Adventures in Lighting with Michael Veerkamp

Posted on April 8, 2015

There’s at least one invaluable thing in Michael Veerkamp’s creative tool chest that you aren’t going to read about in any lighting manual, see at any LDI booth or buy from any manufacturer, and that’s an irrepressible sense of fun. He may understand the business side of his profession as well as anyone, but when it comes right down to it, for Veerkamp the actual act of designing is one glorious adventure of swooping profiles, huge color changes and sudden chase scenes that stop the human eye in mid blink and make people say “Wow!”

Chauvet Lighting Insights Verkamp 3

The CEO of the well-known design house Team Imagination, Inc., Veerkamp has parlayed this sense of adventure into a spectacular career that has seen him excel at many genres of lighting, most recently in reality-based quiz shows like Family Game Night, ABC’s Bet on Your Baby and The Pyramid. His use of lighting as a scenic element and the big stadium-like looks he creates with panels and overlays have earned him the respect of his peers and influenced the direction of game show lighting.

A few years ago, Veerkamp attracted attention when he designed 60 performances in six weeks for America’s Most Talented Kids without ever repeating the same look. His accomplishment was not only proof of his stamina, but also served to demonstrate that when you’re having fun your creative juices never run dry. We visited with Veerkamp recently. Not surprisingly, we had fun. We hope you enjoy this too.

If you just met someone at a cocktail party and told them you were a lighting designer and they said, “What’s that?” How would you answer?

“Generally, unless I’m at an industry event, I never mention what I do for a living. Or if I do, I’ll use a very general description of ‘I work in television production.’ One of my favorite stories was when a cousin of mine, who is a hard working blue collar sort of a guy, asked me in earnest to explain to him what I did for work. After several minutes of my detailed description, his response was: ‘And they pay you for that?’ Note taken — to most of the world, I point colored lights at people.”

Chauvet April LIghting Insights Verkamp 5

You’ve done so many big time reality programs, was there ever one you wish you were a contestant on?

“No! I am meant to be behind the camera. Maybe I’d be Bret Michaels on “Rock of Love.” I could rock the bandanna!”

Your designs for TV game shows are really very impressive in their scope, texture and color, can you share some insights into where you start building your designs?

“Thanks for saying that. I’m told that my design process is ‘interesting’ to watch. Usually, by time I get ready to put pencil to paper, and yes that’s the way I work, ideas have been stirring around in my head for days if not weeks. It starts when I sit down in front of a plan that has been prepared by my assistant, where he has taken the set design ground plan, and has laid it onto the stage we will be shooting on.

“Once I start designing, I cannot scribble fast enough to get it all out. I always start with the fun stuff, then I move on to the utility lighting — the keys and backlights. The boring — but all so necessary — stuff is usually added by my assistant while cad drafting the actual plot. Also, if there’s a new toy that our shop, 4Wall Entertainment, has for me to play with, I’ll usually put that into the design first, and build out from there…especially if it’s something they’ve bought at my request!

“Then when game shows really get fun is during the programming. Most of our game shows are MIDI driven; so the programming is complicated, but once it’s done even the most complicated programs will run like clockwork taking cues off of the gaming system.”

Chauvet April LIghting Insights Verkamp 4

What genre of lighting is the most like TV game show lighting?

“Probably concert. I always enjoy doing game shows, because I get to pretty much do anything I want to do. I can write in more cues than necessary, because I like it. I can decide that something in game play is going to cause a huge color change and swoop of the profiles, because I think it’s cool. It’s the same sort of artistic freedom I have doing music.”

So how do you keep coming up with fresh looks show after show? Where do you draw your inspiration from?

“One way is that I surround myself with talented assistant designers that are always challenging me to think outside the box. I love it when an assistant or an intern throws out an idea. Sometimes they will not work, but many more times they still can lead us to decisions that will work and will keep things fresh. Other than that, I try to get to as many concerts and as much theatre as possible.”

If a designer excels in one genre of lighting, does that mean he or she would be assured of doing well in another?

“It all depends on the designer. There are plenty of television designers who are far from actual ‘designers.’ They have some technical skills, but little or no eye as a designer. All of my assistants have come from the theatre world. I can teach a kid with a good eye to see my world through a camera, and to learn that you are designing and cuing for that camera. Of course for television there are also engineering needs that have to be taken into consideration before you get to do the pretty stuff. Really, what it comes down to is how well your business skills are developed for each segment of the industry.”

