Where is the Industry Heading: Interview with Rob Sayer

In our continuing column, Where is the Industry Heading, we interviewed Rob Sayer, a lighting designer and production manager located in the United Kingdom. Rob brings years of real world experience from the live event, theatre and corporate event world. Rob has designed and operated lighting for theatre performances, music festivals and large corporate events for blue chip companies while traveling all over Europe.

Rob also runs a lighting website called On Stage Lighting where he shares tips, tricks, technology, practices and education in the world of stage, theatre and event lighting.  On Stage Lighting is a useful resource to help to those new to lighting.

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In regards to paperwork, how has that changed from when you started to where you are now?

It’s funny for me, my work is mainly in one off events with quick turnover and the paperwork side is far removed from theatre days when everything was finely planned and each element fully documented in detail. Pre production on some shows extends to little more that a phone call and it’s common to draw a rig plan on the back of the schedule while the crew are pushing boxes into the gig.   I certainly don’t take focus notes.

Having said that, the move over to electronic paperwork has made a big difference.  It saves so much time and I have created some .xls templates over the years that do nearly everything but hang the kit. The downside is the gut feeling that you missed something because the lists are generated by “magic”.  Who hasn’t witnessed the modern phenomenon of the “cut ‘n’ paste” error, even if it’s only the date on the production schedule?

What are your thoughts on LED’s in general for use within the industry?

I blame LEDs exclusively for the fact that I can no longer flip frying bacon over in the pan using my fingers!  They don’t get hot and being light weight means that us lampies are softening up.

I love some of the richer colours that you can achieve with RGB and they are getting brighter all the time, although nothing punches quite like a PAR can.  The colour transmission curves are also improving, although the cheaper units can be spiky and produce some pretty unexpected colour interactions.

It’s important for non-lighting people (clients, producers etc) to remember that all technology, including LEDs, are not some kind of magic bullet that will save the show.  Some people seem to think “Well, we’ve got all this LED kit here so everything will be great.”

The biggest plus for improved light source technology is the power consumption.  When you think 10 years ago, even a medium sized rig required some serious power and you spent the whole show with the Grand Master @ 80% just to keep the breakers in.  With moving heads andLED’s, my dimmer counts have come down to drama club levels and you can run quite big rigs off little more than a few wall sockets.

What challenges do you face with the ever changing console architecture?

On one hand, consoles are becoming more complex as the demands of the shows increase and the technology advances.  On the other hand, all lighting professionals are increasingly expected to be able to use a console to a certain level these days, and often multiple platforms too.  It’s hard to keep up and I now make time to learn new stuff “off the job” and actively attend training courses – previously you could simply pick it up on site.

The more platforms you learn, the easier it is to understand new stuff.  I recently did some Jands Vista training with Neil Vann of AC Lighting in the UK.  Neil said “Which desk do you want me to reference?”.  I told him I did Avo, Hog, MA and others so we spent the day talking in a mix of nomenclature which came naturally to both of us.  I then realised that many programmers use different terms from different consoles, even in the same sentence. That can’t be good for the new guys trying to learn.  Luckily, the interfaces are becoming much less geeky and specialist – after all, we are in the business of lighting shows not programming computers.

When you buy a lighting console you don’t just buy it, you buy into it.  I am pretty agnostic about console choice but asking people which platform is best is a good way to start an argument. It’s a bit like following a sports team.

Does 3D rendering provide a reliable method for developing a concept while designing out a production?

I find 3D rendering most useful for explaing a concept to someone else: I know what it’ll be like but need to communicate it to others so we can move forward together. Corporate clients always want to know “what it will look like on the day” and many people have difficulty visualising a set from 2D plans let alone understanding light interaction in the space.

I still find that the best stuff happens in the venue in the middle of something else when you stumble upon a great look or angle.  All thepre-show development in the world doesn’t seem to beat that technique.

While the best software can handle both quality rendering and pre programming, I see them as having very different motivations.  If I want a good 3D rendering to show a client, I use something that produces results quickly with only a few steps and I have complete control over (ie. Lighting hacks rather than “real” real).  Using a visualiser to try things out or “get something into the desk”, I stop caring about the quality of the beams or the realism and hope the graphics card keeps up.   Just when you think you have the ultimate machine, the next gen of software arrives ever more hungry.

