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Michael Stiller: Interactive Light

Posted on August 30, 2017

There are times during the design process, says this Bessie Award and IES Illumination Merit Award winner, when light is “the enemy.” Surprising words from a designer who has been captivated by lighting since the age of ten, but reflective of Stiller’s firm conviction that light must be delicately balanced against darkness if a design is to achieve its true power to move those who encounter it. Over using light, he contends, results in a design that merely illuminates space rather than shapes its aesthetic and emotional dimensions.

Stiller has used the interaction of brightness and shadows to create transformative designs in an impressively wide array of genres, including concert, television, film, theatre, corporate and architectural lighting. In recent years, he has worked on high profile events like the Sirus XM Howard Stern Birthday Bash at the Hammerstein Ballroom, the Bravo Fashion Show with Iman and a Microsoft launch at Pier 57 in New York, for which he illuminated a 40,000 sq. ft. scale model of Manhattan. He has also won widespread praise for his work in the Drew Barrymore-Hugh Grant film Music & Lyrics, the PBS broadcast of Rocktopia from the Hungarian State Opera House, and Motorola’s Schaumburg, IL Innovation Center.

Regardless of genre, Stiller’s designs are infused with the same mission: to capture the essence of a space in ways that stir the heart and mind. This was very evident in the contribution he made to re-imagining the lobby and exterior arcade at New York’s iconic 85 Broad Street, which earned him his Illumination Merit Award. Speaking to us from the offices of his Manhattan design firm upLIGHT, Stiller shared his insights into weaving light and darkness together into compelling designs.

You have an incredibly diversified portfolio, having excelled in architectural, broadcast, theatrical and concert lighting to name a few genres. Is there a lot of cross-pollination among the different types of lighting? Do lessons you learn in one area of lighting later turn out to be valuable in another?
“I would say that the unifying concept I bring to all my work, in all fields, is an appreciation for the play between light and shadow. It’s all about managing contrast, creating mystery or clarity, establishing hierarchy and a visual rhythm to achieve the desired aesthetic or emotional effect. The key is to find the right balance between light and the absence of light, and what’s most interesting is the interaction between these two states.”

On that subject, we’ve been impressed by how you make use of dark space, particularly in some of your cerebral projects like the Motorola Innovation Center. How do you use darkness as a lighting designer?
“Darkness is just the absence of light. But light has no impact without the contrasting darkness around it. The job of the lighting designer is often to control light, not just add it. I like to say that sometimes light is the enemy.”

Looking at your overall body of work, do you take a different creative approach to different genres? Do you get into a different head space? Are there different things you look at first or emphasize most, depending on the genre?
“Yes. Absolutely. Though I could just look at light in its various forms…like forever…my work is always in a supporting role to the story, performance, space, or activity being lit. So I always start by considering the intent of my client and collaborators. Then I have to factor in my ideas, and last but not least the visual requirements of the project. Sometimes I am creating a vibe or making a big visual statement, and at others I am supporting a particular activity.

“Usually it’s a bit of all of the above. I find one of the biggest challenges is striking the right balance between the creative and the practical. Lighting for television is a great example. You need a certain amount of white light to get exposure, but that same light will tend to pollute your scenographic statements. Another example – in a museum or dramatically lit restaurant, you want to create the right mood but still need to keep the space safe, or give people what they need to read a menu. A good lighting designer has to view the work in a matter-of-fact, realistic way to temper their ‘great idea’ with a sense of the practical needs of everyone else.”

Is there any particular type of project that causes you the most trepidation when you start?
“Projects with clients and collaborators who behave as if they know exactly where the creative journey is going to take us, and are unable to change direction when something does not go as planned. Some of my best work has come about when an idea fails and we have to figure out what to do next. You have to know when to change direction, even if it’s painful to do so.”

