Less Is More: Big Looks From Small Rigs

Posted on June 29, 2017

Photo: Randy Edwards

We confess that we had to double check our gear list when we saw Victor Zeiser’s work for Animals As Leaders’ summer tour in support of their Top Ten album The Madness of Many. The constantly changing colors, myriad of gobo patterns, intense strobing and multi-level crossing beams that transformed the stage couldn’t be coming from two strobes, three battens and four Maverick MK2 Spots – could they? With Zeiser they could, and did.

The owner of Squeek Lights has become a master of coaxing big and very varied looks out of small rigs. It’s a skill he has fine-tuned working for clients who tour relentlessly at small and mid-sized venues. At a time when such bands are enjoying a surge in popularity and more of them than ever are wanting to carry their own compact lighting rigs, it’s also a skill that’s in much demand. Zeiser shared some insights with us on getting the most out of rigs with a limited number of fixtures.

Is there more pressure today to carry smaller rigs on tours?

“A lot of clients we work with haven’t toured with any lighting before, so every case you add to the trailer pack is a special request. In the bigger cities you have a lot of stage space, while a lot of the smaller cities can have cramped stages, and if you design a show that only fits on the largest stage of the tour, you’re going to have a bad time. So even when you have more fixtures, a small rig version of your design should be in your plans.”

Photo: Randy Edwards

We’ve always been impressed with the big and varied looks you’re able to get from rigs that may not have as many fixtures as you’d like. What is the key to getting the most out of a limited number of fixtures?

“For me, I try to think of all the unique looks I can create with a type of light and how to best use each attribute in a special sort of way. I love when I can use a look once in a show and never again to create a special moment. I also try and break stuff up in different groups throughout the show. If you have all of the lights doing the same thing as each other the whole show, it gets boring really quick, and different groupings help break it up for me. So regardless of the size of your rig, you want to make your looks as varied as possible. There may be more challenges when you do this with a smaller rig, but the goal is the same.”

In terms of those challenges, can you describe how your psychology changes as a designer when you have a smaller rig?

“When I have a larger rig, I get the ability to not use every light for every song. On the other hand, when I have a smaller rig, I have to utilize every fixture completely. So the trick is finding different ways to get unique looks out of each and every fixture in your rig.

“Another point I keep in mind is that on smaller rigs, it’s often the stage tech or TM who is setting everything up. Because of this, I will try to keep my rigs streamlined, so they’re easy to set up and take down without a lot of time required.”

Do you look for different qualities in fixtures when you know there are going to be fewer of them in your rig?

“Yes, without question. When I have a smaller number of fixtures in my rig, I prefer to stick with lights that give me the widest variety of looks. This means that with any small rig, spots are always my first choice. I make a spot look like a wash, but I can’t get a gobo from a wash! I will add washes only when I have the liberty to use more fixtures. The sole exception is when I can get a really unique look out of a wash that fits what my client’s music is all about. An example is the ring effects I get with the Rogue R2 Wash, which really fits the sound of certain clients.”

“Typically when I design a rig, I build it around some ‘meat and potatoes’ type moving lights and then add an ‘accent fixture’ type or two, something I think is cool, but kind of limited. When I have to scale back, these are the first thing to go.”

Photo: Randy Edwards

Is it more important to vary the placement of fixtures when you have a smaller rig, so lights are positioned at a different height?

“I try to have varied heights in all my rigs. In almost every case, I will have at least two heights in every show. It doesn’t matter the size of the rig. This variation is important. There are certain things that you don’t change because of the size of the rig. Another example, in addition to the varied heights of my fixtures positions, is side lighting. No matter what the show, I try and get some side lighting on it. This really makes shows look ten times better, especially in smaller clubs.”

Are you more or less likely to punt when you have a smaller rig?

“It’s a mixed bag, a lot of the super small shows we design are run on timecode, which is the polar opposite of punting. For our bigger tours, we work with the band to determine if it will be a busking show or cued out. In the end, the most important thing is that we serve the band’s vision. This is true regardless of the size of the rig.”