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Howard Ungerleider: The Movement Of Light

Posted on April 27, 2016
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“Nothing is more revealing than movement,” wrote Martha Graham. The fabled choreographer and dancer probably never worked a lighting console, but her words resonate in the breathtaking designs that Parnelli Visionary Award winner Howard Ungerleider has done for longtime client Rush as well as a host of other superstars ranging from Def Leppard and Rod Steward to Van Halen and Alicia Keys.

Ungerleider often describes his work as being a “choreography of light.” Like all great works of choreography, this New York-born LD’s designs are characterized by sweeping, graceful and often soaring movements, that are indeed ‘”revealing” about the music they support and reflect.

For Ungerleider, achieving this movement has often meant going beyond pan and tilt fixtures and plunging into ideas that defy conventional wisdom. Merging art and technology into a creative choreography of sorts, he pioneered the use of lasers and multimedia elements like projections, stills and videos in concert designs. In the process, he created some of the most innovative and significant shows of a generation. Speaking with us from the Toronto office of his company Production Design International, the renowned designer shared his insights into the movement of light as well as a variety of other topics. Enjoy!

You were really a pioneer (if not the pioneer) in using lasers in concert with your work on tours like Def Leppard’s Hysteria. Can you give us some background on how it all began for you with lasers?
“The Hysteria Tour was a big moment for me, being the first time I did lasers in the round, even putting them under the stage and shooting them through trap doors. But my involvement with lasers goes back earlier to my Blue Oyster Cult days when I was their agent – not their LD- but was involved in production on the Don’t Fear the Reaper tour. I asked a lot of questions of laser experts like Dr. David Afonti. My interest in lasers continued to grow and I kept developing new ideas and creating customized products for ways to use lasers. This is something we do today with customized laser products at Production Design International. Of course back in the days before diodes, it was a very big commitment to use lasers. They weighed hundreds of pounds and needed to be water cooled, but I was committed to pushing them because I loved what they could do for a lightshow.”

Why do you love lasers so much?
“Because they’re a great light source that physically reaches out to the audience. I love the way they can morph into a beam and create a 3D object. Lasers are all about movement, which is at the heart of my design philosophy. I’m a musician; I see my lighting as enhancing the motion of the music.”

What instrument do you play?
“I play guitar, bass guitar and piano.”

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How would you describe your musical style?
“Eclectic, very eclectic.”

Given what you just said about music, is it essential for anyone who wants to be a lighting designer to have a musical sense?
“Well, if you want to design for tours I believe it is. You have to know music if you want to design a really engaging lightshow for a concert. I suppose you can design a show and not have a good sense of music, but I think it would come off as mechanical if this were the case. I do what I call lighting choreography, which means I work to bring the music to life visually through movement of light and other media in my design. Through lighting choreography, I want to make a powerful statement that moves the audience without overwhelming the musical performance. Lighting always has to support artists, not eclipse them. So if you asked me how to describe a concert lighting designer, I would say ‘it’s a musician who really wants to express him or herself through light.’”

You reached the top of the hill as a lighting designer, but you still like to go out on tour and run your own boards. As you know many designer of your stature, don’t do this. Is this related to the ‘musicality’ of lighting design that you just described?
“I think it is, yes. To me, operating the console is like playing an instrument. It puts me into what my artist client wants. I like being hands on and feeling the music as I work the console so I can reflect what the music is saying as I create one cue after the other.”

Do you change cues often during a concert?
“It depends; I will change them when necessary to reflect the music. I create a backbone of my design on computer that has specific cues for each verse, spin and chorus, but while I’m at the console I will also manually trigger new cues. I will access new cues on the fly every night to harmonize the light with the music. The number of times I do this will vary depending on how well my design backbone and the artist are in sync on that particular evening.”

So how do you start the process of designing that backbone for your show?
“I’ll describe what I’ve done with Rush. It will give you a sense of how my lighting works with music. When prepping for an upcoming concert, Rush will acclimate themselves by rehearsing from 8 to 11 pm. The guys in the band will do this before they go out on tour to get themselves acclimated to the performance hours of a tour — because when they’re home living their normal lives, they might not be used to being ‘on’ that late at night.

“I will do my programming sessions to the music tracks that the band records during those rehearsals. So after the band leaves at 11 o’clock, I will start programming and work until dawn in wonderful solitude free from all outside interference. It will be just the lighting, the music and me. I may get three songs done in one night, the next day when the band rehearses, I’ll see how the lighting works with those three songs. Then, that night, I’ll program three more songs and repeat the process the following day. Over the 10 day rehearsal period, I’ll program all the songs in the set list.”

Is that when you consider your design to be complete?
“Actually, no. Once we hit the road, it will take about seven shows for me to get the design close to where I want it to be. It takes seven days for me to get out on a show to feel my design is fluid. You know, I may have created 3,000 cues and remembered them all, so the fluidity isn’t going to happen just like that once we find ourselves in a real concert environment. This is why I like to take a hands on approach. Running the consoles you feel where the show is going and you can put the final touches on it. Of course, you’re never totally happy with what you’ve done, because there’s always more out there. It gets to the point when you’re at the last stop on the tour and you say ‘I finally got it!’ But then it’s over. That’s the nature of any creative endeavor though – isn’t it?”