You won an award for your design at 85 Broad Street. Can you describe that project and what challenges it involved?
“First of all, the entire team won an award for 85 Broad Street. And it was one of my favorite projects in recent past. It’s an experiential reimagining of a corporate lobby and exterior arcade that tells a story, activates a space, and has been the delight of many occupants and visitors since. The project has two large-scale, media-driven, animated lighting sculptures, which we helped design and engineer. Custom, decorative chandeliers and illuminated exhibits play narrative and aesthetic roles, and cast a very pleasing light. I don’t mind saying that it is beautiful, and that is gratifying. But for me, the big fun and big challenge was working in a very collaborative way with the lead-design team from ESI design.

“The designers at ESI tend to think out of the box, and then they ask the collaborating team members to make their fantasies come true. But unlike my example cited in my answer to your previous question, as much as they challenged upLIGHT and the rest of the team, and pushed hard to get us to figure out how to make their designs real, they were always ready and willing to move ahead when something didn’t work. In the course of the project they had to reimagine whole elements when the original concept proved physically impossible to achieve. In the end we got something that was better than what we started out to do.”

You’ve done quite a bit of teaching. What’s the most important lesson about lighting design that you can impart to a student?
“I mostly teach lighting to non-lighting designers: interior designers, exhibit designers, and architects. And my main focus is to get them thinking about light as a physical thing, with physical properties. I usually start by looking at slides of old paintings, especially Caravaggios, and then we discuss the way the light as rendered by the artist reveals three-dimensional forms and creates emotional reactions depending on its direction, intensity and focus. One big goal is to give them a sense of the space that may be required to get a specific effect. I want to teach them to build their designs in such a way that a lighting designer can help them realize their vision.”

Suppose you were assessing a lighting design student — what are the three most important qualities that go into making a good lighting designer?
“I think the ability to go in with a strong idea and then be able to change it; to do the homework, develop a concept, and then commit to a process; to be unsentimental about your work and willing to throw it out and start over—these are the qualities most important to make one into a good designer of any type. Can we call that three even though they’re all kind of the same thing?”

People in general are more aware of lighting today, particularly since it plays a bigger role than ever in entertainment. Is this influencing architectural lighting? I know we are seeing more building projections today, but is architectural lighting itself embodying more entertainment elements?
“Yes. Whether it’s a themed entertainment or restaurant, a retail environment, or a corporate space designed to project an identity, lighting—and its first cousin video—is playing a greater role. Every space can create an experience, and lighting has a great power to shape our experiences and help tell a story.”

You’ve been a designer for some time now. We know the technology that has developed since you started makes your job easier, but can you tell us how it influences your creative process? Are you able to imagine things today that you couldn’t have before, because you now have the technological means to do it?
“I would not say that technology makes it easier for us to imagine what’s possible. On the contrary, the advent of powerful visualization software sometimes creates a crutch. My younger students have a tendency to start with their virtual 3D tools and just present what the software shows them. I have to encourage them to rely on their real-world observations, especially where light is concerned, imagine what they know is possible, and then use the software in the service of their ideas. The good news is that all the fancy 3D visualization tools we now have can be very useful when it comes to communicating our ideas and concepts to others. It also provides a bit of a reality check for the designer, when used correctly.”

So, a designer can become too dependent on technology?
“Yes! Absolutely.”

Do you see the relationship between designer and programmer changing?
“They are becoming more and more like two parts of the same job. I’m old enough so that the days when I had to push the buttons myself predate the advent of multi-parameter lighting devices, like movers and LEDs. In those days, programmers were basically board ops, and it was incumbent on the designer to tell them exactly what to do, sometimes down to the keystrokes.

“Now the programming of a show is complex enough that it requires some degree of artistic license. The programmer has become part of a larger design team. Gone are the days when it makes sense for the designer to dictate every last decision. That’s my philosophy anyway. I am too busy working with the client and crew, making decisions based on the realities on the ground or the evolution of the show to get nailed to a desk.

“I rely on a good programmer to understand my vision and help bring it to fruition. Of course, it’s important that that relationship is a good one. A good designer needs a good programmer who can bring their own ideas to the table but is going to be able to work collaboratively under the direction of their LD.”

