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Christian Hibbard, Creating Moments with Light

Posted on August 28, 2014
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Christian Hibbard loves his job as Lighting Director at Jimmy Kimmel Live, a position he’s held since 2009.  The thing that Hibbard particularly relishes about his work at the popular late night show is the creative freedom it brings. No two days at Kimmel are ever alike for this LD. He is allowed, even encouraged, to try new things that will make the show different, better and more engaging than it was the day before.

OPRAH WINFREY, JIMMY KIMMEL

Hibbard, who set out to be a photographer before switching to lighting design, has always pushed the creative envelope.  This has helped propel him through a career that’s included stops at American Idol, Survivor and a host of other high-profile TV programs. It also placed him in the forefront of a movement that’s brought more realism to TV lighting by minimizing front lights and building more cues – an accomplishment that should earn him the gratitude of viewers everywhere!

Taking time out of his busy schedule, the Emmy-nominated LD talked to us about the changes that have taken place in TV lighting, the relationship between photography and lighting design and his secret ambition to light a theme park ride.

We understand that back in high school you wanted to be a photographer; so how did you make the switch to lighting design?

“True, I love photography. I am a big Ansel Adams fan. It all started with my grandfather, who came back from Germany after the war with some excellent cameras. He passed on his love of photography to me. I got very involved in nature photography.  My dream was to be a nature photojournalist and get sent to all these cool places, like the Amazon. Oh to be young and innocent!

“I did take photos for our local newspaper, though, which was enough to convince me to go to school to become a photojournalist. I went to Santa Barbara City College, but I had to take a technical theater course to get my degree. Not to sound corny, but as soon as I walked through the elephant doors and saw the stage I fell in love. I knew lighting design was where I wanted to be.  Then I went to Cal Arts and interned for the Los Angeles Opera.  My last year in school I interned for Jeff Ravitz at Moody/Ravitz– and it was like WOW! There’s more lighting technology here than I ever imagined existed.”

Chauvet Christian Hibbard photograph

What did you learn from Jeff? 

“How much time do you have?  I learned so much from Jeff when I was working as an intern. He’s a great LD, so I learned plenty about lighting, but beyond that I also learned organizational skills and the value of being prepared in this profession. I assisted in the Springsteen tour, and you know how Bruce can pull out any one of 500 songs on the spur of the moment? Well, it never fazed Jeff, because he was always prepared for any contingency. It was a valuable lesson, and one that I’ve never forgotten.”

You mention learning from Jeff – and now that you’ve succeeded in this profession, you’ve given back by holding seminars, but are there certain things about lighting design that you can’t teach, that have to come from inside you?

“Sure there are. I equate lighting design to architecture in that respect. There are some architects that make a nice living building strip malls and condos. They’re great at what they do and they make a good living at it. However, when you go past this group, you get to those architects who design structures that stand the test of time and are admired from generation to generation, because they represent creative ideas that are bigger than a building.

“Lighting design is the same; just like someone can learn to be a competent strip mall architect, someone can learn to be a bread and butter lighting designer. You can teach someone that; but you can’t teach someone how to take the next step and create lighting design of more enduring value. Or I guess more importantly, you can’t teach someone to have the desire to accomplish something great rather than just good in lighting design, because that means taking chances and making mistakes.  That kind of aspiration can’t be taught; it has to come from inside you.”

Back to photography, are you still involved in it today? 

“Yes I am, not in a way of making money, but I still do a variety of photographic projects, including nature and cityscapes as well as action portraits. I like to capture moments in time with photography. In lighting we create moments especially for live shows; in photography we capture them.”

CH Color pic

Since lighting and composition are obviously so important in photography, has your photographic experience helped you as an LD?

“Definitely, especially for television I have to look at things that the camera can do—not the eye—which is the same as photography. I am creating a series of images for TV, which in one way is an elaboration of what I did with photography. Of course there are many more variables involved in TV…. for one thing, I’m dealing with seven cameras not one!”

You’ve been widely praised for your sense of color. How does the television camera differ from the eye in this regard?

“You have to think of how a color is going to look on camera – and different cameras vary in this regard – in some cameras reds will look better, in others blue. So the first thing I ask when working on a new broadcast set is, ‘Which cameras are you using?’ You have to know the color temperature you are dealing with in television too. Some colors are not going to show up or not show up well on camera. On the Jimmy Kimmel Live set or any broadcast application I always try to see my lighting ideas play out on video before I commit to them. If this was theater it would be different; you can trust your eyes, but on broadcast you have to trust the camera’s eye.”

What about if it was concert tour lighting we were talking about? Would you trust the human eye or video?

“Ha! That’s a tough question and a debatable one. I guess the answer depends on who you ask. There are strong opinions on both sides. Personally, I think you have to be aware of the fact that half of your audience will be watching the concert on IMAG and adjust your lights accordingly.”

