Perspective plays a critical role in the approach that this Orlando-based lighting designer and director takes to his work. This is evident not only in the way he’s able to weave myriads of fixtures into balanced coordinated looks, but also in how he defines the role of lighting design. The Parnelli and Tour Link award winner goes into lighting every concert, regardless of its size, as if it’s a “big club act,” with all of the intensity, raw spontaneity and plain old fun that this definition implies.
As anyone familiar with entertainment lighting knows, Wilson has plied his skills at venues that are far cries from clubs, big or small. In 1993, for example, he worked with Patrick Woodroffe as the lighting director at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness at Wembley Stadium, which was seen by one billion TV viewers in 76 countries. He also was on the AC/DC Monsters of Rock tour, which included a Moscow show that drew a live audience of 1.6 million. Then there were the concerts and music videos done with the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and others.
Through it all, for more than three decades, Wilson has never lost sight of what this business is really all about: the pure joy of creating something that connects to people. His attitude, as more than one designer has told us, reminds everyone who’s worked with him why they got into lighting design in the first place, which is a big reason way he’s always been one of the industry’s most popular collaborators. After interviewing him we understand why his peers feel this way.
You were born Charles Wilson, so how did you get the name Cosmo? Is there a story behind it?
“I used to work the Miss USA Pageants in Lakeland, Florida in the early ’80s as a local stagehand, and there was a carpenter on the crew from New York who gave nicknames to the local guys. He started calling me Cosmo Brown. Fast forward to 1986, I am on the road with Genesis. Charlie Boxhall was the tour head rigger and lighting crew chief, and our production manager Morris Lyda, said we can’t have two Charlie’s on the crew, so either I tell them a good nickname or they would give me one. So, I didn’t want to be named something like Spermhead, so I said ‘Cosmo,’ and it stuck.”
You’re long history of collaborating with Patrick Woodroffe is legendary; how did it get started?
“I was working for Samuelson’s lighting in 1989, and I was picked to be crew chief on one of the two systems that the Rolling Stones were touring with. I did that for several months. Shawn Richardson was the lighting director, and the show was so long that he would get up to use the restroom and I would sit down and take over the console for a song or two.
“That got to be more frequent as the tour went on, so I ended up running a lot of the show. What I did not know at the time is that both Shawn and Patrick were grooming me to take over because Shawn was going to go to Tina Turner. After he left, I took over the LD position and finished the tour. Towards the end of the Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour, Patrick asked me if I would like to be the LD for AC/DC on their Razors Edge tour. Gee, that was a tough decision.”
These days when there is so much interdependency in putting on a show, involving so many different people like lighting designers, set designers, video designers, producers –and the list goes on – collaboration is more important than ever. Some designers struggle with it. What is your advice on making a collaboration successful?
“For me, it’s simply listening to what everybody else has to say and respecting their ideas. The key is to make all the ideas work together and to expand all of the different ideas into the show. Then, when you present that to the artist, it all comes together.”
What are some of the things you learned from Patrick Woodroffe?
“The most important thing I learned from Patrick was basically from a Rolling Stones show in Berlin. What happened was that we had some major weather roll through, and a lot of the gear- lighting and dimmers- went on the fritz. Of course panic ensued, but Patrick remained calm and said, ‘Let’s see what we can get working, because at some point we’re going to have to deal with it and do the show.’ The old saying ‘The show must go on.’ So what I learned from that experience was to maintain sensibility, and deal with whatever the situation is to do the best show you can, without panic, and then just make it work. That’s something I’ve taken with me since that day. The other thing I learned from him was once you hit a cue, you can’t take it back, commit and move on.”
In your recent work with Patrick for the AC/DC Rock or Bust tour, we couldn’t help but be impressed with how you balanced really big looks with those oval truss configurations over the stage, with a sense of intimacy by almost having pools of light in different areas. Can you tell us a little about how you achieve this balance on arena tours – creating mega looks but still creating a connection between the artist and the audience?
“The one thing I learned from AC/DC, they’ve always said they’re just a big club act, and that’s how I approach my lighting, whether it’s in a club, an arena, or stadium. The mindset alone of running the show like it’s a small show is what helps create the intimacy. Also, one of the main things I do is light the audience, because I think it’s important for the band to be able to see the audience to get the energy from them and return it in the performance.”
You’ve worked all over the world, including your extensive work in Russia on the Scorpions tour. Is it different designing for audiences in different regions?
“Lighting, much like music, I feel is all appreciated the same, no matter what country you’re in. I think it’s important to maintain consistency with the lighting so that all the fans feel they’re getting to see the same show that the rest of the world sees. The only difference is when you’re picking up local lighting, you may have different fixtures in your rig than you first envisioned, so you have to take that into consideration.”
How did you get involved in lighting? What was your first professional lighting job?
“My first exposure to lighting was as a concert fan. In 1976, I attend my first concert- Kiss- at the Lakeland Civic Center. I will never forget walking into this massive arena and seeing the stage, but what most impressed me was the lighting rig hanging in the air- it was like nothing I had ever seen before! Then before the show started, guys were climbing up ladders to the truss –wow that was amazing! Then they proceeded to operate lights on the band. Needless to say, I was blown away, but the whole show- band, volume, pyro — there was more than my senses could bear and take in all at once. Did I want to be a lighting guy then? Never crossed my mind at the time; I wanted to be a rock star.”
What about on a professional level? How did the Cosmo Wilson career start?
“My first concert as a stagehand, coincidently enough, was with Kiss. It was back in 1983 at the Lakeland Civic Center. I worked as a stagehand in Central Florida for a few years, a lot of shows at the Civic Center. I got into lighting, because I wanted to work. Back then my day started with pushing boxes from the truck to the stage.”
