Designing with drama

As lighting designers our job is to create, enhance or manipulate an experience. All design is based on interactions (whether direct or indirect) that create a generally positive experience, enhancing the user’s time with a product or within a space. But how do we achieve this positive experience?

To me, sound, light and immersion are key to crafting experiences that captivate and consume us. I think that the truth is, regardless of why, those elements together can evoke some sort of sincere elation that is like an artfully crafted rollercoaster. That mild adrenaline of being assaulted by floods and ribbons of coloured light, while the music swells to a crescendo around you is something like no other. Like some sort of poor man’s thrill seeker, you just have to keep going back for more.

The way I like to get my fix of this delightful barrage of sound and light is by going to concerts, festivals and by hunting down every lighting installation I can find. The interesting thing that’s starting to emerge as technology advances, and as artists / designers want to keep pushing boundaries, is that lighting installations are not only part and parcel of festivals and gigs, but they’re even starting to become the main attraction.

This leads me to share three different, but just as delightful, examples of the union of light, sound and immersion that, since moving to London, I’ve been lucky enough to experience:

Tunnel Visions: Array – by 59 Productions – Barbican

Beech Street Tunnel Barbican Lighting Effects

This was the most simultaneously emotional, inspiring and elating installation I’ve ever seen. Being thrown into a dark tunnel with stunning, devastating classical music playing as projection mapping coated the walls of the entire tunnel around me was an absolutely amazing experience that sent every shiver down my spine. It was like some sort of Fantasia-esque, abstract story told with light and sound over an impressive 30 minutes.

The music in question was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Karawane”, specially recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with additional sound design by Gareth Fry. It was about negative 1000 degrees Celsius that day, pouring with rain and our feet were numb, but we wanted to stand there and watch it again and again (and in fact, the bravest member of our group did stay). I still smile when I think about this one.

Watch a video here…

Arcade Fire – SSE Wembley Arena – show lighting by Moment Factory

Arcade Fire Lighting Boxing Ring Effect Stage Design

This was such an accidental delight. When I was reading reviews about the concert, nobody told me about the ridiculously stunning lighting that went alongside it – I can genuinely say that the lighting was absolutely on par with a band as phenomenal as Arcade Fire.

As the physical boxing ring got torn down and replaced with a boxing ring of light, I was absolutely spellbound. There were huge disco balls that covered the stadium in glitter, and the rig above the band provided perfectly orchestrated illumination that not only proved that lighting is vital to a concert, but that Arcade Fire will never, ever fade into insignificance. If they haven’t toured through your city yet, make sure you go and see them. Go on, buy your tickets now, I’ll wait.

Watch a video here…

Arcadia – Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Arcadia Gigantic Spider Dramatic Lighting Effects London

Now this is what I mean when I talk about installations becoming the main attraction. This giant mechanical spider made from bespoke, recycled pieces of machinery drew people from all around the UK. I didn’t talk to many people who were there for just the music; many were fans of what they affectionately named “Spider” from their time seeing it at Glastonbury Festival.

The show was truly jaw dropping – as someone who had been waiting to see Arcadia for years, this was most definitely a highlight of my year, so far. For anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, it is (take a deep breath) a GIANT, moving, mechanical spider with projection mapping up the body, lasers coming out of literally everywhere, huge flamethrowers shooting flames into the heavens, moving floodlights for eyes, acrobatic artists hanging off the side, and a DJ booth protruding from the bottom where the likes of Rudimental and Groove Armada performed DJ sets. Special mention to the Lords of Lightning who (as part of the show) shot bolts of electricity out of some sort of Tesla Coil gloves that made me very nervous for their safety, and inspired one guy to yell “Yer a wizard, Harry!”.

If it sounds like it was an assault on the senses, it was. A wonderful, wonderful assault on the senses.

Watch a video here…

But what can we, as lighting designers, learn from this?

What can we take away and apply to, for example, a residential scheme or restaurant lighting? As I’ve already mentioned a designer’s job is to create, enhance or manipulate experiences. If these installations are such strong, positive examples of good experience then it would be prudent to keep these moments in mind whilst we design; design with love, emotion and passion and drama! Design with colour and pattern, create the unexpected. Take risks, use products in new, weird and wonderful ways to tell a powerful and conscious story. Incorporate a curated soundscape and be aware of all the senses in play in the space. Do whatever it takes to immerse the user into the world you’ve created for them.

I know that context is everything, and it may not always be feasible or appropriate to propose such schemes, but where there is opportunity we must take it and run. Create something spectacular, fabricate joy and make the world around us a delight to experience because as they say, life is short.

Blog post and images by Sophie O’Rourke