Attempting to characterize Dan Boland’s career is no easy undertaking. This Emmy Award-winning LD is thriving in so many different genres of lighting simultaneously; he can aptly be described as a “Renaissance Designer.”
Boland has reached the highest levels of his profession in television as the Lighting Director of The Voice, for which he won an Emmy, while at the same time blazing a new path in music festivals as Stage Designer for the Coachella Festival, a position he held in the early 2000s. Of course along the way, he’s also earned his chops as LD for a rapper named Eminem, not to mention the standout work he’s done for the likes of Tori Amos, Rihanna and Blue Man Group. As diverse as it is, however, Boland’s work always seems to bear his unmistakable personal stamp, which means that it manages to be bold (often thanks to his enthusiastic use of set pieces like the Nexus 4×4 Panel), without being overbearing.
Although the challenges presented by projects in different genres may vary widely, the Hawaii-born LD somehow always remains true to this well-balanced vision. “A good compromise leaves no one happy,” he is fond of saying. Perhaps that’s why so many people are ecstatic with the uncompromised vision that jumps out from his diverse mix of designs. We caught up with Dan during the Lollapalooza Tour, and he graciously shared his insights with us. Enjoy!
We’ve heard you described as a “serious lighting designer with an odd sense of humor.” Can you tell us a little about the kinds of things you find funny? Do you think having a sense of humor helps you in your work as an LD?
“I want to know where you got that description! I’ve never heard that before. I guess it could be true. I don’t know that it’s an odd sense of humor. I’d prefer dry. It’s hard to say what I find funny. I think it’s more that I observe things in a way that people might find odd. It may help with my design, but I couldn’t say for sure. I like my work; I’m very happy and lucky to be working in a job I love with people I admire.”
Did the fact that you were born in Hawaii, which has such breathtaking views and rich colors, contribute to the development of your visual sense as an LD?
“Short answer, no. What I think being born in Hawaii did help me with is being able to appreciate how fortunate I am to be where I am. Lloyd ‘Sandy’ Riford III is one of the premier theatrical lighting designers in Hawaii. I was lucky to meet and work with him when I was younger. He helped plant the seed in my lifelong interest lighting design. He taught me initially how to ‘see.’ While Hawaii is a beautiful place and full of color, I never really looked at it as such. Since I grew up there, I really just took it for what it was. It wasn’t until I moved away a few years that I really learned to appreciate its beauty. Perhaps now when I go back, I draw inspiration, but initially I didn’t.”
You won an Emmy for your work as lighting director for The Voice. Your ability to program light to music is uncanny. Can you tell us a little about how you break down a song when you program. Is there something you listen for first?
“I listen to the song as much as I can and just make notes. I note verse, chorus, bridge, etc., usually within the first two passes. Next I’ll note quirks in the music that help define it. If I get inspired I’ll make additional notes like, ‘This song is Pink/Green,’ or ‘three hits in chorus, use the Nexus panels,’ and ‘Gobo 1.2 twisty.’”
Once you program the lighting for a song, how do you reconcile it to the actual camera angles that will be on the set?
“Good question. Specifically to The Voice, we are given one day of ‘pre-programming’ where they will rehearse the songs on stage without the cameras. At that time, Oscar Dominguez, the lighting designer for The Voice, and Alan Carter, the director, will sit and discuss ideas for camera angle and shots with the creative directors. The following two days will be on-camera rehearsals.
“During these three days, I’m programming away –building and cueing songs as we go. Oscar will watch the camera rehearsal to see how Alan is planning on shooting it, and we make adjustments to fill in where we need to. I will also be watching and programming at the same time and making whatever adjustments I can as we go.
“Oscar is a really good designer. He’ll spend days just looking at the set design in 3D Vectorworks (CAD), imagining how it’s going to look on camera before he even lays the first light into the light plot. That way, when he does start laying in fixtures, they are in places that are useful to any and all possible camera angles.”
Moving from television to festivals, when you design for Eminem, whose personality goes beyond the music, do you try to reflect the artist as well as the music in your work?
