Lighting up emotions: light in the world of electronic music

An interview with Steve Lieberman, SJ Lighting Inc.

LUCE Magazine

Since about ten years, the world of electronic music is the protagonist of a constant expansion, in terms of popularity and of the business that is connected to it. Not just the record industry in this sector is decidedly more healthy than the other music genres, but also the market of live events continues to grow incessantly. The more famous international festivals attract tens of thousands of spectators, who are ready to watch the performance of their favourite DJs in the midst of an atmosphere created with gigantic stages, scenographies, images and powerful lighting, and filled with incredible colours. The enormous economic value that this sector can generate (6.2 billion dollars according to recent estimates) has allowed the organizers to invest huge resources in the production of their shows, contributing to the success of new forms of entertainment, new artistic languages and new professional figures. Among them we find Steve Lieberman, founder of SJ Lighting Inc., a leading company in lighting design and production design for the most important electronic music festivals in the United States and in Europe. This is what he had to say:

The world of electronic music shows is still unknown to many, and new professional profiles and also new creative languages have evolved. To start with, could you define your work?

Production design, lighting design, video design: these disciplines blend together in the creative arena. My work is defined by the environment that I am working in; constantly changing and adapting to current conditions. First and foremost, I am a production designer, putting forth my concepts and ideas for the jobs I work on. My office produces technical documentation, including CAD files, 3D models, photo renderings and video previews. Once a design has been completed, we follow through all the way till the end of the show. This includes programming and operating.

Let us talk about you, how long have you been working in this sector? Have you had any master or mentor who has helped you to grow as a professional figure?

I started working in nightclubs in 1987. In the early Nineties, there was an expansion in the entertainment sector in the United States, in particular for underground and niche events. I had a friend who used to programme the lights for these shows and I had the opportunity to assist him in his work. It was my first experience in this context and from 1995, it became my profession. In those days the community was very small, and the “mainstream” productions, as for example the rock shows, were not interested in figures of this type, and so my training was completely individual, on site, in a period that was very different from today, where everything was smaller: the size of the stage, the available equipment, the public attending the shows...

Your work identifies a new way of producing a show, where the use of lasers, moving lights, LED walls and fireworks is now a consolidated standard. I believe that the introduction of these scenic elements has contributed to the creation of a new artistic language, do you agree?

I fully agree. The experience I have accumulated over the years, in the beginning as a participant and then as an organizer, have offered me first-hand experience of the evolution of this sector. Before the show world of electronic music expanded, the professional technicians in this sector did not follow a tested formula or recurrent guidelines when planning the event, they were exclusively inspired by their own sensitivity and personal taste: for me it was that way, and fortunately my vision and my ideas were approved by the public, which therefore enabled me to grow as a professional figure. I believe that the new form of language that you were talking about is exactly this: the great freedom of artistic expression guiding my work has become, during the course of the years, a custom for professionals in this sector, and has made my environment more innovative and avant-garde, compared to the “traditional” concerts.

Do you believe there still are differences in the European and in the American scene?

In the past, events in our Continent were mostly circumscribed by the size of the clubs and discotheques (with the exception of festivals organized in North Europe), and the visual component was not so relevant. Things changed when electronic music gained the popularity it has today... In the past, the layout of the venue was not built around the figure of the DJ. The position at the console was often confined to a corner in the hall, and in general, the DJ did not get the same attention as today. Usually the DJ had a contract with the club where he performed regularly every week, and for the whole evening. Over the years, the line-up (the list of DJs at a festival, Ed.) became a determining factor to attract the public to an event and increase the appeal, and consequently also the position of the console gained importance in the preliminary designs. Unlike in the United States, in Europe the festivals market has always had a greater credit from the point of view of professional profiles, and therefore for the business it has been easy to expand. For this reason, I do not believe the United States have influenced the evolution of the way of organizing major events in Europe, but I do believe that both scenarios grew following their own course.

