Joe Paradise – Balancing the Paradox

Posted on February 27, 2015

We are doing a Lighting Insights interview with Joe Paradise,” we told a couple of friends who are well-known LDs. Both had the same reaction, almost word for word, “You’ll learn a lot, Joe is the lighting designer’s lighting designer.” This much became evident to us early in our interview. Our LD friends weren’t talking only of Paradise’s technical prowess, which is impressive enough, but also of his deep understanding of what could be called “the lighting paradox.”

Lighting, as every LD knows, must walk a fine line of shining brightly on stage without being the star (a role reserved for the artist). Everyone may know this, but few have navigated these tricky waters as skillfully as Paradise, whose knack for creating designs that are bold and powerful without being overwhelming and distractive have earned him the admiration of his peers and the long-term loyalty of clients like 311, Incubus and System of a Down.

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The owner of House Lights Go, Inc., Paradise graciously took time out of his busy schedule to give us an inside look at his design process, describing how it begins with color, ties into the different elements of music, and ultimately strives to master the lighting paradox. Our friends were right! We did learn a lot from this thoughtful LD. We’re confident that you will too. Enjoy.

You’ve got a great reputation for being able to “translate” songs into lighting designs. How do you listen to music when you’re designing for it? Is it different than when you are just listening in your car or at home?

“I listen to it in layers. If I have the time before the design needs to be completed I’ll drive around with the tracks playing and listen to it as any consumer would. It seems that different parts will jump out at you if you don’t try too hard. Sometimes I take notes, but I have to say that I never refer to them. The act of writing them down helps me recall the ideas later. After that I sit and really dig into timing, sound effects, lyrics and the general feel of all the tracks. During programming I listen to every musical change one beat at a time, making sure I don’t miss an opportunity to follow the performance. “

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So, you have the same rig for a band’s performance, but you’re going to use it differently for different songs. Can you talk about how that process works? Do you start by saying, “this song needs this color,” or “this song needs to have these fixtures, but not those?”

“I always start with color. To me that is the most important aspect of lighting. There are certain tones, scales and overall vibration of music that call for certain colors. It can be broken down technically and psychologically, but I won’t get into that. I do believe everyone has the ability to connect the audible to color. If it’s right, the audience will enjoy it and at most they’ll think that it’s a nice color or color combination and some won’t notice unless it’s contrary and even then it would only be a subconscious irritation.

“After color, I look at the anatomy of the song- its intros, breaks, solos, bridges. Those are the factors I consider when determining which gear will be used and which won’t be. I know it’s unpopular with some people in the lighting profession today, but I use as many pieces of gear as I can at all times. If a gear is not being used, it is usually because it’s reserved for an upcoming part that requires it to be in black at the time. The rest of the design is all feel.”

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You’ve had a long and very productive relationship with 311. Can you tell us how that came about?

“I had worked with someone involved with the band, and the need for an LD arose and I got first crack at it. They called Nook Schoenfeld to do some pre-production work because he was their L.D. awhile back. I came in a day or two after Nook arrived and we traded off from programmer to designer for the next couple of days. I have to say, it was a lot of fun.”

From a designer’s standpoint what are the pros and cons of having a long-term relationship with artists?

“The pros of it are you really get to know the artist’s likes and dislikes. Some artists love or hate certain colors or they don’t like strobes or they like them but only in certain parts of songs, or they don’t like to be lit from certain angles. So knowing that saves a lot of time, and if it is something that could upset you, you’ve already been upset and have gotten over it and you can move on with your task! The other big pro is they trust you to make their show the best it can be.

“The cons are you always want to be there for them. This can get in the way of other shows or tours that may come up. This is especially difficult when, as in the case of most of the bands I’ve worked with, their management has one act. That’s where scheduling conflicts arise.”

We’ve read where you’ve often said that the number one function of lighting design is to light the artist and draw attention to the artist, not itself. Yet at the same time there are more high output set pieces and aerial effects. So how do you balance the need to create eye candy while keeping the focus on the artist?

“You can have big looks and still keep the attention on the artist. I know it’s easier to grab a group of fixtures and send them off into a big audience look or ballyhoo but leave something on stage. Even if you’re punting or busking, you’ve got to take the time to make sure you can see the performers.

“At the very least, park some fixtures in positions to light them. I was at a festival last year and there were several bands on the bill that I couldn’t tell how many band members there were on stage. However, I could tell you how many fixtures there were and what colors were used most etc., but what about the band?