At the end of the day, it’s all about what the budget can stand and whether provides genuine value for the show.  In the UK at the moment we are running on empty as far as budgets are concerned sopre-production time, if there is any, has to well spent.

Do you feel that projection media is a form of lighting or should it be considered a separate field?

I love the fact that I can create gobos in Photoshop or use animated content to replace the traditional gel and gobo combination to create colour and texture.  That kind of projected media is still lighting to me.

When it comes to images projected onto an area of screen or set, what constitutes lighting?  Is an LED array just a lo res video screen?  If  Versatubes are spread across the stage but replay one content stream like a giant screen, is that really lighting – or set design?  Surely this is where the field splits and becomes a different animal, even though many of those doing it might have a background in traditional lighting.

Looking back at a past production, how would you change it with some of the latest technology out on the market today?

Every production and every lighting design is a product of the time and the technology is part of that.  Obviously, with a new show and brief you must look with fresh eyes and the knowledge of what’s possible technically now.  I actually enjoy the reverse –  looking to the past for new ideas.

What new or upcoming technology has the potential to change the lighting industry?

The internet has the power to bring all of human endeavour into on place for collective consideration. That impacts everything, including the sharing of ideas and technology in lighting.  While the web itself is no longer new, it’s such blank canvas that people constantly find new ways of using.

Creating On Stage Lighting has opened my eyes to the fact that there are thousands of people all over the world, all doing the same thing – lighting shows.  Previously, knowledge and skills have been passed on locally or by narrow channels like lighting textbooks.  Now, we are all learning from each other across continents.  That also has massive potential for manufacturers who can have real life detail about their product spread like wildfire.

What advice can you give to a beginner looking to make it in the industry?

It’s still important to pay your dues and learn from the bottom.  This doesn’t have to mean spending a whole year sweeping the stage but make sure the basics don’t get missed.

As the industry has grown and technology has become more easily available, there is temptation to get so involved with “higher level” technology including moving lights and digital lighting.  It seems like all you need to do is to download GrandMA onPC, spend a year reading the manual and you will become a moving light programmer.

While it’s great to be able to access this new world, remember that all the professionals currently at the top of their game all started with a few rusty old PAR cans at their school.  The best way to learn the business is to work alongside people who really know their stuff.

Do you have any tech-table rituals or traditions?

Nothing quirky.  As long as I have water and my spectacles, we can do a show.

Oh, I discovered recently that I cannot function with a right ear only comms headset.   Apparently, 20 years of having the tech ring in my left ear and live show in my right has become so routine that I was unable to cope with them switched.  It felt like my head was on backwards and I could neither understand the show or the show caller so I had to ask for a different set of comms.  You can imagine the faces when I say “Look, I’m sorry – I just can’t work like this….”

What is your favorite gel color and why?

It’s hard to pick a definite favourite, all designers have a personal palette of gels they know well and are confident using.  In the UK, my generation grew up with Lee Filters so it would probably come from that range.  Blue is a staple of all genres of lighting, the most flexible of medium blues being something like L119 or L079 .

But let’s chuck out analytics and common sense outta the window.

Hell, what colour is the one that everyone comments on?  What colour does everyone love and no one hate?  What gel can you use that makes you instantly a great lighting designer in the eyes of others and makes your fee seem worth every penny?

Congo Blue, of course!

Bio of Rob Sayer

rob-sayerRob Sayer is a freelance Lighting Designer and Moving Light Programmer based in the UK.  Currently working in live music and corporate events, Rob originally began lighting in theatre and trained at the internationally renowned Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Rob is also the creator of On Stage Lighting, the popular article based website by lighting professionals for others just starting out.  Covering a wide range of subjects including lighting design, technology and practice, On Stage Lighting received tens of thousands of visitors every month from the next generation of lighting industry experts.  From beginnings in 2007, the site has gained a wide readership including hundreds of feed subscribers from all over the world.

You can also follow Rob and On Stage lighting via twitter, @OnStageLighting