The Dirt: Lighting Design
We speak to lighting designer extraordinaire Eamon Barling to get you all the tips for top-level production.
What is lighting design?
Lighting design for live music is an opportunity for the band to present themselves to their fans, and have an input in how they look because they are presenting themselves. Lighting designers such as myself works with the band closely in the lead up to a tour to get those ideas across. At the end of the day it is a show, they want it to look good otherwise it’s just fluorescent lighting like a supermarket, it would just be a rehearsal essentially in front of a thousand people. It’s bringing the live visual aspect to a band.
What made you interested in this career in the first place?
I grew up in a theatre, my mum worked in musical theatre on all the big shows like Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Les Miserables. From about 6 or 7 yrs old I literally grew up in the wings and was fascinated by the look of those shows, because they are so well crafted. Initially I thought I was into set design, but lighting is a big part of set design too, I mean they meet in the middle. It has always run through my life being in showbiz I guess.
How did you get you start in lighting design?
Growing up in theatre I was always interested in the lighting aspect. I started doing it in the school hall in Primary School and High School. I didn’t know what I was doing but became the lighting tech for all the assemblies, speech nights and band nights and that sort of thing. Ten years after High School I started working at a venue in Sydney The Oxford Arts Factory, met a lot of bands through that avenue. It was a great start because of the varying types of bands that come through. One night I’ll be doing a Hip Hop show, next night a solo acoustic, the next night full on EDM. That really helped with the broad spectrum of music, It helped me get a grasp of what to do and what not to do.
Did you learn on the job or do a course?
I didn’t really study lighting design specifically. I’ve done a lot of short courses, NIDA put on a few good theatre lighting courses. Obviously there is a lot of technical aspects to lighting design, wattage and power and that sort of thing. Those short courses are really great for that, you've got to make sure you don’t blow up the building. Less glam side? Nothing. There is a lot of lifting heavy cases, rolling cables, loading trucks at least twice a day. If you don’t like aeroplanes, it is not a good career choice. What’s the best part of the job? Seeing live music. I love live music, it’s why we are all here I guess. On the work side of things, being involved with the process, getting to know the bands. A lot of the bands I work with I am often close friends with. Being part of a bigger cog in the wheel, in the machine. It is a job that is really creatively fulfilling. I don’t want to sound like part of the band, but it is almost like you are the invisible member in a way. Eamon – you recently have been working on the SEEKAE tour (SEE PIC ATTACHED) - what kind of lighting did you come up with for them? I’ve been working with those guys for about 5 years, The type of music they make lends to creative freedom with lighting, it’s really textural, it can be really dancey at times, so you’ve got a bit of a spectrum there to play with. We kind of wanted to go with a digital, glitch, something a bit weird. Lo-fi. What we actually did was we put fluorescent tubes on mic stands and dotted them around the stage. The band were in amongst this little world of their own Do you get much creative freedom with bands? With Seekae it was complete freedom. We met up a couple of weeks before the tour for a beer and had a chat, we were all on the same page straight away so they left it up to me. Some other bands might take a couple of meetings, put together a few ideas. I like to use reference pictures from other shows, shows I haven’t been involved in, bigger shows and extract elements and certain looks. Get a great look for a smaller budget. What makes a memorable lighting experience do you think for the audience? I think something that represents the band visually, that ties in with the bands overall branding and look. That come from perhaps the artwork, the album artwork. Regular bands that Eamon has done multiple tours with are:
- Bluejuice (6 tours)
- Seekae (since 2009)
- Boy & Bear (5 tours)
- Josh Pyke (4 tours)
- PVT (since 2009)
- Art Vs. Science (2 tours)
And a little bit with Emma Louise, Evermore and Rufus... I'm on tour with Patrick James at the moment. A Triple J Unearthed darling.
Tell us about the practicalities, costs, and reality of tour lighting.
So lighting gear isn’t too cheap to hire, and with the level of bands I've been working with for the past 5 years - say 600-2000 maximum capacity shows, and even smaller regional shows, the budget aspect always comes into play. It's boring, annoying and tedious to have to battle with what the bands want vs. want management want to pay for, but that’s all part of pre-production. I get it, money is tight, and often when a band gets popular enough to do those sizes of venue, they're probably still paying off debts for the record they just released. But at the same time, I think that's when a band should be investing or thinking about the production value of the show and what lighting can bring to their live shows. Every live venue with a stage has at the very least a basic lighting setup - worst case is they just have 2 or 3 lights from the front so the band can be seen. From pub gigs to a couple of Sydney's major theatres - they have a very basic setup. Some other venues have lots of fancy toys, tonnes of lights to play with. It's really random, honestly. A lighting designer/operator wouldn't be brought to work on those shows if all there was to use was 2 or 3 wash lights from the front. So that's where extra gear, external hire comes in. And that's not cheap. Minumum for a show at Metro Thetare(Sydney) size, you're looking at $1k - $1.5 to be able to have enough gear to make the show "your own" and unique to that band/show. Every capital city has a lighting gear supplier where you can hire stuff from and have it delivered to the venue - these companies do everything from small shows where they can deliver a handful of extra lights - to supplying the Queen + Adam Lambert tour with a few semi trailers worth of gear - hundreds of lights. Sometimes it's not about putting on a U2 spectacular and hiring as many fixtures as you can to make it huge, but I feel that whatever you end up designing, for these smaller scale shows, it just has to be different to what is usually seen in that particular venue. Music fans who go to their local venue every weekend, or maybe every 6 months have already seen the standard 'inhouse' lighting rig - so I try and bring in something different so it's unique to that show...
