Every design starts somewhere. For Chris Lisle that place is invariably inside the creative hearts and minds of his artist-clients. Before he even sits down with his WYSIWYG software, the Nashville-based LD thinks long and hard about his client’s vision for an upcoming tour and how lighting can help turn it into an eye-pleasing reality on stage. This sense of empathy has earned him the long-term trust and friendship of clients as diverse as Miranda Lambert and Robert Plant.
Since every artist brings a unique vision to his or her performance, it isn’t surprising that Lisle’s extensive body of work embraces a wide range of starkly different looks, from the glitzy glamour of his recent Platinum Tour for Miranda Lambert, to the more theatrical work he’s done for Quincy Jones, to his powerful aerial dominated shows for One Republic. Their eclecticism notwithstanding, Lisle’s designs are all joined by a common theme: each is unfailingly true to his client’s vision as well as his own equally strong sense of lighting’s role in contributing to the overall experience for audiences.
Lisle spent time with us recently to talk about the importance of empathy and honesty in lighting design. Along the way, he also shared some of the creative insights that have made him one of the most acclaimed LDs anywhere. Enjoy.
When Robin Williams died you posted a nice tribute for him on your Facebook page. In it you said your sense of humor was inspired by him. Your sense of humor is well known; so how would you describe it? Does it help you in your work?
“Yeah, I have several “comedic heroes” and Robin Williams was certainly one of them; Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler are others. I think that the bottom line is that there is a strong element of ‘goofy’ in my sense of humor. I have my random accents, voices, etcetera that I will try to use to get people to laugh.
“I’m not sure that it helps my work as a Designer, but it certainly does not hurt. One thing that we always do during the programming and rehearsal process is have fun.
Personally, I think it’s important that LDs have a sense of humor. I think that if you can keep the people around you laughing then they may overlook something in the design that you screwed up!”
OK, so humor aside, what else do you see as the most important personality traits for an LD to have?
“Creativity – the ability to do, or at least try to do, something that has not been done before, which can be tough as it’s ALL always been done before! Other traits I would list are People Skills, because when you treat people right you will get the same in return. Honesty, so you don’t blow smoke, but instead tell managers and artists the truth when you’re asked your opinion. Then I would add a Good Work Ethic and overall sense of Ethics, plus Humility, because gigs come and go very quickly, so you want to be thankful for what you have and never take it for granted.”
You’ve done some beautiful “glitzy” looks for Miranda Lambert and for One Republic’s Native Tour with the diamond look. On the other hand, you went with a retro basic look for Robert Plant. Do you approach your work differently from a creative standpoint when it’s glitzy than you do when it’s basic?
“Every artist has a way that they want their show to ‘look’ or feel.’ Before I hit pen to paper, I try to get into the artist’s head a little bit and at the very least get keywords of what they want. I take those keywords and think about what imagery that brings up in my head. I then try to take that imagery and make a production of it. Sometimes it’s 5K Fresnels on grip stands for a retro look; other times it’s a 50’ wide by 30’ high metallic picture frame like we did for Miranda.”
Can you tell us how your creative process unfolds? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
“Every tour and show is different in terms of how and where I get creative inspiration. Much of it comes from the ‘keywords’ that I just mentioned. A lot of the times logistical things like budget, truck space and venue size also dictate the direction we take in a production. I also get inspired watching other designers’ shows. I saw Pink earlier this year and was blown away by what Baz Halpin did. I have seen several TSO shows, and Bryan Harley always leaves me highly impressed. Seth Jackson also has a wonderful talent of making amazing shows.”
Is there a certain part of the lightshow or specific type of fixture that you always start with first and then work your way out?
“After scenic and truss is laid out on the plot, I always add my wash fixtures next. LIGHT THE ARTIST AND BAND! I make sure that I have enough fixtures in the correct places to show the people that the audience paid to see. From there I start to layer in the spot and beam fixtures to accomplish whatever visuals are needed for that specific show.”
You mention scenic elements, are they becoming more important in concert tour designs?
“Yes and no – I think that it all depends on the tour. Scenic is one of the biggest areas (along with video content) that we can use to apply a unique look to a tour. Truss is truss and fixtures are fixtures, but adding custom visual elements helps to really define the look or theme of the tour. “
Is there a certain type of software that you like to design in? Do you ever just sketch things on paper?
“I have been an avid WYSIWYG user for about ten years now. They continually make the product better and better. The renderings I get out of it are primo! I have two ‘dongles’ — one that stays with me so that I can draw on the road, and one that lives in my ‘Copa Room’ programming studio at the office. I rarely sketch on paper much anymore, mainly because my handwriting is so sloppy and I will look at the sketch a day or two later and be like, ‘What the hell is that!?’”