Can you elaborate on that last point about business skills?

“Sure, in my case I have to know how to budget and execute a television lighting design. Could I design a concert rig? Yes. Can I quickly design a concert rig that will pack efficiently into a semi? Nope. Can I design a theatre production? Yes. Do I know the protocols and standards of working with a Broadway crew and rental house? Not at all. What escapes most bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed young designers is that this is a business. In reality those business skills are sometimes more important than design abilities. You can design the most fantastic looking show in the world, but if you come in way over budget, or off schedule — you will not be working much.”

Chauvet April Lighting Inisghts Verkamp 3

In your own case, you’ve done a lot of other TV productions besides game shows. So how does lighting these shows differ from lighting things like the work you did with Leonard Maltin?

“Everything is different. I like to mix it up, and keep doing new things and different shows.   My work with Mr. Maltin involved talking head interviews, so you’re more focused in making him and, most especially, the star talent he’s interviewing look as good as possible. Many years ago, I lit Jayne Meadows for an interview. Her husband was the late comic and talk show host Steve Allen, who I grew up watching on television. She took her seat and Mr. Allen asks to see a monitor to check his wife’s lighting. I stood there with butterflies in my stomach as I waited for the verdict. He turned to me and gave me a hug before saying, ‘Thank you for making my wife look so pretty.’ That was cool.

“Reality house based shows are different than a lot of other TV, because they are limited by practical and logistical factors as well as the fact that they are shooting in real time with few pick-ups. Also, you have free roving camera operators that wander around, so you always have to think through where they could possibly go and how to make it as good as possible. My company has a reputation for taking these projects and making them look as good as our studio shows. I have to give credit to my lighting directors, gaffers and crews for that, because my actual involvement with our reality shows is very limited. I design them and set the look. But after that first day or two of shooting it’s their hard work that keeps them looking great.

“One thing that’s been a major help to reality programming is the development of technology. Reality has really benefited from LED lighting and cameras that are improving the quality of the picture in low light levels.”

On the subject of lighting technology; it’s moved so fast in recent years, as evidenced by the work you did with Nexus on ABC’s Bet on Your Baby.   That product category didn’t exist a few years ago. So, how do you sell TV producers on the idea of using a new type of lighting?

“Truthfully, I just do my thing. Producers are not really interested in how I get the job done; they just want to be excited when they see it. With the advent of so much video and media content, there is a struggle sometimes over who’s calling the shots on the selection of media content – the director, producers, production designer or lighting designer.

“As an example, I once selected a palette and media content that had a lot of greens and lavenders — the production designer absolutely hated it, but I liked it. When the executive producer arrived on set, I made sure that I was one of the first to greet him. I gave him a big hug, and whispered into his ear, ‘You love green.’ When the look came up during our look-see, the production designer let his disdain known. As if on cue, my executive producer responded, ‘But I love green,’ and gave me a sly smile. I can play dirty to get my way!”

From your own perspective, how has the advent of big bright set pieces impacted your work on TV projects? How do you like to use these set pieces? Can you over use them?

“If you’re talking about internally LED lit set pieces, I like them. It’s funny you ask, because just today I was chatting with a production designer and we were talking about the fact that look is going out of style. Those kinds of sets do put a lot of responsibility on me to set the color palette of the show — This can be obviously good, but sometimes, I’m left wishing at least for textures to work with. Then you get into a situation where just about everyone has an opinion about color. So sometimes, you’re left spending a lot of time showing people all of their ‘what if’ colors. I’m also faster than most to make up my mind; so it can be trying when you have to spend a great deal of time auditioning colors and looks, just to eventually get back to the original colors.”

Is there a favorite color you like to work with on TV?

“Ask anyone who works with me and they will tell you that it’s GAM 850, Medium Blue. Of course I seldom use gel anymore, but I still stick to a lot of blues. But with that being said, I am always trying to mix in as many different colors as I can.”

How about the most challenging colors?

“The most difficult colors are the lavender range. Different brands of cameras render it differently, and it’s the one that my video controller has the most trouble keeping from going to blue on Sony cameras.”

We know you like to create big stadium-type looks on TV game show sets. Can you tell us how you use lighting to achieve this kind of expansive vista?

“I use lots of haze and layers of depth with hard edged fixtures adding air graphics. Many times lighting is called on to add set where there is no scenery — and that’s the quick and dirty way to achieve that look.”

