Lighting the spectacular: Rob Sinclair, lighting designer, talks to Future of Light

 

We’ve been talking a lot about interactive lighting recently, especially within live events. So it was great to be able to sit down with lighting designer Rob Sinclair recently.

Rob has worked with many of the world’s biggest music artists, from Pet Shop Boys to Goldfrapp to Miley Cyrus, designing the lighting for their live touring shows. Read on to find out all about how he designs the lighting for his concerts, how the LED revolution is affecting the final product on stage, and what Rob would do with lights if money and imagination were no object…

How do you go about the process of designing a show? Where do the inspirations for all your initial ideas tend to come from (if anywhere in particular)?

 

Everything starts and ends with the music.

 

The first thing I ask for is new songs. You can learn so much from listening, reading lyrics and comparing new music with the catalogue - it really helps get into the band’s current headspace.

 

A lot of ideas come from the bands themselves. They’ve often spent years painstakingly creating new music and we have to spend time working out how best to visually present it.

 

I always try and arrive at the first meeting with some sort of reference, either some books or something from my ever growing Evernote notebook of beautiful things. These references are almost always rejected immediately but it’s good to have a starting point. Pop stars have a fabulous ability to ping off on tangents at any time and you always need to expect the unexpected and be open to strange and unfeasible ideas.

 

My workflow is always art first, tools later. First we work out what we want to achieve and I then see what’s available to make that happen. Starting with some fabulous new product and trying to shoehorn it into the show is never a good idea.

Talk us through the process of loading in and loading out at a venue. Have you found that newly-available technology has made this process easier – if so, how?

 

Thankfully I don’t have to do that much loading in and out myself any more, but it’s a huge and ever-present design restriction.

 

Bands play one night shows in a variety of venues, back to back in cities that can be many hours’ drive away. Whatever we do [set-wise] has to be flexible enough to deal with differences in venue sizes, to be able to build and strike very quickly and to fit into standard sized boxes and carts to efficiently use truck space.

 

There’s a constant tension between the visual needs of the show and the practicalities of getting it into trucks and away in two hours. The crews perform miracles to make this happen - Miley Cyrus’s 23 trucks have been loaded within 100 minutes, which is a remarkable achievement.

 

I’ve found that it’s best to work with the practicalities from the beginning… how many trucks will the show travel in, how much air freight is budgeted, how many people to put it up, what sort of halls, which territories will the show visit? It’s all important, and if considered from the start will result in a more consistent look wherever the tour finds itself.

 

How do you decide what types of lights to use? If you’re trying to evoke an old-school feel within a particular set-up, do you tend to look for a modern equivalent or go for the tried-and-tested original?

 

It mainly depends on the look we’re after:

 

Keane’s Strangeland show was very classic, hard edged, angular, theatrical and warm. A real contrast to the soft edge, high vibrancy, high tech of the previous Perfect Symmetry tour .

 

Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz is all about super bright, super high gloss, high fashion looks, and huge blocks of light operating in unison.

 

Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us was very understated high contrast film noir, that erupted into waves of pure color in the second act.

 

Pet Shop Boys’ Electric is a strange combination of highly side-lit modern dance and laser, strobes and EDM rave. My brief from creative director Es Devlin was for ‘moments of searing and unnerving brightness’.

 

A lot depends on what is in rental and what we can afford. Do I go for a smaller number of modern fixtures or try and cut a deal on more of a slightly unfashionable type? What are our restrictions of budget, truck space and power draw? What can we do that’s slightly unexpected? Can we use anything in an odd way?

(Goldfrapp © Rob Sinclair)

What do you think are the big up-and-coming trends in lighting design for live events?

 

I’m not sure, really. There seems to be an arms race of making forever brighter lights which worries me a little. Brighter isn’t necessarily better, and it makes creating a balanced look more difficult.

 

The lower cost of newer lights is exciting. Goldfrapp have just toured theaters with 60 moving lights, on a budget that would have rented 12 a decade ago.

