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Diana Kesselschmidt: Lighting Time and Place

Posted on May 1, 2018

To reflect its surroundings, an outdoor lighting design must first absorb them. This approach has characterized the work of Diana Kesselschmidt, who recently transformed Mid-Town Manhattan’s Winter Village at Bryant Park into a glittering gem set harmoniously against a backdrop of bustling city streets crowded with shoppers and towering skyscrapers.

The moving power of this New York-based designer’s work stemmed not only from the richly colored vistas she created inside the village and its 17,000- square foot ice skating rink, but also from the way her design fed off its environment. It was as if the park, the streets, the tall buildings and everything else in the area were painted with the same brush as the lighted event, creating a single serene panorama that felt very natural.

Kesselschmidt, whose credits include designing A Night of Broadway Stars for Jazz at Lincoln Center and A Lincoln Portrait at Alice Tully and Avery Fisher, as well serving as second assistant at Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular, spoke to us about expanding the scope of outdoor event lighting by endowing it with a sense of time and place.

At an outdoor event, particularly in a city like New York, you are always surrounded by activity. How do create an immersive environment at these events without having this activity distract?
“There is no benefit to fighting environmental factors. The best option is to turn them in your favor. Make your event the center of that activity. Using the vocabulary of the area, make your event just a little bigger, brighter, and more engaging. Then the surrounding activity becomes support or fallout from the event. My aim is to make it feel like all that activity is there because the event is attracting it.”

So how do you incorporate external surroundings when lighting events?
“The external surroundings are as much a part of the event as a venue or scenic at an indoor event. They can be a tool, inspiration, a challenge, or the entire basis of the design concept.

“Winter Village at Bryant Park was filled with booths full of colorful wares. Each booth emitted a warm incandescent glow. That was the first visual that surrounds the rink and faced the pavilions. Outside of that were the varied colors of the surrounding buildings’ facades and window lights at night. Beyond that was the year-round park wash that blends into the cue colors, and beyond that was New York City’s building scape as viewed from the park, some of which has its own lighting. The Winter Village can even be seen from Times Square and can draw visitors from there.

“My responsibility was to create something that belonged to all of that, but stood out, not by contrasting, but by having more of it. I viewed it as creating a centerpiece for something preexisting.”

Is it different when people enter the event you’re lighting, as they did at the Bryant Park rink, than when they are merely looking at the area you light?
“We are initially trained to paint a picture, and each time the picture changes, build a new cue. Immersive lighting is completely different than a presentation or display, even one designed to be viewed in the round. The view on approach is still important for drawing people in, but the feeling from within the experience is what the design is really about. When you’re in the space, you do see what the lights illuminate, but you also feel it on you, see it coming toward you and on your body.

“The lighting cannot be uncomfortable to stand in. A low angle can feel blinding, too steep, and the other people in the room can look creepy. Even a bright room can feel dark or difficult to see in if there is too much contrast in intensity. Lighting affects traffic flow, moving people through a space. Some spaces prioritize mood, some functionality. Some spaces can only be experienced, and others are both experienced and viewed from a distance. The audience has free run of the space, and you have to assume they will go everywhere. As the guests move through levels, what do they see ahead of them or out of windows, and what do they feel on them? All of that must be considered from the point of view of within the light, not just looking at it from the outside.”

The transition from daylight to nighttime is significant at the typical outdoor event. How do you account for this with your lighting?
“The client must define what the event’s focal change is between daytime and nighttime. Often they wish to change the mood or use of space. An event might prioritize clean visibility during the day, fighting the sun’s shadows. Then, at night, transition the space into a party atmosphere. Color changing fixtures are essential for this kind of flexibility.”

Do you use gobos differently outdoors than you would indoors?
“Rather than divide gobo use by indoor vs. outdoor, consider viewed vs. experienced. Some gobos or texture systems only read when viewed, and don’t look like anything when you’re walking through them. Some textures will never be viewable from any distance and will only be walked through. Icons and shapes can be walk-throughs but mean more when viewed. Textures that are meant to be immersive need to evoke a feeling or memory, like walking through a leafy breakup or a stained glass window.”

What is the most challenging part of lighting an outdoor event?
“The most challenging part of an outdoor event is definitely weather prep. It creates limitations and challenges for the equipment, power, maintenance etc. Only a small subset of fixtures is rated to handle exposure. Rigging also has a whole different set of calculations and standards.”

Typically, a big outdoor event will be the subject of video and photography. Does this impact your design?
“This is definitely a discussion that has to be had with the client. Lighting for the eye is more forgiving. Lighting for photography less so, and video least of all. Often the client will need to understand that a larger budget is required to compensate for those additional needs. Base color temperature and specific light levels become more about the camera ‘s interpretation of light than the eye’s.”

What’s the first thing you consider when you begin working on an outdoor event design?
“I start with the visual of the approach, asking myself things like: ‘What will draw people in and set the tone for what follows?’ ‘What transition do I want to give the audience to bring them into our world?’ It is also a good entry point to prepare my imagination to address the bigger list of considerations that will come next.”

Are there any colors that lend themselves to outdoor event lighting?
“Every event has its own needs, beginning with the surrounding, time of day, project themes. The bonus of outdoor events at night is that richer colors show better than during the day. Of course, that means that during the day, we often use very pale or no color for visibility against the intensity of the sun and sky.”

Any advice to someone doing their first outdoor event?
“Consider carefully your weather expectations and how that affects your inventory before getting attached to fixture types. Form a good relationship with your power vendor and discuss weather plans. Sit in the space at the beginning of your design process, at any time of day that the event will be open. Note the ambient light color, angle, time of day shifts and meter readings. Most of all don’t fight your surroundings; let them be a part of your picture.”