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Top Ten LD Tricks

This post originally written for my friends at Elite Multimedia.

It’s hard to be in this industry for a while and not accumulate a wide range of tricks, subtle insider knowledge, and other arcana which collectively fall under the umbrella of “experience”. These are the sorts of things it would have been valuable to know when I was first starting out; things I wish someone had told me. And so now, I pass on my top ten ideas and tricks to you, dear readers.

1) Advance your show

No seriously, advance your show. If you show up to a venue and that front color is Rosco 80 instead of 383 and your artistic vibe is all thrown into a tizzy and it happens to be the first time that you’ve bothered to talk to the onsite LD, you have no one to blame but your own self. It is not the venue’s job to call you, it is your job to advance your show. Even if it’s your standard everyday arena or theatre or whatever and you’re sure that everything will be just fine, you have no right to be upset when you arrive and the house lights run on AMX and you didn’t call. Advance. Your. Show.

2) Have a punt page

Artists are like cats – one minute they’re doing exactly what you expect, the next there’s claws and teeth and AGGGGGHHHH*&@#%@! No, wait..what I mean is that artists go off the rails. They’re people, they aren’t machines, and unless your artist is playing to a completely timecoded, pre-mapped show, they might want to change things up from time to time, play a different song, or maybe a totally new song that nobody’s ever heard before. Experimentation is a big part of art, and you had better have something lined up when your country artist whips out his new EDM-inspired ode to Waylon Jennings. It can be something as simple as a nice-looking blue stage wash that you then adjust live with the programmer, but have something.

3) Don’t Panic!

This ties in heavily to the previous tip, but it merits its own discussion.

One of the artists I tour with has a production manager who is in the habit of announcing any problems he sees with the show over the radio, and he does this by screaming into the radio, which is generally mounted near my ear during the show so I can hear said announcements through my com headset. In case this has never happened to you, it is extremely anxiety-inducing to hear your boss bellowing full-volume into the side of your head during the show. It took me a while to get used to this and realize it was just His Way, he’s not angry when he does it, he’s just conveying a sense of urgency, but before I realized this it these announcement would freak me the heck out. Panic is counter-productive, and I had a tendency to mash buttons in an attempt to fix whatever was bothering him, and mashing buttons inevitably leads to mistakes.

While it can be very difficult, keeping a clear and level head will help you make better decisions in the heat of the moment. Don’t panic, think of the solution, not the problem, and know where your towel is.

4) Be smart about your position palettes with beam fixtures

A bit esoteric, but important. Obviously, we as LDs love pointing fixture into the audience for effects, and I do it all the time. But I have a few rules about doing this, especially with the plethora of very narrow beam fixtures on the market. They must be moving, have a rotating gobo or prism in them, or be doing some sort of dimmer chase when they are in the audience. And since sometimes I want the effect of the beams pointing straight into the crowd, I always update my audience positions so they’re hitting in aisles, or on the ad ribbons around the perimeter of the room, or somewhere where there’s no people so that people aren’t having their retinas drilled into by a Sharpy. The person at the helm is responsible in part for the comfort of the audience, and I want to make sure that I’m never shooting 200 watts of 0-degree beamage into people’s eyes.

5) Per-song palettes

This trick isn’t useful for every situation, but it’s something I learned from a fellow LD because I found it helpful. For instance, after setting up your board and setting your “generic” color palettes, make copies for each song that you do. This way, if you need to update a color and you want it to only affect one song, you can do that easily without updating every cue in the song. Of course, if you need to update a palette globally, you can do a simple copy from your generic palette onto everything you want to change. This also works well for gobos and beam focus palettes, since many fixtures don’t have focus tracking or imperfect focus tracking, and having a beam focus palette for a complex song with specific zoom and gobo settings can make updating easier. Don’t overdo it, though, because then if you have to change something you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time updating.

6) Have a justification

Obviously, a big part of a designer’s work is…designing. We make decisions, artistic and otherwise, for a variety of reasons. And oftentimes the Powers that Be above us wander up to the desk and ask in their most charming voice “….why did you do that?”. This isn’t always a challenge to your vision, sometimes, it’s a genuine question. But even if it is a challenge, it’s okay to provide a justification as to why you did something. Very often the people above us don’t have a knowledge of lights, or have a relatively unsophisticated or layman’s understanding of the tech. Be ready to explain things – respectfully – when someone above you wonders at the reasons for a design choice. I’ve spent hours explaining why RGB LEDs are absolutely unsuitable for front lighting on humans, or why I need a specific color correction gel for video. Hopefully, they come away learning something new. And it’s okay to provide your reasoning for artistic choices to, like why you thought red looked good for that song, but when disagreements that are purely opinion-based happen, remember to…

7) Leave your ego at home

Different opinions happen. I happen to work in lighting, where artistic disagreements are much rarer than in the world of sound (Everybody has an opinion about sound) but they do happen. Know when to pick your battles. Sometimes, a decision is worth arguing your position for, but sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes, there’s just no winning, and you can’t let it get you down. Our first duty is to the audience, not our egos.

8) Take breaks

I love programming. Sometimes I do it on a visualizer just for kicks for songs I like. Weird, I know. And when I’m programming on a job site, it’s easy to get into a state of bleary-eyed madness where you start to smell the colors and hear the gobos. When this happens, stop. You do your best work with a clear head, so step away from the console. Put down the Red Bull. Take a visit to the big blue room with poor climate control (otherwise known as ‘outdoors’) and enjoy the cool breeze. Talk to another human about your favorite types of cheese. Allow your brain to take a refreshing break away from the crazy world of tech and console syntax that we inhabit and smell the proverbial roses.1

9) Women in our industry have it tough

Our industry, like the rest of the world, is slowly becoming more egalitarian, but a sad fact is that ours is becoming more friendly to women much more slowly than many other industries. I regularly hear comments about how women don’t belong on the road, or aren’t as good a XYZ job because gender. It’s all nonsense.

If you’re a female, and you should realize going in that women are under-represented in this field. Things can be very tough for women in production; you’ll get flak for having two X chromosomes. Don’t accept bad behavior from anyone, don’t let them talk down to you, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re inherently less competent because you’re a female. If you’re a position of authority, you might have it even harder. Don’t let it get you down.

10) Learn all that is learnable

Never stop learning. Read the latest trade magazines, check out some of the excellent books that Amazon has to offer, talk to other industry professionals, and see some shows. You can never see too many works by other designers, or fill your head with too much knowledge. In a letter to a young admirer, Ludwig Beethoven wrote: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.”, and this is one of the most powerful statements regarding our art (or any other) ever written.

1. I talk to my console all the time. Listening to me program sounds like a string of words like “Annnnd we’ll move you here, maybe a gobo…yeah, that’s it…now blue…mmm. Store that…fade time…maybe a delay…”. This is not necessarily a sign that you need to take a break.

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