We know there was extensive use of videos on the Miranda Lambert Platinum Tour. Has the emergence of IMAG changed the way you approach your work? Do you design for the screen now as well as the live audience?
“I actually am highly guilty of not designing for IMAG. Not that I am against it, but my main target is how the show is seen by the human eye, not a camera. This probably why I don’t do any TV work – they don’t like it too much when you are horrible at lighting for the camera! This all being said, I do try to keep artist and band lit as much as possible.”
On a related subject – any advice on how to have successful collaborations with video directors?
“Communicate! I always like to sit down with the video director and engineer and chat about any specific needs that they have for the show, especially if they have been with the artist on previous tours. I will make some notes for them through rehearsals as well. A great example is on the Platinum tour where John Breslin, the director, and I sat down to talk through the set list. We chat about possible filters and effects to use on certain songs that match what we are doing visually on stage.”
On that Miranda Lambert Platinum tour you build Nexus Aw 7×7s into an M shaped truss downstage. Do you think we will see more of this type of design, where there are pixel mapped fixtures worked into different truss configurations?
“Absolutely – the very nature of those style products allows for multiple opportunities to do ‘big picture’ mapping tricks – those are always fun! Just as the growth and development of LEDs has impacted our industry, we will also see continued growth in how these products are used creatively.”
You’ve known Miranda Lambert and worked for her since she’s started. You’ve also enjoyed great long-term relationships with artists like One Republic and Chris Young. What’s the secret to a good LD–Artist relationship?
“It’s pretty simple actually – I just try to be myself. I don’t try to be buddy-buddy with them, but do try to be honest, open, warm, and as I mentioned earlier, I try to get into their head a bit to see what they are going for visually in their mind. They are creative types, just as a designer is a creative type – I respect that and help them put visual elements that match their music.”
Another great artist we wanted to ask you about is Robert Plant. You spent a few days with him at the Bandit Lites in Nashville. Did you ever work with him before? What was this experience like?
“That is hands down one of the best memories of my career. I remember getting a call from a friend on a Thursday saying that RP was looking for an LD and wanted to find someone before he left town on Monday. I was put in contact with his manager, and within two hours met them at the studio where he was working on the finishing touches of the ‘Band of Joy’ album.
“Robert came in and from the get-go was the most down-to-earth and amazing man. He offered me a tea and wanted me to hear some of the tracks that they were working on. I was like ‘WOW!’ We chatted over ideas and he said, ‘Can you put together a lighting package that I can come look at on Sunday. I’ll give you a few songs to program so that I can take a look.’ I am like ‘Um-m yep.’
“I got in my car and called Brent Barrett at Bandit Lites and told him the scenario. I said, ‘Brent, you’re not going to believe this, but Robert Plant is coming to the shop on Sunday to look at lights – I need to put together a package ASAP.’ He was like, ‘Um-m yep.’ I spent Friday and Saturday putting together a package and programming three songs, one of which was ‘Tangerine.’ Robert came in on Sunday and said, ‘Let’s see what you got?’ I ran through the songs and he got up and said, ‘Awesome – let’s play with changing the location of some of these fixtures.’
“So there is Robert Plant with me, grabbing lamp bars, Fresnels, and lekos, and creating a plot right there in the Bandit shop. After that I spent the better part of the next three years touring with him when he worked. I had to turn down the tour this year as I could not (work wise) go to Europe for two months (it was in the middle of Platinum rehearsals and other projects). I will always have fond memories though of Robert and that team – truly amazing people.”
You teach at Belmont University and are involved in many educational activities like the Touring Center Workshop. Obviously you’re a big believer in education, but are there things you can and can’t teach about lighting design?
“You can’t teach creativity – and I don’t think we should try. It’s not my place to tell someone that their creative idea is bad. If it is indeed bad, then time – and/or the artist — will tell them that. The older we get, the more our experiences foster our creativity. When I taught a class on Lighting Design a couple of years ago, I told the students on the first day that I would not grade or judge them on creativity — although if they asked my opinion then I would give it to them. Instead, I worked with them on presentation, purpose of fixtures, and logistics, weight, power and things of that nature.”
Is there any performer from the past who is no longer with us that you wish you had the opportunity to light?
“Elvis….without a doubt. How fun would that be!”
What would you like to be remembered for as a lighting designer?
“That I was fun to be around. That I did some cool creative stuff. That I left a positive legacy with others……”