Rick Leussink – Unifying Light

Posted on May 4, 2020

When discussing the mission of lighting, this well-known Dutch designer often speaks in terms of story-telling. The interplay of colors and patterns, bursts of brightness and evocative shadows, has the power to grip emotions, but they are merely futile, albeit pretty, gestures if they do not serve to unfold the story his client is trying to tell.

Under normal circumstances, Leussink employs his considerable talents to advance the narratives of music festivals, corporate events and theatrical productions. But these times are far from ordinary. With all live events canceled in the wake of COVID-19, he turned his attention to using light to tell another kind of story, one conveyed not in a particular play or concert, but throughout his country, The Netherlands, and by extension the world.

Cup of coffee in hand, Leussink sat down at his laptop one day and began what soon grew into, Light The Sky, an initiative that made the night come alive with brightness and color over much of The Netherlands and Belgium for 30 minutes on Sunday, March 22.

Involving over 500 participants, from large production houses to single DJs, the event provided a welcomed visual reprieve for millions confined to their homes during the lockdown. Its meaning, though, extended far beyond this diversion. Through their lighting, Leussink and his colleagues wrote their own inspiring story in the Benelux sky, reminding all that their industry and their nations are strong enough to prevail.

The owner of Delighted, based in Ruurlo, The Netherlands, Leussink spoke to us about Light The Sky, his plans to build on the initiative, and the bright future of lighting.

How did the idea of Light The Sky come about?
“My vision about lighting is that lighting is the connective part for supporting a story. It can bring people together and create a stance of hope in the people. As I feel right now, there are true heroes working really hard to make the people in the world as healthy and safe as possible, and there are heroes battling themselves against the COVID-19 virus. I wanted to show solidarity to everyone who is a true hero, the people who are working very hard and the people who can use the solidarity as a support. As we all have lighting equipment standing still in our warehouse, I thought maybe we can use the equipment to light up the sky above us, so everybody can watch from their houses a bundle of light going high up in the air.”

After that, how did you and your colleagues in The Netherlands organize the Light The Sky initiative?
“Before I posted the initiative on my business social media pages, I asked a few colleagues about the idea. The response was that they liked the idea and wanted to support it. That was for me the final trigger to post the initiative on social media. That all happened on March 19th with a cup of coffee and my laptop. The social media post went ‘viral’, many companies posted on their social media that they will join the initiative and that generated a chain reaction.

“When I posted this vision on social media, the idea was to put one bright beam light fixture outside the warehouse on Sunday, the 22nd of March, between 8:00 and 8:30pm. I got in touch with the Dutch authorities and asked to get permission to shine a light from my location in the air, which they gave. [In The Netherlands you need to ask for permission to shine a light in the air for air traffic regulations.] I have to give a compliment to the Dutch authorities in here: they responded to the requests of each of the joining companies very quickly, especially given the short amount of time.

“Meanwhile, I heard about many companies who are joining, varying between one moving head to 100+ moving heads. I think all contributions of the initiatives were beautiful, from the local wedding DJ up to the big event suppliers, everyone was united.”

What did your Light The Sky project look like?
“I ended up in making a shape of a heart by using lighting fixtures. Two colleagues of mine helped with realizing the heart. I tried to centralize the amount of efforts by making a Facebook event, so everyone interested could join the event (not physically of course!) and show their contribution to this initiative. When the initiative took place, the amount of positive reactions, photos and videos in there was breathtaking. Even when I think of it now, I still get goosebumps.”

What were your biggest challenges in making Light The Sky a reality?
“Honestly, I didn’t feel like the initiative had big challenges. The idea was quite spontaneous and the timeline between ‘coming up’ with the idea and posting it on social media was approximately 15 to 30 minutes. The initiative spread quite organically, many people who heard about this reached out to their networks to ask if they would participate and so forth.

“The amount of support I’ve gotten is enormous, and I would like to thank the people who helped me in this. It’s heartwarming to get so many responses from colleagues. I think that this is a strong point in the (Dutch) entertainment industry, it’s a small world and everybody knows and respects each other. Speaking about challenges, I’ve got a little fun-story.”

Can you share that story with us?
“Sure — I talked with a colleague, Operator Bas van Gelder, OWL Shows, on the night of Saturday to Sunday. He had the idea of making a show audio mix of 30 minutes. He inspired me with this idea, so I decided to make a timecode show on this mix and there we go. At 2:30am we got the audio files for the show, posted in the social media event for the colleagues and went on programming, he for his lighting set, and me for the lighting set that I had in mind.

“When operating a festival show, overnight programming can be common. That said, for him and me, this is nothing new. From my side, I underestimated ‘a little bit’ of the time I needed to answer the questions of the press and colleagues during Sunday, the day of the initiative. In the afternoon, two colleagues started to set up the lighting at the parking spot of the warehouse. I was still busy with programming the time coded show in my warehouse and even more busy with answering the questions from the press.

“At 7:30pm, the press was all set up at my warehouse, waiting for me and the time coded show but I still needed to finish it. I just managed to finish it five minutes before the start. “At 7:55pm, I finished the time code show, loaded the show file into the console, without any testing of the fixtures, and hoped for the best. At 8:00pm, I pressed play to start. Frankly, it went well ha-ha!”

How many lighting designers participated in this?
“To be honest with you, I lost count when I saw over 500 participants in The Netherlands and Belgium only. It has currently picked up in many more countries with multiple names, which touches me deeply.

