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Patrick Dierson – Restless Vision

Posted on June 1, 2015
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“The chief enemy of creativity is good senses,” observed Pablo Picasso. As far as we know, the great artist never ran a lighting rig, though he did master a thing or two about mixing colors. His lack of lighting experience notwithstanding, we think Picasso would have appreciated the design philosophy of Patrick Dierson. For more than two decades, the Emmy Award-nominated LD has been at the top of the lighting world, in demand by everyone from Jay-Z, U2 and Drake to Winnie the Pooh (Disney Live!), Walmart and US Presidents.

Dierson’s resume is long, impressive and marked by groundbreaking achievements in virtually every facet of entertainment lighting. The one thing you won’t find in his professional history, though, is a project where he took a safe predictable approach to lighting. Whether it’s hanging a group of moving heads “ridiculously close” to a set to make a scenic element shimmer, or incorporating a rock and roll effect into a corporate meeting rig, he’s never shied away from going beyond good sense to keep the creative spark glowing.

Falling into a stylistic rut is a constant concern for Dierson as he believes it should be for any prolific designer. Motivated by this awareness he maintains a careful watch over his own creative process, always rattling his own cage and remaining restless. It makes the designing process more demanding and sometimes more stressful, but as our interview subject will tell you, it’s also a lot more fun. Lighting Insights caught up with Dierson to discuss the creative process. It left us more motivated in our creative endeavors. We think it will do the same for you. Enjoy.

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You once told us you that you were brought up as a “Broadway backstage brat.” So did this influence your decision to make lighting design your career?

“What’s funny is that I ‘grew up’ in a theatrical world, but that influence was from a performance perspective. My aunt and uncle were Broadway actors with leading roles in shows like Dracula, The Elephant Man, Common Pursuit, City of Angels etc. They weren’t very much involved in the production end, but this young visitor always ended up sitting in the followspot booth during performances or at the backstage poker table with the carps. What it made me understand was that there were many options in the entertainment business and all of them seemed to be a more worthwhile goal than sitting in an office somewhere doing a ‘normal’ job.”

What appealed to you about lighting, specifically, out of these “many options”?

“I started out with the desire and focus of only wanting to design lighting for concert touring. The idea of creating something that was a visual performance to accompany an artist’s live performance was extremely intriguing to me, and I’ve always considered the operation of a lighting console to be equally as much of a performance as the piano or keyboard up on stage. Where the musical performer was playing an audible instrument, I was always playing a visual one and thus felt much more of a connection to the performance and the audience’s reaction to the show. It just felt like a bio-mechanical connection of sorts.”

We love the analogy that operating a console is like playing an instrument in the band. Going with that, how does operating the console for your own lighting design compare to operating it for a design from another LD? Is it like playing the piano for your own composition vs. music by another composer? How do you achieve the balance between your interpretation and the other LD’s original design?

“There’s so much involved when you walk into someone else’s design and there’s a lot of responsibility that should be taken into account when you’re designing something that others will be forced to use, such as in a festival situation. Lighting instruments should have a clear purpose when you first see the design; nothing should be cryptic. Fundamentals should apply for lighting the talent on stage versus what would otherwise be considered eye candy.

“Once those elements are broken down, playing the overall lighting system like an instrument should fall into place. Again, it’s an art, which means that it’s subjective, so it’s what the individual lighting directors see in their mind’s eye. I have very definite views on what various light sources represent to me audibly. Tungsten sources tend to represent low-end frequencies, while LEDs fall into the high end. Strobes are associated with snare drums, and arc source wash lights are moving to bass lines etcetera. It’s one of those odd things that I’m not sure if everyone else has or is just unique to me. One thing for sure is that it’s obviously different for everyone, because there are so many different choices that I see made throughout the course of something like an EDM Festival.”

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Did your view of lighting as a “performance” and your early experience in touring help you later on when you branched into other areas like broadcast lighting and corporate events?

