The following is a transcript – more or less – of the webinar I gave for Martin Learning Sessions on March 30th. I provide this for hard-of-hearing folks, or just people who like to read the words instead of hear (or watch) them.
Bien-ven-ido, välkommen, or vítejte, whatever works for you. Good morning, today is Thursday, March 30th, 2021, or perhaps it’s later than that, in that case, hello future people! Or perhaps it’s earlier than that, in which case, please don’t cause any multiverse-ending paradoxes. My name is Craig Rutherford, and I am delighted to be here with you, in spirit and IPv4 packets, if not in body.
Before we get started, it is my sincere hope that all of you are well, and let us take a moment to hold in the quiet sanctuary of our hearts the names of those we know are not doing well. Unemployment remains high across our industry, some parts of my own country are recovering from the devastating effects of unconscionable violence in the last few weeks, and we acknowledge the ongoing currents of grief that have been caused by the continuing public health crisis. To my brothers, and my sisters, and everyone in between and beyond, I say to you: we will come out the other side of this. The dawn will come, the day will break, and with humility and hope, we will return to the critical business that we do. We are more than just lighting designers, we are more than just front of house and monitor engineers and techs and grips. We are the bearers of broadcasts, we are the stewards of the words of Baldwin and Shakespeare. We are the force behind the curtain that helps the nervous young executive get ready for their first speech, we are nearly-invisible camera operators capturing a singer giving the performance of their life, we are the purveyors of drama and pathos in light and music and video and sets. We are the lifeblood of an industry that I am humbled and honored to call my own. Stay strong, take care of yourselves, and be kind. It is again a privilege to be here with you, and I am again humbled that you’ve taken the time to join with me here today. As always, a thank you to Martin Professional, and especially Michael Grandietti and Brad Schiller for bringing us all together in this way.
In my last webinar, we explored the topic of lighting design in a theoretical sense. What I want to do in this webinar is discuss one possible workflow – the one that I use – when I’m getting ideas from my brain, onto paper, into a computer, and ultimately, hopefully in front of a client. In contrast to my previous webinars, I want this one to be a little bit more on the practical side of the sliding scale of theory versus practice. We’ll start out going over getting ideas out of your head and onto paper, then into a computer, and two ways of presenting that information visually, as both plots and as renders. After that, we’ll examine two case studies from my own past, and talk about the differences between pitching your ideas to client blind, versus to a client who is involved in the process from the beginning.
Let’s start the discussion by saying that this is my workflow, and may not necessarily be the one you ultimately adopt. What I hope is that something about my processes will be useful, or that you’ll perhaps find some good tips in here. I don’t think that everyone should run out and start doing exactly what I’m doing.
So to begin, let’s talk about the workflow common to both situations, both pitching blind and to clients who will have input into the design process. And our starting place will be, naturally, generating and drafting your ideas, and we’ll start with generating your ideas.
Inspiration and creativity have their own million-dollar industry dedicated to churning out books, blog posts, and nifty gadgets you can buy on Instagram that all claim to help your creativity. What I believe is that every person is different, and what inspires one person will not necessarily inspire another. There is, however, some general advice that I think is relevant, and things that have worked for me.
- Books: Books and literature are a nearly endless source of inspiration. And while art books are an obvious place to start talking about books vis a vis inspiration, they’re far from the only place you can look. The world of literature is vast, from the epic science fiction worlds of Asimov to the cyberpunk of William Gibson to the paranormal dread of Steven King to everything in between. Any time a book does that wonderful magic that words printed on a page can do and lets you imagine the details of a space on your own instead of seeing it, that’s a rich source of inspiration and creativity right there, because how you imagine it is going to be different than how everyone else imagines it.
- Art: Art is an obvious one that most people are on some level conscious of, but it bears repeating here: a trip to an art museum can be a terrifically mind-opening experience. And not only looking at other people’s art, but practicing a form yourself, be that writing, or drawing, or clay sculpture or even freeform building with LEGO can be stimulating in the best way possible. Books like The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron can be helpful in giving the reader some exercises to do on a daily basis to help express yourself creatively.
- Boredom: Yes, boredom. It sounds strange, but we live in a busy world where the possibility of entertaining yourself at any moment of the day is often quite literally in the palm of your hand. I am not a technological luddite, but I certainly want to advocate here for, occasionally and at healthy intervals, putting the phone down and just…doing nothing for a while. Slow down, sofa surf, stare out the window, let your mind wander and clear itself. The things that come to us in silence can be some of the most profound.
