Chris Medvitz: Revealing Light

Posted on March 28, 2018

Photo: Jake Fabricius

Creative collaborations are more than mere give-and-take exchanges for this Los Angeles-based designer. Like archeologists brushing dust and debris off a rare find, he finds that back and forth discussions among collaborators remove distractions from a new project, allowing its true essence to emerge.

Such revelations are essential to the Medvitz philosophy, which calls for coaxing the meaning out of a project, rather than imposing preconceived notions onto a design.
Following this patient, empathetic approach and listening to the voice inside every design, Medvitz has had a hand in some of the most memorable lighting concepts of the past decade, including Enchanted: Forest of Light and the Nintendo E3 Booth.

The magnitude of these projects notwithstanding, his designs draw much of their power from their subtlety, simplicity and grace. Although he works in a rainbow of colors, he prefers to limit his palette on any given project (or in any given scene within a project), believing a more powerful statement can be made with variations in brightness and saturation than an overabundance of hues. This is true not only in his exhibit work, but also in the sets he’s designed for Miley Cyrus and Diana Ross as well as his highly regarded show for Barry Manilow at Paris in Las Vegas.

Speaking from his offices at Lightswitch, where he is a partner, Medvitz shared his insights into the revealing power of light.

The scope of your work on projects like Enchanted: Forest of Light and the Nintendo E3 Booth can readily be described as stunning. You had over 840 timecode cues for the Nintendo project! When you have a project of this breadth, where do you begin? Is there a certain design element that you like to start with?
“Almost all projects start with some sort of visual that’s already established. In the case of the Nintendo E3 experience, it was an architectural design or a themed environment that’s developed out of a game that served as this foundation. We helped bring this environment to life in a way that conveyed the Nintendo gaming and brand experience. With Enchanted, it was a little different as we were creating an experience from scratch, but we still were starting with the garden itself. There were specific areas that Descanso Gardens wanted to feature for the show, so we worked with our clients to understand the history and stories each of these areas already held, and then developed the experience from that point.”

Enchanted: Forest of Light and Nintendo were both walk-through creations. From a design standpoint, how does a project like that differ from something like a building projection or concert, which are meant to be looked at, not entered?
“Well, we have to consider that the audience is going to be experiencing these things from multiple viewpoints and sightlines so it’s more environmental than theatrical in that manner, but also there’s a limit to how you can control the timeline. Both of these shows incorporated music and media and light all choreographed to play together, but the audience enters and exits that timeline on their own as opposed to experiencing it when you want them to. With Enchanted we also have the fact that guests who are more familiar with the botanical garden may choose to visit the different areas out of order. The show is curated to have a certain effect when you follow the route, but there’s nothing preventing guests from deviating from that or ignoring it altogether. Therefore, each experience has to stand on its own.”

You’ve done quite a few walk-though projects where immersion is the ultimate goal. Have you taken lessons from this experience to make your other projects (the ones that aren’t walk-throughs) like corporate events more immersive?
“We’ve certainly seen a trend in the past few years of corporate events wanting to become more ‘brand immersive.’ One of our longtime clients Electronic Arts, combined their E3 press event and exhibit space into a single immersive environment that moved offsite of the E3 show floor and was open to the public. The space has a press-only day, but then features competitive gaming, music concerts, food trucks, all sorts of things that EA feels contributes to an articulated branded gaming experience. This has proven to be very successful for them and they’re entering into the third year of doing this.”

Your projects have often been described in artistic terms. Have you ever painted? Is there a painter from the past who you think would have been a great lighting designer if he or she was alive today?
“I’ve never really taken up painting as a hobby, but I do enjoy photography, although I certainly don’t get to practice as much as I’d like! That being said there certainly are a lot of painters from the past that would likely be good lighting designers. Several that captured light in their works include Renoir, Monet, van Dyck, Caravaggio, Matisse, Aivazovsky, but I’d love to see how more abstract painters would use light as a medium – Van Gogh, Klimt, Rothko, Richter.”

Given the scope of your projects, there’s obviously a great deal of collaboration that takes place. What advice do have on successfully collaborating with others?
“I think the key to design is realizing that we’re creating commercial art of one sort or another. Designers must be willing to compromise to meet the demands of a project. Collaboration is great because the riffing of ideas off several viewpoints often leads to things that wouldn’t be discovered otherwise, but ultimately everyone must be willing to participate in this process and not let ego get in the way of what’s right for the project. I often see projects as though they’re revealing themselves to the creative team. It’s not our job to manifest them, but to realize what they’re supposed to be.”