“Lighting should complement the music or performance. There is nothing wrong with huge looks as long as the music is huge. If there’s no ebb and flow and everything is on eleven all night it’s tiresome and I find it uninspiring and far from artistic. Have some feel to it. There’s no way the music or performance is just ‘on blast’ the whole time, so follow it. Leave yourself somewhere to go. Take the moment and add an exclamation point. Don’t try to rewrite the story.”

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Earlier we were talking about 311, so we have to say that the 360° rings of truss you created for 311 Day really blew a lot of people away. Do you think structural elements like truss are becoming more important?

“I think that structural elements have always been important. I think that they have become more diverse and available to contribute to designs.”

As a designer, how do you incorporate truss into your work? Do you start your design by creating it? Does it impact your decisions about which fixtures to use and how to use them?

“It really depends on what type of event or show I am designing for. Sometimes lighting placement is the most important thing so the truss shape and placement is a utility. When set fabrication is out of the question, I’ll use the truss more as a scenic element and build a lot of the show around it. If I’m lighting or toning the truss it would impact my decisions on which fixtures to use, but normally it would have little influence.”

Recently you did some very cool things with Nexus panels at the VH1 Art Basel party. Do you regard something like Nexus as a blinder, a set piece or both?

“The Nexus panels can be both. The structural design and the way they lock together, as well as the way the cells are arranged, gives you a lot of flexibility. At lower intensity they give you some nice eye candy, but they are capable of being very, very bright and in my opinion, totally acceptable as a blinder.”

How is pixel mapping changing the way you create? Is it changing the way you view designing and the tools you use?

“Pixel mapping is a wonderful innovation and a great tool for designers. It hasn’t so much changed, as added, to the way I create. Before it was possible, designing a large grid of fixtures took some commitment and often caused some regret. You would need hours to get cues that didn’t look like something out of space invaders. With pixel mapping we can get some fantastic asymmetrical flowing or kinetic overlapping scenes and movement.”

What do you like to program in?

“For design software I use Vectorworks and Martin Show Designer. As far as consoles, if I am not operating I’ll use whatever the operator is comfortable with. Personally I will use all manner of Hogs, Martin M series and lately the grandMA2.”

Do you ever put ideas on paper and then use software to complete your design?

“I sketch things out all the time. Often the final design has nothing to do with the first drawing on paper. I think the action of physically drawing gets ideas flowing. I always have paper and pencils around.”

What do you regard as some of the highlights of your career? Your best or most fun jobs?

“I really can’t narrow this down to any list. Anytime I can look at a show live or on video or in photos and say, ‘Man, that looked right,’ is a highlight. I’ve enjoyed working with all the artists I’ve been with. Some of them were….not so nice and some more demanding than others, but I really enjoy other people’s art and creations and being allowed to enhance that live is always ‘the most fun I’ve had.’”

You’ve accomplished so much; is there anything in lighting you’d like to do that you haven’t yet?

“There are many things I would like to do and many artists I would love to design for. I’m afraid the list would be too long to share right now.” 

So, what do you think you would have done if you didn’t go into lighting?

“That’s a tough one — I’ve been in lighting so long I really don’t know. I suppose a chef or if I had more determination when I was young, a musician.”

Do you have a favorite color that you like to use in your designs? Is there a color that you find most difficult to work with?

“I love lavender.”

How about difficult colors? Do you have a color that you find hardest to work with?

“I wouldn’t say it’s difficult to work with, but even though I love green, I have a hard time making it work as often as I would like.”

What’s the biggest misconception people have about lighting design?

“The biggest misconception about lighting design is that everyone is a lighting designer. Everyone can be, but not everyone is. There’s more to it than, ‘Point this here and make it that color.’ I still learn from designers that have been at it longer than I have.”

When you see new lighting technology, does it give you new design ideas; or is it just a matter of new tools making it easier for you to create what was already in your head?

“That really depends on the type of technology. Control wise it’s a tool. I don’t think I’ve ever designed anything based on a fixture, but I have made room in a design for some fixtures with exciting new technology.”

How do you hope to be remembered as a designer?

“I would like to be remembered as a designer who gave his best, never took a shortcut, contributed more than just a volume of work and hopefully passed on some of the things I’ve learned from experience to designers who come after me.”