As I’ve said in previous webinars, keeping that which inspires you around is an excellent way to, well, stay inspired. I have some big Dan Flavin coffee table books, and I have some big folders on my laptop called “lighting inspiration” and “set design inspiration” for any time that I see a cool picture or illustration or anything that strikes my fancy.
Another powerful tool for documenting inspiration, because it doesn’t always happen at convenient times, is your cell phone. We’re all walking around with computers in our pockets with a camera resolution and processing power that NASA could not hav, in their wildest dreams, imagined in the 60s when it was sending people to the moon with pocket calculators and slide rules. But inspiration also takes discipline: have your recording tools, whatever those may be, around you in close proximity to record thoughts whenever the whim strikes you. Sometimes that might be at 4 AM, sometimes it might be while you’re eating dinner. Any of us who regularly make art or drawings of any sort know what I’m talking about here: something cool really can pop into your head without any prior warning, like a reverse robbery, and you gotta be ready for it.
These are just a few suggestions that have worked for me, and there are lots of resources on YouTube and other books that address the need we as designers have to be creative and generate ideas, so I won’t spend any more time on that particular subject. So! You have some ideas in your head. Good news! That’s one of the hardest parts that you just got out of the way. Let’s move onto getting ideas out of your head and onto some medium that has longer staying power than the human memory.
Now, when you’re just starting out with initial sketches, I don’t think it’s necessary to get too worked up about the physical constraints of reality. Just get ideas down. Committing an idea to some form of semi-permanent medium, whether digital or analog, is all you need to do. I’m even going to go so far as to say that anything you commit to a drawing is a good idea, and that truly bad ideas are extremely rare. The first thing that you get down isn’t likely to be the final form of anything, but drawing even something that doesn’t work can help to refine and hone the looks and forms that do work and ultimately guide your thinking toward a finished product that you can use.
Once you’ve started your initial sketches, don’t stop. Keep drawing, keep making little improvements and testing different ideas. This is the idea of iteration, or creating successive variations on a theme, and it’s something you should get in the habit of doing, even if you really like a concept or drawing. Something I like to do is leave little notes to myself that include the thoughts I have about a particular sketch. Sometimes I’ll really like something or really dislike something, and articulating why in the comments or margins of my notebook can be helpful in deciding why I do or do not like a particular look for a particular client or set. Scale is also important to start considering at this stage: sometimes some small stick figures can be helpful when sketching to decide on a sense of scale, or doing some simple drawings to get a sense of how this set or production design will fit into the arena or theater that will serve as the venue.
Now, I prefer pen and paper, but if you’re into drawing on a digital device like an iPad or Surface, there are plenty of options. I’ve tried Paper, the app by 53, as a way to draw simple sketches before, which is a fairly low-cost option. A lot of people also like the app Concepts, which is available on Windows, Android, and iOS devices. Personally, drawing digitally isn’t really my thing. I’m not very good at drawing systems that set out to emulate the physical experience of drawing with traditional media, but of lot of other people seem to like doing it, so your milage may vary. My favorite notebooks – like you’d care, but I’ll tell you anyway – are a Leuchtturm 1917 soft back for notes and a Traveler’s Notebook for sketching. Whatever method you use, it’s important that you have a system of organizing your drawings in a logical way. Let me also throw in this important note: don’t treat your sketchbook or drawing program and some sort of ivory tablet upon which must only be engraved your best, purest, and most perfect ideas. If you do, you will never put anything down. The more you can get down, the more you can refine; the more content your creative brain has to work with.
At this point, something that can be helpful is to do a quick sketch of how the lighting will be laid out. Spots, washes, and a few different views (side, top, front) can be helpful in allowing you to visualize what you want the lighting to be like before you have to go through the work of placing them in a 3D environment, which is always more work. So just dot in some little squares and circles for spots and washes, something super simple to start yourself thinking about the lighting design.
So, you’ve sketched your set designs, written down some basic lighting notes, adjusted and tweaked, and you’re happy with what you’ve got. Now we move onto drafting our design. Drafting is an important step, it allows you to be much more precise with your scale and placement, and realize and fix problems with the physical layout.
The options for drafting are quite a bit more limited than for sketching. In my workflow, I use Vectorworks. It’s an industry standard software suite for a reason. It’s not the only solution for doing entertainment drafting, but it’s probably the most widely-used. There’s also AutoCAD, and I know some riggers that tend to gravitate toward that suite. I think that the advantage of Vectorworks Spotlight over AutoCAD is the suite of entertainment-specific tools that Spotlight gives you, as well as the 3D tools. Vectorworks Spotlight has some…quirks, but overall is the best tool for the job. One disadvantage of drafting in Vectorworks or AutoCAD is that these are big programs, they will not run well on anything less than fairly recent hardware without significant headache, and they are expensive. A “Perpetual” license of Vectorworks Spotlight with maintenance will set you back $3,715 plus another $600+ a year to keep your software and libraries current – and, if you get Vectorworks, it’s definitely worth it to keep it updated. Now, if Vectorworks is making enough money for you, enough to at least break even, then by all means, it’s probably a worthwhile investment.
