination. He made judicious use of color, and relied heavily on both daylight and tungsten sources throughout the display. "In Europe we always light vehicles in a daylight source," he explains. "It's the preferred source for car manufacturers."

To achieve this, Sobotnicki, who had originally designed the rig with a number of Vari-Lite instruments, changed his mind once Rackover introduced him to the Coemar CF 1200 at the PLASA show in London last year. "We chose to go with the Coemar CF 1200 because it's a daylight source, and because it's a moving light," he says (it is available in the US exclusively through The Obie Company). The vehicles themselves were scheduled to appear rather late in the timeline, which would have required that most of the focus work be done during the evening hours, and that can be enormously expensive. Sobotnicki sidestepped that pitfall and used 171 of the Coemar CF 1200s exclusively on the vehicles. "The Coemars were ideal for lighting the vehicles in the exhibit. They created a look I quite like."

The color temperature of the light was of primary importance to Sobotnicki. "In most cases, daylight complements the paint finishes of the vehicles." Maintenance at the exhibit is always a consideration, which is another reason the LD prefers daylight sources. "The nice thing about daylight sources is that they're reliable. The lamp life is extremely good and they're quite robust."

But Sobotnicki doesn't use daylight exclusively in his exhibits--"it can be harsh on the eyes." To eradicate the stark look that daylight fixtures can incur, he turns to tungsten-based light sources. "I love to use tungsten when I see a warm surface. I used it to complement the natural surfaces throughout the stand." He also used a tungsten and daylight mixture on certain vehicles whose color didn't appear to the greatest advantage under daylight sources only.

At the south end of the exhibit, near the grand staircase, was the Ford brand area, which took up approximately a quarter of the stand. "It was quite straightforward to design, predominantly because of the open spaces and the large graphic walls," the LD explains. "The graphics we decided to treat in daylight using Arrisun 5 HMI PARs." The Ford brand area also included a number of metallic pieces, which Sobotnicki treated with daylight sources to contrast with the tungsten that bathes the wood accents scattered throughout the area. "You've got warm areas and cold areas, and generally, this isn't dissimilar to what I've done with Ford in Europe."

Nestled next to the Ford brand display was Mazda, which was infused with a blast of vibrant yellows and was easily the most colorful display of the entire Ford stand. "In terms of lighting it was quite fun," the LD says. "Having the yellow walls is nice--it's also quite pleasing to the eye." In this area, Sobotnicki deliberately avoided a preponderance of daylight sources, and instead relied on PAR-64s. "The predominant source was tungsten, because you've got yellow walls and a yellow rubber floor."

Adjacent to the Mazda area was the Lincoln area, in which vehicles sat ensconced in their own individual spaces, framed by monolith-like black marble walls. "Originally, I was going to try and get reflections off the black marble from daylight sources, but I changed my plans due to budgetary issues," the LD admits with a chuckle. In this area, the cars were illuminated once again by the CF 1200s, this time adding internal diffusion. Sobotnicki also used a much steeper angle to light the vehicles in the Lincoln area, which helped to define and shape the vehicles themselves.

A myriad of cool, seafoam-green hues dominates the Mercury brand area, which neighbored the Lincoln area. Huge green walls were used to accentuate the vehicles, and posed an early challenge for Sobotnicki. "I knew I had to use a discharge sort of lamp and I suspected that it would have to be a metal-halide lamp, because it gives off a major amount of green light." After a number of phone calls to his London office, Sobotnicki finally ended up using Elliptipar fixtures with 250W HID lamps that focused primarily on the green walls. And the green in Mercury wasn't limited to the walls--there was a 110'x14' (34x4.3m) portion of the floor illuminated from below that gave off a seafoam-green glow. "I just used 120 daylight temperature fluorescent tubes in the floor," he admits. "It's the glass that was actually colored."

The final areas in the Ford stand were the Jaguar and Aston Martin brands. Both are high-end luxury vehicles, and therefore demanded a slightly different treatment. "They're both much smaller areas, and they're more contained," says Sobotnicki. One of the challenges of the Jaguar brand area was that it was placed below the hospitality area, which created a fairly low ceiling. So Sobotnicki consulted with his fellow designers at Imagination, who specialize in architectural work, and found the answer. He used nine 150W HIT-DE recessed downlights. "I felt we had to get some kind of balance between the nearby vehicles, and the MR-16s we tried wouldn't work. So I went to a warmer source and used the downlights."

The Ford area was completed by a 400-seat theatre that was used for press events and to present an informational video to the public. "It's a small, intimate place--it's great to go from this massive space and the endless days of focusing into this tiny area," Sobotnicki says.

