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Dan Cohen and the Elements of Event Lighting

Posted on August 28, 2014
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Not long ago, Dan Cohen was about to wrap up a corporate lighting job at an upscale hotel when he received an urgent request.  A sudden rain storm had washed away his client’s plans for an outdoor pool party, so Cohen was asked if he could turn the meeting room into party central by evening. He obliged, taking many of the same lights from his meeting and using them to create an ’80s dance club.

This kind of flexibility is essential to success in the event lighting field, says Cohen. He ought to know, having built Uplyte of Dania Beach, FL into the state’s largest event design company with a client list that includes Fortune 500 companies and A-List celebrities like Dennis Miller, Chris Bosh, American Authors, Birdman, lil’ Wayne, TI, Auston Mahonie and more. Cohen shared his ideas on event lighting with us, delving into the rewards it offers and the challenges it presents to designers and their lighting fixtures.

You have a knack for going outside the box and coming up with original concepts for lighting events. So tell us, how do you get your ideas?

“When you do events, your ideas ultimately have to come from the client. You may – and should — put your own very creative spin on them, but first and foremost you have to listen to your clients and really understand their expectations. Obviously your clients are the ones paying the bills, so it makes sense to listen them, but the reasons go way beyond that. When you listen to your clients and understand what they want, the ideas that you do get for an event are more likely to come alive.”

Dan Cohen

Can you elaborate on that point?

“When a client wants to involve you in an event, that event obviously means a great deal to that client. The energy behind a great event comes from that meaning, so when you listen you’re more likely to tap into that energy.  Once you’ve done that and understand what your client is after, you take the client’s wish and turn it into your vision by drawing on your life experiences. As part of this creative process don’t be afraid to do a lot of research. For example, I have a client that wants a nautical theme, so now I’m researching aquatics on Google. This is similar to what happened at the Chris Bosh event.  Chris’ wife wanted a Cabaret stage theme for his birthday party; so we researched Cabaret style images that we could work into our design and took it from there.”

How far can you push the creative envelope when designing for an event? Are clients willing to allow you to try daring ideas?

“It depends on the client, and you develop a sense of how far the client wants you to go with your design. Some clients may want just straightforward par cans to light an event. We might tell them that they can enhance the event doing more, but if that’s all they want, we’re happy to help them. The client has to be comfortable with the lighting. Ultimately, we always have to remember that the event is the star and the lighting is there to support it, not the other way around. It’s no different in this respect than lighting a concert.”

So communicating with clients is important, but isn’t there a big different in the knowledge level that clients bring to this dialogue?

“Yes, clients are all over the place on this one. Some have sophisticated understanding of lighting and are familiar with things like uplighting and LED walls, while others know very little, so you’ll need to explain everything to them. Your dialogue has to proceed at the client’s level. There are also some social event clients who don’t fully understand what a professional event design company does and how it can accomplish things that they aren’t likely to get from someone doing this kind of thing part time. It’s up to you as an event specialist to educate those potential clients.”

You mentioned social events, how do they compare to corporate events?

“We have two markets: social events, which are often weddings; and corporate events. Each has its own set of expectations. The social event client is into color tones and wants everything to look just right for the big day. Corporate event clients don’t have that pressure, but they do have a different kind of pressure. They’ve invested a lot of money in the event, and they want to make sure it supports the corporate message. So, we have to do things like get the right pantones for logos; and we have to avoid colors that are associated with a competitor when we do corporate events.”

How important is the excitement of eye candy in corporate event lighting?

“It’s very important. Here’s how I look at it: the corporate event client is bringing attendees to a special place for a limited time in order to have them receive and absorb a critical message.  Our job is to create an engaging environment so people absorb this message. The more engaging the environment, the closer people are going to pay attention– and the more they pay attention, the more they’ll absorb. Corporate clients understand this so they do value eye candy for the engagement effect. Many times, they’ll even want to warm the audience with light.”

So a corporate event can involve many of the same lighting design techniques that you’ll see at a club or concert?

“To an extent, but there’s a big difference too.  You don’t have the nonstop lighting intensity at a corporate event that you’ll have at a club or concert.  We’ll use eye candy at a corporate event, but only at critical times. For example, we’ll use Nexus panels, but we’ll limit this to special moments, such as when people are entering or leaving the event or right before a big announcement is made. Instead of being part of the overall design, it’s strategic eye candy.”

How about when you have entertainment at a corporate event, do you treat that like a mini concert?

“Again, to an extent, but usually not completely – because there are often other demands going on at a corporate concert. For example, corporate concerts are typically built around a theme party. The client may have an ’80s tribute band come in, for example, and the party will be an ’80s celebration. In this case we’re going to create a lighting rig that’s evocative of the ’80s decade, rather than just lighting the stage as you would for a concert. So it’s not just concert lighting going on, there’s a theatrical element as well.”

You use the Nexus and you do pixel mapping at your events, drawing on technology that wasn’t readily available just a few years ago. How has technology impacted your work as an event designer?

“What’s nice about all the recent advances in technology is that they give us more elements to use in creating excitement and engagement at an event. When we use Nexus at key points in an event or when we pixel map low res images, we’re bringing our client’s vision for the event to life in ways that maybe weren’t available to us before.”

“Another good thing about technology is that it’s led to the development of more multi-functional fixtures, which is especially important to us in event lighting. Just look at what we can do with an LED wall. We can show video and graphics on it to convey the client’s message, sure, but we can also use it to great effect as a décor piece or we can set in white and light up the room.  This kind of versatility is great for an event lighting company, because we have so many different demands made on us. Unlike concert lighting, which pretty much involves the same rig throughout a tour, corporate event lighting changes from project to project. You never know what you’re going to need for an event, so the more flexible our lighting is the better.”