But if you’re just starting out, don’t get too deep into technical software too soon. I believe it’s worthwhile to invest in a piece of dedicated drafting software eventually, but there are some lower-cost options out there. One that I used for many years was SketchUp, which used to be owned by Google, and which is now owned by Trimble. Very sadly, the free basic version of SketchUp has moved to an online-only version, which is lacking some of the functionality of the old application. They do make a version called “Pro” which you can purchase for $300. Still not a tiny investment, but a lot less than a full copy of Vectorworks, and there are some third-party renderers for it that will make your designs looks nice, though, they’re largely geared toward architectural designs.
Another option is Drafty, which is a web app that I’ve reviewed for PLSN in the past. Drafty is subscription-based, but the basic versions are pretty inexpensive. It does, however, lack any 3D capability – it is for making 2D lighting and set plots only. Your 2D drawing can get as complex as you want to get, but it’s really intended for one view at a time, and that isn’t going to help when it comes to trying to create renders for clients. It is, however, a decent and affordable option for doing basic 2D plots, and they do indeed look quite good.
For all these reasons and some others, in my workflow, I start my digital drawings within Vectorworks after I do the basic layout on paper. There have been, and are, great tutorials for creating really excellent plots, like the one that Micael Sharon did for the Martin Professional Learning Sessions, and you should go check that out. A brief aside: I’m really using the term “plot” here to refer to two different types of documents. A plot can have varying levels of detail, for instance, a detailed lighting plot could include focus positions, DMX addresses, channel numbers, electrical circuit information…that isn’t what I mean here. A detailed plot like that is not what I need for potential clients. Detailed plots are a tool that the lighting shop, project manager and lighting technicians need when they’re putting together a rig. But what I want the client to see is the lighting design. And that’s really about them seeing where lights go and to give an idea to some of the more technically-inclined people who might be looking at it a basic understanding of the lighting placement and layout. I want to get lights placed around in the places that will create the lighting effects that I want to use in the particular production under consideration, but a fully-numbered and annotated broadsheet of information isn’t what those people need. So while I’m intentional about placement and making sure that things are appropriately and well-placed, and take the time to do the actual lighting layout like I normally would, I don’t worry about creating detailed plot views that show DMX addresses, fixture numbers, circuit information, that sort of thing, at this stage.
This is the point in my workflow where I acknowledge the strengths of Spotlight, and I really try to use plugins to their full potential. I generally start by building the stage that I’m going to be working on, which for most arena-sized shows is a 40’ by 60’ stage, usually 5-6’ tall, and there’s a very useful tool in Vectorworks for building stage decks and stairs. From there, I move onto building the set. Now, everybody does their Vectorworks files in a different way. I’m pretty retentive about keeping my classes, layers, and especially my asset manager structure clean. Intelligent light symbols have their own folder, each light has its own class. I typically divide layers as logically as I can, and I preface the layer name with what they are. “MOD” for “model”, or set stuff, “LIGHT” for lighting, “AUD” for audio – typically line arrays, “PLOT” for non-physical stuff like a centerline marker or other reference points that I need, “DIM” for all of my dimensions. This makes it easy to keep things organized. But, as I said, everyone has their own method of building Vectorworks files that appeals to them. But I will say this: if you send out a VW file and everything is in the “None” class, the rest assured that nobody likes you.
Another note about working in both Vectorworks and Cinema a little further down: I find a 3D mouse to be invaluable to my workflow. The one I use is the 3DConnexion SpaceMouse Compact, which is their least-expensive model, and in fact, it’s the only device of this sort I can find. It’s a sort of puck-shaped device where you move the puck in the ways that you want the 3D object on screen to move. It does take a bit of practice to get the hang of moving around with it, but once you do, it’s great. I think the model I have costs about $130. In my view, not too burdensome of an investment if you do a lot of 3D modeling work.
So here we come to our first deliverables, or things that we want to be able to hand to the end client. Once all of your modeling and lighting design is done, it’s time to create some viewsheets in your software showing your drawing in different ways. Here, I have several views that make it into basically every design packet that I had to a client.
