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Sharing History, Part I

My touring baptism came about in the mid-aughts, when – I’m sorry – Olds were mostly running things, at least viewed through the chartreuse-tinted glasses of a newb. The world of country music might have been an outlier in this, or perhaps I was just getting picked up by longer-running acts which had held onto their people for a while. Halsey came around in 2016, and while that crew trended young, the highest production position was still held (at that time) by a guy pushing into his mid-forties¹. I was, for a long time into my career, the youngest person around. For Reasons – a lot of them, but The Plague in particular stands out as so singular and so disruptive that it hardly bears mentioning – a great seismic shift has occurred / is occurring. A great uncomfortable bezoar of pent-up and justifiable irritation with budgets, long and somewhat unpredictable hours, client expectations, and ridiculous gatekeeping has finally grown uncomfortably bulbous enough to lead to a collective disgorgement of more experienced persons from the biz. We have bled talent. So says, at least, my own informal polling and lived time on the job site. (While I truly believe all this is broadly correct, there are plenty of perturbations that lead to regional variations.)

This has obvious consequences on our collective knowledge – no formal institution to speak of here, but the phrase holds in an abstract sense. Time somewhat linearly correlates with useful experience, and this pattern remains true across industries. Institutional knowledge is necessarily built over the years by the people twiddling the widgets and spinning the knobs in any particular profession, and minus Matrix-style jackings-in to transfer information of the martial arts into our grey matter, there’s a certain amount of time required to acquire The Knowledge. This winnowing of older and more experienced persons represents a loss greater than just years served by an individual. Like guardians of the the sacred scrolls in a digital age, their experience is built on their own years, yes, but standing astride a rich history of The Art.

Really, it’s all history. What we know now becomes what we’ve known forever; today builds upon the foundations we laid yesterday and to the unbroken line stretching into the past. No singular person(s) sat down and figured out, you know…production in isolation, because there’s simply too much to know, and no reason to know it. We will not all be necessarily enriched by memorizing the entire Rosco catalog; not all knowledge acquired is necessarily virtuous. We can see further by standing upon one other’s knowledge, we share and disseminate and watch the next video in the tutorial series and read in books, and we learn directly – sitting at the console together or sharing an adult beverage after the show – from those who have glimpsed the further shores of understanding.

As narrative instruction, I will return us to a time when I was starting, nurturing a nascent drive to play within realms of hitherto-unexplored luminous dimensions. I was not an utter neophyte, I had several small tours as designer / programmer under my belt as well as some time at Bandit fixing lights. Having been unexpectedly invited to be the LD for a large act, I was charged with programming while the designer was away doing very important designer-y things in some other state. I listened to the music, listened again, tapped what buttons I felt held maximum correspondence to the spirit of the tracks, and presented my work to the designer when he came back. His approval was, shall we say, tepid. “You need to do more.” he said. And, indeed, I did. While this designer tended somewhat toward creating overcued messes, I had allowed a conservatism borne of prior jobs in a House of Worship setting to guide my hand toward the soporific. In the moment, I could see the error, but with hindsight, the solution, or, perhaps, the preventative salve, now seems to me to be clearer: to have been better-versed in both the current trends and the history of what past concerts of this sort, and even of this artist, looked like. Back then – this was 2013ish mind you – YouTube was far enough along convincing users to shovel their content into its insatiable maw that I could probably have found plenty of examples of the programming I should have been going for, or even by attending shows and seeing what other lighting craftspersons were up to.

This is not to say that simply observing and copying stands in for some form of skill. Fully-formed talent in this context is an amalgamation of many things, among them: gracious professionalism, an understanding of musical theory, basic math, a disposition toward the logical, knowledge of signal flow, technical acumen with your chosen platform. These are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Another and more profound lesson in the acquisition of talent may be found amidst the hushed whispers of the painting studio or the wavering heat of the silversmith’s shop: the apprentice absorbing the experience of the master, practicing and mastering the techniques of the far and near past before being entrusted to innovate. The formal rigidity of the historical apprenticeship system would be unlikely to serve us well today, but within these confines we find a valuable insight that helps me, at least, with a question I’ve been mulling for years, that the occasional young LD asks: what is the best way to develop the requisite knowhow, the taste, to make with the great lighting?

I’ve discussed this at length before; programming and design and the theory of how we do and, importantly, teach these things occupy a spot in my brain right up there with Star Trek and classic cocktails. In those instances, I discussed theories of color, Itten’s Design and Form, coherence, et cetera. Within this onslaught of theory were some practical instructions, a recommendation to “study the greats” lurking about, but it bears exposition. Study and mastery of the styles and looks (there’s that word again!) of the lighting designers of way-yore and not-so-way-yore is an invaluable aid in the quest for excellence. The lesson therein, distilled: lighting designers have over many years discerned truths, or at least informed opinions about what looks good and what works, and before innovation should come an appreciation of and ability to recreate these truths.

A white hit on your Atomics on a snare hit looks good. A delayed outward sweep accomplishes the same thing, albeit with a slightly different feeling. This is one tidbit of knowledge. There are many more. The arc of the thing is thus: build your skill through derivation, seek the knowledge of the states of the art, past and present. Access to a multiplicity of streams from productions from a variety of times and spaces are as a river, out of which information may be freely dipt. Copy the ideas into your own programming, as this imparts context sensitivity while expanding your total palette of content to draw from. Then, break the rules to build something new and interesting.

I think back to my time programming the aforementioned tour, and I realize that missing in my knowledge set was an understanding of what other and older programmers of the time were doing, and this was a consequence of having been essentially self-taught (especially in my early days), plopped down in front of a console and told to get busy. This is not everyone’s experience, and who knows how they do it in the Hallowed Halls of Learning at Full Sail or whatever. I suppose I’m arguing for something ephemeral and in the air; the culture holding itself to an ideal, even if unenforced. Programmer? Maybe not until you’ve watched two or three Jason Baeri shows and can apply yourself to create something that approximates the lavish visual torrents of Hesitation Marks, down to the perfectly-timed pixel-mapped chases on the MagicPanels. Watch Reputation and figure out the best and most efficient way of programming those fireworks on the ColorForces that Eric programmed for the end of the show. Fire up that one Google-owned video website and examine the contours of Bridges to Babylon, wherein Mark Fisher and Patrick Woodruffe created an exquisite baroque monument hewn from gilt sculpture and Vari-Lites and truss and video walls and frickkin’ layering. The show builds, it breathes. The designers and programmers noticed the flaw of overcueing as the show developed and went back and fixed it, showing restraint and good taste. Watching, understanding, learning to replicate the talents of these predecessors confers upon you some measure of their skill.

I’m not arguing for the necessity of exceeding Woodruffian standards in order to consider one’s skills fully-fledged, or even fledged. There are already enough cases of Imposter Syndrome floating about all our upstairs that to add to them would be an act of collective disservice. I think, had I had better access to and understanding of the history of my profession, and (just perhaps) listened more closely and sought out relevant resources, looking back at my early design work wouldn’t feel quite so much like extracting shame juice from a bounty of overripe fruit.

An understanding of the history of what you’re doing, and the big names within it, and the ability to recreate those looks are each shiny tools in your toolbox that build foundations of skill that can be put to your good use. In our second part, we’ll talk about the sharing part of sharing history in greater depth.

  1. This is not old. I know.

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