Lighting: Concept to Completion

When I get the opportunity to meet production teams from other churches most of the questions revolve around how our design process is structured and what specific visual elements I’m responsible for. I’ve received questions like, “Who decides what goes on the onstage LEDs?”, “Who designs the scenic layout?”, and even this one: “Does Whit sit with you and write all the lighting cues?”

My job title is lighting designer but “design coordinator” might be more accurate. I don’t solely develop our scenic designs from conception to completion but rather build onto an agreed upon concept. These first concepts usually involve three people: Andrew, Whit, and myself. Occasionally we’ll include other members of Whit’s creative staff, most commonly Gary to discuss LED usage, but at this point in the process too much input can actually be a hindrance. These first meetings have been as simple as just a verbal discussion and as complex as a very detailed whiteboard layout with scaled cardboard cutouts and anywhere in between.

My job really begins after this initial concept is decided. The first thing I do is get the concept laid out on paper through a CAD program called Vectorworks (I’m horrible at drawing which gives Whit much to make fun of—I think it’s giving me a complex). We’ve had a few ideas completely fall apart at this point as I might find an overlooked design issue or something but most commonly it’s for a more practical reason. This is a good time to mention that just because it sounds good in a meeting and looks good on a whiteboard doesn’t mean it’s really going to work. Similar to the old architect saying, “You can use an eraser at the drafting table or a sledgehammer at the job site.” The two most common problems at this point are usually budget and equipment availability—believe it or not we don’t just get to pick what LED wall or lighting fixture we want. In actuality, most of these design decisions are based on what our trusted vendors have available and what they can cut us a good deal on. Getting these issues sorted out is an area where my production manager Andrew plays a major role.

Ok, so the concept is good, the design is feasible and the gear is available—now what? This time it’s a group discussion with myself and Andrew along with Whit and his creative staff. Even though I’ve usually got some drawings together by this point—my plan is for this meeting to be a complete waste of time. What’s that!? Hear me out—If the first meeting was productive; if I asked the right questions; if I was thorough in getting the info from Whit; if Andrew and I spent the next several weeks looking at the design from every angle—then there should be nothing come up that hasn’t been thought of. The truth is that it goes both ways—some meetings have brought up additional ideas that have totally made the design and other times we go full circle to end up at the same place we started. Either way we get there, it’s a win.

Up to this point the focus has been on the physical look of the stage—LED panels, curtains, scenic objects, etc. But at 4-6 weeks out I really begin to focus on the lighting aspects—this is really the only area of the design that’s not a collaborative effort. The decisions I make on fixture types and layout are largely based upon my knowledge of what type of look and feel Whit is expecting with the event.

It’s now 2-3 weeks out from our set change and two main things are happening: The first is that Gary, our graphic designer, is coming up with concepts for what will be on the LEDs. When we first began using LED onstage, Andrew and I were more involved in this process—In fact I believe for the first couple designs there was no outside involvement at all. This didn’t work out so well because if I’m busy finding videos for use on the LED wall, who’s designing the lighting? Since then, Gary has come on board and begun to develop some amazing custom content but is still open to input from us when needed. Developing video for use as a scenic element is different than developing it for use on a main screen—It’s vital to have a good relationship between the guys making the videos in an office somewhere and the guys implementing them into the event.

It seems appropriate here to explain why as the lighting designer I’m even talking about video at all. Once video breaks the plane of the stage and becomes a scenic element it needs to be controlled by the same person controlling all the other light emitting objects in the room. This allows it to be timed properly with all the other cues and integrated seamlessly with the overall look. Otherwise you end up with all these different elements lacking synergy and cohesiveness. Since my lighting console controls the Catalyst media server we use for the onstage media playback, I have to stay heavily involved...

The second thing that’s happening 2-3 weeks out is that I’m working to finish the CAD plots. Being able to convey my vision in an easy to understand manner is vital to a quick and relatively painless set change. No matter how small your operation is—PUT IT ON PAPER—Even if it’s done with notebook paper and a pencil. It let’s work happen without you having to be directly involved. It’s an art to provide just the right amount of information so things will run smoothly without providing so much that you cause confusion.

Click on the image to download the PDF.

Click on the image to download the PDF.

Ok, skip ahead to production week. The plots are printed, the gear is here, and it’s “go” time. I stay involved enough in the set change to make sure it goes smoothly but detached enough to not get tunnel vision on one specific area. I love this stage in the process and will never get tired of the rush that comes from building something from nothing. At some point this week I have to detach from the technical altogether. Since I’m not a naturally creative person, any artistic creativity I have has been hard fought for. Like many in the production field I got into it because I understood the gear; I grasped how to hang lights in the air and have them stay put safely—then how to send electricity to them so they would light up but the truss they were hanging on wouldn’t. To this day getting into a truly creative mode requires me to separate myself from thinking about the technical and focusing on relaxing into the artistic. This is where it pays off to have worked with my production manager Andrew for the past ten years as he recognizes when it’s time for me to slide into artistic mode and gives me the tools I need to to do the job. Having a trained, top notch lighting crew is invaluable at this point as they can continue to function while I’m consumed with these other design aspects.

What’s my creative director’s involvement at this point? As little as we can get by with. After a few years of working with Whit, I’ve gotten to know his taste pretty well—he might throw out general ideas about specific parts of the show but he leaves it to me to figure out how to implement those ideas and fill in the gaps in between. During the first rehearsals I’ll bring up the rough looks that I’m thinking about using and if I see him thrust a thumbs up into the air then I know I’m heading in the right direction. If I don’t feel like a part of the show is coming together the way we want I’ll ask him to step in to help me approach it from a different angle.

As in almost everything creative or production related—most of what we do is subjective but for our specific production designs and workflow, this is the basic formula we’ve found that seems to work best within the confines of our creative flow, our building capabilities and our staffing options.

All images are from the design process of the Celebrate With Family 2010 service.

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