“Definitely. My broadcast work started by my filling in as a programmer in an emergency when a broadcast LD had nobody else to call. Ironically, the day I showed up, the TV talk show was doing a celebrity karaoke show and they required lightning fast work for many different concert-style looks. This was completely out of the norm for them, and it was raw chance that I was the guy standing behind the desk that day. Instead of the three basic, repeatable looks that they figured they’d just deal with, I knocked out fourteen individual looks in the eighteen minutes that I had to make them.”

You design for EDM concerts as well as corporate clients and everything in between; is it hard to shift gears and go from designing for a Lady Gaga concert to a Walmart shareholders’ meeting?

“Finding something like that ‘hard’ is definitely a mindset more than anything else; it just comes with different challenges, and that’s when the job at hand starts to become fun again. At the end of the day, the goals are fundamentally the same in that there’s a subject that needs to be lit. What’s more important is that the standards from one project genre often become the unconventional solutions on another, and that’s when the projects become truly interesting and unique looking. There are always similarities between project genres, but the crossing of those streams, so to speak, is always a more fun approach and breaks up the monotony.”

Can you give an example of how you’ve adapted a technique that’s standard with one genre to an “unconventional solution” for another genre?

“Sure — I often use soft light instruments on broadcast shoots or celebrity step-and-repeat photography walls where those types of units have become the standard. On an upcoming project, I’m lighting a rather large tradeshow booth and the client specifically wanted a very soft yet brilliant white light solution to evenly bathe the space. I’ve specifically chosen various models of (soft light tubes) as a solution for the general area lighting of this booth. It’s a fairly unconventional application for an instrument such as this.”

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This idea of using a fixture in a way other than it was intended – we know that you enjoy this type of creative, outside-the-box thinking. Any other examples come to mind?

“The post-September 11 musical telethon America: A Tribute To Heroes (for which Dierson and fellow LD LeRoy Bennett received an Emmy nomination). There wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary about the overall design per se; it was simply what we did with it. The end result was understatedly beautiful and elegant, just like the show itself. The one thing that stood in my mind was how I ended up taking a group of (moving head washes) hung ridiculously too close to a set piece and was able to create a shimmer effect against the scenic element by just dimming them up slightly and manipulating their dichroic blades. The effect was beautiful, and what we were ultimately doing was utilizing a fixture that we had used hundreds of times in a way that it was never intended to be used. Sometimes you run into a happy accident that breathes new life into what would be a seemingly mundane task. . Those moments tend to be the most gratifying ones.”

What other projects stand out as being your favorite– the ones you’re most proud of?

‘Ugggh. It’s always the ones that you can’t speak about that make you the most proud. I’ve always done a tremendous amount of work in areas that require extreme discretion and, very often, complete silence.

“Publicly, I would say that one of my favorite projects was the other 9/11 show that I got to work on with LeRoy Bennett, VH1’s The Concert For New York City. It was produced just a few weeks after the attacks and was a six-hour live broadcast. The show had an astounding lineup that included David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Jay-Z, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Elton John, The Who, John Mellencamp, Paul McCartney, and the list goes on. The audience in Madison Square Garden was made up exclusively of NYFD and NYPD officers and their families. The energy and camaraderie in the room that evening was like nothing that I have ever experienced and it was a truly amazing thing to be a part of.”

What do you like to design in?

“I’m asked this often and I give the same answer that Chuck Norris gives when asked how many pushups he can do – ‘all of them!’ I like to work in the program that’s right for the project as opposed to what’s right for me. However all of our final output goes through Vectorworks for reasons of streamlined plotting and paperwork generation. That being said, as a production designer, I have to be able to capitalize on the strengths of multiple software platforms.

“We utilize AutoCAD almost exclusively for mechanical engineering and officially stamped drawings for submission to municipal entities for formal approval. ACAD is simply very friendly for manufacturing processes.

“Sketchup has also become a platform that we’ve had to embrace as we’re seeing more and more creative teams utilizing it for conceptual design. There are other extemporaneous platforms such as Rhino and SOLIDWORKS that will cross our paths from time to time, so we need to have some idea of how to interact with them even if they’re not one of our primary in-house tools.”

