Nick Whitehouse: Contrasting Light

Posted on July 3, 2018

Photo: Ralph Larman

For this internationally renowned designer, the heart of concert lighting inevitably beats to the rhythm of contrasting forces. There is no brightness, says Whitehouse, without darkness. An intense laser or ballyhoo effect has no real impact by itself; it must be set against more mellow looks to move audiences. Virtually every facet of a design, in his view, depends to one extent or another on its opposite.

There is no formula for balancing these divergent forces for Whitehouse. Each project comes with its own unique set of challenges. Ideas are never reused. In the end, though, a balance is achieved, giving this UK-born designer’s work an almost musical flow that makes his lighting move in harmony with the performance on stage.

Whitehouse began honing this design philosophy early in his career while working small clubs in England and then for an unknown group called Coldplay. As his client’s fame grew, so too did his reputation. After moving to the US, he has gone on to create a stellar body of work for top artists, including longtime client Justin Timberlake for whom he designed the 2018 Super Bowl Halftime Show.

A partner in the firm Fireplay, Whitehouse has also created lighting and production designs for the likes of Jay Z, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Kanye West and Alicia Keys. Speaking to us from production rehearsals in Florida, where he was working on an upcoming James Taylor tour, Whitehouse shared his thoughts on a variety of topics, including the unique process of balancing contrasts to create dynamic lighting designs.

Photo: Ralph Larman

You’ve achieved a great deal of acclaim within the industry for your bold use of technology, whether it’s blending laser and video, or using 3D tools to create almost an illusion effect on stage. So, how do you maintain the balance between using technology and not overshadowing the artist’s performance?
“As you just said, it’s a question of balance. Technology is a tool, a means toward an end, not the end itself, so you have to know when to use it and when not to, always keeping in mind that you are there to support the artist’s show. If using new technology does that, it’s great. If not, then it’s a distraction.”

Does new technology give you new design ideas, or is it just a matter of a technological advance making it easier for you to bring visions that are already in your head to life?
“It goes both ways, really. Sometimes you see amazing new technology and it opens a new idea. You say, ‘Wow, I can make this work!’ At other times, I’ve gone to manufacturers and asked, ‘Can you make this kind of light, so I can realize this vision I have?’ Always though, it’s the result that’s most important, not the technology itself. The results are what your client and the audience see. How you got there is not a concern for them. I will say that one of the things I really like about recent technology is that it’s made lights more compact, so we can be more space, weight and energy efficient and still get the looks we want.”

You live in Vermont, which is a great state, but not at the center of entertainment. Do you ever feel cut off? Or is being in Vermont a source of inspiration?
“Vermont is close to the Canadian border, and my wife is from Montreal, so that’s important. We live on a lake in a big space, which is good for me, because when you spend 20 hours a day on site creating a project, you need a place where you can re-energize. It helps my creative process being here rather than in the middle of constant action.”

So, how do you get inspired when starting a project?
“For me, there is never really a fear of the blank page when I start a project. I’m excited to get started. I begin by getting as much information as I can about the artist. It’s not just about the music, but about the artist’s personality as well.

“I tend to go off on my own and think about the artist’s vision. Usually when I do this nothing much happens at first, then the right idea comes to me in a flash. It’s like, ‘Yes, this is it!’ But there are times when, after putting that idea down on paper, I come to the realization that maybe it wasn’t so right after all. When this happens, I’m never afraid to scrap what I’ve done and start over.”

Photo: Ralph Larman

Your stunning displays notwithstanding, you also incorporate dark spaces into your design. Can you tell us about how you use darkness?
“Sure, the way I look at it is that without darkness you have no light. If everything is on all the time, how do you really know it’s on? You have no dynamics.”

Can you elaborate on that term “dynamics?” What do you mean by it?
“Movement and change. A lighting design is really about the interplay of change. Going from light to dark to light, going from one color to another, bringing in an effect and then taking it away. It is how these changes play off against one another that makes a design work. This is why leaving everything on all the time doesn’t work. Or why having more than two or three colors in a look gets messy. Without the dynamics of change, the lighting is less engaging; it makes less sense. When clients praise my work, they often say it’s musical. This really means it flows with the music. If lighting is in a constant on-mode, you don’t have the change that is necessary for it to flow.”

Speaking of flowing with the music, you still run your own boards on occasion, why?
“I still tend to do all, or almost all, of my programming, even though we have programmers on staff. If someone wants me for their show, that’s what they want. For example, I still run the board for all the one-offs for Justin Timberlake. I think for me as a lighting designer working in the music profession, it’s a lot easier to go in and do everything myself.”

So, you don’t subscribe to the idea that programming and designing are two separate disciplines?
“Programming and running the boards goes hand in hand with designing. All the one-offs I do are live; there is no time coding. If a band wants to go in a direction, I am there to take the lighting in that direction. In the case of Justin Timberlake, we have a good relationship, so there isn’t a lot of explaining necessary for me to understand his vision when we’re live.”