Tell us some of you inspiration.
My #1 piece of advice for anyone thinking that they want to get into lighting, is go out there and see shows. Just go out and see stuff. See everything you can. It's all research and experience. If you're a metal-head, go see some big metal shows and then go see Lady Gaga or Matchbox 20 or Queens of the Stoneage. If you're into pop music, go and see Katy Perry but also go and see something like Darkside or The Presets or something smaller and indie. You might hate the music, but watch and learn, get ideas. That's why I do what I do, I love seeing shows, even if I end up going on my own. I know it can be costly to buy tickets, but there's always cheap options to a stadium tour with seats far back, which is perfect just to watch the production. Rolling Stones is coming up - go see it! I find getting too deep into the thick of the crowd, you're too close to the stage and miss the overall lighting looks - you want the full scene in view. If you can't get to shows often, check out some live DVDs...I watch everything I can to get ideas about colours, effects etc... Personally, I am heavily inspired by the consistently amazing design that Nine Inch Nails have had over the past 15+ years. I've never worked with them, but I've travelled to see them for 22 shows - 50% because I love their music, but also 50% to see the production involved. Their designer, LeRoy Bennet is someone who I really admire, not only for the NIN stuff, but he works with Beyonce, Gaga, Prince etc... as an up and coming designer, just working in a factory packing light into cases, his first touring operator/designer job waaaay back when was with Prince, and he worked with Prince for 14 years! I also admire the work of Mark "Junior" Jacobsen, who has done TOOL for 20 years, along with A Perfect Circle, Puscifer, Korn etc…..he has the nickname ‘Prince Of Darkness’ because some of those bands require areas of the stage to be completely unlit! A company in the UK, called UVA (United Visual Artists) have also broken boundaries with technology and design - they do Massive Attack, Radiohead, Battle and lighting sculptures that have been installed in arts festivals and in The Tate Modern... I go out of my way to see show they've designed, even if I dislike the band... That's top-level production though, but you can borrow ideas from those sorts of shows and use elements of 'looks' from those shows for a small 400 punter gig... With the recent Seekae tour in August 2014, I was heavily inspired by the NIN/QOTSA tour earlier this year - I travelled to go see 5 shows on that tour and was blown away every night. It was a sort of holiday for me. I used some similar colours palattes and strobing ideas with Seekae, just on a much smaller scale. Thanks NIN!
How can people get active in the lighting world?
I would recommend to anyone interested in lighting or even if you just enjoyed the lighting aspect of a show - go up the sounddesk area after the show, lean over the barricade, get the Lighting Operator's attention and tell them you liked lighting. We love it! We don't get tips like bar staff, but a 3second comment like that makes a techie's day. You also never know where that conversation might lead - they might be up for a chat or even invite you to the band's afterparty to talk nerdy lighting shit over a beer - it's happened to me without intending it at all. Tradeshows and online research is a great way to keep in the loop of what's happening. In Australia there's at least 1 or 2 big tradeshows per year, where the ilghting companies show off their fancy new gear - you can have a play with the lights and make some great contacts. There's lots of good forums and websites to keep track of what's happening too.
Where is lighting technology at?
The past 6 or 7 years have been amazing for advancing in new lights - namely LED chip technology being the driving force for great new fixtures, but also power friendly. It just keeps getting better too... There's more people out there in Australia who are bigger/better/more well-known than I am, but I've been consistently working with those 'small-medium' Aussie bands for 5 years, but I really love being a bigger cog in the machine, as opposed to working on bigger stuff where you're a small cog.....for the moment!
Do you have any reference videos for deisgn inspiration?
I watch these almost yearly, for inspiration and ideas, but also for an insight into the history of production for large scale shows... (most available on DVD):
- U2 - Zoo TV: Live from Sydney (1993)
- U2 - PopMart: Live From Mexico City (1998)
- Peter Gabriel - Growing Up Live (2003)
- Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (1984 concert film)
- Guns N' Rose: Live in Chicago (1993)
- INXS: Live Baby Live (Wembley Stadium 1991)
- Michael Jackson: Bad Tour (Wembley Stadium 1988)
- Michael Jackson: HIStory Tour (Munich 1997)
- Nine Inch Nails: Tension Tour 2013 (Multiple shows available for free in HD from nin.com)
- Nine Inch Nails: And All That Could Have Been (2002)
- Nine Inch Nails: Beside You In Time (2007)
- Pink: The Truth About Love Tour (Melbourne 2013)
- David Bowie: Glass Spider Live (Sydney 1987) - a great example of 80's excess, awful design and a conceptual disaster - Bowie has even talked about how embarassing it is haha...
- Justin Timberlake: FutureSex LoveShow (2007)
- KISS: The Second Coming (1998)
- And finally...the holy grail of lighting nerds live concert films… Pink Floyd: PULSE (1995)
Image credit: Alex McCoy