- Elevation views: Every design has at least a front elevation, with and without dimensions, a side elevation, again with and without dimensions, and a top view, with and without dimensions. These give anybody looking at the design a clear picture of what you have in mind and the dimensions help to convey a sense of scale.
- Some isometric views: I usually do a few of these, with and without dimensions, and usually hidden-line. Wireframe views get really complicated to look at in 3D views, so using hidden-line renders here will keep things looking better. I usually do all these views in color, but no texture. That way, the viewer gets a sense of how many fixtures of each type there are, etc, and also it makes it easier to differentiate different pieces of the stage. (Different sections of truss being drawn in different colors helps them stand out from each other, for instance.)
- Some perspective views: Here’s where I typically take things “artistic” and use one of Vectorworks’ “artistic” styles to do what is essentially a hidden-line render with pretty lines. The perspective view, again, helps to convey a sense of scale.
- Some “white studies”: These are ambient occlusion (AO) renders that are devoid of lines or images, they’re just white, and the idea is to show just shape and the texture of the set (not the “textures” in a 3D modeling senses, I mean the shapes that make up the set) without distraction of color or anything else.
One thing you should make for whatever plotting software you’re using is a nice-looking title block for all your pages that you render out of it. Mine has my company logo, and spaces for the client name, venue, date, tour name, page number, etc. There are some good YouTube tutorials for how to make these, since they’re a little bit fiddly to get perfect, and it’s very different across versions of Vectorworks. Alternatively, just make one in your image editing program, but the advantage of doing it in Vectorworks is that it looks nicer and it auto-updates.
From here, I go into refining the design with Cinema 4D, which is a 3D modeling program. Again, like Vectorworks, it’s big, and it’s expensive, and it has a bit of a learning curve. There are alternatives for rendering things, and there are probably at least ten people in the audience screaming “Blender”! At me. Yeah, Blender is a fine piece of software and I’ve used it before. It’s a mature 3D modeling program with a lot of features, and most notably, it’s free. You really can’t beat the price of Blender, and there are many, many tutorials on YouTube that will teach you how to use it. But – and this is the big but – there are some things that Cinema 4D does better, in particular, Maxon’s MoGraph module is used heavily by my lighting add-on, and it’s something that Blender just isn’t compatible with. You can model volumetric lighting within Blender, don’t get me wrong, but to set up a concert or entertainment lighting scene will take much longer than with something like the Stage plug-in.So for reasons of time and headache, I chose to invest in Cinema 4D, but I really can’t blame anyone who chooses not to pull the trigger on spending that sort of money.
This is a two-step process, wherein I export the Cinema 4D file out of Vectorworks, and then export the MVR with just the lighting. Why? I find it easier to clean up the layers / objects in just the set design first, within Cinema, and then once that’s done, import the MVR. It should be noted here that MVR has some things about it that aren’t…great. Particularly X/Y/Z rotational data for fixtures, gets imported wrong in about 95% of cases, so you have to set aside several minutes after you do an MVR import to going through your file and fixing fixture orientation. I don’t actually know if this happens during import or export, but it’s something to be aware of.
For MVR import and all of my renders, I use the Stage 2 plugin from Hantmade, which I find is really excellent. Stage is a plugin that adds a library of lighting fixtures that can be controlled from a basic control interface from within Cinema. (There’s no way that I’m aware of to get real DMX data into Stage, because internally, the fixtures aren’t built like “real” fixture personalities, and there are internal ways to do things like save cues and do playback. Also, Cinema isn’t intended to be a visualizer, though it would be interesting to see if you could use it as one if you optimized the code for the POWER9 CPUs and then ran it on Summit at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.) Once all the lights are correctly positioned, it’s time to start making scenes.
I typically make about ten static scenes, and I try to make each one different, of course, with a different gobo selection, colors, positions, etc, just as I would with a real show. I make these with Cinema’s “Takes” system, which lets you set up all your scenes and record changes between them, so when you’re done, you can just render all your takes with one button instead of having to set up your scene, then render, then set up another scene, and so on. Takes totally makes that process unnecessary. All my scenes are set to be rendered at 300 DPI with a fairly high resolution. I also do a few takes that are animation, and these get rendered at a much lower resolution than the pictures do, around 800×600. I might up that if I get better hardware at some point, but it works well for the social media posts and they upscale pretty well. Higher resolution animations would increase my rendering time almost exponentially, so with my current hardware setup, it’s not really worth it. Stage does moves for lights and has an effects generator, and animations are where I get the most use out of that feature.