How was that?
“I hated pushing boxes, so I quickly learned that the lighting crew chief would call for hands to either go onstage and bolt together truss or go and set up the dimmers and run 4/0. For me it was anything besides pushing boxes. So, I made sure to gravitate towards the upstage when I thought they would need hands. That got me into lighting. Oddly enough, the first time I ran truss spot was in 1984 on the Dio Last in Line tour. I had never run spot or even climbed a truss. Once I did that, though, I was hooked. I gave my number to every tech I worked with, sent resumes to LSD (Tim Murch), called Richard Hartman of TTR EVERY WEEK and finally got the call to go on tour. I got a call from Richard Hartman in July of ’86 asking me to replace a British crew member on the Cure tour who had been deported because he didn’t have a visa. That guy happened to be the crew chief- so I came out on a tour with no crew chief and another replacement crew guy. I took over, got the rig up, focused it myself and that was that. Next tour was Genesis Invisible Touch.”
What do you think you would have done if you didn’t get into lighting?
“Joined the US Air Force…I wanted to fly fighter jets!”
You worked on lighting videos of concerts involving a range of artists like Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. In your view, how has it affected lighting design now that so many concerts are videoed? How do you balance between designing for the live audience and designing for the camera?
“I was fortunate to learn to light live shows for video under the auspices of David Mallet, one of the greatest music video directors of all time. The single most important thing I learned from him was that video is forever, so you light it for the video. However, you still want to give the audience a great live show, so you have to balance the video lighting with the normal live lighting. Fortunately, most audiences are aware that you are recording for a video, so that makes it even more exciting for them.”
You’ve operated boards on some of the most successful high-profile tours ever? What advice would you give someone who is running the boards at a big concert for the first time?
“Don’t get overwhelmed with the size of the rig, stage and audience. Treat it like a small show, because, essentially it’s the same. Don’t overthink it.”
Do you punt a lot when you operate boards?
“Well, I program my show around the ability to punt. I create a punt page and start running the songs to see what I think looks good, then I start to program. Some songs may have a lot of detailed programming, but I still lay them out so I can operate them by giving myself a bit of leeway to make on the spot changes. Some songs never really get out of the punt stage; I just clean up the looks and punt away!”
A lot of LDs have told us that they view themselves as playing an instrument when they run the boards; do you feel that way?
“Many people who watch me run lights say it looks like I’m ‘playing’ with the band, and in a sense I am, but instead of sound coming out, light comes out.”
Do you have a background in music? A favorite kind of music?
“Well, I’m a fan of all kinds of music, but my favorite is Heavy Metal. I do play guitar; really, I’ve found that most of the guys on the road are frustrated musicians.”
In light of some of the things you just said, what are your thoughts on time coding?
“It has its place, but it’s not my cup of tea. With some acts, it’s a big part of the show to have all that programming in exact timing with the music, and I totally understand that. Most of the older bands play a bit more loosely. They let the music move them, so you can’t have time coding- it’s like a big jam. Fortunately for me, I get to work with those bands. It gives me the freedom and ability to freestyle as well.”
From a board operating point of view, does any tour stand out as the most interesting or most challenging?
“I think all tours create some sort of challenge. On the smaller tours, you’re limited to budget and what you’re allowed to work with, so you have to be more creative, but on the other hand, on the larger tours, you have what may seem like an unlimited budget. In either case, you have to be creative. Even on a major tour, you can’t allow the size of the lighting rig impress by itself. You have to be really creative to create looks that captivate people and give them something to remember after the concert is over.”
You’ve accomplished so much in your career. In general what do you regard as its highlights?
“One of the highlights of my career was when I did a show with the Rolling Stones in Berlin at the Olympic Stadium. I looked around at me at the audience and they were all smiling and laughing and having a great time, and at that point I realize how lucky I was to have the job I did- I was a part of creating a good time for people.
“Another highlight was on the AC/DC Monsters of Rock tour 1991. We played a show at Tushino airfield outside of Moscow before 1.6 million people. The mayor of Moscow had sanctioned the show to thank the citizens of Moscow for helping subdue the coup earlier that year. It was an incredible experience and very eye-opening.”
Looking back on your career is there any tour from your early days, where in retrospect you say, “Wow I wish we had 2017 technology back then; we could have really done something special?”
“No, I think the path that rock ‘n’ roll lighting took over the past few decades is what helped the music go the direction it did. And I think the evolution of lighting followed the music…so everything you do is kind of grounded in its place and time. I don’t compare eras.”
You’re currently about to tour with Aerosmith; how would you describe the look you’re creating for that tour?
“Without giving too much away, I am going to attempt to bring the fans down Memory Lane, to allow them to see Aerosmith in the early days.”
Who were the big influencers in your career?
“Well, the biggest influence were a lot of the bands that I used to listen to in my youth that I’m actually fortunate enough to work with now. But as far as lighting professional influences, I would say people that I got to run spotlight for back in my day as a stagehand, like Phay MacMahon, Paul Dexter, Larry Sizemore and David Davidian. And since I’ve been on the road, there have been a slew of people who have influenced me. These are mainly the designers I’ve worked with like Angus McPhail, Aland Henderson, Patrick Woodroffe, Tom Littrell, Howard Ungerleider and Steven Swift.”
How about for yourself – how would you like to be remembered as a lighting professional?
“That I helped create a wonderful experience and memory for people to take away with — both the people in the audiences and the people I’ve been fortunate enough to tour with. If I made a positive difference in their enjoyment of life, that’s good.”