Lighting USC: The Opening of The Village

In planning meetings we always ask – what’s the objective? It’s not often that the answer is “To get people to look up.” Usually when it comes to lighting, people want the tabletops to pop, the stage to be well lighted and sometimes some gorgeous gobos to add texture.

In this meeting, and many more to come, our lighting designer, Curt Stahl, found that the team at the University of Southern California wanted all that AND they wanted people to look up to notice the buildings that would be surrounding them at a courtyard sit-down dinner.

The reason? The buildings are part of The Village, a two-year, $700-million-dollar project that involved students, faculty and donors at the university and the entire city of Los Angeles in the making of it.

“Nothing in the life of the university has been this big,” Adam Rosen told those of us on the planning end of the Gala. Rosen is the Assistant Vice President Cultural Relationships and University Events, and his team began working with a wide web of people both in the city, the university and government, a year and a half out. “The campus was expanding by a third,” he added. “That was monumental and needed to be celebrated in a big way.”

The event was actually the third event in a matter of weeks. While the others were big in numbers – 15,000 and 2,500 — the Gala was big in scope, intent and audience. Among the nearly 1,000 guests would be the mayor of Los Angeles, the city’s most prominent business leaders, philanthropists and elected officials. They would be joining USC President C. L. Max Nikias and colleagues for an event that would make them connect with and remember this milestone moment.

Lighting USC

Lighting USC

Lighting USC


“We were first brought in to produce the ambient lighting for the courtyard dining area,” Stahl recalls. “This entailed a gobo projection over the tables to convey a candlelight hue and the layout of truss and lights so that no light would shine in a guest’s eyes.”

But that, Stahl would learn, was just the beginning to what would become a monumental evening of light and emotion.

The main focus of the show would be to get the guests to see The Village in a way that would make them remember it forever. They would literally see the dream come to life on the walls of the buildings.

When the song, Make Our Garden Grow by Leonard Bernstein was suggested to the planning team by the university president, they knew just how to capitalize on it.

“We loved the song, and wanted to really make that garden grow,” Rosen said. He and Caroline Lett, Senior Event Producer, were very familiar with video mapping and realized that technology like this would be an emotional and artistic way to intertwine the message of heart, soul and progress.

They approached Bart Kresa, from Bart Kresa Design, a creative force in the world of video mapping who began working on the project eight months from the event. Rosen and Lett brought him together with Mike Paterson  and Candice Reckinger from the USC School of Cinematic Arts to work out the visual details.

Meanwhile, our team led by Stahl began laying all the power distribution for the event from the kitchen power to the lighting to the video mapping. And because Kresa needed to map the projection area of the buildings over 10 days and 10 nights, power was needed 24/7 to run his 28 projectors of 31K each and 11 smaller projectors.

Our involvement grew to include architectural lighting designed to seamlessly integrate with the video mapping which began 20 feet off the ground and was focused mainly on the central building. This left the arches and the far left and right facades to be lit in such a way that guests couldn’t tell where mapping began and our lighting left off.

“We went with Images because they had done beautiful work projecting on buildings,” Rosen said. “We wanted someone to integrate the two seamlessly. We were only projecting on a portion of the buildings, the right visual perspective for our guests where they were sitting. We all worked together with Bart, Curt, Mike and Candice so lighting flowed into the projection.”

Lighting USC


The final element that required lighting was a flash mob performance of 110 dancers and singers from the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  One group of performers surprised the group by transforming from waiters into dancers. Moments later another group dressed in aprons from Trader Joe’s (a major tenant) came onto the “stage” from another entrance. And so it continued until the courtyard was filled with a variety of performers, each representing a cultural or academic group from the university or from The Village, who started the evening on an energetic note.

Multiple rehearsals enabled our lighting team to know where each performance would go amid the tables so we could follow them with spotlights. Each time another group of performers entered the scene the lighting focused on them. The key was to perfectly time their entrance with the lighting, “telling” the audience where to look and when. Finally, all performers met on the main stage which we had designed with lighting that would shift throughout the rest of the program for speeches, musical performances and dinner.

“This was a challenge – to create the theatrical look of an outdoor concert,” Stahl says. “To make the stage look larger, we used a concert lighting technique of positioning laser-like lighting features on the stage that shot beams of light over the audience during the flash mob performance. This intentional use of a laser look put the focus on the stage.”

Lighting USC


Later in the program, the audience was focused right where the organizers wanted it – up and on the buildings for a gorgeous performance of video technology that mixed with emotion and music. When the fireworks went off at the crescendo, there was not a dry eye in the seats, or from those standing outside the courtyard. Did we mention the students who watched the event as well?

Student housing is a big component of The Village and many were already living there at the time of the event which meant that communications between the event organizers and the students was huge. That called for blackout curtains during nighttime rehearsals and total communication the day of the show so no one would open a window or wave just at the moment a video poppy was growing up the wall.

And so students were of course not only a large part of the days leading up to the event, but the event itself.  “We invited everyone from the entire Village to watch the show,” Lett says. “We opened up the surrounded hedges and had about a thousand people watching rehearsals and later the night of.”

In the end, the event was not only a watershed moment for USC, and the city of Los Angeles, but an electrical storm shedding light and energy on The Village for years to come. What better way to make a garden grow?


Venue: USC | Producers: USC — Adam Rosen, Caroline Lett | Lighting Design: Images by Lighting | Video mapping and design: Bart Kresa Design | Video Production, equipment, audio equipment, camera truss: Gear Connection | Linen, reception: LUXE Linen | Linen, dinner: BBJ Linen | Rentals, reception: Rrivre Works | Rentals, dinner: Town and Country Event Rentals | Floral: CJ Matsumoto | Catering: Wolfgang Puck Catering


1. USC Photo/Gus Ruelas
2. USC Photo/Gus Ruelas
3. USC Photo/Steve Cohn
4. USC Photo/Nadine Froger
5. USC Photo/Gus Ruelas