Since I do all this work with my laptop currently, once I get the takes set (I have a render preset set up with very low resolution and DPI for testing) I hit “Render takes to picture viewer”, make a Manhattan and walk away for a day or two while the fans run wildly. At the end, I have about ten high-res stills and a few animated movie files.
Now, how to present these? Well, it depends on your timeline and the client. For a full-on, awesome presentation, I have some folders that I had printed with my company name and logo, and a space for a business card to go into. I have the render stills, I have all the Vectorworks sheets, and a narrative printed out, and all that gets put into the presentation folder and mailed to the client. I can’t recommend a folder enough, they’re just a simple, inexpensive way to make your stuff look professional.
Now the “Narrative” is a piece we haven’t really talked about yet, which is a trick I picked up from John Featherstone of Lightswitch. When pitching to clients, he writes up a few short pages on his designs, and walks clients through the visual aspects of the design and why he picked them. This, I think, does a few things: it communicates intent to the viewer when you can’t be there to do it yourself, and it helps to sharpen your own thoughts about why you chose certain things. When writing this document, explain your design choices, inspirations, and muses, and do your best to tie these choices together with the budget you have to work with. In fact, indicating that you designed with budgets in mind is always a good thing to plant in the minds of any production managers who might see your work…and you DID design with the budget in mind, right?! Other than that, I think that words that evoke specific feelings, emotions, times, and materials are some of the most effective, including:
The upshot here is that there are almost limitless adjectives to be found. If all else fails you, pull out a thesaurus and see where the spirit leads you. Walk the reader through your design, pointing out certain features, describe key moments, and try to give them a feel for the overall emotion you’re trying to evoke from the audience. You could say things like “This riser design completes the visual motif on the floor of the performance space, a clean yet modern look that elegantly frames the upstage wall with the IMAG and video content but provides its own interesting surface for the interplay of light and texture.” Try to use visual language that avoids the vocabulary of lighting and try to paint a picture with words.
Another powerful tool to use, particularly with non-technical people, are mood boards and style boards. These are simply pages where you cull some images from the internet or from books you have or any source whatsoever that help give your client an idea about atmosphere. Multiple boards representing different atmospheres can be really helpful, particularly if you’re in a preliminary phase where you aren’t sure in what direction the client will want to go. Here are a few examples that I put together to show you what I mean. These can be really helpful in evoking a specific feeling and can help to put the client into the mindset of choosing an atmosphere of emotion that resonates with them.
And remember, they’re trying to evoke an emotion through their performance, too. If you’ve missed the mark, and it happens all the time, at the very least a document like that will let you and your client have a common language to refer back to, so if they want something that’s more spooky and less delicate, you’ve given them the opportunity and hopefully some meaningful vocabulary to articulate their desires in a way that will involve a shared understanding.
At the end of all this poetry in lighting, though, a single note of caution about keeping perspective. Particularly when dealing with an artist or their creative team (as opposed to a management sort of entity whose job it is to keep an eye on the budget of the project) you have to remember that you are, ultimately, bringing their vision to life, and the most important thing isn’t the lighting or the production design but the act themselves. You can have five hundred lights doing amazing programming but if none of those lights are providing key light for the artist or gelling with the show that the artist is trying to put on stage, the entire thing is a waste of time and electricity. Without proper communication a complex stage design will just be filling space unless an artist interacts with it, especially with thrust or B stages, and they’re only going to interact with it if they’re really feeling it.
Case study one
So then, what follows is a case study from my own past, walk through the design experience together, to examine using what we’ve learned to pitch a design to a new client that you haven’t worked with before.
So, some might call this speculative work, or “spec” work, meaning you’re pitching ideas without getting paid to come up with them. Or, perhaps you’ve been given a largely “show us what you think the show should look like” design brief, or you have a band that doesn’t really care and just expects you to come up with something cool. Lots of bands that I’ve worked with in the past have been this way. They had a budget, they had sort of a vague idea about how “concerts should look”, and I worked largely unimpeded within those parameters. I’m not interested, by the way, in getting into whether or not you should do unpaid spec work. I have an opinion, but my opinion is informed by my privilege, and anyway, I break my own rule all the time. Sometimes, spec work is the only way to get yourself out there, and this business is complicated and situational rules are always context-dependent. So, don’t go onto forums and write “Never do spec work!” because the reality is for lots of young designers, there is no realistic chance they’ll ever be noticed or paid attention to if they don’t.
So we’ll start with this set that I designed without any input from the client; my conceptual design for one of the major political party conventions here in the United States. Let me be clear here that I’m not advocating any political philosophy one way or the other. This is only a stage design, nothing more. The reason I drew this was because at the time, I had reason to believe I might be able to get this design in front of them. Then the pandemic happened, and everything moved online. So now it’s going to be a case study for us!
