Justin Kitchenman: Purposeful Light

Posted on February 4, 2020

What difference will it make if the road crew can get an hour or two of extra sleep every night?
This is not the sort of question typically posed to us in our discussions with designers. But coming from this Philadelphia-born LD, it seemed a perfectly natural extension of the thoughtful, holistic approach he takes to design, whether for his multi-platinum principal client Luke Bryan, or any other artist.

In Justin Kitchenman’s world, every element of a design fills a purpose. Understanding that purpose and how it connects to the overall outcome of your effort focuses attention on details large and small that are critical to the success of a tour design. This is the thought process that leads you to appreciate how working to create a rig that is easier to move not only saves time and lowers costs, but also reduces stress on the road crew, which makes for a better tour environment, something that filters all the way to the top.

Following this philosophy, Kitchenman has created stunningly beautiful designs that awe with their intricately complex elevations and light angles, while still managing to convey a welcoming sense of simple continuity that keeps attention focused on the client. Speaking to us from the studio of his company Align Design Group, the Nashville-based LD shared his insights into the role of balance and purpose in lighting design.

You were among the first to incorporate large numbers of LED strips into your design when you used them for Luke Bryan seven years ago. What led you to this decision?
“I don’t know if we were one of the first, but at the time we were looking for an element that could be spread throughout the design that would demonstrate the width and depth of the rig. LED strips were really coming into their own at that point. There were some new products to choose from that were easy to implement and mappable into most servers through a variety of networks. We were able to achieve our desired look and have actually been using them on and off ever since.”

On the subject of Luke Bryan, you’ve been with him for some time as his music has continued to change. How has this impacted your work for him?
I have been with Luke Bryan for eight years now. I was fortunate enough to join his team right as he was really primed to break out. In my time with Luke, he’s had incredible success in both country and mainstream markets. I think musically his sound and writing comes from a more mature and polished point of view these days. Along these lines I feel like our show has evolved to reflect his progression and represent his image and brand.”

Justin Kitchenman - Luke Bryan Sunset Repeat Tour – Tennessee 3

Photo: Todd Kaplan

How involved is Luke in the design process? Can you give us an idea of how the design process with Luke works? Do he and his team come to you and say ‘this is the theme of our tour, come up with lighting?’
“The design concepts usually begin with conversations between Luke, his manager Kerri Edwards, and myself on the scale and scope of what we are going to do. We make a conscious effort each year to push the progression of the show into a new direction. This dialogue continues throughout the process as we work on the show elements like special effects, automation, and video content. Their final approval is always required, but when it comes to the overall production design and lighting design they tend to defer a lot of the decisions to me. I consider it a great privilege and responsibility that they place this level of trust in me.”

In general terms, how does the design process begin for you? Is there a certain element of a design that you always start with, or does that vary? How do you get inspired at the start of a project?
“There is no real process for me to get into the design mind-set. I’m always making little scratch drawings of truss layouts or deign elevations. I just kind of doodle on things, I have done this as long as I can remember! I wish I could find some of my high school notebooks because I’m pretty sure some of my best work is in those pages! Eventually, I translate these sketches into 3D in Vectorworks and MA3D. Once I get into drawing in 3D the designs will either take shape very quickly or completely morph into something different. By the time I get to the final version of a project I may have 20 different versions of the same design. I stash these away as potential starting points for something down the line.”

A thing we’ve always been impressed with is how you balance ‘eye candy’ with more fundamental lighting principles like creating depth on stage and lighting your client. So, how do you add eye candy without distracting? How do you know when there’s too much candy?
“Rule number one with me is and will always be ‘light the talent.’ There’s a slew of ways to accomplish this obviously, but it is an intricate part of design equation. For me, it’s the foundation of the lighting design. When I have a direction on the overall layout I just work in “broads strokes” and “fine strokes”. I have fixture types in mind and start placing and moving them around within the layout to try and find the proper space to let them breath. All of the elements must work together.

“I don’t know if you can have too much eye candy, but what you can have is a lack of balance. You need to find variations in how you utilize the tools available to you. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you always have to use it! So much of this aspect comes down to the programming of the show. A solid programmer with a bag of tricks will be able to pull off a wide array of unique looks.

“I love depth! It’s a key element in visual forms of art like cinematography, photography, painting, and animation. With production design it’s no different. My style over the years has become a combination of elevations and angles. I like to use low profile trusses with lightweight, low-powered fixtures to create lighting positions in the spaces of the design.”

Justin Kitchenman - Luke Bryan Tour - Nashville 2

Photo: Todd Kaplan

We also like how you blend lighting with video by arranging your lights so they integrate video walls into the overall look of the stage. Any advice on doing that?
“I don’t know if I have advice. I think it’s a matter of trial and error.”

What are your thoughts on LED video walls vs. projection video?
“I have design concepts that are specific to each LED and projection. It’s really a matter of the right tool for the job. LED video often affords you more output and stands up to ambient light and light pollution, but with projection you can really get into some cool mapping and are able to create some really unique surfaces to project on. ”

What is the hardest thing about being a lighting designer?
“So many jokes to be made here! I think it would be the constant internal critiquing I do. It’s not a small responsibility to design a production that is going to perhaps cost someone millions of dollars to build and operate. Everything has to work the way you say it will. Everything must look the way you said it would. Everything must cost what you said it would. I can go to sleep at night thinking ‘This is the greatest design I’ve ever come up with,’ only to wake up and look at it again and think ‘I’m a hack… I should go mow lawns!”

