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David Butzler: Lighting a Legend

Posted on August 31, 2015

Every life has its moments, and for David Butzler a seismic one occurred in the early 1990s when an up-and-coming country star named Garth Brooks asked the Nashville-based LD to become his designer. As Butzler recalls it, Brooks was impressed by his work ethic. We don’t doubt that, but there must have been more than sweat equity that caught the singer’s eye. Like his long-time client and friend, Butzler isn’t just hard working, he also combines a basic honesty with a fierce determination to push the creative envelope.

A singer doesn’t get to be the best-selling solo artist of all time as Brooks has done by playing it safe. Nor does a designer come up with the kind of fresh and engaging lightshows that create a sense of intimacy even at large arenas, as Butzler has done, without taking chances. Throughout his long association with Brooks, the LD has continually refined and reimagined his lightshow, not only to reflect changes in technology, but also the evolving sensibilities of the star’s legion of fans.

Butzler spoke to us from his Nashville home as he was creating the design for the next Garth Brooks tour. With his customary grace and good humor, the legendary LD shared some insights into the ever-changing state of tour lighting, looked back on his stellar career, and even talked about some of his upcoming designs. Enjoy.

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We’ve always been impressed by the work you’ve done for Garth Brooks. Your shows are undoubtedly big, but they also convey a sense of warmth and intimacy. How would you describe your approach to designing for Garth?

“The lightshows really reflect Garth and what he’s all about. He’s always wanted us to create something impactful without all the flash and trash. There’s a lot of storytelling support in lighting a Garth Brooks show, because Garth is a true storyteller. I’ll give you an example. There’s a song Garth does called Alabama Clay that evokes images of green fields in the lyrics. When he sings this song, we put a green silhouette around him, so we’re supporting the story without distracting from it.”

“In my view, a lightshow should always keep the focus on the talent, especially when that talent is a superstar of legendary stature like Garth Books. Of course there are also points in a show when more flourish is called for. A good example is with a song called The Dance, which we’ve often used as an encore song on tour. We’d have a lot of lights hitting a downstage mirrorball at the end of that song as Garth disappears into the darkness.”

You’ve been designing for Garth since the early ’90s. Does having this long-term relationship make it easier or more challenging to design with him?

“There’s a comfort and trust level that you develop after a number of years – no doubt about that. Garth and I joke around a lot; I call him my ‘sugar daddy,’ because we’ve never had a major argument about money when it comes to buying gear. He’s a consummate professional and is committed to investing what’s necessary to put on the best show, but like everyone he’s aware of costs and I respect that.”

What kind of input does Garth have into the lightshow?

“In terms of input, sure he gets involved and will say, ‘I want to hit the first four rows of the audience with a lot of light on Thunder Road’ or some other song. Or, he’ll say, ‘I want a big wall of light,’ but he won’t drill down into the specifics of a fixture or anything like that. He lets me know what he wants in the way of his vision, but he also has a lot of trust in my judgment – after all we’ve been together for a while!”

Does he look at new lights with you?

“Oh yeah he will at times and he’s not shy about voicing his opinion. Funny, the first time we had a moving head demo-ed for us Garth was present. He didn’t like the idea of a moving head at all. He said he didn’t want to look like he was performing a disco. So we didn’t use movers for some time, but that changed. We used a lot of Chauvet Rogue R2 Beams on the 2014 tour.”

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So how do your lightshows for Garth come together and evolve?

“A lot of what we’ve done – and I think a lot of evolution in lightshows everywhere – comes about as a result of mistakes that for whatever reason surprise the daylights out of you by working better than what you planned. This is part of the creative process in general I suppose. You have to take creative chances to stay fresh. So you try things and they don’t always turn out as planned, but if you keep your eyes open and are open to the new and unexpected, you discover that sometimes the so-called mistake works better than the original idea.”

“You’re dealing with a moving target when you’re creating anything. Garth is good about recognizing this as part of the process of what we do. I remember, he never liked us to light the faces of people in the audience, but then at one show a fixture stayed on by mistake and presto we had audience lighting. Well, when Garth saw the audience reaction to this lighting he quickly embraced the idea. At another time, we hit this good looking fiddle player with our spots and the women in the audience started screaming. Garth looked up at the operator and hollered, ‘Hey that’s my light!’ The audience loved it, so it became part of our act as a lighter moment gag.”

It’s funny that you mention that Garth was resistant to the idea of audience lighting, since it seems that lighting the crowd has become a big part of your designs in recent years. How do you see audience lighting fitting into your designs?

“You’re correct, audience lighting has become more important for me. As a designer I appreciate the power of audience lighting. I like lighting the crowd with your Nexus panels, because it lets me paint the crowd in different and very distinctive colors, which is cool.”