The process, as always, starts with inspiration. In this case, I went back and looked at previous designs. That is always a good place to start; you don’t want to end up duplicating someone else’s work. This account has been handled for a while by Bruce Rogers and the excellent designers at Tribe, so I looked over their work to see what might change for this iteration of the production design.
In previous cases, I saw a design that had “literal” elements in it, these sort of Romanesque columns and faux stone in the case of the 2008 convention, or in the case of the 2016 convention, a more abstract “truss and lights” design that was very evocative and spectacular. In trying to put my own spin on things, I decided to take my design away from straight truss and lines, away from Roman architecture, and try something more organic and flowing.
I started by drawing some basic shapes and ideas, and doing my best to concurrently come up with words that defined the symbolism of what I was going for, and here’s that list. The patchwork motif in the first sketch symbolizes the “coming together of many ideas” into a cohesive whole. Now, after I drew it, I decided that it looked a little too much like grandma’s quilt, so drew some other designs more around ideas of water; the forms of waterfalls and rivers, and thinking about how I might turn these into design elements. Since the environment and sustainability is such a part of our national and global conversations these days, I decided I wanted to incorporate something evocative of water.
These early concepts are, again, just assemblages of various shapes that do not really resemble the final product. But they’re still valuable, these notebooks have ideas from many years inside of them, and each one could potentially end up being useful someday. Ideas are like tools in a toolbox. You might not need them now, but someday you might up end being happy that you have them. Save your sketches!
After playing around with different ideas of these shapes, I finally settled on a large “tri-form” design with three repeating sections. This comes back to that idea of iterating your designs creating successive variations on what you’ve drawn. I did a bunch of different versions of each element – some open, some closed, some curved, some straighter. And even once I decided that I liked the look of the thing, I did a few more variations just to interrogate the final product and decide that I liked that one the bst. Finally, after I got the general shape, I wanted to figure out what a good background would be. Since these events are broadcast, the look for the presenters on IMAG is important, and I wanted something that would be bold but also take color nicely and blend into the background while providing a bit of texture, and I finally settled on this sort of organic “leafy tree-top” texture with some lovely negative space for the background to fill in the sides. I decided that the center section would be a large either LED or projected screen, and then filled in the rest of the stage with other screen. Since I wanted this set to stay organic and flowing, I wanted a minimum of straight lines, so I made the other screens curved. Finally, to help balance everything out and add a bit of warmth, I decided that these large structures should be made of what would look like wood, to class it up a bit and keep the “organic” theme going.
So, that completed, I started to model this set that I had drawn. Remember how I said there can be crossover between Vectorworks and Cinema 4D? In this case, the forms that I had drawn were, I knew, going to be difficult to make in Vectorworks, so I decided that the best way to draw this stage would be in Cinema 4D. And right away, I needed to decide on the stage itself, and how that might be laid out. For reasons of width I did the stage as a 50 foot by 50 foot square, but turned it sideways, and then – while in Cinema and modeling – decided that the floor should be another nod to the “water” theme, combining the look of a topographical map with the obvious blue color choice. This is where using Cinema for my initial model turned out to be really helpful, because this crazy multi-level steps thing for the floor took me around twenty minutes in Cinema to get to a final product, and it would have been more time and headache for me in Vectorworks. That remained true when it came time to model this curved shape that makes up the main screen, along with the additional curved shapes that make up the side elements and the three other curved screens. I used Cinema’s volume builder for this, which allowed me to model everything as NURBS curves first, then apply volume to it to fill it all out before texturing it.
For the lighting, I exported the model from Cinema and into Vectorworks to do the lighting. Vectorworks is suited to this sort of work much more so than Cinema 4D, although you can easily place lights with the Stage 2 plugin. Regardless, I wanted the ability to make proper plot sheets, and that necessitated importing my model into Vectorworks. In any event, doing the lighting design within Vectorworks gives me a lot of options for generating paperwork that I wouldn’t have within Cinema, so I want to make sure that the design is fully represented in both formats.
Now I have a model, along with a lighting design, and it’s time to export the lighting design layers from Vectorworks into a format that Cinema will recognize. For that, of course, I use MVR, and the bug is still there, so I had to spend a few minutes fixing the rotation of all of the fixtures, but after that, it was a matter of setting up the scenes for render. I have a low-polygon asset depicting a large crowd that I bought for a few dollars from Turbo Squid, which is a 3D asset site, along with a relatively accurate model of an arena. For the record, a great place to find a variety of decent (and not-so-decent) 3D models that you can use in your renderings is the 3D Warehouse from Trimble, who now own the SketchUp program. Their 3D warehouse is free to download from, and there’s lots of user-created content, all of which is, shall we say, of varying quality, but you can often find what it is that you’re looking for.
