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Al Gurdon: Woven Light

Posted on August 31, 2016
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As the designer of Super Bowl Halftime Shows and scores of other major events across the globe, this Prime Time Emmy Award winner has designed shows involving thousands of high-output fixtures. Still, when discussing the critical elements of a design, Gurdon is as apt to dwell on a dark area or slight color change as he is on any lighting effect.

Trained early on in photography (his mother was an accomplished amateur), he views his role as a designer as contributing to a series of photographic scenes. For Gurdon, the ultimate measure of a lighting design is how well it weaves into these scenes and brings them to life. In some cases, this weaving may require a powerful lighting display. In others, the contribution will be more subtle. Always, though, it is the needs of the scene that determine the lighting’s destiny. Like some mysterious quantum particle, lighting in this designer’s universe does not exist until it interacts with something larger than itself.

This holistic view may be one reason why Gurdon has developed so many close collaborative relationships with directors like Hamish Hamilton. It’s also earned him two Prime Time Emmys (one for the 2013 Super Bowl Halftime Show with Beyoncé, the other for the 2014 Sochi Olympics opening ceremony), as well numerous other awards — and a long list of high profile projects like the MTV Awards and Eurovision Song Contest. Speaking to us from London, where his company Incandescent Design is based, he shared his insights into weaving light with the world around it.

You have been quoted as saying that you are not interested in technology for its own sake. You obviously have managed to master lighting technology without becoming its slave, using it to great effect in large-scale productions, yet never allowing it to overwhelm your work (or the audience). What advice do you have on achieving the balance of using, but not abusing, the technology that’s available to designers today?
“My advice would be always to stay focused on why you are doing a show. Ask yourself, ‘What is the show’s ultimate purpose?’ Keep the audience in mind when you answer. What would you like to be seeing if you were in that audience? The answer would most likely be something fairly straight forward. Audiences don’t want to be overwhelmed by your technique; their priorities are more likely to reside in the performers or the story.”

“A lot of what we can describe as ‘over technique’ is done for the designer and the designer’s peers. The designer is thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to use this new light with all these cool features so I can showcase my skills?’ Instead, that designer would be better served focusing on what the audience really wants to see. This may be at odds with what a professional would want to display. Professionals might want to display their command of their field, but those kind of impulses should be resisted. As a designer you do not want them interfering with your work.”

“You certainly see this kind of thing in writing. If you ever read essays by teenagers, you know they will often put in long words and extra words, because they think that’s the way to impress their teacher. Of course it is not impressing anyone. You can apply this principle to any creative field, including lighting design.”

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Do you think that “flash” reaches a point of diminishing returns in a light show? What we mean is do you think people began wanting more flash as technology made more of it available? Then once they became over exposed to it, they started wanting shows that are deeper and less flashy?
“There are two parts to my answer for this one. Firstly, what has become the norm is enormously more sophisticated than it was before moving lights and LED screens. So the intensity level of lighting design has been raised. What was stunning at one time is the norm today.”

“When one looks back at those earlier times one might see them as bland, but, perhaps because there were less distractions on offer, they nevertheless delivered what the audience wanted to see, and perhaps in a more instinctive way. So I may still draw on those styles today. I recall a performance by Amy Winehouse on the Brit Awards where the reference was really taken from the character of her music and her own personal image and aesthetic, which had much more of a ‘vintage’ feel. In this case it clearly would have been the wrong approach to deliver a treatment that relied too much on the overt use of modern hardware. Another example was ‘The Robbie Williams Show,’ which we shot at Pinewood Film Studios, and which used as a very clear reference the 1968 Elvis Presley ‘Comeback Special.’ I found it very stimulating and gratifying to take these references, run with them, and make them contemporary.”

“When you revert to what you call flash and trash, it can often be gratuitous. Balance is really the key. It is a part of the lighting designer’s job to think of the project as having an internal visual dynamic of its own. You need to think of that dynamic and how your work will complement it.”

