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Lighting Design: How does a Lighting Designer Actually Run a Show?
On The Road Series
By John Schlick Lighting Design
(more articles from this author)
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This series of articles is geared specifically at evaluating the position of Lighting Designer or LD. In this piece I’m answering the question: How does a lighting designer actually run a show?

You’ve hired a lighting designer and talked about the vision for what you will look like onstage, and he or she has gotten to the show and set everything up. The band is about to take the stage. What is the lighting designer, or LD, really going to do during the show to actually enhance your performance?

When it comes to running a show, there are three things I think of as important: timing, mood control, and focus.

Timing is usually the first thing people look at with a new lighting designer. Do the lights change on the beat? Lights that change offbeat usually are more distracting to than enhancing to a show. Unfortunately, this is often the ONLY criterion LDs are judged on.

Second comes mood control. In a big bam-bam-bam kind of song, does the LD choose to not change the lights? In a slow moody piece, does the LD choose to change the lights for every note? One would hope not. The lights ought to visually expand the dynamic range of the piece. BIG pieces usually have more motion, slow gentle pieces have less motion. It’s the LD's job to figure out what these moments are and do the right thing.

It’s also important to note that every song you write has a different message, so every song an LD runs for you ought to have a slightly different look. One of the great sins I see amongst LDs is that they run every light in the rig in some simple pattern song after song after song. I call it the “full boat” kind of look.

It’s also important that the patterns of changes in the lights are different from song to song. When you get into larger spaces that have moving lights, to just have them go side to side for every song gets old and boring. It’s good to have specific motion patterns that are like a “signature” to each piece. It’s also good to recognize that where the changes in the lighting happen are different for each unique piece of music. In some songs, it’s the kickdrum that determines the pace of the song. In others, it’s the snare, or bass line, or the symbol crashes, or the vocals, or… To only change based on one component of the music is a disservice to the music.

Part of setting mood is choosing colors that augment the “feel” of the song. Often one will turn to theatre to see how the blues or “cools” affect the audience mood, and how the reds or “warms” will brighten things up. Using the wrong color scheme can dramatically affect how a song is perceived by the audience. And of course, there is the traditional “green is evil” sort of thing. But knowing when to use specific colors and when not to is important.

Lastly, we come to focus. When you talk to someone, studies have shown that comprehension of conversation goes way up when you can see the mouth of the person you are talking to. Our brains take that and use it to assist in processing what the words are. With music, it makes no sense to leave the singer in the dark when he or she is pouring their heart out. It also makes no sense to highlight the drums during a guitar solo. And again, I see many, many LDs that have been in the business for a long time doing just that. They don’t seem to understand THEY are in control to a great extent of who gets focus onstage.

To get the maximum effect out of a lighting system, you must allow the audience to SEE what the band is doing and what’s going on in the show. Hiding someone during their big performance moment just doesn’t help the audience to feel like they’ve just seen “the best show ever.” The bottom line is that the LD is in charge of who gets the focus onstage during the show, and you want someone who knows how to use that focus to your advantage.

When you get an LD that has skills in all three of these areas, you will get better feedback on how amazing the show was, even if the band is having an off night.

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