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If we can back up for a moment, before you sit down with the band for that 10 day period how does the creative process start for you? What are you thinking of at the very beginning when you start to design?
“I always try to get the name of the album the tour is supporting so I can represent it in a scenic element as I did with Clockwork Angels for Rush. Given the name of that album, my creative process went to something angelic. I thought of angel wings. So I designed trusses with the video panels on them and hung mini pods on them to articulate the panels. When everything came together, it suggested the wings of flying angels. So I not only had a theme, but I created a sense of movement with that thematic element. Movement is very important to my design. Once I have the thematic element in my head, I want to figure out how to add motion to it with light, because motion is what is going to support the lighting choreography at the heart of my show.”

Once you put all these creative elements together, how do you judge whether or not they’re going to be good for your client’s concert?
“Throughout the entire process I am trying to think about what I would feel like if I were sitting in the audience watching my show. What would I want to see if I were sitting there? For me, I would want something avant-garde; something that would make me say ‘wow, what am I looking at?, So, that’s what I strive for in my designs.”

Based on what you just said, does a designer’s work represent his or her personality?
“Yes, to a large extent, I think it does; just like someone’s music, art or any other creative effort does. In my case this means movement. I always like movement in my show. I still remember being inspired by the Pink Floyd concert at Carnegie Hall back in the ‘70s, because there was so much movement – and movement done in an original way. But at the same time, although you want a lot of powerful movement, you don’t want to go the flash and trash route.”

What separates flash and trash from good lighting design?
“That’s in the eye of the beholder. For me, it can be summed up in the phrase less is more. I think a good lighting design should create space. It’s important to put some distance between your cues. Also, just because you have fixtures, you don’t have to use all of them all the time. I may use 50 out of 300 fixtures for a song, because it works better to support the music. For example, once for the song “Countdown,” we had 120 pars around a rig to simulate the ‘launch’ of a space shuttle from stage. We used these fixtures for only 10 seconds and that was it.

“As a designer, you also have to keep in mind that you want to build your show over time. You don’t want to throw out all your cookies at once. A show can last over three hours so you have to hold some stuff back. Once the audience has seen a trick, they’ve seen it! So you can’t go back to it because then your show becomes predictable and boring.”

So a designer has to be disciplined about not using everything at once?
“Yes; and discipline was easy for me because my father was a drill sergeant.”

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Really? Can you tell us more about your childhood?
“I was born in Manhattan, spent my early childhood in The Bronx and moved to New Jersey when I was 12. My father went from being a drill sergeant to owning a large men’s clothing store in Paramus, New Jersey – Frank Sinatra was a customer believe it or not. I studied theater in college, then after trying to make it as a musician, I became an agent, which led me to lighting design – I haven’t looked back since.”

Indeed, you’re widely recognized for looking very forward as a pioneer in creating multimedia designs. What motivated you to explore ideas like using projections, stills and videos in concert designs; which was unheard of at the time?
“What motivated me on one level, was a natural sense of curiosity. I read a great deal: books on architecture, color perception, art and other topics and try to apply what I learn to concert lighting. On another level, I was motivated by the desire to add movement to my shows in ways that were out of the ordinary. I remember on a Fly By Night Tour, we projected an image of the Owl on the band’s LP cover and made it flap its wings. The audience loved it! You just didn’t see things like that in those days, but we used the available technology to give the audience something new. Technology has continued to provide us with better and better tools to add compelling visuals to a show. I always felt it was important to take advantage of this opportunity to keep my designs fresh for the audience and my clients.”

In addition to concert lighting you’ve done quite a bit of corporate lighting notably for auto companies like General Motors and Mercedes Benz. How did this get started?
“Ironically, not very well. Years ago I was invited to work with GM on its auto show exhibit. It really bothered me that the cars on display and the people walking the show floor were all lit by the same mercury vapor lamps. There was no separation between the two. I explained why this made no sense at a meeting with GM. Unbeknownst to me, the GM lighting designer was at that meeting. He took exception to what I was saying. Then one thing led to another and I walked out of the meeting.

“That was it…end of story! Or so it seemed until a couple of weeks later when I got a call back from GM. This guy had been fired and they wanted me to light the exhibit. I installed a truss grid over the 80,000 square foot display and illuminated each vehicle in light that matched its color, lit the chrome with UV so it stood out and had 5600 degree white light on the grills. That was 14 years ago and they’ve been inviting me back ever since!”

You’ve been such an innovator; how do you get inspired?
“Being out in nature gives me ideas. One time I was at a lake and I was looking at some wind chimes when I though ‘wouldn’t it be cool to arrange video panels that way?’ Mainly though my inspiration comes from being alone and going for walks or drives and just thinking. This is a creative process so it’s very internal. If you have the right stuff inside you, the ideas will come.”

How do you want to be remembered as a designer?
“I would like to be thought of as someone who not only created entertaining shows, but also inspired other people in this field to push themselves to do better and better things.”