“If I’ve done that, it’s been on an unconscious level. But thinking back, my designs for Eminem have always been grand in scale, doing my best to fill the room; whereas as my designs for Tori Amos, on the other hand, have always been more intimate and highly creative. So maybe that happens where the personality of the artist comes out in the design.”
Also, you’ve worked with Eminem a long time; how does having a long-term relationship with an artist impact your work as an LD?
“There are two ways I could answer that question: First –having a long-term relationship with an artist is good because it gives them a comfort zone knowing the design of their show is in the hands of someone they trust, which also means I’ve got a job/work I can often look forward to doing. Second – having a long-term relationship with an artist can be challenging as an LD because you can fall into ‘routine’ design that can be repetitive as time goes on. Then again, there is so much new technology that is coming out that keeping a design fresh with new equipment can often lead to new creativity.”
You’ve worked all the big festivals like Coachella where you have a lot of different LDs involved. How do you meld different light plots from different designers to create a consistent look without hurting anyone’s ego?
“I’ve worked all the big festivals with Eminem recently, but I think the question is asking me how I coped with being the stage designer for Coachella in the early 2000s. It was not easy to meld designs together that were completely different. When working at Coachella, I lived by the adage, ‘A good compromise leaves no one happy.’ I would often do my best to give every LD the fixtures they wanted hung where they wanted, without sacrificing the crew who would be responsible for the turnaround. I’m sure every designer who came to Coachella the years I was responsible for the design was not happy coming in, but I know most were happy coming out.
“Eminem has been playing mostly festivals since 2010. Knowing this, and having served as the stage designer for Coachella, I make sure that my designs for Eminem are ‘festival friendly.’ I can get more out of my design if there is less that I have to compromise. I’m also fine with other acts using the bulk of my design. I will keep most of the unique fixtures for Eminem’s show exclusively.”
Are the performers at festivals and other concerts more aware of what an LD does today than they were back in the early and mid-90s?
“I don’t think that performers are more aware today than early in my career. There have always been performers who are interested in taking part in every aspect of their design, and there are those who aren’t. It might be true that the amazing technological advances in our industry have caused more performers to take part in the look of their design. I have noticed that there seems to be more production designers in the industry than earlier in my career, which has really helped with the creative connection between designers and performers.”
It seems like set pieces and blinders are assuming a larger role in designs today, especially in festivals and concerts. Do you find this to be true? What are your thoughts on using these pieces?
“I think blinders have always been part of designs. I certainly include them in all of my designs. But I hardly use them during musical numbers. For the most part, I use them between songs when the performer is interacting with the crowd. There have been artists who’ve asked me to use blinders less, if at all, which is fine; it’s always about keeping the artist comfortable and happy. And it’s always better to have the tool and not use it.
“I don’t know that set pieces are being used more or less. I think designs are becoming more video surface/content heavy. I’m fine with using video surface as set pieces/visual elements, as long as the entire look of the show isn’t driven by them and whatever content is being played back. A good design should incorporate all elements of the visual. Video, lighting and choreography can all play a role.”
How do you incorporate structural elements like chevrons, eye brow truss, and towers into your festival designs?
“I try not to create crazy truss layouts that can really screw with a festival design. Often everyone has to use the same rig. If I add any elements that need to be there specifically for the artist I’m working for, I do my best to place them somewhere where the bulk of the design can be used by everyone without being complicated.”
What do you like to program and design on?
“I program almost exclusively on the grand MA2 nowadays. If it’s my design, I make sure to spec the grandMA2. If I’m hiring someone to program for me, I will choose from the pool of lighting directors I know who work on the grandMA2 as well. If I’m lucky and he’s available, Benny Kirkham is my lighting director of choice. I do all of my drawing on Vectorworks. I started with them years ago, and know and understand that program best.”
You’ve done everything from music festivals to movies and television. Do you approach your work differently if it’s a broadcast application, versus a festival, versus a concert?
“Yes. For me, every design is different even within the same genre. I always take as many creative risks as I can with every project. I try to keep it fresh and interesting, even when I’m using the old standbys. Granted, I will start with the basics of a design (what do I need to light?) before I start putting in the extra pieces. It’s often governed by budget as to how many risks or extras I can put into a design, but the basics are always in place.”
