There is a cinematic quality to Tobias Rylander’s lighting designs. The subtle shifts in shadows, the sharp contrast between light and dark, the bending of scenic elements, all evoke images of the convention defying New Wave films of the 1960s, such as those created by his fellow Swede, Ingmar Bergman. For Rylander, lighting is about more than illumination and colors, it’s also about creating shapes and contrasting images that help tell the stories of his client-artists.
Always ready to push the creative envelope, Rylander has pioneered new design concepts that have earned the admiration of his peers. For example, his 2014 design for a tour by the indie group 1975 was perhaps the first work of its kind to rely almost exclusively on projection video.
Not surprisingly, Rylander has attracted a loyal client following among leading progressive and alternative artists like Of Monsters and Men, The Strokes, The XX, FKA Twigs, and Explosions in the Sky. More recently, he has begun lighting fashion shows for the likes of Balenciaga and Calvin Klein. During his time as a partner in Seven Design Works with LeRoy Bennett and Cory FitzGerald, he participated in many of that company’s high-profile projects. Recently, the innovative designer spent time with us to discuss the art of sculpting with light.
You work with some intense artists like The Stroke and, FKA Twigs. On some occasions, you designed for their appearances on mainstream television programs like Jimmy Kimmel Live, Jimmy Fallon and Ellen. When you do this, how do you translate the edginess of your client’s concert look to the more restricted TV stage?
“I always start any design by trying to understand, grasp and capture what I believe and feel is the visual identity for the artist. In most cases I have designed the show and tour for the artist before they ask me to be involved in TV and special performances. In these situations it is all about knowing what is possible and not. What will ‘read’ and look good on TV. My experience is that if an idea is good enough, most creative teams and studios will work with you to keep the aesthetics of the conceptual design already existing. There is always a little bit of politics and compromising when working with TV and cameras. But that is part of the fun. I am still learning every time.”
When it came out in 2014, your design for the “1975 World Tour,” attracted attention and critical acclaim for using projection video almost exclusively with the exception of some aerial and key lights. Can you tell us how this innovative design came about?
“When I first met the band I really didn’t know much about them. But doing my homework and understanding how very specific, graphical, monochrome black and white all their artwork, social media and visual identity was, I immediately came to think of this idea that I had been working in the back of my head for years. The aerial graphical projections are directly inspired by one of my favorite installation artists, Anthony McCall, and his light sculptures. Looking back at it, I guess it was kind of a brave move for both me and the band–as well as management–considering how expensive and ‘fragile’ it is to tour with projections. I had not seen it done in a club or theater environment and the end result was fantastic. Even though projectors and projections don’t really like smoke, in this installation they really did.”
You were born in Sweden and began your career there. Did that influence your development as a designer?
“I think there is an advantage in finding a passion for something where you don’t have too much input or knowledge. The lighting and stage industry in Sweden is quite small — but very professional and good. When I first started experimenting with light and dreaming up designs, I really didn’t know and understand how big the industry was. I don’t think I realized that it was a real profession and how important the designer’s position was. That came much later. To me it was just putting on a good show in a way I found dramatic and aesthetic. But the stage and lighting industry in Sweden is fantastic! I started at the very bottom learning how to wind cable and polish lights and lenses. But I learned from the best!”
What is the most challenging part of the design process for you?
“It is really always TIME… and, of course, budget. You are always asked to design something ‘incredible’ or ‘fantastic’ that no one has ever seen before. And of course, by the way, it needs to pack down and fly in ‘pelly cases.’ It should cost close to nothing in the weekly touring budget and be able to transform in a stage changeover time of 20 minutes. You are also often asked to program a full show in a few days or over a night.”
We’ve always been impressed by how your designs blend stage, set and lighting so seamlessly together. What is the key to creating this kind of holistic design?
“To me it has always been one and the same thing. There is a lot that you can do with just lights, of course. But just trusses and moving lights have never really done it for me. It can be something small as just unifying the band’s backline, custom building a keyboard stand or working with shadow play or reflections in materials and fabrics. But a show always starts with the appearance of the artist and the band. To claim the stage and space and create a world and experience that makes the audience forget the room or venue they are in — and hopefully even make them forget that what they are experiencing is lights or video elements or fixture and technology.”
In the past you’ve spoken of “creating shapes” on stage with light; can you elaborate on that? How does creating a shape differ from merely lighting a stage?
“I think what I mean by that is that I start with the physical presence of lights and color itself rather than fixtures. I think more about each light beam’s direction, angle, intensity and color than how many and what fixtures I would use. I think it is as important to think about darkness and absence of light. The stage is not necessarily a room that you have to fill with entertainment. I think that moving and flashing lights can often be as much a distraction from what is actually happening on stage as enhancing of the music.”
Picking up on that thought — in an age when many designers want to go brighter and brighter, you sometimes stand out for your willingness to allow darkness and smokiness play big roles in your designs as you did with 1975 World Tour, XX and others. Can you tell us what you think dark spaces bring to a design?