So, finally, it’s time to set up our lighting scenes. This political event is a little different from lighting things like concert. There’s a requirement for a lot of even coverage and white light, because of the IMAG coverage. So, that’s how I set up my lighting scenes here, and I used some large area lights to do the audience coverage. I did want to make sure that a tiny bit of haze was present in the air, just because it helps to showcase the lighting rig and the lens flairs help to add a bit of realism and “sparkle”. For this event too, there would be many, many large banks of TV lighting, which I chose not to render in these, simply because I’m not trying to show off the audience, I’m trying to show off the set design, and the area lights that I threw on the audience model capture the likely look of the room in a “TV lighting mode”.
I usually do about ten or so static scenes, and a few animations, and then – if this had been a real thing that I was going to send to a producer of this event for consideration – I would have printed out the static scenes, dropped the animations and all the other stuff onto Dropbox and printed out a shortened URL for the potential end client to view, put all of that stuff along with the “narrative” document printed out and signed into my folders, and sent it off.
This sort of work can be really fun, but it has a pretty low return rate. In this case, I realized as the pandemic set in that time was against me, so I chose to turn this into an exercise for myself only, and decided to set the animations and static scenes to some music and post it all to my social media accounts, just for fun. And sometimes, you have to be willing to take these sorts exercises as only exercises for yourself. Nothing is ever a given in this industry, so if goes nowhere, then at least you can know that you learned something for yourself in the experience.
And now for something completely different, let’s examine a slightly different workflow, from the context of a client who has input during the process. Here we’ll focus less on the rendering and workflow lighting design, and look at more at the revision process, because where I started was not where I ended up. The design we’ll be considering is a personal favorite of mine, it’s a version of a set I did for Halsey’s hopeless fountain kingdom tour, which I was privileged to be the LD on. Ultimately, the artist chose to go with Sooner Routhier’s amazing design, but the designs that I did for this tour were a great learning experience.
To start with, I got a design brief that went something like “show me something cool”. Admittedly, that that is not much to go on, but I had had the advantage of having gotten a little bit of intel from the last moments of the previous tour, a next tour teaser of a woman ascending into some clouds, and some vague suggestions from some management people that the next tour would be all about the ascension from the Badlands (the conceptual world that the first album took place in) to a sort of heavenly realm where all was not as it seemed. With that in mind, I started out sketching some large “angelic” forms that could serve as vertical towers, with an emphasis texturing the entire set with an almost “crystalline” look that I felt would help to reinforce the “heavenly” themes. Looking back, I would have done additional development on this design and done something more interesting on the floor, in particular, but this was a pretty quickly developed.
So, I designed this, drew it quickly in Sketchup, and submitted it to my production manager. (Sadly, I lost the SketchUp and Vectorworks files of this version of the design due to a compression error, so I don’t have pictures.) And the comment came back as, basically, “Wow, this is interesting, and not really the direction I would have expected.” So, quite naturally, that wasn’t really what I wanted to hear, and this brings me to my first point about submitting work when other people are involved, and even in the first instance, that’s going to be true at some point: your work is going to be critiqued, and that is just a fact. Incorporating the feedback that you get in a gracious and easy manner is an opportunity to get your ideas out, and even if the current client doesn’t like where you’re going, you have ideas in your back pocket to use at a later date.
He suggested doing something more interesting with the floor of the set, so that it wasn’t so two-dimensional. Fair enough. So I started doing iterations of what this could look like. That brings me to my second suggestion for when you’re doing this sort of a back and forth with a client or their duly-appointed representatives: if you have the time, try and do a few different versions so that you have them ready to go. They don’t have to be fully-formed, modeled, and rendered, just do some quick sketches of the different ways that certain design elements could go.
After a few of these back and forth sessions with the production manager, we got to a place that he seemed to like, and he told me that he’d go to management with it. A few days later, I heard back, with a new set of instructions: the client didn’t think this was the way to go, and he had a new design brief: base the set design around Baz Luhrman’s 1997 modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, the one with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. Which meant, of course, that my sort of crystalline / heavenly realm type production design was so far outside of what the client wanted to see that it was totally unusable in this context. And that was okay. When you finally get something to go on like that, it can be really wonderfully freeing. I had never seen that movie before, so I had to sit down and watch it, and then had to go back to the metaphorical drawing board and figure out how to interpret that film into a set design context.