We’ve always been impressed with how you create a sense of depth through the subtle variations of the same color, as you did at the Nintendo E3 Booth and in many of your auto show projects, particularly for Nissan. Are subtle color changes sometimes overlooked in favor of more dramatic elements today?
“I think the flexibility offered many designers today with the advent of LED lighting technology can be a bit of a hindrance. With so many lights being able to color mix, designers aren’t forced into making tough color choices like we did when picking gel. These decisions are now made cue-by-cue. Personally, I like this because you can experiment more in the field (assuming you have time) and can make subtle adjustments very late in the game. However, it requires a lot of discipline to make sure that it doesn’t end up being all colors all the time. I personally like more limited palettes. I think it makes for stronger looks and bigger contrast. Depth and detail can then be formed by variations within these limitations . . . brightness, saturation, etc.”

Along similar lines, you never seem to be interested in overpowering or overwhelming people with brightness, even in your biggest and most immersive projects. Yes, you have plenty of intensity, but you seem to rely more on the interplay of patterns and colors rather than eye-burning brightness to engage people. What are your thoughts on the role of brightness? Can it be over-emphasized?
“There’s certainly the right time and place for most things, but regardless of where we are working — theater, a convention center, rock n roll, or in a botanical garden — it’s about directing attention and creating an emotional response. If brightness is the right tool, then by all means use it! However, because it can be so powerful, it’s also an easy crutch.”

Are lighting design and programming becoming two separate disciplines?
“I think until designers can program the lights with their minds, it’ll always be two separate disciplines. I used to program my own shows, but you get to a point where it’s just logistically impossible. The bigger and more complicated a show, the more complex the programming task is, and you get to a point where you simply don’t have time to be able to talk to the client, figure out the creative parts, and then execute the programming.”

Looking back at your career, was there one or two projects that were pivotal in your development? Projects where something came together and changed the way you’ve designed since?
“I don’t know that there were specific projects that were pivotal in my development as a designer. I started playing around with lighting as a kid, read books, and had my first taste of theatrical lighting equipment and technology in high school, but my first real formal training in lighting was in college, and it was like all the methods and strategies that were being presented to me sort of logically fell into place. Like I had gotten 80% of the way there on my own, but never formalized it all in my head. Then again, about twenty years later there was a moment I recall when suddenly everything got a lot easier. I think I must have hit my 40,000 hours or whatever.”

You mention playing around with lights as a kid. When did you first realize you wanted to be a lighting designer? How did you make this dream happen?
“I was always fascinated with lighting as early as I can remember. I was a theater brat, growing up around opera, ballet, etc. When I got to high school I had the opportunity to play around and start experimenting with lighting design. There was a strong theater program at my school but no technical theater training specifically, so it was like a big sandbox, which was great!

“I think at this point it solidified for me that this was what I wanted to pursue as a profession. I have a B.A. degree in Theater Design from USCD and took a couple years off to work in the industry before pursuing an MFA and ended up never going back! I also discovered very early on that I found all sorts of lighting design to be creatively challenging and fulfilling — and as a result have found a path that led away from theater specifically. I’ve never tried to limit the venue of my work, instead choosing to pursue projects and opportunities based off interest and availability.”

Who were the big influencers in your career?
“I was certainly influenced early on by Marc Brickman’s and Leroy Bennett’s work as many lighting designers were. I didn’t really have a mentor but certainly worked with, and/or was influenced by many along the way. Chris Parry, Anne Militello, Howell Binkley, Willie Williams, James Ingalls, Peter Morse . . .”

You’ve often brought a theatrical element to your concert designs, as you did for Barry Manilow in Las Vegas. Do you think concert designs in general are becoming more theatrical today?
“Some are. Depends on the artist. For that show in particular Barry wanted to create a blend between concert and Broadway show. Some of the stories in Barry’s history as a singer and songwriter were perfect for a more theatrical experience that could compete with the dozen or so Cirque Du Soleil shows that were on The Strip at the time. There were parts that wanted to be a party, but others that specifically were designed to have more elaborate production value and/or emotional resonance. In contrast, Lionel Richie’s current residency at Planet Hollywood is a straight up concert that’s firmly based on the singer and his band, which stands in contrast to the other more production-heavy pop acts in rotation at that venue.”

LED technology has opened so many creative vistas for designers. What do you see as the next big technological development?
“Well I think that LEDs are still in their adolescence. While they have opened up new possibilities, they haven’t eliminated the basic tools we use as lighting designers. There are still ellipsoidals and Fresnels – and spotlights and wash lights. They’ll all soon be LED sources, but I don’t see the fundamentals of these tools going away. The fact that we can create color-changing, highly-controllable linear sources and put pixels on basically anything is expanding the toolbox. I don’t know what the next technology is going to be, but I think we’re just starting to see what we can do with LEDs outside of the basic tool set.“

How would you like to be remembered as a lighting designer?
“I know that when I experience something truly memorable as an audience member, that impression lasts. I hope that some of my work does this for others.”