“With the risk of sounding pretentious or poetic, I have always preached that light is nothing without darkness and vice versa. Really what we do as designers is to enhance the music and the message or feeling that the artists are trying to reach out with and communicate. If you start too strong you have nowhere to go from there. Darkness can be just as impactful and overwhelming as building and blinding light. It is all dynamic drama. ‘Less is more’ is a cliché, but in many situations it is true.”
Sometimes it seems that you try to minimize the role of moving heads. What role do you see moving heads playing in your designs? Do you see that changing?
“Moving heads are everywhere, and they of course are amazing instruments to work with and I do use them all the time! But you are right–in the matter that I have tried in recent years not to have them move all the time, just because they can. But just like in theater, I place them in a position where I can get the most out of them in terms of angles and beams. There you go! Back to the shapes I guess!”
Given that your designs are often so daring, how do you “sell” them to your clients?
“Half, if not more, of this profession is to listen and understand the artist that you are working with. I guess that one thing gives the other. I might be daring in my designs. But I also work with very daring musicians and artists. I always find it easier to work with music that is very dynamic and emotional. It is easier to work with something that has got a purpose and a meaning. But to answer the question, it always starts with just creative meetings and exchange of inspirational material. It can be anything from pictures of architecture and art or videos of nature. After that I usually start sketching–often by hand– and start bouncing ideas. And when I think that I have a concept and idea that I find would work, I make digital renderings and treatments that hopefully are close to reality and final design.”
We know you’re a musician – what musical instrument do you play? How does being a musician influence you as a designer?
“I come from a musical family from a very traditional part of Sweden where folk music traditions are strong. I grew up with music around me, and it was more or less expected that you would pick an instrument to learn at early age. Sweden has also got a great music school system where it is obligatory at the age of seven to at least try for a year, one hour per week with a teacher, and after that it is free choice and at no cost until the age of 15–if I remember correctly. I picked the trumpet and continued practicing. Ended up having music and trumpet as my major in senior high school and graduated at the age of 19. I guess I realized after that that I was better off on the side of the stage and in the shadows than in the spotlight.”
You have begun doing some outstanding work with fashion shows; how do they differ from concerts?
“Yes! I really love working with fashion shows and installations like that. It is such a different thing. First of all, the budget is often pretty good. But most of all–it doesn’t have to tour and travel and fit into trucks, or through doors! You build it once and then you are done. The average fashion show lasts about 6-8 minutes; out of that you have about 30 seconds that has got to be entertaining, innovative and creative. The rest of the show you can’t really take too much focus away from the actual fashion and clothes. So you can kind of come up with these ‘one trick ponies’ that you have always wanted to do.”
What do you think you would have done if you weren’t a lighting designer?
“Since I was a little boy I have always wanted to become a blacksmith. Part of me still does. I always joke with my grandmother, with much seriousness from her side, that one day I will move back home to the village where I grew up and start up the old forge.”
You’ve been an early adapter of new technology. When new lighting technology hits the market, does it give you new ideas, or is it just a matter of new technology making it easier for you to execute the ideas that were already in your head?
“I remember being young and naive swearing that I would never use LED fixtures in my designs. And here I am using every pixel in an LED screen as a light source. So new technology absolutely opens up new ideas and room for creativity. I was never a fan of the RGB mix or seeing the light source of lights, but then again who was?! But I think that when I see a new light or fixture, I tend to think of how to use it in a way that was not necessarily intended. I like turning things inside out and upside down.”
Your designs are very intricate; do you ever change/tweak them after a tour has begun?
“Not once they are out on the road. Of course you always wish that you had had that extra day at pre-production and rehearsals. Once it comes back in for rehearsals and programming new songs, then I might change something that has been bugging me.”
What do you regard as the highlights of your career?
“I would say all my work with The XX, where I first started working with aerial projections on a bigger scale and was given a proper budget to design a set out of glass and smoke. Same thing with my first fashion show for Balenciaga in Paris for fashion week. I guess it’s all about smoke and mirrors.”
Who were the biggest influencers in your career?
“They are so many, of course. My two partners Cory FitzGerald and Roy Bennett, but also–and maybe mostly–all the guys in Sweden in my early years who taught me the basics and took care of me, Ola Melzig being one of them, even though maybe not aesthetically in his case. Haha.”
Is there any type of design project that you haven’t done that you think you would like to do one day?
“So many! I just designed my first arena tour, which is a lot of fun, but I do enjoy the dance shows with FKA Twigs and fashion shows as much. As long as it is challenging in a creative way, I look forward to it.”
Is there a “Tobias Rylander look’ that runs through all of your designs regardless of how different they may appear to be?
“People say that they can see on a show if I have been involved, which I have chosen to take as a compliment. So yes, I guess so. Hopefully because it looks thought-through.”