Lighting Festivals

Posted on October 6, 2015

Some 32 million people attend music festivals in the US every year, according to Nielsen. That’s almost equal to the entire population of California! The festival boom has created opportunities for many lighting designers and installers to get involved in new high profile projects. Abbas Ritscher and his partner Luccas Oliveira of The Design Oasis have ridden this wave to great effect, lighting music fests centered on virtually every musical genre from EDM to folk.

At the conclusion of another busy summer that saw him light festivals everywhere from the high seas, to big cities, to rural West Virginia, Ritscher sat down with us to share some of his insights into this omnipresent market. Excelling in music festival lighting, he says, really requires a left brain/right brain effort. On the one hand, since festivals involve visual storytelling, a designer must engage the imagination of a festival producer. On the other hand, there is also a long list of practical and physical requirements that must be met at any festival. In this interview, Ritscher offers advice on meeting both sets of demands.

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About how many music festivals does The Design Oasis do in a year? What do you regard as some of your bigger festivals?
“We work with or support 15 to 20 Festivals a year, some of the biggest ones are Bonnaroo and Tomorrow World but I also consider One Big Holiday, Jam Cruise and Holy ship to be big too. They have a smaller audience, but they provide a big experience for the people lucky enough to attend. In festivals, it’s not just the size of the crowd, but the impact of the experience that counts.”

When you get hired to do a festival what is the number one thing the client expects from you?
“We are providing the best gear and we know what they need. We try to help them bring their vision into a very physical reality. Lighting is critical to the success of a festival in terms of engaging the audience. But, the festival organizers and producers often don’t have much experience in lighting – and even if they do, they always have a million other things on their plate, so they depend on us not only to know lighting, but also to be able to understand their vision and translate it into lighting.”

Many festivals are outdoors and they start while it is still light out. How does this affect the way you design?
“Yes – Festivals are almost always outdoors and that really determines everything. The gear that goes out there has to be rugged and make it through the tough conditions. The fact that in the summer a lot of the bands, sometimes even the headliners, go on while it is still light out is a big factor in design.

“I really think about creating rigs that look like something cool during the day. I look at it as the set to for the show and it has to function that way even when it is light out. This is especially true nowadays when everything is being filmed and put on YouTube. I need to include video walls that can be read day and night so the bands and DJ’s have their names in videos on YouTube. I also want to have bright LED washes so the artist are surrounded by color that makes them look good. I want scenic lights so there is something to see in the background – and of course I want haze, lots of haze.

“Festivals are often as much about being a visual spectacle as they are about musical performance. This visual spectacle often ties into the theme of the festival, so as a lighting designer you have to not only give the audience something nice to look at on stage – that something also has to be supportive of the festival theme, which is why it’s so important to understand what a festival is all about before you sit down an design the lighting rig.”

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A festival may have one unifying theme, but many festival have 20 or more acts on the same stage. How do you account for this diversity when you design?
“The lighting has to work for all the artist and most important be able to create really different looks for each artist. If the stage has the same look and feel for every show, it will not keep the audience entertained or express the music properly. So you need to have flexibility in your lighting rig. Since there’s only a limited number of fixtures you can include in your rig for most festivals, you’re going to favor those products that can be used in a number of very different ways.”

You’ve done everything from EDM festivals to folk type festivals how do you tailor your lighting rig to the type of music?
“The lighting is all about bringing the music to the audience. EDM is in all about build-ups and then drops that are in your face. An artist like My Morning Jacket needs a very different look, Their designer Marc Janowitz does a great job of creating a very theatrical show that build up into some epic looks. Lots of movers and lots of haze. Moving the haze with the wind was almost a fulltime job when we illuminated them at a festival.”

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You seem to like to use video walls at festivals why is that?
“As I mentioned earlier, video walls are great for identifying the bands that are playing in festivals. I think it is really important to do this – the festival owners and bands love to see their names up on the screens, on YouTube and on all those Instagram pictures.

“Personally, I really like a center wall but then I’ll try to use some creative video elements that tie the whole stage together. I really don’t like seeing a big square video wall behind a stage by itself, it’s too much like the audience is watching TV! However, when you are able to put panels throughout the rig or even surrounding the band like we did at the Aura Music Festival where we wrapped Chauvet panels around the performers at different angles, you get some great looks. You can also do some very cool things when you surround the audience in video like we did on the Holy Ship Cruise festival. In that case, we hung individual panels around the pool deck of the ship, so the audience was immersed in video images.”

What are the big challenges in setting up a festival rig?
“Time, weather, Logistics. It is not an easy environment to work in.”

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In some cases the acts at festivals will have their own LDs. What’s the secret to maintaining a good relationship between you as the festival LD and the LDs from the different acts at a festival?
“Well the goal is to help every artist have the best show possible so the audience has the best experience possible. We are all on the same team and everyone’s friends. The question is how can I help them make their show rock? We definitely talk ahead of time to make sure that the elements the bands are bringing in work with what we have on the festival rig. The Headliners show has to look like one concise experience. Success really depends on working together.”

You’ve done festivals on a ship – as you mentioned with the Holy Ship Cruise – and you’ve also done a lot on land; so how do they differ?
“On as ship there is no backup, no running to a shop, no Home Depot. The gear has got to work. Bring gear you trust. It is going to be rocking literally, and to quote the captain’s I’ve worked with ‘there will be the weather!’ There’s no time to play around fixing stuff on a ship either. Load in is fast and intense, the show starts soon after the boat moves.”

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How would you describe your goals as a designer for a festival?
“It is really all about the audience’s experience. I have been on almost every side of festivals and done or been involved with most of the jobs required to make a festival work. In the end, you just want people to have the time of their lives. It’s the things that are easy to overlook that have a big influence on the audience.

“For our part, the emphasis is on creating an amazing stage show. From the moment people walk through the gates the looks need to be magic. A lot of that is lighting everything up. Tomorrow World does an amazing job of this. There is Deco everywhere and we are supplying them over 800 Chauvet Colorado Tri Tours and more to light it all up! But that’s what it takes for a big audience to step out of normal life and into another world for a weekend.”