“Another crucial part of lighting design is pacing and preserving the element of surprise. Unlike, say, set design, which functions typically in geographical space, time and timing is an inseparable part of the process with lighting. You have to keep elements of your show up your sleeve, revealing them as the show progresses. If you do it all at once, the audience has nothing left to stay for in a visual sense. It has often been said that ‘Jaws’ was only effective until the shark was revealed. This was actually owing to logistical problems, according to Spielberg, but what happened was that because of these limitations imposed upon him, he was forced back onto the traditional techniques of film craft: suggestion rather than showing, careful editing, atmospheric music, and so on. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

We once read in a review of a Frank Sinatra recording that pointed out that like all great singers, he took meaning out of the lyrics, rather than trying to put it into them with his voice. It sounds like you take a similar view of lighting design. Is that a fair statement?
“Absolutely — I hear some people in our industry say it’s all about the lighting, but I don’t agree. Or, at least, I don’t start like that. It doesn’t exist in a creative vacuum. It is all about context: the staging, the actual show content, the artists, the set, the costumes. Lighting is certainly important in itself and may even have more importance than some of those other elements, depending on the circumstances, but they are all interdependent, and that is the key to a successful production.”

How do you get into the heart of the show? Do you have to like the work to light it?
“I think it helps obviously to like it. For example, working with music acts, you need to try to appraise where they are in terms of their own creative journey at that particular moment. Working on the Brit Awards many years ago, we had a concept for a performance by U2. It was presented to the band and they liked it, but they explained that it represented them six months earlier, but that now they were moving in a different direction, so it wasn’t right for them any more. In a way it’s irrelevant whether or not we like the music. It’s what can we do visually to fit with the overall tone of the artist. It’s finding a connection which chimes with the spirit of the project, which may not necessarily be visual.”

Artists seem to be more involved in lighting today; how do you feel about that?
“I welcome their involvement, because it’s their show and they are the ones who are going to be deciding whether or not your design fits their vision. Some musicians think visually and some don’t. It’s part of your mission to translate their nonvisual concept into something visual. If they say I want it to be really cinematic, then it’s your job to find out precisely what they mean by cinematic – is it film noir or romantic comedy? – and to work out both how you can create that look, and how you can communicate it back to the artist in further discussion.”

We know you like to incorporate dark spaces into your designs, yet many LDs seem to be afraid of dark spaces. What advice would you give them on using darkness?
“Afraid of the dark! I like that…I suppose that my comfort level with dark spaces comes to some extent from my background – how I got into lighting in the first place. I didn’t come into this as someone who was particularly interested in the process. I greatly admire those people who have, from an early age, had a passion for the craft, lit their school plays, spent every waking hour absorbed in that hobby, and eventually creating a career out of it, but that was not me. I was interested in photography, and I was an avid cinemagoer, and from there I became interested in film making. I went to film school and found myself getting into a career of camera work and then lighting from that.

“My approach is largely photographic. I am very aware of viewpoint. Viewpoint is very important to the idea of lighting. Lighting doesn’t really exist without viewpoint. I have always seen darkness as part of the process of creating depth and dimensionality. It is a great tool in creating drama. Conversely, if you’re fully lit all the time, where do you go from there? If there is a visual journey that takes place, then at some point you’re going to have to turn lights off. For example: if a song starts in a mysterious way before it kicks in, then it’s likely that you’re going to want to start with some darkness.”

It seems that in lieu of flash and a lot of rapid and repeated movements, you have often relied on having multi-layer gradients of color in your design. So instead of having one or two blues, you’ll have a whole spectrum of blues behind an artist. How would you describe your use of colors?
“Again it’s the photographic background. I have fairly strong views about color. First of all, let’s just take that whole idea of narrative. If you accept that you need to create a narrative to hold the interest of the audience, then you have to limit your palette to some extent, so that you are still able to use them as tools for transition. In addition to a general distaste for multi-color, I also tend to limit my colors for the sake of my narrative’s continuity. I like to take each lighting picture from a sort of plausible natural scenario, and that also tends to push me toward a more limited use of color at any one moment.”

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How do you get inspired?
“I try to find the visual essence of the project. This might come from the shape of the space, which may also inform the set design. A simple example might be a circular room. That gives you a very clear and elemental starting point, and with this kind of ‘hint,’ the design flows from there. Earlier this year I worked on a project called ‘Grease Live.’ This was basically a live version of the movie, with some elements of the theatrical production, as well as some elements of live event television. The starting point is obviously an analysis of the movie itself and, from there, to think about whether you stay strictly in that world or make significant changes. I discussed this with the director and we decided on the general approach to stay close to the film, but we identified key moments where we would ‘break the fourth wall,’ by stepping out of the narrative’s realism for the sake of dramatic or emotional effect. From that broad structural dialogue flows the decision-making process about the lighting itself. I literally write a long list of things that I need to cover. It sounds prosaic but it is what guides me through my design.”