In your Bravo Fashion Show project, you made excellent use of uplights on the side of the runway, yet still managed to balance the key lighting on the models. Can you describe how you worked that project?
“It’s all about control. What we needed to use as a key on Iman’s face—as soft and flattering a light as possible—was precisely what could destroy the look of the rest of the lighting. Getting your client and performers to cooperate, i.e. work in a pre-defined space, helps. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes the role of the lighting designer is to be the persuader-in-chief, especially when working with a client who wants to be able to ad-lib their blocking. We have to be able to interact directly with the performer and the rest of the creative team, and show them why we are making the requests we do. It comes back to making everyone understand that light has physical properties that we cannot change. Sometimes that’s a tough sell.”

In your work for Rocktopia, you use video panels in fence patterns with different sections, rather than having one large wall. How do you determine how to configure your video walls, sections or one integral unit?
“I am always looking for ways to explode the video surface. I can’t say how I determine these configurations. It comes down to space planning: looking at the scenic design and the physical space the performers will occupy, and developing an interesting architecture of shapes to complement that. I always want to create an immersive environment that weaves the digital and the physical world together. I am unimpressed with the tendency today to put as big a video wall as possible on the stage. It’s like going to a show to watch TV. That’s not immersive, that’s boring!”

If for some reason, you were no longer allowed to be a lighting designer, what profession would you pursue?
“Hah. Good question. I guess maybe teacher.”

Of course, you are indeed a lighting designer, so can you tell us how your career started?
“My life in lighting began at ten years of age when my parents took me to the theater in New York. I immediately noticed the lights were doing something…turning on and off in recognizable patterns. I was enthralled; and have been involved in lighting ever since. My very first paid gig came about when, as a member of the ‘lighting crew’ in high school, I was asked to remove the school auditorium’s glass red, blue, and amber rondelles—if you can remember those—from the R40 striplights in preparation for a Westchester County Philharmonic rehearsal. After that, the Philharmonic paid me and a friend $50 to come in and do this each time there was a concert.

“I attended a liberal arts college with no theater crafts program, but remained active as a lighting tech and designer in the extracurricular program run by the school’s TD. After that it was lighting my friend’s shows and making little films as visual set-pieces in the downtown NY dance and performance art scene, where I am still active.

“A desire to earn a better living doing what I do led me to seek work in the world of corporate industrials and television. I did some time as a film gaffer as well, especially during the late 80s and early 90s when everyone was shooting music videos on 16 and 35mm. All of this set me up with the skills I needed when opportunities came along to provide theatrical-style lighting design for feature films, especially the large-scale concert sequence in the movie Music and Lyrics.”

How did you get involved in architectural lighting?
“My industrial work led me to the world of architectural lighting when an agency client for Motorola’s corporate events was asked to take on the experience and exhibit design for their science museum-format visitor’s center. More permanent installation and experiential projects followed, and I found I liked the pace and enduring nature of this work. Add to all that my early interest in filmmaking and the growing convergence between lighting and video systems, and the scope of my practice now encompasses all of the above, including full-on entertainment production design.”

Generically speaking, what is the most under rated type of lighting fixture?
“In entertainment lighting: a moving LED head with zoom function is my go-to choice. Unglamorous, but it provides all the necessary basics of focus and color. I’m lighting a performance art piece in a gallery in the fall and the rig will be entirely made up of this kind of fixture.

“For my students: I always say that track lights, clip lights, and other kinds of socket-based fixtures are the most useful when on a budget. The huge array of lamps with different beam angles and color temperatures that you can put into a socket-based fixture make these an infinitely flexible tool, especially for low budget/no budget exhibit and architectural work.”

How do you want to be remembered as a lighting designer?
“That’s a tough question. My career has spanned so many facets of lighting, and I think this makes it hard for people to identify where I’ve had an impact. I would like to be remembered as someone with a passion for lighting design who remained engaged and interested in all the possible applications of my craft. I guess I’m still that little kid excited by the way the lights changed from scene to scene when my parents first took me to the theater.”