A few years ago, you received a lot of favorable attention for the way you converted the Jimmy Kimmel Live set to LED lighting. Can you talk a little about how TV lighting has changed?

“Well obviously the arrival of LED has been a big development. The power draw and lamp life make them a lot more efficient, and of course there’s much less heat on the set, which makes it more comfortable for everyone.

“The biggest change in TV lighting, and most positive one from an LD’s point of view, is that it has become more realistic. I am a very big believer in minimizing all of the front lights that you used to have in TV lighting and building more cues and relying more on dark spaces.  Our ability to do this has made TV lighting much more engaging than it was in the past. In earlier times you needed all that front lighting because of the limitations of the cameras of the era. Now that those limitations have been removed we can do more creative things with TV lighting. It’s an example of how technology has interacted with art in a good way!”

On the subject of new technology, does it change the way you think as an LD? In other words does the new technology lead to new creative concepts, or is the technology just a new tool that allows you to express the ideas that have been in your mind all along?

“It’s really some of both. For example, LED color strobing is something I dreamt about for years before it came out to market and made me very, very happy. Then there are things like some of the moving color panels that I never thought of. I get new ideas every time I go to LDI.

“However, I don’t think designers should allow technology to rule their creative process. I once asked a famous LD which console he liked to use. He said I don’t really focus on the console, it’s the programmer that I work with that I care about.  The latest technology is not going to make up for a lack of imagination. On the other hand, artistic imagination is going to accomplish great things with any technology. Do you think Ansel Adams would have been a better photographer with a digital camera? Look at what Pink Floyd did in the ’80s with ‘primitive tools.’ Technology is a tool and we value it a great deal, but it’s not a substitute for vision and inspiration.”

When you have live musical performances on a program like Jimmy Kimmel Live, do you try to light them as if they were mini concerts or do you take an entirely different approach because it’s television?

“You have to be aware it’s TV, but I treat it like a concert. When I talk to the bands who appear on the show, I tell them to look at it as if it’s a festival. There are a lot of similarities to performing on our show and performing at a festival.  We do about one third of our Jimmy Kimmel Live concerts on our outdoor stage, which is much larger than your typical late night TV stage, so it’s more conducive to creating that festival feeling.

“I don’t treat the concerts as a TV performance in the conventional sense. My goal is to do whatever lighting is appropriate for the music. Every piece of music calls for something different, so we don’t get locked into doing the same thing over and over again.  The bands like this; they want a want a different look when they’re on national TV than they have at a concert. Their concert lighting gets so much exposure on social media and YouTube, they want their TV performance to stand out more.”

Do you work with the bands’ LDs when you design for their appearance?

“That all depends on the bands. In some cases the bands’ LDs are involved, and in some cases the band just lets us do pretty much what we want. We will talk to the band about what they’re playing, and then my programmer and I will put something together and we’ll work with the show’s producers and directors.”

How do you collaborate with those producers and directors?

“We have a good rapport. If we create a special look and we want it to be shot for a moment at a given angle, we’ll tell the director when you get to this spot use this angle and he or she will cooperate. At other points the director will say I’m going to be shooting at this or that angle to make sure our lighting is adjusted accordingly. It’s a give and take relationship and it works well. A thing I really like about the Jimmy Kimmel Live show is that I can do crazy things here because it’s new and different every single day.  I’m comfortable at Kimmel, so I can try different things. The producers here are not locked into doing the same thing day after day.   Everyone here is always asking, ‘What can we do to separate ourselves?’  That’s a refreshing attitude.”

You’ve been involved in so many great projects. Obviously Jimmy Kimmel Live has been a highlight, but what other points stand out as fun in your career?

“Certainly my Springsteen experience with Jeff Ravitz. That was my first big tour, so I’ll always have great memories. Then there was the Olympics in Athens ,when I was the lighting programmer for Robert Dickinson. I lived in Athens for two months. It was an incredible experience to go from California, where an old building is fifty years old, to Greece where some places were thousands of years old! It was indescribable.”

You’ve been nominated for Emmy Awards, are the LD for one of the most popular late night programs on television, and have been involved in major tours and events. Is there anything you would like to do in lighting that you haven’t yet”

“Yes… I’ll probably never do it, but I’d like to create a lighting design for a theme park ride one day. I have a little girl and we go to Disney often; some of the lighting there just blows me away and looks like it would be loads of fun to do.”

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

“Professionally, I think I would like to be known for playing some part in elevating TV music lighting by minimizing the front lights, building a lot more cues, and not being afraid of negative areas, so that we could make a TV concert look more like a live event.  I wasn’t by any means the only one doing this, but I like to think that I played a part in getting rid of the massive front lights that made things look really flat and not very realistic. By doing this, I think we created better moments on television.”