You’re perhaps best known for your work in television. How would you describe the lighting designer’s role in a television production?
‘That’s an interesting question. Effectively the lighting designer is jointly responsible for the overall look of the production in collaboration with a director and a set designer. You have to approach it in a holistic way. Give yourself an overview of what is needed. You are ultimately responsible for implementing a visual style for taking the audience along on the narrative that has been created by the producer and director. You have to find logistical and technological solutions to deliver the creative concept.”

You’ve had a lot of successful collaborations, notably with director Hamish Hamilton. What is the secret to a successful LD –Director partnership?
“I think from the lighting designer’s point of view, it’s important to recognize the significance of what you do, but at the same time to remember also to respect the importance of what others do. As we discussed before, I don’t see lighting existing in a vacuum. It is interdependent with many other aspects of the production. So although I am protective of my role, I don’t necessarily feel that everything I imagine is a good thing. Sometimes my initial thoughts may offer a good approach, but there may be a better reason to do things differently. If you pour everything into a design, but it doesn’t work for the bigger picture, you need to swallow your pride and find an alternative that supports the overall concept more effectively. As far as Hamish is concerned, we’ve known one another and have worked together for many years and are great friends. We don’t necessarily always agree, but we respect each other’s vision and mutually support that.”

For television lighting, how do you determine the ideal color temperature for key lighting?
“It depends on the dominant light source. It makes sense to go with that, because there is less work in matching the other sources to it, than if you chose something that was less representative of the rig. With heavily moving fixture rigs, I will go with daylight. If there is a lot of tungsten in the rig, then I will go with that.”

You’ve had a very successful career; what do you regard as some of its highlights?
“The Super Bowl Halftime Show is a very exhilarating and potentially creatively rewarding job. The show is only twelve minutes long, typically, and takes eight minutes to construct after the whistle has blown for the end of the first half and has to be off the field in about six minutes before the game resumes. But it is the most watched show in the United States by a significant margin, and it not only needs to be truly ‘state of the art,’ but it has to be demonstrably bigger and better and cleverer than anything that came before it. In a word, it is a challenge, and if you can rise to it, that can be very rewarding.”

“The Sochi Olympics was another great project. Our Russian clients had no limit to their ambitions, and it was an accomplishment to realize most of them and great to produce theatre on such an epic scale. More recently, Grease Live brought together the worlds of Film, Theatre and Television for a project that was ultimately as satisfying as it was challenging. It was great fun finding all those techniques learned at the start of my career, dusting them off, and putting them to use.”

Who were the big influencers in your career?
“I think that my main influences have come from the film world and have helped me formulate my own style, and means of extrapolating a cinematic approach to depth and tonal range into the world of events and concerts, which may not even exist as a filmed entity. Learning from cinematographers such as Néstor Almendros, Vittorio Storaro, and Gordon Willis, as well as photographers as diverse as Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson, I have developed ideas about how to take from these masters and try to use the same principles in my own work. This has helped me to find ways of allowing the lighting to support the narrative in a meaningful way. In the world of music lighting, I greatly admire the work of Roy Bennett and Willie Williams. They push boundaries, and their use of technology has been to serve creative concepts, rather than as an end in itself, which resonates strongly with my own view of our industry.”

How would you like to be remembered as a lighting designer?
“I hope it’s not too soon to be ‘remembered,’ but I would like to be thought of as someone who does the job with some integrity and always keeps the true reasons for doing it firmly in sight. I want to start each job with an open mind. In my view, if you always ask yourself, ‘How do I need to approach this specific job?’ rather than relying on re-hashing something that may have worked for the last one, that will keep you fresher creatively. I want to be thought of as someone who didn’t just find a successful formula and then run with it to retirement. For me it is never about using a large number of lights, even though it might seem like that to an observer who is more interested in quantifying than qualifying. I am more than happy using one fixture if it does the job and contributes to a powerful visual narrative.”

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