After seeing it, I decided to go with something more church-themed. Now here’s where “inspirations” like being given a specific film can be a little bit of a double-edged sword: because you have a strongly visual medium to watch, you will have to be careful to balance basing your design too much off of the visual identity of the inspiration, but also you have to take care not to incorporate too little. It can be a bit of a difficult balancing act. In my case, I decided to re-interpret the church from the film, while incorporating grand gothic architecture influences that I felt would give Ashley – a physically energetic performer – a chance to showcase her talents. I started by drawing the upstage screens as large window shapes, and doing the floors, stairs, and railings in a faux-stone texture, and then, in a nod to the angel wings that Claire Dane’s character wears in the party scene, incorporating a large flown set element in the form of an abstract set of angel wings that float and move above the stage. This version of the set was done over the course of a gig on the Chicago Auto Show, and it was some of the most sleep-deprived fast set drawings I’ve ever done. But, when I sent the first drafts to the production manager, what I heard back was a great thing to hear: yes, he liked the direction this was going, and to keep going.
That brings me to the third step I have for work of this sort, once you get to something that the client likes, interrogate why they like it, to give you an idea of which part of the designs to focus on going forward. In this case, he liked the atmosphere of it, the cathedral feeling, the focus on architectural elements like the screens.
So now that I had something to go on, I could continue to refine the design and making little improvements. The balusters of the stairs needed a drastic reworking to give them more life, I incorporated the same shapes of the screens into some LED neon elements that would outline each of the upstage lighting towers and the IMAG screens, and then, once I had the PM’s approval of the general shapes and set, I went into designing and rendering the lighting. Again, referring back to my given “inspiration” here, I wanted the lighting to be very stylistic and moody, so that’s the sort of design I did with my renders. Emphasized the LED neon, and put lots of powerful lights above “The Wing” to help reveal its form as an architectural element within the design. I also started using this time to come up with some interesting “moments”, which is something I think every production design needs. I planned to have one moment with the artist lit only from above with realistic rose petal confetti falling around her, and another with The Wing nearly touching the stage, with the motion-controlled wings wrapping around her.
At this point, I was pretty happy with what I had come up with. So, finally, I rendered everything as before, with about ten static shots and some videos, then wrote up the design narrative, emphasizing how I incorporated the inspiration into the design, talking the reader through some of the reasoning behind the choices that I made, and inviting further collaboration. And then, I went to FedEx office, printed everything off, signed it with my nice pen, put it into one of my folders, and sent it off! And then, I didn’t get the design, sad face. But that’s okay, it was a great learning experience and I ended up being beaten by Sooner Routhier, one of the best in the business, so in that sense, it was an honor.
So, to wrap up, what have we learned by examining these two processes? Well, really, both processes are related to each other. One involves refining and iterating your designs while incorporating feedback from an external stakeholder, and the other involves you being that stakeholder and doing your best to guess what your client would love to see while drawing from your own experiences, and then sending it off. Clearly, the second process involves the other, but the second will often be more challenging from the perspective of incorporating feedback coming from a point of view you might not have considered before.
So to recap the overarching process of sending things to clients: the process begins with design, you conceptualize, you research, you sketch. You solicit feedback, either from your own internal process of evaluating and critiquing your own work, or from someone else (or a big team of someone’s else) giving you feedback. Finally, you interrogate that feedback, incorporate it into your concepts and sketches, and iterate the design. Repeat for as long as necessary to get to a finished product. Three steps, but to do this process well takes a lot of time and a lot of thinking.
For handing things to clients, I recommend at least ten static shots, some animations if you’re feeling plucky, and some technical-style drawings that show the rig and how it’s laid out, along with a design narrative. Putting these into a nice-looking folder is always a good idea, if for no other reason that it will help keep your stuff from blowing away in a poorly-timed gust of wind.
Finally, the best piece of advice I’ve heard, again from John Featherstone, is this: make an effort, whenever designing for someone else, to truly, truly listen. Actively listen, not only to the client, but to everyone involved, and try really hard to give everyone on a project a sense of ownership. Good ideas can come from anywhere, and when people feel personally invested in a project, they will do some of their best work.
And this brings me to the end of my presentation. I want to again thank Martin Professional for the chance to be here with you all today, and I want to thank you, the audience members who took time out of your day to come watch me blab about my workflow when it comes to renders and making deliverables for clients. A big thank you again to my friends Michael Grandietti and Brad Schiller for helping to put this on and fielding all of your questions, and speaking of questions, let’s open it up for a few of those!