The following is excerpted from The Best of Gig Magazine; to read this free digital publication, visit nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/newbay/bestofgig.
Meet veteran lighting designer Thane Thomas who has lit “zillions” of acts—including Chris Isaak, Jerry Garcia, Tom Waits, and Ronnie Spector—through his work at Slim''s nightclub in San Francisco since it opened in 1988. Here, he shares tips for gigging bands to get the most out of their lighting situation.
What does “lighting design” mean?
Design is the overall scope of the lighting scene, from the perspective of being further back in the room. You can produce a whole variety of looks even if the gear available is somewhat limited. I don''t approach it as a technical artist; it''s more about personal motivation. I try to get hold of a band''s music beforehand, and use that to make the mood or the setup of the design. It''s really helpful when they have an idea of what they want or they get in touch with me ahead of time.
What does it mean to focus the lights?
Focus is just pointing the light where you want it to go. It''s really simple in terms of conventional lights. You point them where people are, or maybe not where people are, depending on what you want to see. For people''s faces, [at Slim''s] we operate under the auspice of the hotspot, which is the central beam of the light called the beam angle, verses the field angle, where the light is at about 50% of its value. I generally focus the front lights, usually soft white, on the upper chest—never right in their face. I rarely use any color on the front lights, so I only have to run the dimmer up about 30%; that way it''s never too bright for the performer.
For focusing, you can get a ladder and move the lights around, but you might save some ladder climbing and time by just moving six inches and being conscious of where the light is shining. You just squint and look up at the light and see where it''s hottest and brightest. This can really make a difference from the audience''s point of view.
How does color factor in?
That is a very subjective thing. I prefer having the look of the design be people-oriented, where you can really see faces, and then you use the colors and effects behind them for spectacle.
White lights can be really interesting. All-white is a really definite look, and it will look more intentional. Many artists will actually ask ahead of time that we pull all the gels. I remember seeing The Jam do a show with all-white light. Henry Rollins is an all-white light person, and so is PJ Harvey. On a less-conscious level, lighting can compliment the show in a massive way when the light fits really well. I remember doing something with Tom Waits when he took a break from the band and went over and played piano. I took four or five lights, really clean beams, and just lit it from the top and the front. It looked really stark and almost dismal, that sort of dilapidated post-apocalyptic kind of vibe. It was good for shifting the focus because the beam of the light can point the direction you want the people to watch, which is known as throwing focus or pulling focus.
Take a band who walks into a club with a small lighting setup but nobody to run it. What can they do besides just turn it on and leave it on?
The band should have foreknowledge of what they want to look like and then do their best with it once they get there. In theatre, the expression is to “find your light.” You say it to the talent, because generally in theatre the light is very well-focused. Talent moves all over the place, and they have to get good at finding the light that''s going to present them.
It''s important to think in terms of composition. If a band will set up in a way that fits the pre-design of the lights, looking to get under the lights rather then setting up in the same exact way they always do, it might make more of a statement.
A lot of gigging bands are playing places with little to no lights available. What are some creative ideas for these situations?
I would take something along. A band can go out and buy one or two little goodies—like a strobe, a smoke machine, or a bubble machine—that will make a difference. I think it''s really enterprising when bands do this. I''ve seen some bands come in with those nine-dollar yellow construction lights and have someone in the band operate them from the stage with a footswitch. If you''re in a little bar with no options and it''s impossible to expand, take a totally different approach. Get lateral and broad in thinking. Go for an unconventional look. For one show I had an old chase unit, which is the box that changes the lights automatically. It had only three light inputs, but also an audio input that would change the light based on the audio frequency. So I grabbed three unconventional lights—a photo flood, a clip light, and an auto trouble light—and set them up, one on each member for a three-piece, and let the chase unit do its thing all night. It went from looking pretty boring to having a really cool avant-garde look, and made it memorable. It was a design, not just blinking lights, which is the way to approach the whole job of lighting.
Are there some common rules or unwritten laws that lighting designers share?
I try to be careful about blackouts, leaving people in the dark too long, because usually they like to see what they''re doing up there. I''ve also learned that if you put red light from the sides or back, it can cancel out the LED lights on pedals. The worst thing is the whole MIDI bank of alphanumeric displays that can disappear with red light. So I avoid that. It looks great when a song ends abruptly to have a total blackout, but then you don''t want them tripping on cords, so I''ll bring up a little work light. I also try not to blind the talent, so the front lights will usually be at about 30%, and that allows the talent to see the crowd—it really helps to know that there is a crowd there.
So I''m in a band coming into your club. What''s the protocol for how I deal with you?
Approach the lighting designer diplomatically and say, “We''re this band, and we don''t have a lighting person, but we have some ideas.” Bring a set list, and by the name of each song, write the feeling of it, or what you might like to see. Write down anything unusual that happens, like running around, or climbing on a P.A. speaker, or going out into the audience. Terri Nunn, the singer from Berlin, is really good at asking the right questions, like, “How far can I go out in the crowd so that the follow spots can still get me?” and that kind of thing.
The most important factor in this process is to validate the lighting designers and let them know that they have some meaning to the show. Give them more responsibility and they''ll rise to the occasion.
Do you have any final words of wisdom you''d like to drop on the gigging musicians of the world?
With lights, it''s not so much about the technical competence of a band; it''s about their spirit and attitude. It is a real bonus when a band expresses interest in the lighting design, because it shows that they care about the show and the people who are working for them. I''ll pull out all the stops for someone who''s nice about the whole situation.