After this short panoramic view of the world you belong to, let us talk about your work. How is a project for a festival born? Do you follow particular guidelines during the creative process or are your choices totally free?

There are always guidelines to follow, and these are dictated mainly by the budget that is available for the project. Besides, it is fundamental to bear in mind the particular needs connected with the performance of DJs who require particular setups or equipment. Lastly, the stylistic characteristics of the festival must be considered, these influence the design of various elements. The design of each stage is closely related to the location, the variables change, depending on open air, a tensile structure or a stadium. Personally when designing a new project, I let the world of architecture influence me, or I draw inspiration from cinema sets or geometric figures. I begin with simple sketches on exercise books or on a drawing tablet, where I outline the fundamental levels of the stage. When the ideal concept is identified, work at the computer begins. The team that works with me transforms the paper drafts into 3D models and realizes the first video and photographic renderings, which will be used for discussion with the client and the professional figures who are in charge of the other parts of the design. In general, a project design for a festival or a club is an activity which involves a large amount of multitasking, because the creative process concerns a large number of professionals and a large number of artistic and technical variables which must be considered and introduced in the flowsheet so that they do not interfere with one another.

What types of technologies and equipment do you count on usually?

First of all, I would like to point out that for me technology is only one of the many instruments that are available in the “tool kit”. It is not so important to choose a product marketed today or ten years ago. What I am interested in, is how that product can be useful to me to reach the result I am looking for. Having said this, I believe that the new technologies have raised the level of the productions, and I like to make a balanced use of them. Lasers, strobe lights, LED walls, flames, CO2 cannons ... each of these elements finds a space in my projects. Choosing a type of projector each time offers the possibility of applying different patterns on the same stage, and in this way I can enhance the design in a number of different ways. Consider the LED walls, these can radically transform the image of a stage, depending on the colours and the images that they transmit. A completely white LED wall allows you to obtain the same effect as a blinding element; and projecting particular graphics and animating them to the rhythm of the music, instead, creates a synchrony between audio and video and helps to identify oneself with the song being played. There is also a substantial difference between a club and a stage of a festival. In a club you can practically choose any type of projector you wish, because it is included in the material to be purchased in order to realize the location. In the case of festivals, instead, all the equipment is rented, great care must be taken with regard to the number and characteristics of the products that it is most convenient to utilize for the construction of the show, and you need to deal with the equipment that the services provider has available, especially if, as in most of the cases, the project includes more than one stage.

Do you have the possibility to discuss with other DJs, to ask them for more information when working on a stage or on a lighting project?

In 99% of the cases, the answer is no. Normally the DJ arrives just a little before his performance and climbs directly onto the stage, dozens of metres away from our position. For this reason, the operator managing the mixing console, also known as VJ, besides having a strong sense of rhythm, must know music theory very well – sound, metrics, tonality... – and also colourimetry and colour models. The VJ can manage light effects with a precision of milliseconds. He must literally sense what is about to happen to the track that is playing. From this point of view, the modular and easily predictable structure that characterizes electronic music is very helpful to the VJ. A good operator is able to anticipate the trend of a track or the next move of the DJ, giving the public the feeling that, song after song, something grand to see and to listen to is always about to happen.

At the beginning of this talk we spoke of an avant-garde environment: what can we expect from the future, according to you? Do you believe that there is still space for new innovations in this sector?

There always is room for innovation, and technologies evolve constantly. Take for example the LED walls, before they became the standard for the reproduction of videos and graphic elements, video-projectors were used much more than now. And even before, videos were not used at all! A new technology that is at our disposal now is motion tracking, in other words the possibility of following elements that are moving on stage with a light. The technology makes everything easier, economically and from an artistic point of view, and it gives us the possibility to find room for new ideas that could not be realized before. In this period, I am at work with my team for the next edition of EDC in Las Vegas and we will have over 3,000 motorized projectors and 3,500 sq. m of LED walls. To be able to rely on so much material allows me to design majestic environments that are extremely involving, that I would never have been able even to imagine some years ago, with different technologies and more limited resources.