Where is the Industry Heading: An Interview with Cat West

In our continuing column, Where is the Industry Heading we sat down with Cat West. Cat toughs herself more of a console programmer rather then a designer but from time to time finds her herself designing lights in the fly.  Cat has worked in the entertainment industry for over 10 years working as a wholehog specialist for High End Systems for 4 years.

Currently, Cat is the Lighting Director and programmer for IO Echo, an LA based band while also working with ACT Lighting on the west coast by providing GrandMA training classes. Cat also runs a website with Joe Cabrera called ConsoleTrainer.com which provides tips, tricks and training materials to console programmers at no charge.  Why you may ask, it is Cat and Joes way of giving back to the industry they love.

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

When I started I would scratch down notes on whatever paper/napkin/spike-tape I could find and then transpose those notes to my computer so I would have something nice and clean for the show. Now I start on my computer and when I get on-site, I write all my notes down on whatever paper/napkin/plot I can find so I can spike-tape them near the console for the show.

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

They’re another tool in the box. For me, they don’t replace anything… they’re just another option to play with. I kind of equate the current LED obsession with fashion. It’s very trendy right now, and next season we’ll have a new buzzword to throw around. Remember when we couldn’t stop saying “convergence” a couple of years ago?

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

Only that I wish I could keep a model of every console at my house so that I could play and play and play. I love learning new consoles. They’re essentially like toys to me: toys that I want to collect!!! There’s a strange and simultaneous combination of both diverse and unified ideologies of different manufacturers in any console’s architecture, but that’s the beauty of it. You get so many choices that I think people get a little overwhelmed. Fortunately, there’s always a training class. Wink wink, nudge nudge.

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

I love using visualizers! ESP Vision has been my favorite for a long time. I’ve used that for pre-programming and also for the Wholehog classes that I gave for HES. It’s such a great communication tool, and being able to program from the comfort of my home is… well, comfortable. Obviously, there are going to be some limitations and some things are going to have to be programmed using the real fixtures (try setting up your 2X2 collage of DL.3s on a visualizer and you’ll see what I mean).

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

Yes to both. In a some shows you’ll have a video team managing the output of one group of projectors for a particular purpose, and simultaneously there will be projectors and media servers that are managed by the lighting team for a different purpose. You also have the issue of control. Of course, there are exceptions to any rule, but a lot of the time: if the media is DMX/Artnet controlled: it falls to the lighting crew. If it’s controlled via video switcher or even just a live feed to a static projector, that may fall to the video team. Remember, I said there are always exceptions…

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

Actually, I’d like to go back in time to 1997 and find the college-version of myself pushing buttons on a conventional, non-tracking console and say “Really? You think that’s cool? Check this out….” I think she’d be excited, but probably more excited about the whole time travel thing than about seeing modern consoles.

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

I really don’t know, but I sure hope I’m lucky enough to use it. This will probably sound silly to most people, but I continue to honestly feel privileged any time I get to use a new product or piece of software that I haven’t used before. I still have the same, goofy, wide-eyed respect for the gear that I had when I started.

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

If you just got your degree: congratulations! A degree is great: It does not make you a lighting designer. You need to take any and every job you can get. Don’t ignore a chance to act as an electrician, a followspot op, a cable puller, anything! This is a small industry- and beginners have to prove themselves. Ask questions and being willing to help out with tasks outside your job description. The more you learn about the technical side of the show, the better a designer you will be. Trust me: your programmer can tell if you know what you’re talking about or not. If you ask to see a gobo from a wash light because you don’t know that fixture… well, I hope I’m not your programmer.

On a programming note: Please Please Please stop programming console-generating effects into every cue in your show! Yes, they’re quick and easy. They’re also rarely elegant.

Do you have any tech-table rituals or traditions?

My ritual is taking breaks. No, not just the kind where you go for lunch. I mean, I very often get my own “programmer’s block.” Sometimes the block is what to make the key change transition look like, or the block is related to translating what I’m picturing into the console. Either way, taking a step back, a deep breath, grabbing a drink or a snack will usually pull me out. If that doesn’t work, a small, quiet “bitch-fest” to myself will usually do the trick (remember to keep it to yourself!!!). The fouler the language, the faster it works: at least that’s what I’ve found.

What is your favorite gel color and why?

During a recent load-in, the house ME asked me what color gel I’d like on a group of pars that he’d be replacing that night for our show. My mind immediately screamed at me, “GEL?!?!? I haven’t thought about gel numbers in years.” I think my answer was something like “the most saturate magenta you have, please.” Apparently, I’ve come to rely on the color mixing that is achieved from the movers rather than anything else. Even with that, I couldn’t give you a list of my preferred colors in CMY values because I make new color presets for every show. A lot of programmers will have a start show with all of their favorite colors mixed and stored in presets. I like the organization of that, but I don’t want the repetition of seeing the same color palette on every show.

consolecatCat West considers herself a programmer and not a designer, though she’s more than capable of having an internal dialogue where she asks herself for a look… complains that she’s being a needy designer… and then programs it anyway. Cat got her first programming job in 2000 when she was asked at an interview if she knew “how to program a Wholehog” for a concert venue, which she didn’t. So, of course, she said yes. In addition to programming, Cat also gives grandMA training classes for ACT Lighting and makes odd PSA Videos for consoletrainer.com. She’s drinking a dirty martini at this very instant.

To contact cat, visit her website at www.catwest.net. You can also follow Cat on twitter @ConsoleCat.