Where is the Industry Heading: An Interview with Phil G. Gilbert Jr.

This month, we bring you our continuing column, Where is the Industry Heading with an interview from Phil G. Gilbert Jr. Phil is a lighting designer that is based out of New York City but travels the states designing lights for theatre, dance and corporate events. Phil took time out of his hectic schedule to sit down and talk with us about his views and opinions on the direction the industry is heading with new products and how to get ahead in the industry.

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

The high school that I came up in had a fixed plot.  The stage was in almost continuous use for student productions, district events, and outside rentals.  Because of this, I learned a lot about magic sheets (though, I didn’t know that’s what they were called) but not a lot about plots and paperwork.

When I moved on to working at a regional lighting company, I learned very quickly to turn out plots, patches and related paperwork for each show.  At the time, I was using WYSIWYG for a lot of this, which I enjoyed quite a bit.  It was nice to have a fairly seamless connection between plot, patch, and pull (instrument schedule).  In that situation, WYSIWYG had just about the right level of detail for what I was doing; not quite as involved as Lightwright, but a little more automated than doing it by hand.

Since going freelance, I have constantly sought out the method that fits in best with my workflow. And, to be perfectly candid, I still haven’t found it.  If I did more theater, I’d probably use Lightwright.  If I did more concerts, I’d probably use WYSIWYG. As it stands, I still go to Excel to create a lot of my paperwork. Most of the corporate clients that I work with have standardized on VectorWorks, so that’s what I draft in now.  After becoming proficient in AutoCAD and WYSIWYG, I’ve never really gotten comfortable with VectorWorks, so I tend not to fully utilize Spotlight for my paperwork.  I might at some point. Who knows? Until then, I’ll continue to use Excel for a lot of the spreadsheet type stuff.

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

I can’t say that I really have a ‘general’ opinion on LEDs. Check that. I like them. They’re cool.

But really, I’m glad we have this type of innovation going on.  Every technology starts somewhere, and that somewhere is usually not perfect for one application, let alone many.

Take subtractive color mixing for example. During the 80s and 90s, dichroic glass and subtractive color mixing were new technologies and it took a long time to get them right. Heck, they still vary fixture to fixture.

With LEDs we’ve seen some great products early on.  It’s hard to overstate the impact of the ColorBlast12 alone.  And with the really useful fixtures, we’ve seen a lot of garbage. The great thing is, LEDs are taking the development path that needs to happen.  Some manufacturers are focusing on making them cheap; others are making them more energy efficient; and a few are taking them and starting to make next-generation products.  A great example of this is the VLX (from Vari-Lite). By all accounts, this is probably going to be the most important lighting fixture released this year.  I suspect there will be lines to get close to these at LDI this year.

But, as with anything, LEDs are just one tool in the toolbox.  They do certain things really well.

I love having a whole bunch of ColorBlazes to wash a sic on a corporate event or a concert.  1K Altman Cyc lights are great if you need the perfect amber bounce for Lion King, but they’re a PITA to deal with in a cramped ballroom.

A ColorBlast iWhite is perfect for really close-in face light, when a PAR or Leko is just going to be overkill or bulky.

And PixelLines and VersaTubes have become some of the best go-to eye candy around.

But the interesting thing is that none of these products really replaces another.  We still need sic lights, lekos, PARs, and police beacons.

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

That’s easy. Being forced to use a console that I’m not familiar with.

Having to learn a new console is a lot like learning a new language.  Some people can do this very easily and some people have a very hard time with it. (I’m probably somewhere in the middle.)

I programmed the media servers on a recent show.  When the designer called me, he asked if I would be okay with programming the show on ‘Console X’.  I had never used the console before, but I knew that the vendor had a bunch of them sitting around and that they would prefer to have this desk out on the show.  I told him that I’d be happy to learn the console, but that the vendor needed to provide me with one-on-one training as part of the package.  Everyone was happy with that arrangement and I received excellent support from the company as I translated my native language (Hog) to a new language.

The hardest part about learning a new language (console) is when no word exists (in the new language) for a word you love (in your native tongue). In general, I don’t mind this.  While it’s easy to be annoyed when a feature doesn’t exist that you’re accustomed to, there are often just as many new tools that you haven’t had before.  Almost every console out there has a few cool tricks.  (Some of them just have more.)

I like learning new consoles (when there is adequate time and support), but I generally only do it when I have a show that requests it.

The Catch-22 of this console business is this: you should never take a new (to you) console out on a big show and you can’t really learn a new console backwards and forwards without doing a big show with one.

Of course, at the end of the day, when a designer asks me what console I want, I have one real go-to board.

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

Oddly, I used to do a lot more 3D rendering than I do now.  That is in part because I am doing more corporate work and less music.

I think that 3D rendering is a very powerful tool, especially when it comes to pre-programming on tight time-tables.  However, I’m always a little gun shy when it comes to showing lighting renderings to corporate customers.  That’s because they don’t think of the rendering in the same way that I do.   When I look at a rendering, I’m looking at it more as a proof of concept.  I want to see if the angles of the lighting positions are working, if the front wash is going to work, and if I’m going to be able to get the looks from the moving lights that I need.  When a corporate client signs off on a rendering, they expect to see the exact same thing in real life.  They expect the exact same color, the exact same brightness, and all of the other things that have been dropped in to that image.

If the shade of purple is slightly different on paper than it is in the room, you might have a problem on your hands.

So, I would say that I use it with caution and I always present it with caveats.

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

As many others have said, I don’t think you can take a hard line on this one way or the other.  I’ve done plenty of work with media servers and ‘digital lights’, but that doesn’t make me a video director or a projectionist by any stretch of the imagination.  I think that a serious lighting designer in any area (concert, Broadway, corporate, etc.) has to be well-informed when it comes to projection/video/media technologies.

