Rock’s top lighting designer helps you turn an ordinary show into a dazzling spectacle

Certainly, the first and foremost reason we attend concerts is to hear great music—but skillful stage lighting can transform a relatively simple treat for the ears into an unforgettable multimedia experience. To ensure that what audiences see is as vibrant and explosive as what they hear, many of the world’s biggest touring acts turn to lighting designer Marc Brickman.

The list of his clients includes some of rock ’n’ roll’s biggest names, including Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, John Mayer, the Black Eyed Peas and Bon Jovi. “I’m the icing on the cake, like a visual conductor,” Brickman says. “I illuminate and define a performance for an audience. I’m the guy who allows the last kid in the last row to follow the plot. If it’s done correctly, I can lead the audience to understand where the emphasis is and what’s going on in each moment.”

Brickman has also done acclaimed theatrical work with Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group, and assisted Steven Spielberg with the lighting for movies like Minority Report. He spoke with us about his impressive career, and shared the ways in which simple lighting principles can spice up enormous stadium shows and garage-band gigs alike.

How did you get started in lighting?

I did it to earn money and meet girls when I was 16, and it grew from there. I was never really trained. It didn’t really become an art form for me until people started to tell me I was creating this “persona” for Bruce Springsteen in the clubs in 1980. I took out follow spots and had him stand in shadows, and that allowed his stories to take on their own life. There was no video, just him in backlight—but people really responded to it, and I was getting a reputation. Then I met Pink Floyd. [Singer and bass player] Roger Waters was impressed after seeing a Springsteen show. They needed some help with The Wall [stage show], and they called me the night before they opened in Los Angeles.

Who influenced your style?

I saw the Rolling Stones perform in 1973 and it was incredible. They had one cue from “Midnight Rambler.” Mick Jagger sang the word “midnight,” then on one particular drumbeat, the stage went blood red. Whoa! It got inside my body and stuck with me. That made me realize that you can really rock an audience with lighting.

How do you develop a design?

A lot of musicians will talk about their intent and the show’s musical content, and I’ll come back with a design that’s like a custom suit. Other acts really know what they want. John Mayer had never experienced anything like this when we started working on his show. He had ideas ready when we met, which was helpful. Designing his show took about two weeks. We had a front scrim that we could project onto, and then an LED screen in back, and the band stood between the two projections. Creating the design for Roger Waters’ “The Wall Live” tour in 2010 took nine months because all through it, Roger was creating video for the show. The performance is like one big film with the band playing. As he created the video the lighting would change, so we had to modify as we went.

How do you handle technical challenges?

We use a computer program called Autodesk 3D Studio Max to build virtual models of the stage, rigging and lights. We have a lot of proprietary features and scripts in it that let us animate all of the lighting and pyrotechnics. Then we send them around as QuickTime videos, so we can test out different possibilities within the program and see how they will look on stage. Up until a few years ago, artist renderings were always flowery and pretty, but rarely were they realistic as far as what lighting would actually do. What we’re able to do with this program is realistically depict how the stage will look and show how different lights will affect it. A lot of people don’t realize how technically complicated these shows are. Every single light is basically its own onboard computer. Each has 32 channels that have to be spoken to from your console.

How much changes from show to show?

For Roger Waters, the show is set to a click track and it never changes. It’s synced with the film and it’s exactly the same every night. John Mayer, on the other hand, improvises all the time, so when we punch numbers into the console we leave room for that and trigger lighting cues manually. We have signposts—the beginning of the song, the next cue button at the beginning of the first verse, et cetera—so if his intro goes 30 seconds longer than expected, it won’t affect us. We’ll still know when to come in.

How do you approach video?

If the artist understands that there’s still a live performance being staged rather than just a movie viewing, it can get very exciting. If an artist insists that videos are the most important things, though, the audience gets numb. You have to keep a good balance between light and darkness.

Is darkness as important as light?

Darkness allows your imagination to click on, as an audience participant. Darkness and imagination is what you experience as a group. There were 400,000 people at Woodstock and not everybody could see the act. The 395,000 who couldn’t see were working off the vibe—and the music was their soundtrack. These days, there’s no mystery with some acts. There’s so much press attention and everyone reveals themselves. Older acts don’t do as much press, so there’s more mystery, but Lady Gaga or Britney Spears, or any of these girls who live their lives on Twitter—by the time you get to the show, you know this person is a real person, no different than your husband or wife. They’re singing to you, but it’s not that believable anymore. The energy is lost. Human beings are always looking to solve the mystery. That’s why symphony orchestras are amazing. Everybody is anonymous and they play as a whole.

What advice would you give acts looking to improve their lighting?

It’s about letting the audience discover what’s going on, so the lighting has to follow the music. The best thing is to find a young lighting designer who is really into the music you make, and let him or her hit the right cues. When the lead vocalist is not performing the lead vocal, the light should be on the lead guitarist who’s playing a solo. If you leave the follow spot on the lead singer, you miss what’s happening. Those are just basic things that any band can do, but they mean a lot.

Have things ever gone wrong on stage?

Once I had to work with a 16-piece orchestra and I had all the music dipped in clear ultra-violet paint, so when I turned on a black light, the sheets would glow and the musicians could read their music. It was all good—except for the first violinist, who refused to play! Obviously my UV music went out the window.

What’s your dream project?

I’m really into operas and orchestras. [Composer] Hans Zimmer and I have discussed getting his music out there with an orchestra and staging it so the players are the characters—and you’re not just watching a screen of 60 people playing statically. Hopefully one day that will happen.

–Michael Gallant

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