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Has pixel mapping changed the way you approach design?

“It did ten years ago and still rears its head today. When the ability to pixel map other lighting elements into the video panel space first emerged, it was a definite game changer. However, what made it special then was that it was just difficult enough that it forced you to truly design it into the overall productions. Today it’s just another set of tools in the digital box and I find that at times it tends to be a bit of an afterthought. If visual elements are not being thought of every step of the process, then they’re inevitably going to go by the wayside.”

Along these lines, do you think new technology opens new creative possibilities for you, or is it simply a matter of making it easier for you to create the visions that have been dancing around in your head?

“Technology is a wonderful thing, and I’ve always strived to jump on the latest digital fad before anyone else has had the opportunity to do so just to keep things as fresh as possible. Advances in technology should have two fundamental uses: first it should open creative possibilities that you hadn’t previously been able to implement. Second, it should make your life easier. Nothing frustrates me more than having to stop the creative flow to troubleshoot some piece of technology that’s not working as advertised.”

Would you say there’s a defining “Dierson look” that runs through all of your designs, regardless of whether it’s a concert, TV show, sports event etc.?

“My work definitely has a stylized look to it, and I believe that it stems from my live concert roots. Clients rely on my not allowing things to get boring, and I try not to lose sight of that. I have three design edicts. First and foremost, the cliché ‘light the money’ always applies and that needs to be done appropriately. The subject’s beauty always comes first, because that person or object is what the audience came to see, not my lighting.

“Secondly, attention to detail is paramount, and that means that subtle nuances to making the first rule the best it can be are paramount. Thirdly, and somewhat in contrast to the second rule, is shock and awe in cueing. I’ve had a longstanding belief that if you’re wildly hitting buttons on a console and the guy in the 30th row doesn’t notice what you’re doing, then you’re spinning your wheels. Cues should be purposeful and make an impact, even if it’s as simple as banging on strobe lights to create a sense of movement and energy in a song. The fact that you’ve executed an action should be noticeable or else you’re primarily just doing it for yourself.”

At the same time, though, you often warn against LDs falling into a style trap and allowing their work to become stale. How do you achieve a good balance?

“It doesn’t matter how seasoned a designer you are, producing mass quantities of work and maintaining originality for each project is tough. This is art; it’s subject. Artists are stylized by nature and what makes you interesting at one point in time has the definite possibility of making you stale down the road.

“There’s a reason why art galleries change up their displays. You don’t walk into MoMa and see six floors of Picasso’s works. At some point you’re going to want to see a Renoir or Lichtenstein. The same goes for your personal design work – you can either be the one to change up your style or your clients will eventually change things by hiring a new artist.”

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Do you think LDs should always be on guard about falling into a creative rut?

“How many productions have we seen this year alone that feature layers of video screens and lights blowing through themselves over and over again. This stuff was pretty avant-garde in 2005, but a decade later I’d like to think we can come up with something new. Sometimes doing something predictable is unavoidable, because this is what your clients are requesting. That being said, it’s your responsibility to try to update that type of gig and try your hardest to put a new twist on something that’s been done a thousand times.”

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When all is said and done, what would you like to be known for most within the lighting industry?

“Positive balance. I’d like to be known as the guy that always tried to bring a positive balance to productions. I don’t mean some hippie lifestyle balance; just the ability to be seen walking into a room and everyone nodding their heads knowing that the guy is here to make sure that his part makes people’s lives easier around here instead of being a drag. It’s something I’ve strived for more and more as I’ve matured within this business. Like many, I started out as a young hothead shooting my mouth off as young guys do. I’ve changed drastically over the years. I do my best to leave the room better than the way I found it these days. It’s a very personal, self-imposed challenge, and I hope I succeed enough that people notice and want to emulate (it). When I’m gone, I don’t want a scholarship named after me. I want people in this business to look after each other more closely because I helped try to change the status quo.”