Nick Ho – Lighting the Broad Canvas

Posted on November 5, 2019

Dominating the Kallang waterfront with its towering domed, retractable roof supported by a lattice work of chrome and steel beams, the National Stadium at the Singapore Sports Hub presents an imposing image. But for Nick Ho, the 55,000-seat stadium is just another “office.”

In recent years, the Singapore-based LD has built a stellar reputation for running massive light, video and laser shows at large venues, including his 333-fixture 24-universe Celebration of Hope design at the National Stadium, and his multi-media creation for Mobile World Conference 19 at the Shanghai New International Expo Centre.

Although his shows are sweeping, immense, and complex, Ho and his closely-knit team have invariably managed to endow them with a harmonious sense of balance that gives them an engaging, flowing quality. Impressed with his ability to make even the most massive designs seem natural and approachable, we caught up with Ho to ask him about how he manages the art of designing on a broad canvas.

You created and ran a 24-universe lightshow with over 300 fixtures for the Celebration of Hope at the Singapore Sports Hub last year. Where do you begin when you design a show this big?

“I will start by looking at the rendering or PDF of the stage design, sets design, and band layout plan, as well as the show rundown. Next, I’ll look at the truss design. In the case of the Celebration of Hope event, I had to also begin by looking at the monster ground support truss. Truss design can be a set-up time constraint, so you have to be aware of it from the very start. Then, I will look into the types of fixtures I’ll be using. That often depends on the rental house. Normally, I will be using the basic types of fixtures: spots, washes, beams and generics pars. Once I know which vendor, then I will know which brand of fixtures will be involved.”

How is designing a show of this size different from designing a show with say 50 or 60 fixtures? Is it just the same thing, but bigger, or is it a very different creative and execution process?

I would say different sizes of show uses same types of fixtures, large shows are the same as smaller shows but fixtures are used in larger quantities, so in that sense it’s similar. With a big show, it all comes down to how you break down groups, and how you will use the different types of fixtures. Once you have classified the fixture groups and placement of the moving lights, you can turn to the creative part, such as selection of lights to turn on or off, position and location.”

Do you think shows will continue to get bigger as technology advances?

“Interesting question — I think the shows can only get ‘so big’ in one respect. Technology advances of course, but the human brain is limited in terms of what it can process. So that puts a limit on size. However, I see technology expanding more designs, beyond the point where you only need one or two guys to do all light shows. You will need more people involved in running a show and the LX console area will get bigger and bigger.”

To the point you just raised about more people being involved – you have to rely on collaborators when you run a really big show. What are the keys to successful collaborations?

“For me as a lighting designer, I will always strive to work closely with the camera director, video director and of course my technical director. This means always listening respectfully to their concerns. On a more practical level, I will always request a PGM monitor for the live feed and final recording, so I know the camera positions. I will also coordinate with the camera director for color balance.”

“As far as the video director is concerned, I will also learn as much as possible about the video content and how my lighting can work best with it, especially in terms of its brightness. Then I also need to have very open communications with my technical director. The more I understand about all of these people, and the more respectful I am of their needs, the better the collaboration. Then we will have a nice work environment.”

On the subject of collaboration, at some big events you and your programmer Justin Poh have each had your own console so you could each program and run your own parts of the show simultaneously. How do you preplan this kind of collaboration? Do you rehearse your parts the way two actors would?

“It helps when you have a longstanding relationship and are very familiar with one another. I have known Justin since 2006 when we started out learning and exchanging notes on consoles. Since then, we have been working together for most of the shows. At first, he assisted me during the setup of the truss and lighting positioning. Gradually, we moved on to the console patching and troubleshooting.”

“Once he understood my way of programming and designing, I started to hand over part of the LX rig to him. He started out with the audience wash lights and coloring, while I handled the stage area. Eventually, I handed him more different types of fixtures. Luckily, because Justin knows how I build my show and design, I have ensured my clients that he will be doing the same feel and style together as what I have been doing alone. Now, I will design and program the shows myself, and he will do most of the technical planning and preparation. So, to answer your questions, you need a lot of familiarity and trust to make this type of arrangement work.”

At the recent MCW 19 Shanghai conference you used a lot of laser effects for dramatic moments. You also had a massive video component as well as lighting. How do you keep laser, video and lighting from running over each other? Do you emphasize them at different times?

“Firstly, the whole file of the opening video was timecoded, which allowed me to work closely with the video director, laser programmer and lighting programmer. In a project like this, I will start by listening to the music, writing down the cues at the time slots for lights. I’ll also watch the video content to blend in the colors, and also determine at which point to bring in the laser.”

“Typically, I prefer to bring out the lights and laser at different points. Towards the end of a show, I will have more lasers that blend into the lights. I will watch over and over again many times to get the correct timing and the ‘feel’. It is all about the right moment and feeling. I will listen and feel the music, look at the video content to merge in, and look at the event surrounding to get the overall lighting and laser mixtures.”

Time management must be critically important when you set up shows this massive. Do you have any advice on how to organize setups most efficiently?

“Well, for me it starts when I draw the lighting plan on CAD. I will have a dimension ruler that states the fixtures positions — which meters they are supposed to hang, and at which truss. So, when the truss rigging is done and we hand things over to the lighting team, Justin and I will start labeling the truss with electric tape to mark fixture positions.”

“Next the lighting technicians will work in teams, with each team responsible for one type of fixture. This organized method helps make all of us be more efficient, and it saves time.”

We always admire how you are able to maintain a harmonious aesthetic balance in your shows, even when they are very large. How do you keep this balance as your shows get larger?

“There are always a few things that need to be standardized and considered if you want to remain balanced in a big show For example, the stage must balance out evenly for the live feed. Next is the color usage. More and more fixtures are using LED output, so we need to balance the LED wash and the CMY moving spots for correct palettes. We also can’t forget about LED wall brightness! The brightness must always be fine-tuned to correct values, so the lights can blend in well and not fight one another. The position of the moving lights is also important – your spots and beams have to be balanced.”

What advice would you give to a designer who never did a show with more than 50 or so fixtures before, but now was about to do something like the Celebration of Hope?

“Firstly, don’t lose sight of the basics. Always start with the simple needs. For example, use front lights for stage washing, back lights for fills before you start with colors. Then consider your effects like beams that you’ll be using for different looks. Also, make sure you are positioning your floor lights and audience lights for camera angles. Once you have all these basics down, the cues will start to come, because you will start to see the lights in front of you. Ideas will start to flow then too — and then creativity will come along. And lastly, use the right tools to program the lights. Your console should help you do as many cues as possible in a limited time slot. This will give you more time to sleep, which is always an issue when you run a very big show!”