“Audience lighting changes the entire look of a show. It engages the audience and makes them part of the show, but the real driver behind audience lighting has been the growth of concert video recording. If a concert is appearing on video, you want to light the audience so the people watching on their screen get the feeling that they’re at a concert. If the audience is dark while the stage is lighted like a Christmas tree, that’s not going to work. So you have to achieve lighting balance. This is just one example of how the growth of YouTube and smartphone cameras as well as video recorded concerts have changed things for us as designers.”

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Care to elaborate on other examples?

“Sure how much time do you have?”

We have time – what do you see as the big changes?

“We used to light for the audience; now we light for the lens, because video and cell phones have become so important. So this changes the definition of what works and doesn’t work in concert lighting. I mean over lighting looks great when you’re seeing a concert live, but look at it on video – and it’s NO WAY! We also have to consider how a backdrop will look on video now. When we design for a concert nowadays, we keep saturated blue behind the stage for background at all times so it looks exactly the same from show to show. I hate it when you see clips from different stops on a tour and the background is different. Also color temperature-balanced key lighting has become a big factor on tours today.”

Has the growth of video recording changed the way you approach designing a show?

“As I mentioned, it sure has made key lighting much more important on the concert stage. You can’t just look at the stage, you have to look at the monitor. At first we just lit the guy on stage, then as technology advanced it became more about focus and color — now it’s key lighting that’s king. Today when I lay out truss, the first thing I think about is ‘where is the key lighting going?’ For Garth Brooks concerts, there are certain areas on the stage that are what I call contamination free zones. These areas are key lighted and color balanced. No other light goes into those spots without being color balanced.”

On the subject of technology, does new technology open up new creative ideas for you, allowing you to do things you might not have thought of before?

“The time and place have to be right for new technology to matter; otherwise it’s just a nice novelty or something. Technology always comes down to how you use it. Does it make sense for your particular design at this particular time and place? Just because a light can blink doesn’t mean you have to make it blink. So the answer to that question depends on how technology matches up to my needs as a designer.”

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How do you get new ideas anyway? What do you do to get inspired? Listen to music? Go for long walks?

“None of the above. I mow the lawn or do something like that around the house. This takes my mind off the creative work, so I can come back to it refreshed. Also, quite honestly, I get inspired by Garth himself. Knowing the man has truly turned my life around – and not just from a career standpoint. Garth has outstanding character. This struck me in the early days when he’s career started taking off like a rocket and he was ready for big arenas; he still honored his commitment to the smaller venues, without complaining or trying to get out of these deals. That said a lot about the man.”

So how did your relationship with Garth start?

“That’s a long story. The short version is I was a pipefitter in St. Louis and I did lighting for local bands on the side. After I got laid off from my so-called real job, I started getting serious about lighting. I put together lighting systems and rented them to bands. The money was pretty good. Then I hooked up with Contemporary Productions as a production runner and worked on all the shows of the different major acts that came through town.”

“Fast forward a bit and I was working as a roof operator for Wakefield System when Garth Brooks came through town. I hooked up with Garth’s team and did about 30 or 40 shows. Then one day Garth came up to me and said, ‘I notice that when I’m signing autographs at the end of the show, you’re up there pulling the roof down.’ He said he liked my work ethic and asked if I wanted to be on his crew. Early on in our relationship he asked me what my favorite rock groups were, I said I had a lot of favorites. He told me his were Queen and Kiss, and he said he wanted that kind of theatrical flavor in his lightshows. We’ve been on a roll together ever since.”

G-T-&-MEDustin Butzler, Debi Butzler, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, David Butzler, Dylan Butzler

What about the design you’re currently working on for Garth — can you share any details?

“We’ll have three times more video wall than before, and this in turn will require bigger, brighter and more moving fixtures. We’ll be putting a lot more Rogues in the air. We’re adding more LEDs in general to reduce the power requirements. The new rig involves technology and addresses issues that we never would have even thought of a few years ago, but the essence of this business is that you always have to be moving forward –even if you work for a superstar legend.”

How about in terms of your own career, how would you like to be remembered?

“Me? I’ve always considered myself a lucky bum. Starting out getting laid off as a pipefitter and then touring with Garth Brooks all these years. I feel blessed to be living the dream and I’m thankful for it every day. Most of all, I’m thankful for my family, which has always come first when I’ve made any career decision.”

“I always advise young LDs on the way up to always stay close to family and friends and don’t get a big head because you’re riding high. You may be working for a superstar today, but that star may shine less brightly tomorrow and you may need a friend when the work dries up. There was a time when Garth retired for a period and Michael Strickland and the folks at Bandit Lites were there for me with work. I’ll never forget that friendship. In the end it’s the good people and good relationships that matter. So in the end what I hope to be remembered for most was being a good husband, father and friend.”