“The Light The Sky initiative is not about a company, neither a group of companies, it’s purely based on the hearts of everybody who participated and helped. It symbolizes the unity of the situation we are currently living in. I also think that this is one of the reasons why the idea spread to more countries. We, as human beings are all in this crisis together. The amount of work to make us all healthy is tremendous, I have much respect for the people who are working around the clock to serve us.”

What were some of the things that stand out for you about this initiative?
“There are two things that touch me the most: First was the way the initiative got many heartwarming responses from, for example, the healthcare and the unfortunate ones who are infected by the virus. Second was the willingness to participate by everybody. When I speak for The Netherlands, the support came from the ‘local’ wedding DJs to the biggest dry-hire and production facilitating companies. It’s nice to see an initiative getting so much support from such a variety of people and companies. It isn’t about ‘the biggest show,’ it’s all about the gesture, and I really appreciate the gesture everybody did.

“The initiative also showed the solidarity between the different people and businesses that are active in this branch (and outside). We do have an after-movie, which shows video footage of the initiative of the companies in The Netherlands and Belgium. I also liked the variety of everybody. Some companies contacted the hospital to make a stunning lightshow at the hospital, other companies were shining their lights from a high building to a hospital, and some companies made a lightshow in their streets for their neighbors.”

Do you have any examples of this cooperation?
“Yes, a video editor, Fons Karssemakers, Digital Outlaws, reached out to me: he would like to help make an after-movie. An audio production, LastBlast Show Creations & OWL Shows offered us to make a 30-minute audio mix, so every participant can use it to make a lightshow with the provided audio mix. In The Netherlands, two known artists, Snelle & Davina Michelle, have made a song about the crisis to show their support. This song reached the 1st spot in the Dutch top 40 charts, the Dutch equivalent of the American Billboard top 50. We can use this song with their permission without having to pay any royalties for our after-movie. The amount of help everybody gave is really nice to see. We are in this together, the initiative is all about solidarity and sharing this feeling.”

What were your goals for the Light The Sky project?
“Well, this sounds stupid but I thought literally: ‘When I get 10 colleagues crazy enough to join, the initiative is a success.’ Well, we have managed that ha-ha! It wasn’t a goal beforehand, but it touches me that the overall solidarity between the different companies was very high.

“Now given that the initiative is a big success, the ‘goal’ for Light The Sky is gaining unity and solidarity to get through this crisis. I think the unity can also be found in the after-movie. The amount of support from different people and different companies is so high, that it’s breathtaking for me.”

On a personal level, can you recount how you became aware of the impact that COVID-19 could have on event and touring lighting?
“As a person, I’m always curious and try to follow as much as possible about what is happening in the world. I felt bad for the citizens in Hubei, China where the COVID-19 virus struck first, but it wasn’t something that influenced my daily life. That changed when the virus appeared in European countries. I began taking precautions for different scenarios: where the worst-case scenario was a cancellation of all events for an indefinite time. In The Netherlands, the first case of COVID-19 was quite late discovered, when comparing to other European countries.

“Firstly, I saw many cancellations in (international) cooperate events and exhibitions where the peak season is in the first quarter of the year. This happened before the first case of COVID-19 in The Netherlands. This showed me the possibility of the worst-case scenario, though the Dutch carnival, which is a peak of productions for me, went on quite normally. Shortly after the carnival period, the government announced that all events above 100 people are forbidden. This expanded, among other things, to all events (without a lower limit) until June 1st and a shutdown of the Horeca until April 28th. You should note that the 27th of April is ‘Koningsdag’ (Kings’ Day), a Dutch national holiday.”

What was the last “normal” project you worked on before COVID-19 shut things down?
“Well, I have a surrealistic story to share about the ‘shutdown’ of events in The Netherlands. On Wednesday, the 11th of March, we started the load-in for a production in the coming weekend. On the second load-in day, Thursday the 12th, the minister-president announced in a press conference that all events above 100 people will be forbidden until the 6th of April. We all watched the press conference live on TV. [Please note, the Dutch government has expanded the measures in The Netherlands, some of the measures are that all Horeca facilities are closed until April 28th and all events are cancelled until June 1st.]

“The same night we had decided to break down the event. The best word which comes to my mind to describe the atmosphere is surrealistic, the efforts everybody had put in to make this event happen felt like wasted time, though we all understand that these measures are needed for the public health.”

Do you plan any future initiatives like Light The Sky?
“We are currently working on a new initiative. It’s quite ambitious, so stay tuned on our social media! We have currently formed a team of volunteers which are helping with starting the new initiative.”

How else are you staying busy and productive during this period?
“I have to admit, the whole initiative takes a lot more time than I thought, so it keeps me quite busy. As the whole initiative is based on a non-profit ‘movement,’ I’m getting much positive energy from it to ‘work’ entirely voluntary for this initiative.

“On the business side, I’m now busy with pre-programming and designing lighting setups for late 2020 and 2021 as far as possible. I’ve had the luck that I also produce music for artists, that work will continue as much as possible.”

Any advice for your fellow lighting designers?
“To everybody, stay strong and healthy. As difficult our situation is, your health is the most important. To my colleagues and friends throughout the industry, as difficult this time may be, there will always be a light shining at the end of the tunnel. If not, I’d be more than happy to put a moving head there!”