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The Art of Collaboration — James Schipper and Rachel Miller

Posted on May 4, 2015
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The couple that pixel maps together, stays together! Ok, we just made that one up, but working together on eye-popping lighting designs seems to have done the trick for James Schipper and Rachel Miller, both personally and professionally.

James, the vice president and chief lighting designer at Kinetic Lighting, is an accomplished LD with many high profile designs to his credit. The same can be said of Rachel, who is a standout designer at the same Glendale, CA-based company. They came to professional lighting via separate paths, found each other, and have been a happy couple for years.

Although they do much of their work individually, they also have collaborated on design projects. Plus, as much as they set up no-work-talk-on-dates rules, there are always times when a romantic dinner will be interrupted by talk of a new use for an LED video panel or moving pixel head. We spoke to Rachel and James about the perils and joys of working together and asked them to share their insights into collaboration.

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Do you collaborate often on projects at Kinetic Lighting?

Rachel: “We are kept very busy with our own separate clients, but when the opportunity arises, we do enjoy collaborating together. It can be creative (i.e. the actual design) or more pragmatic, being the other’s right hand on a show.”

How does the collaborative process differ from creating on your own?

James: “When collaborating creatively, one of us may determine the functional/practical/technical aspects of the show, and the other will handle the more artistic elements such as color, gobos and working directly with the programmer.“

Rachel: “When the collaboration is more on a practical basis, one of us can take the role of calling focus for the other, calling followspots, or generally representing the design team onsite.”

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Will each of you typically assume one roll or the other in the creative process? Or is it all over the place where you never know who’s going to contribute what?

Rachel: “It varies by show. For an annual stage production we do, James works with the programmer to work on the movers and fill, and I will work on key light and followspots and balancing everything for camera. The roles change based on which person’s client the show ultimately belongs to. If it is one of my clients, I would be the point person to the client, and James would be her collaborative right hand – and vice versa.”

Is it easier or more difficult to collaborate being that you’re a couple?

James: “When living with your collaborative partner, it becomes quite easy to ask questions and get the other’s work advice at any time. We’ve had to set limitations to how much ‘work talk’ we can have at home. It can be great, but it can also be overwhelming at times.”

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What would you say you gain from collaboration over flying solo?

James: “You have someone to bounce ideas off of. A safety net of support for when things get busy onsite. It imparts a sense of confidence between us and to our clients because the success or failure of their show is not solely riding on the shoulders of one individual.”

Lighting designers are always having to work with other people on a project whether it’s a video person or set designer etc. Is this easier to do when you’re already collaborating with each other?

Rachel: “Certainly. Learning to collaborate extends past our department. Since we collaborate in one way or another often, we’ve had to learn how to compromise (and when not to).”

When you have discussions with these other people like set designers, do you have them together or does one of you do it?

Rachel: “It depends on the roles we’re playing, but typically that would follow the lead of the primary designer.”

Aside from each other, where do you get your ideas from?

Rachel: “In college, my professor Scott Pinkney had us take a photo a day of a lighting moment that struck us. For instance, the way the light from the street lamp bounces off the snowflakes illuminating only the immediate 2 feet around the lamp. Or, the angle the sunlight would reflect an old stone building onto the adjacent tall glass building mixing ‘the old and the new.’ This seemingly menial daily assignment from years ago keeps my eyes open to how the world is lit around me to this day. I also enjoy restoration hardware and Dwell magazine to give me real-world applications and look at industrial fixtures and how vignettes in magazines are pictured and try to incorporate that into my designs.”

James: “Beyond the normal trade publications, I read architectural and interior design magazines to inspire me with color, texture and out-of-the-box thinking in an industry that parallels entertainment design.”

What’s the best thing you’ve learned from each other?

Rachel: “Patience and acceptance of differing ideas.”

James: “That it doesn’t always have to be my way. It can be exciting to see Rachel take my concept and flesh it out in her own creative way.”

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When you collaborate, does one of you usually start the process and the other build on it?

James: “That depends entirely on which of us is the primary designer to the client. Sometimes one of us will end up deciding on color and gobos and working with the programmer after the other has already put lights on a page, but it’s all very dependent on the show.”

What do you both design in?

Rachel: “Generally in my pajamas with a glass of wine and thin mints.”

James: ‘Vectorworks 2015.’

Rachel: ‘Oh. Right. Yes. Vectorworks.’

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Can each of you say what was the best design idea the other one ever had?

James: ‘We had a client that wanted a starry night effect in a 25,000 sq. ft. ballroom, where the budget didn’t allow for a large quantity of fixtures or projection. Rachel hid mirror balls, concealed from the guests view, and hit them with tight beam moving light fixtures, which created an amazing star-field effect on the ceiling and walls, overlaid with a deep blue LED wash, completing the look.’

Rachel: ‘For a recent Oscar party, James created a custom gobo to match the linens and pillows at the event. Super creative, and really brought the event full circle.’

What were your most fun collaborative projects?

Both: ‘Fox Broadcasting is a client that we each deal with independently, and the annual Primetime Upfronts in NYC in May is a show we have the opportunity to work together on. We have a great local crew, a beautiful historic venue, a professional production team and all in all, it’s a well-oiled machine. It’s a high-stakes show, but with the strong team behind it, it makes it not only a successful project, but one we enjoy doing together.”


Photo credits:

Zebra Print purple ceiling:
Angel City Designs | Photo by 2MeStudios

Gooding and Company:
Production Elements, Inc.

Nexus Ceiling Show:
Angel City Designs  | Photo by 2MeStudios

Bahamas Outside Rig:
Angel City Designs