Does being so versatile make your work stronger? In other words, does the fact that you do festival lighting help you do better work on TV and vice versa? Are there lessons you carry over from on genre to the next?
“I think I’ve become a much better designer and more versatile the more I’ve learned from different genres. On the same note, the amount of crossover knowledge that seems to be needed lately to do good design is on the rise. I find myself incorporating more ‘tricks of the trade’ from my work in television into my designs for live concerts. I think part of the success Oscar and I share on The Voice is due to my ability to program to music and his amazing eye for what the camera sees. Every new show, every new design teaches me a lesson. Sometimes what I’ve learned I can apply to the next project as needed or understand why it isn’t needed.”
Early in your career you said that you did a lot of “dance lighting.” Can you describe dance lighting and how it differs from say concert lighting?
“I attended CalArts and got my degree in lighting design. While there, I spent most of my time in the dance school working with David ‘DK’ Kroth, the technical director there. He’s the one that taught me the most about lighting for dance. That’s where I did most of my design for dance.
What I’ve learned is that lighting for dance is mostly about lighting the form and movement of the dancers. You need make sure that the message the choreographer is trying to convey with movement is seen and understood. Lighting for concerts/music is more about lighting the music — providing a visual that matches the audio and enhances the ‘story’ without over powering it.”
Is there less of a difference between dance and concert lighting than there was when you started?
“A good designer will always do their best to use and incorporate the knowledge they’ve learned to create the best design possible. Even with lighting music, it’s important to light form. Working with many different acts, I’ve used many different tools that I thought would achieve the look I desired. So to answer the question, I don’t think there’s less difference as much as I’ve matured as a designer as time has gone on.”
On the subject of starting out, what were the big breaks and who were the influential people in your career?
“Just getting to work in this industry is a big break! But here are some steps that boosted my career. In 1995, Kille Knobel got me a job and then a tour with Light and Sound Design right after I graduated. In 1998 I was sent out as the lighting director for Tori Amos, and eventually became her lighting/production designer (1999?). In 2005 I became the lighting designer for Eminem. In 2006 designed the How To Be A Megastar tour for Blue Man Group. In 2012 I started as the lighting director on The Voice with Oscar Dominguez.
“Many people have influenced my career. A few of them are mentioned above and in other responses to other questions. Chronologically, the people who I think influenced me the most:
- Lloyd ‘Sandy’ Riford – He got me my start in lighting.
- David ‘DK’ Kroth – Got me interested in dance lighting.
- Kille Knobel – Got me my first job in the touring industry.
- Justin Collie – Who taught me the most about designing for live concerts.
- Oscar Dominguez – Who taught, (and is still teaching me) how to light for television.”
You mentioned working for Blue Man Group what was that like?
“The only design I did for Blue Man Group was for the ‘How To Be A Megastar’ and ‘How To Be A Megastar 2.0’ tours. I haven’t done any creative work for them for any of the sit down shows or current tours. I was hired to re-create the design originally done by Marc Brickman for their first touring show. The Blue Man Group are a huge creative conglomerate of people, most of them from the original show in New York, including the three original Blue Men. After meeting with them and working through rehearsals, I was able to interject some of my own creativity into the design of the show. I was touring with them for almost three years. The shows would constantly evolve, which was fun.”
You’ve done so much in lighting, but is there any type of job you’d like to do that you haven’t yet done?
“There are a few musical artists out there I’d love to work with. I won’t mention them here as it I often ‘jinx’ my chances by speaking their name!”
What do you regard as the highlights of your career?
“Being the lighting/production designer for Tori Amos; designing the 3rd Anger Management tour for Eminem; three nominations and one Emmy win for our work on The Voice; and designing The Monster Tour featuring Eminem and Rihanna.”
What do you want to be remembered for as an LD?
“It would be nice if there were one design I did that people will look back on and think it, ‘Only Dan.’ Mostly, I’d like to be remembered as a good designer who was easy and fun to work with.”