Aside from designing Luke Bryan’s shows, you also go out on tour and run the boards. Does this influence the way you design? Would you design differently if you always had a lighting director going out on the road with your client?
“I don’t think so. I like to actually operate the show and would encourage anyone running it to do the same. We utilize timecode but I keep a fair bit of the cues manual. Perhaps more would be locked down to guarantee consistent playback, but I wanted to do lights because I wanted to be a part of the show. I tend to get bored watching timecode fly by and not being involved the operation.”

Justin Kitchenman - Luke Bryan Sunset Repeat Tour – Tennessee 5

Photo: Todd Kaplan

Without mentioning brand names, is there one type of fixture that you regard as the most indispensable part of your creative tool chest as a designer?
“The new generation of “hybrid” fixtures are really solid. There are so many quality fixtures out there to choose from too. Having the ability to utilize the same group of fixtures as a wash, spot, or beam type from song to song or even cue to cue really allows you to create unique looks throughout your show.”

How would you describe the role that a lighting design should always play on a tour?
“A poor design will kill morale! One of the most important aspects of the design is it ability to be moved. If it kills the crew everyday because it’s poorly thought out then you’ll have a bunch of unhappy campers who have to work a lot harder and longer to make the show happen. A little consideration in the design phase can go a long way throughout the coarse of the tour. The net result of an extra hour or two of sleep each night for the crew will pay dividends for the entire production.”

Luke Bryan likes to move around a lot on stage and interact with the crowd. Another artist may tend to be less active on stage. So, how does the personality and stage presence of a client influence your approach to design?
“I don’t know. That’s kind of a tough question, because it really always comes down to the artist and their vision of their performance. Each artist and each design is unique in some way or another. With an artist like Luke though, it means we can focus a lot more on creating a background for him to perform in front of. When we do have a moment in the show, like when sitting at a piano backlit with a single beam of light, that moment carries a bit of weight.”

What is the favorite venue you ever worked?
“There’s some really cool ones out there, but for no other reason than I’m from the Philly area … “Lincoln Financial Field” (home of the Philadelphia Eagles) and “Citizens Bank Park” (home of the Philadelphia Phillies) have been two of my highlights.”

How did you get started in lighting?
“I got started in college. I was going to school to try and become a music producer. But when job opportunities started coming up they were mostly in live production and not studio work. These opportunity’s ultimately led to me being hired at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, NJ as a stagehand. When I was hired they asked what crew I would want to be called for. I picked lighting because I figured they would need more hands on the calls than other departments. There were other factors that were long term goals, like being able to use my creativity to design and operate shows, but initially it was I just wanted to work!

Justin Kitchenman - Luke Bryan Tour - Nashville 3

Photo: Todd Kaplan

Who were the big influencers in your career?
“I take a little bit away from every experience and every person I work with. I can’t point to one person as the “Big Influence,” but rather a collection of all of the influences on me. I’ve been lucky throughout my career to sit and witness some really talented designers put together shows. I’ve always been amazed at how everyone has their own process and work flow. There are definitely things I do throughout the design process that will make me think of the person who I picked it up from. I can actually see the moment I learned it. It’s pretty cool. I hope I’m able to do the same.”

Aside from Luke Bryan, what do you regard as the highlights of your career thus far?
“I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of really talented and successful artists. From designing for legends like Dolly Parton and Allan Jackson to directing an upstart country artist named Taylor Swift. I’ve been able to design or work with some current and future hall-of-fame artists. Some bands I’ve worked with for a short period of time and some relationships have spanned decades.”

If you had to use five words to describe a Justin Kitchenman design what would they be?
Colorful, Bold, Elevations, Cohesive, Depth.

Justin Kitchenman - Luke Bryan Sunset Repeat Tour – Tennessee 2

Photo: Todd Kaplan

Looking back at your career, what job taught you the most valuable lesson about lighting design?
No one job in particular. The greatest lesson I’ve ever learned is that this is a team business. You can’t do it alone. It takes a group of talented people with common goals to pull off a design of any level. I learn lessons every day and I will never know it all.”

Going back in time is there any artist from the past who you wish you could have designed for?
“Yes! And not because I feel I could do it better than the guys who actually did… but just because how much fun it would have been to be a part of it. In no importance of order… Pink Floyd, Queen, Janes Addiction, Prince, The Doors… imagine what a Doors show would look like today!?”

How would you like to be remembered as a designer?
“I really just want to be remembered as a person who you wanted to be around, who you wanted on your team. I always want to be a part of positive experiences and surrounded by positive people. I hope I’m remembered as a person who brought his best, helped make others better, and learned from his mistakes. A person not afraid to take a chance or speak his mind and always willing to convey his love for people and moments. I hope I’m remembered as being honest and having integrity.”