We’re having fun talking to you – and so many people we know say you’re a great conversationalist; why do you think that is?

“To be honest, I was ‘painfully shy’ while growing up.   I was lucky that my first employer was Walt Disney World and that, even as a stage technician, part of the expectation of all cast members was to have positive ‘magical’ moments with guests. So, they taught me how to walk up to someone, typically someone gazing at a map, and ask if I could help them find something and engage them in conversation. Guess it worked. Beyond that, I’m genuinely interested in people and their story.”

There are so many people involved in a TV production; is communication a challenge? Who are the most important people for you to connect with on a TV project?

“My theatrically trained interns and new assistants are amazed at how little communication happens pre-production. But probably the most important person is the line producer. They set my budget. Beyond that, it evolves through the process. First it’s the executive producer that tells me the vision and then it’s the production designer. As we get closer to shooting, and the director comes on board, it’s them. Really, on a day-to-day basis, the director and I are booth buddies. I always make sure I’m looking out for my director. Then, as you start shooting, the network gets involved, and making sure they are happy is important.”

Do you always change your lighting to fit the shots that the director wants, or is that kind of a give-and-take that goes both ways?

“Camera shots are usually determined during blocking, and I work with really gifted directors that communicate what they want to do long before we are on set. After blocking, and first rehearsals, we will have focus calls to adjust keys to newly discovered angles and shots. I seldom ever say ‘no’ to my director, unless there are other constraints. Also, with the use of more and more automated key lights, we usually just play along and adjust on the fly.”

Looking back in history, is there one show from the past that you wish you were around to do the lighting on?

“I really have a passion for the Golden Days of television. From the variety shows of the ’60s and ’70s; dramas like Twilight Zone and the original teleplay shows like Marty. Right now, on my DVR at home is Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii a special from the ’70s. But of course I’m also glad that I’m not shooting my shows at 600 foot candles, or wearing a tie to work.”

If you didn’t become a lighting designer what would you have done?

“Well, I decided at the age of 15 that I was going to be a lighting designer as soon as I figured out there was such a thing. But I have been told that when I was 5, I proclaimed to a ride operator at Disneyland that I was going to pilot the river rafts at Tom Sawyer’s island when I grew up. I still have been known to say that in my retirement I’m going to go work at a Disney theme park as a ride op!”

Chauvet April Lighting Insights Verkamp 2

Who were the big influencers in your career?

“Jules Fisher, because I saw his name in a program and that was my first realization that there was someone who designed the lighting for Pippin (my first Broadway show). Of course, I owe my career to Jim Moody. I worked for him in the early ’80s and then again in the ’90s, and he is a natural teacher. He taught me how to design for television, and most importantly he taught me the business side of lighting.

“When I went on my own to start Team Imagination in 1995, the lessons I learned from him were invaluable. I also am thankful for my high school drama teacher, Neil Martin, who really believed in me more than I could ever at a young age, and Tom Tator ,my lead at Walt Disney World, who convinced management that an 18-year-old kid could design projects that no one in their right mind would trust to a kid, as well as my mentor at CalArts, the New York television designer Alan Blacher, who still is my go-to guy when I need advice, and finally Marge Romans, the matriarch of our industry and founder of Olesen rental house, who believed in me when I started Team Imagination. Also important, are a couple of guys that I worked for who taught me how not to treat people.”

Looking over your career, what do see as your favorite projects?

“It’s always the next one. But, really, it’s not the projects that stick out, it’s the people. I’ve gotten to work with really amazing people. From directors, producers, my crews and staff,   and talent–I’ve been very blessed.”

You do a lot in education, can you talk about that?

“It’s a blast. I really don’t do that much, but a couple of times each year I have an opportunity to meet college kids and talk about our world. I have a passion for inspiring gifted young people to be everything they want to be, with a humble dose of reality. My company also sponsors a yearly paid summer college lighting design internship with The Television Academy (the Emmy folks); that’s really incredible to see who’s going to be the next wave of creative people in all parts of the television industry. “

How would you like to be remembered as a lighting designer?

“I’m feeling like the character from Spamalot — ‘I’m not dead yet!’ As Oprah said in prayer during one of our shoots, ‘Let us do no harm.’ I want to be remembered as a guy that helped some very talented people get their start in our industry. I take more pride in the success of my former assistants, not only professionally, but in their lives, than anything I’ve ever done. Beyond that, I hope I played a role in entertaining folks. After all, it’s not brain surgery!”