At some point, a client will approach you and say something like, “So, I saw the Hannah Montana concert with my daughter last week, and like, I think that’s what the show for [insert name of conservative corporate behemoth here] should look like.”  Then you’ll say something like, “Okay, the existing lighting budget is fifty thousand dollars.  I need an additional half-million dollars.” Then she’ll say something like, “So, what can we do without changing the budget?”

My point is that all but the top three visual designers in the world need to know the difference between cutting edge and budget-friendly technologies.  The best designers know where these converge and are able to leverage slightly-used or factory-certified technologies to add the most impact to their visual designs.

I see this a lot in the corporate world.  Many mid-size corporate events will have a production company, a lighting designer, and a video director.  While everyone typically works well together, it often falls on the lighting designer to become the scenic designer.  I think that’s great.  We continue to have more and more products that are widely available which enable us to create a visually appealing environment. (And I – for one – like playing with new toys.)

On Broadway, however, most projections are designed by a Projection Designer for a given show.  Oddly, there’s no Tony for Projection Design.

But, I guess at the end of the day, I don’t really consider Projection Design to be a form of Lighting Design.  It just so happens that some Lighting Designers are really good Projection and Media Designers.

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

Here’s the deal.  VersaTubes make everything better.  They’re simply one of the most versatile pieces of tech to hit our industry in a while.  When they came out, I thought they’d be old hat in a year.  People are still finding interesting things to do with them that hasn’t been seen before.

I can’t count the shows that I’ve done where I’ve looked up and thought of a way that VersaTubes would be the perfect way to complement a design.

That being said, bring a good tech with you. They can be a real pain in the…

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

UVA’s D3 media server is a game changer.  As they continue to make it more ‘lighting friendly’, I think we’re going to see this become very popular in the USA.  Its ability to ‘think’ of multiple video surfaces in context with each other is simply a game changer.  It’s getting more and more play in touring shows and on Broadway, and I think it’s likely to become the defacto media server for ‘premium’ shows.

Keep an eye on Sea-Changer.  These guys are a dark horse.  They have some great products and they keep coming out with new stuff.

And finally, to beat a dead horse, the Vari-Lite VLX is going to be the must-have fixture of next year.  Bad Boy is bright, but a truly zoomable LED moving head is just dead sexy.

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

This industry is all about relationships and being good at what you do.  You need to always be willing to learn and you should always try to surround yourself with people who know more than you.

When I find myself in a rut, I look around at what other people are doing. I watch concert DVDs and I visit friends on their productions.  These things inspire me to work harder and to be even better at what I do.

When I find that my head isn’t making it through the door too well, I remind myself that there are a lot of people out there who are better, faster, and easier to deal with than I am.  It’s not that I’m trying to depress myself, but more of a gut-check to remind myself that I will always have a lot to learn.  Not a bad thing, but maybe my ego needs to chill out a little bit some days.

And finally, find a mentor.  I have had the great fortune to have fantastic mentors such as David Poole, Brad Schiller, John Featherstone, Howard Werner, and Kevin Sullivan.  All of these people have shown me how to improve myself and my work and all of them continue to be great friends.

Do you have any tech-table rituals or traditions?

I’m a bit of a coffee junkie.  So, on any show you’re bound to find a lot of dead soldiers (i.e. Starbucks cups) lying around.  One of the first things I do when setting up FOH is to acquire a trash can so that the coffee cups don’t get out of control.

Aside from that, my FOH has to be comfortable.  I usually put my personal workspace (laptop, etc.) between my primary and spare consoles.  That way I always have some space between me and the next guy. A good pair of pleather high-backed rolling chairs are always part of my spec.  (I’m not that old, but it’s never too early to take care of your back. It also makes a hell of a difference when you’re coming back in for that morning keynote after an hour of sleep.)  The second chair is usually a gift for the stage manager/producer/director sitting next to me – great way to start a week together.

What is your favorite gel color and why?

R39 – Skelton Exotic Sangria.  Originally, I fell in love with the name.  Then I saw the color and knew it was meant to be.  It’s just one of those fantastic saturated colors that is hard to get exactly right from a CMY system.  If I can only have six colors for a rock show, you can bet this is one of them.

A little more about Phil.

phil_gilbert_jr-headshotWith stops in Oklahoma and Southern California, I spent my High School and College years in Austin, Texas.  My high school technical theater teacher became a friend for life and showed me that lighting, video, and audio aren’t just hobbies, but a career.  After spending a couple of years at the University of Texas at Austin, I went to work for BAi, LLC, an Audio-Visual and Acoustics consulting firm.  There I learned AutoCAD, Architects, and that I would never be able to spend forty years at the same desk.

After two years, I knew that I needed to at least try to make a living ‘doing lighting’.  I went to work for LD Systems, a regional audio-visual company in Houston.  I quickly learned about Double-hung PRT, four-aught feeder, load balancing dimmers, and how to field-strip Cyberlights, Studio Colors, and X.Spots.  Lighting everything from corporate presentations to rodeos, I learned a lot and I learned quickly.

When fate intervened and took me to Chicago, I decided it was time to work for myself…not knowing what that really entailed.  Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of working on a diverse set of shows.  I’ve programmed an ice show in Lake Placid, designed lighting for cars and trucks, run a concert on a US air base in Germany, worked on a Broadway musical, and provided the backdrop for the 2008 Presidential Election (at least on one channel). I’ve even written for a magazine. Oh, and I’ve lit a LOT of corporate events.

After two years in Chicago and two more in Manhattan, I now live just outside of NYC (all right, yes, I live in New Jersey) with my wonderful wife and my adorable dog.

You can contact Phil through his website, www.philgilbert.net or through twitter @philgilbertjr.

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