Is Justin Timberlake knowledgeable about lighting?
“Very much so. He’s got very clear ideas about what he wants.”

You mention Justin Timberlake, and of course your stunning work for his performance at the 2018 Super Bowl comes to mind. Does designing for a relatively short show like that, as opposed to a 90-minute concert, affect your timing? Do you see something like the Super Bowl as its own entity, or is it a condensed concert?
“The show we did for the Super Bowl is most definitely its own thing, and not a shortened concert. We take a whole different view of time with something like Justin’s Super Bowl show. We have approximately 30 minutes to load the show in, complete the performance and load out again, leaving a totally empty field. So, we designed the show as its own entity. The length of the show and the set-up time definitely influenced how we approached the design.”

Can you elaborate on that last point?
“We wanted to start the Super Bowl performance with something really big lighting-wise. It was important to get off to a fast start, because as you say, the show doesn’t go on for a long time. Then we took the vibe down a bit for contrast, and finally we brought it back up to end on a high note. So, we’re likely to have a somewhat slower dynamic path in a full-length concert. You have to figure out how to move between moments in something like the Super Bowl.

“Of course, the big challenge mentioned is that we need to have the Super Bowl show look great on TV and also to the live audience. I have to say that the technology of cameras is so good now that you can make most live lighting look great. Plus at this year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, we couldn’t store things outside because of the temperature and we couldn’t use pyro because of the roof, so it was extra challenging.”

Does any project you’ve been involved in stand out as most challenging?
“No, not really; every project has been a challenge in one way or the other. But that’s a good thing. It’s what makes the job fun. It would be boring if there were no challenges. Every design is its own entity. We don’t repeat looks; everything is new and right for the moment.”

We remember your Legends of the Summer Tour with Jay Z and Justin Timberlake sharing the stage. How did you build a rig that accommodated the needs of both of these superstars? Did you treat it as two separate shows?
“In that particular show, we knew both artists well, so we designed the stage for one and then the other. Jay Z’s was starker and more video based, and Justin’s was more visual lighting. Then when they both appeared, it was a mix. That was kind of a fun project, since both artists stepped out of their comfort zones a little, but everyone was happy with the results.”

As you know, in recent years tours have become more important as revenue generators in their own right, rather than a means toward selling albums. How has his changed the role of the lighting designer?
“You’re right. When I started out, concerts were really an ad for getting people to buy the album, so budgets really weren’t much of a consideration. Now that’s all changed. Ticket sales are a more important revenue stream. At the same time, budgets on tours are tighter. So as a designer, you have to be resourceful. Do something different to give people a reason to go out and see your client’s tour, rather than watch it on Instagram. All the while, you have to be mindful of budget.”

So, how do you add that uniqueness?
“The answer always varies, but you want to do things that look better in person. In broad terms this has led to designs being more theatrical. When I first started, not many bands had big sets. The lighting was basically to light the artists; now it’s there as part of an entire picture that you paint with video and scenic elements.”

Which do you look at first when designing, the scenic elements or the lighting?
“That depends on the design. Sometimes you have the scenic elements in place, and then you consider how you want to light them. At other times, it’s a matter of looking for a place to hide those lights that you really want to use.”

Speaking of painting scenic elements, can you think of any artists from the past who would have been a great lighting designer if he or she were around today?
“Good question! Salvador Dali would have probably done some amazing stuff with lights!”

As long as we’re traveling in the past, is there an entertainer who’s no longer with us, who you wish were around today, so you could design for him or her?
“Michael Jackson, since he’s the one that started the kind of thing we’re doing today.”

You do a lot of great work with lasers, what are your thoughts about weaving them into a show?
“They are another lighting tool. Essentially a laser is just a sharp pointy light. Like everything else with lighting design, you have to pick the moments when you are going to use this tool and show restraint. As we’ve discussed, there always has to be a sense of balance in design. You want to make things that are dynamic and unique; it’s very difficult to do that if you leave something in on-mode all the time. You have to balance it with its opposite so to speak. When artists tell me they want lasers, I always ask them why and how they want to use them. I don’t want to throw something in the rig just for the sake of having it there.”

Who were the big influencers in your career?
“Bryan Leitch was a mentor to me early in our Coldplay days. The man is a genius and he taught me a great deal, especially about the value of using darkness. He gave me an understanding of how darkness brings out light, which I think is a very valuable lesson for any designer.”

How would you like to be remembered as a designer?
“Interesting question…I think I’d like to be remembered as someone who approached lighting in a very unique way, created memorable designs and inspired others in our industry. I’ll tell you, I am working on a James Taylor tour as we speak. His associate director told me she was inspired to get into this field after seeing my work on the Britney Spears Circuit Tour. That probably sums up the way I’d like to be remembered.”