Although the Ford exhibit was the most elaborate, it certainly wasn't the only one that had to deal with a number of challenges. Transformations were the order of the day at the Nissan exhibit.

First, a 28'-tall (9m) royal blue backpack dwarfed the stage, patiently waiting for the precise moment when the new Nissan Xterra SUV would emerge from its interior, dazzling the gathered world press. Fast forward a day, and Haight Ashbury-era psychedelic lighting abounded as the history of Nissan was reviewed, via video, while the press waited for its introduction to the Nissan Z concept car. Finally, after the press staging was eliminated, the area was transformed a third time, into a sophisticated showroom-like area, bathed in hues of melon, soft green, and relaxing blues. At the Nissan exhibit, the master of metamorphosis was Los Angeles-based lighting designer Arnold Serame, a contributor to Lighting Dimensions.

The Nissan project, with lighting support again provided by Obie in Tr oy (and staging from the George P. Johnson Company of Auburn Hill), encompassed all three phases. "They were completely different events that we had to do with the same equipment," Serame explains. "We had to take the same space and use it to accommodate two totally different kinds of press events, then remove the stage and put a module in its space for an exhibit that was unique in tone and feeling from the press events."

A crucial step in the design process was the decision to design for the exhibit, then add the press lighting, rather than the other way around. That decision wasn't the most difficult, according to Serame. "Nothing in the exhibit space is on the diagonal, it's all square," he begins. "The problem would have been coming up with an even color wash on the modules if we had used diagonal trusses--it would have been impossible."

So Serame designed the rig for the square-shaped space, then looked at what he needed for the press events. Both events took place on a 30'-long (9m) stage, which was angled diagonally across the exhibit space, due to an errant structural column that dictated the placement of the video projection equipment. Serame added 200' (61m) of truss running through the space diagonally, and used a number of fixtures from his center spare truss for his front of house truss position. After the press events, Serame and his crew chief, Glen Bowman, removed the truss positioned over the stage, and replaced it with 100' (30m) of cross-shaped truss above and below an exhibit module.

Serame had two distinct plots--one for the press events, the other for the exhibit space. "I took the two different plots and put them on two different layers, and I looked to see what I had in common between the two of them," he explains. In the end, Serame used his CAD program to create a single universal plot, with several dozen instruments being triple-focused. "I used everything I had for all of the events--of course, not on every cue," he chuckles.

The workhorse of Serame's stable of instruments was the Coemar CF 1200. Initially, he tried several different 575W fixtures, but found that they didn't deliver the visual punch he needed in the space. Obie provided more than 50 of the CF 1200s for the Nissan project, and Serame used them primarily as washlights, bathing the exhibit area and modules in tasteful pastels. The press events and the exhibit also used approximately 24 High End Cyberlights(R) for the patterns, logos, and phrases that popped up within the exhibit.

The LD also used about 200 PAR-64 units, with 124 designated to illuminate the vehicles that graced the exhibit floor. "Personally, I don't like a lot of color on the vehicles, because my job is to punch up what's there. I'm not here to spin the cars into hyperreality--I'm here to show off the cars in the best light possible."

Across Cobo Hall, at the Mercedes-Benz exhibit, seven enormous wood and steel "wings" floated effortlessly over the two-story display, attracting patrons with the subtle shades of blue that washed over their top curves. Thirteen vehicles nestled on three levels, with a maple-laden lounge area on the uppermost floor warmed by the calming glow of tungsten fixtures. German engineering and precision, combined with American lighting design, made the Mercedes-Benz display stand out at the NAIAS.

"The one thing that made this booth so distinctive from any other was the quality standards of Mercedes-Benz," says Sandra Bartsch of Bartsch and Trotter, the Venice, CA-based firm that handled the lighting design for the exhibit, which used 1,272' (388m) of scratch-free, newly powder-coated mini-beam trussing, which arrived in Detroit packed in plastic bubble wrap. "Mercedes Benz demands that every aspect of this booth equals or exceeds the quality and standards of the vehicle," says LD Charles Trotter. "We do things to a level of perfection that isn't typically done on other exhibition stands."

The seven wings added an ethereal roof to the stand. They overlapped in several areas and were illuminated by 21 Icons(R), provided by the Nashville office of Light & Sound Design. "There was a very slow movement of color on them that drew people in," reports Trotter. The largest wing weighed in at 12,799lb (5,806kg), covered more than 1,400 sq. ft. (126 sq. m), had a 25' (7.6m) arch, and was supported by 12 one-ton motors. Above the wings, and also supported by the high steel, were 15 sections of horizontal trussing.

