This article originally appeared on the Warner Bros. Special Event blog by Hillary Harris
Lighting is one of those design elements that can really propel an event to the next level. There’s good lighting, and then there’s great lighting. One of the great lighting companies I’ve worked with for years is Images by Lighting. Founded in 1982, it was one of the first independent (i.e. outside the studio system) production lighting design companies in the nation.
The work of lighting designers Ray Thompson and Curt Stahl, who are now joined by the talented Lonnie Thompson, has truly set the standard for event lighting. With the company’s reputation for creative, beautiful, and professional work, the company quickly became the go-to lighting designer for Hollywood – and it remains so today. Now, Images shines its special brand of lighting on events in Dubai, Bora Bora, the Caribbean, and across Europe, as well as all over the United States.
I have worked on many events at Warner Bros. Studios with Images, and the team always sheds new ideas, perspective, and, of course, light on them. During a light check at an event last month, I had time to chat with the guys about the importance of lighting on an event design and how to create the greatest emotional depth with it.
Hillary: Ray, you were trained as an engineer, which some might assume means that you take a scientific-minded approach to lighting. But in actuality, I know you approach lighting design as an emotional element. Can you elaborate on that?
Ray: Without trying to sound like a professor, I often say that I choreograph an event with lighting. Memorable events are created not just through props or entertainment, but through emotion. And so it’s essential that these events follow an emotional arc in much the same way as a great opera. At Images, we do this with lighting rather than music.
Photo: The Primetime Emmy Awards’ Governor’s Ball 2013 began with cool tones. Photo: Nadine Froger
And then transitioned into warm tones and back again throughout the night. Lighting was really one of the main design elements in this large space, so it was heavily used in order to build emotion. Photo credit: Nadine Froger
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Hillary: How so?
Ray: Well, for instance, we may begin with a room set in amber, which makes people feel warm and comfortable at the beginning. Lavender is also a nice color to begin with, as it’s very relaxing. Plus, both make people look beautiful!
Then, as the event goes on, we introduce the emotion of color, taking the guests on a journey from sunrise to sunset. And then, as dinner is done and dancing begins, we introduce those hot colors like red and orange which are vibrant and add excitement and festivity. Then we might do one or two lounges in the soft warms and lavenders more conducive for intimate conversations that continue on into dessert.
A birthday event at the Bacara Resort & Spa with Colin Cowie Events.
HBO Emmy Awards After-Party 2014. Design: Billy Butchkavitz. Photo: Gabor Ekecs
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Hillary: I love thinking of lighting as another design element. Curt, I’ve noticed you work a lot on the HBO projects designed by Billy Butchkavitz. He also uses lighting in this way. What are some things you’ve learned by working together about how lighting and design function?
Curt: It’s a very symbiotic relationship. The event design and lighting design depend on each other to reach their full potential. Billy’s designs and event composition naturally lend themselves to layered lighting. Without it, the end result would be less dimensional. Often his designs are inspired by art in some form, like painting, fashion, film, and architecture. Our approach with lighting is equally inspired by the genre.
This event took place in a tent on a private estate and in the course of two days was completely transformed with décor and lighting. See below!
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Hillary: What are some of the latest technological advances that are changing event lighting, and how have you used them?
Curt: Advances continue to be made with LED technology. Every year we see new products in different shapes and forms. Often this equates to bigger, better, and brighter options for lighting events. These lights have many applications, from lighting press to runway and concert special effects.
Ray: And I just love these new Sharpies. They are a tight beam of light with unprecedented brightness that can be trained to a very specific place and usage during the event. For instance, on a mirrored ball, it can make that light explode into a thousand exciting refractions. Or, as we used it recently, we were able to create an old-fashioned Hollywood ballyhoo in the night sky using this intelligent lighting as opposed to a large Klieg light.
Hillary: That Hollywood look is something you can’t get away from in this town! Of course, you’ve worked at Warner Bros. quite a bit. Is there a different approach you take when working at a studio lot, and what is it?
Curt: Each studio is set up a little differently; however, most studios have some form of existing theatrical lighting. It’s important to determine from the beginning what lighting is available and if it can be incorporated into the event. Often this leads to a cost savings for the client.
Ray: And of course, working at Warner Bros. we always work with the most amazing team of professionals, from event coordinators to electricians, who help make the process seem effortless.
This year, Lonnie Thompson was the lighting director for the California Science Center Discovery Ball and premiere in the Pompeii exhibit. Guests had dinner outside the Coliseum, and Lonnie was able to really express the architecture through big, bold lighting. Photos: Nadine Froger
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Hillary: Lonnie, you’ve been working with some big clients, such as Virgin and USC. What do you feel the new generation brings to the table?
Lonnie: A sense of what went before is so important. Ray and Curt have taught me about color as emotion, the technical aspects, and how to run a great crew. I want to honor what they have done and then bring my own style to the table. I do a lot of weddings, which I love doing as each venue is so spectacular. But this year I got to work at a really amazing venue and run the job on my own… I was honored to light the California Science Center’s Discovery Ball – a real career high for me to date. We added lighting to the iconic Coliseum for dinner and then got to light the Endeavour for the after-party!
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Hillary: Are there still some events you would love to be part of, and what are they?
Curt: We always enjoy working abroad and getting to experience and learn how different regions or countries approach lighting. Of course, the World’s Fair in Milan, Italy this year wouldn’t be so bad.
Lonnie: I agree with that one! Super Bowl had been on my list, and this year, that one came true. We worked on the big, 2,000-person Friday Night Event in Phoenix. So now I’m working on number two and three on my list: Comic-Con and Coachella. I’d love to do more of these festival events.
Hillary: (laughing) Well, that’s that next generation talking for sure! Hey, I just heard them singing our song, “light check!” That’s our cue, guys. Let’s go and make this event beautiful!