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Craig Rutherford, Road Warrior

Posted on February 27, 2015
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We know all about making road ready lighting fixtures, but what does it take to become a road worthy lighting professional? To find out, we managed to catch up with the always-on-the-move LD Craig Rutherford, who is currently serving as the lighting director of Alan Jackson’s 25th Anniversary Tour.

The owner of Blueshift Design in Nashville, Rutherford is eminently qualified to talk about life and lighting on the road, having crisscrossed America with some of the biggest names in country music for the past decade. Over the years, the well-traveled LD has learned to roll with the punches on the road- sometimes almost quite literally, like when a well-liquefied college crowed in Auburn, Alabama, began showering his crew with beer cans in the middle of a concert.

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Rutherford talked to us about the lessons he’s learned from this and other experiences on the road. We’re proud to share them with other lighting road warriors and recommend that you pack them in your bag, next time you head out on tour. Safe travels!

One of the crazy things about modern touring is the wide variety of venues that a band will have to perform at on the same tour – appearing at a 1000-seat venue one day, and an arena at the next stop. How do you adjust so you get the same look on different stages?

“Good question, and I wish there was one great answer, but it’s always a challenge. I do try to make my touring designs modular whenever possible, but sometimes the tour will stop at venues that are just so ridiculously small that the most you can do is throw your four vertical towers on stage and have the best design you can under the circumstances. When we encounter a very small stage, the first thing to go is usually the middle sticks of truss, because this allows the design to remain symmetrical, which is very important to us. Usually the fixtures are placed throughout the rig so that if something goes away, I can still have that look that that a given specific luminaire provides.”

How about the size of the trailer that’s hauling the lighting rig – does that influence your decision about which gear to spec for a tour?

“Oh yes – absolutely! When it comes down to it, space constraints in the trailer are very influential — this was especially true with Ronnie Dunn on a recent one-semitrailer tour. I ended up specifying lots of LED wash lights and beam fixtures, because I knew that not only would they be very power-and-budget-friendly, but I could leave them rigged to my vertical ladders and save even more space in the trailer. For Big Daddy Weave, we ended up going with a lot of very compact LED moving heads, because the form factor can be so small, which again saved valuable trailer space.”

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Are there features that you will you look for in fixtures that are going on tour that you might not consider if the project was a single venue installation?

“Durability is always a big issue for tour fixtures. We all know that stuff on the road gets abused, especially anything custom-made, so I’m always wary of bringing those sorts of materials on the road, but they might be perfect for sitting on a stage at a venue. Generally though, in venue installs the feature set that clients require varies so dramatically, it’s hard to zero in on things I look for specifically in those cases. However, one thing that does jump out is quality of light; especially if an install is planning on doing any kind of IMAG, having a good quality of light for actors, speakers, or whoever is going to be onstage is critical — whereas when dealing with lots of saturated colors on a concert tour, the green spike in that 700-watt lamp might not be as big of a deal.”

Setup is often a time-pressed activity during a tour. Are there things you recommend doing beforehand to save time in setup?

“Label, label, label. Label all the things. Color-code all things – and number code all the things too! Make it so that someone walking up to your rig for the first time would be able to put it together without ever having to talk to you. . This will allow you to give a mother/daughter loom pair to some hands, tell them the outputs and the fixtures are labeled, and let them go to town while you head off to set up your dimmer beach, or do whatever else that needs to be done. Labeling is crucial. Talking to your rigger so there are no surprises is a good idea, too. You also want to make sure that any changes get communicated before the rig is trimmed out in the air. No matter how much you plan, there are always going to be surprises, so communication is important.”

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Do you have examples of surprises you encountered and how they were dealt with?

“Hah! Of course! In Auburn Alabama, we had a crowd of college students at an outdoor rodeo who, shall we say, had all done a lot of celebrating. During the show, beer cans and bottles started sailing through the air at front of house, for no apparent reason. My spot ops reported that they were being specifically targeted, so I had to convince them to stay in their tower and finish the show. I myself had to dodge several bottles lobbed my way. A less dramatic example would probably be a band ellipsoidal going out during my show, I simply had to re-purpose one of the followspots to do all that musician’s pickups. In cases like that it’s simply a matter of rolling with the punches.”

What about fixtures breaking on tour? What if a local source doesn’t have the specific fixture you wanted –how do you handle substitutions?

“Substitutions suck. Thankfully, I’ve never actually had a fixture break that I didn’t have spares to replace, or that me and my tech couldn’t fix before the show. In terms of traveling without a lighting rig or console – which I used to do when I worked for Terri Clark – I

would actually program the whole show the day of the concert. I would set up drums, walk out to FOH and start pounding in the set list. If I truly had to swap out a fixture in my rig with another completely different one of the same variety – such as manufacturer A’s wash with manufacturer B’s wash – I’d clone the data over and then step through each song to make sure my palettes and looks all lined up. Then I would try to remind myself that the audience isn’t there to see my light show!”

In terms of damage, which parts of fixtures are most prone to get broken during a tour?

“Tilt locks – they get beat up more than anything. Also when you have any fixture that has to move from a case to somewhere else on a daily basis, and anything that can’t be pre-rigged, you increase the risk of damage. I’ve had bad luck with hazers too; people don’t clean water traps, or a bit of tubing breaks inside the unit.”

In many cases the LD will not be on the actual tour, so how important is communication between the lighting director on the tour and the LD back home?

“It depends on the tour, and the designer and the director. For Big Daddy Weave, where I design but I’m not there, the lighting director Patrick is largely independent and I don’t worry about the show happening perfectly while he’s out there. Every once in a while I get a call from his substitute about running the console or the show, but I’m well versed enough on their console that I can talk them through about any change. VNC or Remote Desktop is good for showing someone how to do console things on online software from a million miles away, too.”

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What are the most important personal traits that a lighting director or technician needs to pack with them when they head on tour?

“Attitude. Nothing will kill your day faster than a tech who can’t get along with local hands, or who can’t get along with the sound guys, or who can’t get along with video. Anybody who walks around with a chip on their shoulder needs to seriously consider what industry they’re in, because the industry doesn’t need any more of those people. Showering regularly is a good trait, too, but I haven’t needed to bring that up with anybody yet. In all seriousness, the person who has the attitude that says, ‘I will do anything and everything necessary to make the show happen,’ is the person I most want to have on tour with me.”

For more on Blueshift Design visit www.blueshiftdesign.org