"Obviously, we didn't want the trussing sitting on top of the wings," Trotter explains. "We wanted as much separation as possible." With the help of Patrick Mauer of Kish Rigging of Simi Valley, CA, and lighting crew chief Jerry Vierna of LSD, the plans came together and, in the end, there was adequate separation between the bottom of the truss and the top of the wings. "The wings are the most architectural element in the stand, yet they're totally in the way," Trotter admits wryly. "They blocked every traditional lighting position."

In the preliminary discussions of the exhibit, it appeared that there wouldn't be any lighting positions under the wings, which covered half of the vehicles in the exhibit. The next plan, devised by the exhibit architects, was to hang pipes from the trussing above, going through the wings, with the cable dressed inside the pipe. In the end, Trotter used 25 Arrisun fixtures (200 and 575W units) mounted almost invisibly inside the wings. The Arrisun, provided by Sound and Light in Leonberg, Germany, was one of the predominant light sources in Trotter's design. "They're very difficult to get in the US, especially in these quantities and in a custom finish," he says. "But they are definitely the fixture of choice for Mercedes--the uniformity of the light, as well as the quality and consistency of the color temperature, is remarkable."

Once the Arrisuns were under the wings, Trotter had to deal with the challenges of lighting the vehicles themselves. Five of the 15 trusses running horizontally above the wings provided lighting positions, which augmented the coverage provided by the fixtures under the wings and those placed on the vertical trusses. "Unfortunately, we didn't have the luxury of putting every light 25' away from the object at a 45-degree angle," Trotter laughs. For example, the Mercedes Vision SLR was illuminated by three lights from under the largest wing, as well as three additional lights from the downstage truss, which was typical for many of the vehicles placed under the wings. "The car has to look even, so we used a variety of lenses, as well as the spot/flood adjustment on the Arrisuns, to try and even out the distances between the instruments," he says.

The exhibit also featured a number of glass-covered graphic walls that included several videoscreens. "The graphics overlapped the videoscreens, so we needed to be able to see them without washing out the screens," Trotter says. "In some areas, we spotted the images on the graphics, which took some of the light off the screen. In other areas, we had to light it as evenly and as smoothly as possible, and then brought up the intensity as little as possible." In those instances, many of the instruments were operating at a maximum of 40% intensity or even less. To illuminate the graphic walls, Trotter chose to use Arrisun 650s under the wings, and ETC Source Fours placed on the trusses.

In the Mercedes-Benz exhibit, as in the Nissan and Ford exhibits, all the vehicles were illuminated primarily in white light, which follows the current European trend. "We highlight and emphasize the vehicle, but we don't manipulate it," says Bartsch. Michael Bock, senior manager of fairs, exhibitions, and events for Daimler-Chrysler (the parent company of Mercedes-Benz) echoes Bartsch's thoughts. "We want the consumer to see what they can buy--that's why it's in daylight."

At Mercedes-Benz, multiple layers of color temperature, used with the architecture and the raw materials, provided the backdrop on which the vehicles were displayed. "We wanted to create a complete environment for showing the consumer our product," explains Bock. In other words, the Mercedes-Ben z philosophy is found in every aspect of the exhibit, down to the most minute detail. "There are no flashy lights here, and we don't have the corporate ID spinning on the floor," laughed Trotter, as the car show season got off to a fast start in the Motor City.

Sharon Stancavage is a Detroit-based concert and theatrical lighting technician.

Ford (352) 1,000W quartz PAR-64s (171) Coemar CF 1200s (17) Arri 2kW incandescent fresnels (167) Arrisun 5 HMI PARs (62) 500W 6" fresnels (66) 250W 3" fresnels (4) ETC Source Fours (36) Lighting & Electronics MiniStrips (104) 1-ton chain motors (3) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles (7) 400A three-phase services (4) 96x2.4kW dimmer racks (50) Elliptipar units 45,000' cable 5,500' truss

Nissan (109) PAR-64s (25) Coemar CF 1200s (6) High End Systems Cyberlights (12) ETC Source Fours (33) half-ton motors (6) dimmer racks 150' black 12" box truss 580' black HD truss

Mercedes-Benz (38) Arri 650W fresnels (5) Arri 10" 2kW black fresnels (6) 200W silver Arrisuns (19) 575W silver Arrisuns (27) 575W black Arrisuns (2) 1,000W black scoops (22) 1kW black WFL PAR-64s (30) 1kW black MFL PAR-64s (24) 500W silver MFL PAR-56s (7) ETC Source Fours 26 degrees (7) ETC Source Fours 19 degrees (6) High End Studio Spots (21) LSD Icons (5) 500W mini-zooms (6) 2-ton motors (68) 1-ton motors 1,272' mini-beam trussing