 

Live event sustainability is becoming a hot topic. Is this something you try to bear in mind when choosing your lighting set-ups?

 

Increasingly yes, although not always for tree hugging reasons I’m afraid.

 

LED sources draw less power but also maintain consistency across their lifetime. Arc sources (the traditional gas discharge lamps) need a lot of maintenance and lamp adjustment to stay at a consistent brightness, but LEDs stay the same.

 

I’ve recently started using LED strobes to keep the power requirements down, particularly on US tours where the 120v supply causes trouble. I’m growing to like the new strobes, although you lose the analogue warmth that you get from a high voltage tube decaying against a reflector.

 

Other than power draw and longevity, are there any particular aesthetic benefits to using LEDs over analogue lights?

 

Primary colors are far brighter and more vibrant with LED sources. With the first generation of LEDs the white range suffered a lot, but this has been much improved with the addition of amber and white sources into the color mixing. It’s starting to become difficult to distinguish between tungsten and LED for a lovely, flattering warm skin tone.

 

Which methods do you use to connect the audience to the music by way of the lighting?

 

It all comes back to music.

 

We spend a lot of time listening and programming cues to support the peaks, troughs and drama of the music. There are endless late night arguments about whether a cue is appropriate, if it builds correctly, if it gives us enough space to go somewhere new later in the song, if it feels right, if the colors work.

 

We try to help take the audience on the emotional journey of the band’s set by showing them what they need to see when they need to see it, by creating the right atmosphere and cueing the appropriate dynamic shifts.

 

There’s a lot of power in cues that envelop the stage and the audience. Simple blasts of floor level backlight, for example, can really connect the action on stage with the crowd.

 

What do you make of the trend towards combining audience interaction with luminous textiles? What would you like to be able to do in this vein that isn’t yet feasible?

 

It’s all very exciting and I’ve found myself thinking and talking about it a lot.

 

We’ve rejected a lot of ideas that involve fiddling with phones, installing apps and that would not have 100% reliability throughout the whole audience every night.

 

The key, where Coldplay and Arcade Fire both succeeded, is to create something that the audience can instinctively understand and enjoy. Any sort of instructions or complexity would interfere with the experience, and it needs to be obviously inclusive for the whole crowd.

 

We all loved the Olympics and personally I was completely blown away by the use of the audience as a giant screen. It was unexpected and beautiful.

 

We’ve been talking a lot about how to do this in touring situations. Adapting that sort of effect to different rooms and moving the infrastructure around to do it is really hard.

 

I’ve also kicked around some other interactive ideas but the big problems are audience workload and inclusivity. We can’t isolate people and we have to remember that they are having a night out and so can’t be burdened with complex instructions.

 

For example: the mobile phone would seem to be the best way to turn the crowd into a lightshow but it fails on two crucial points. Firstly making people install apps is annoying and requires internet access and secondly you have to have an expensive phone to take part. What should be a communal experience becomes an elitist tech nightmare.

 

The genius of the Coldplay bands was in their simplicity. Everyone gets one and all they have to do is put the bracelet on, enjoy the show, forget it’s there and we turn it on to surprise and delight you.

 

How has new technology given you more (or different) options for lighting at live events?

 

New technology is always interesting and moves the thought process in different directions, but whatever the tools we always ask the same questions. Does this feel right for this point in this piece of music? The art and the aesthetic must always come before the tools. Everything is led by lighting rather than lights. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one.

If money and imagination were no object, are there any examples of things you’d like to do with interactive lighting elements, outside of a specific artist context?

The ability to run complex chases (automated flashing lights) across the audience and over handheld devices would be great. The ‘Olympic’ effect, but in any venue, and able to reconfigure dynamically to the density and movement of the crowd.


Anything that can create chaos, move to order and back to chaos.

 

What is your dream for lighting design in the future? What do you wish you could do that technically isn’t feasible yet?

 

Sadly I do actually dream about lighting. I think mainly I’d like to be able to break the laws of physics and stop light beams in mid-air. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to manage that quite yet.

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