LD Systemsí John Dickson perfects lighting design on the fly
Published Thursday, May 21, 2009
by Bryan Matthews

In all concerts, lighting designers are faced with many challenges, but none so more than LD Systems’ John Dickson and Jim Brace, who are annually tasked with lighting 20 shows in 20 days at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Beginning March 2, 2009, and located inside Reliant Stadium, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo combines all aspects of both lighting and video into one jam-packed, star-studded festival with artists ranging from Rascal Flatts to ZZ Top. To help him keep up with the automated lighting demands necessary to complete the production, Dickson turned his focus to the VARI*LITE® VL3000™ Spot luminaire, VL3500™ Wash luminaire, and the VL2500™ Spot luminaire.

“When you have 20 shows in 20 days, the biggest challenge is simply coming up with fresh ideas,” began Dickson. “We have some artists that travel with their lighting designers who know exactly what they want, but we also have some that really just leave it up to us. Regardless, in everything we do, we have to remember to keep it clean and make everything work together for both the show and the video. Since we have an enormous amount of video, you have to look at it from a couple different ways, but as a lighting designer I rarely recycle any cues. It’s a brand new show every single day because I don’t want to see the same lighting show twice and it’s my reputation on the line.”

For this year’s automated lighting rig, Dickson combined 24 VL3000 Spot luminaires, 16 VL3500 Wash luminaires, and nine VL2500 Spot luminaires with approximately 5,000 MiTrix LED panels. With this combination, Dickson’s responsibilities as a designer doubled due to the necessity for him to drive the media servers as well.

During the event, Dickson and his team work tirelessly each day to create a new show based upon the varying styles and desires of each artist. In his 13th year, with approximately 260 shows under his belt, Dickson is familiar with the process and revels in the challenge to create something new and exciting each night.

“A lot of the lighting designers are repeat customers so we are very familiar with what they might be looking to see. Those who know what they want will come in with a set list and we’ll dissect it song-by-song breaking it down into verse, chorus, and bridge. Then we will come up with tempos, the color palette, and we take if from there. Most of the time, we’ll set probably three or four looks per song and then the rest we sort of wing it., other times we will write 50 cues per song. Each artist will perform approximately 70 minutes with about 14 songs, and having done this for so long, we are very versatile and quick on the console.”

To assist with his lighting versatility, Dickson placed the nine VL2500 Spot luminaires directly on top of the set, on custom fabricated aluminum truss built specifically to hold the luminaires.

“For this position, I needed something quick, punchy, and something with a small profile, and that’s where the VL2500 Spots fit in. I use them mostly for key lights on the band positions, and I love their intensity and the speed.”

To create his textures used on stage and throughout the in the audience, Dickson knew he needed a light with great intensity, color-mixing, and zoom capabilities. For this, he chose the VL3000 Spot luminaire.

“The VL3000 Spots are used for my gobos and textures. We have texaline fabric panels that stretch across four pods on the rig and the spots create bright, fantastic textures on each one. I also use them a lot for their beam aerials because you just can’t beat their intensity and the zoom.”

With a set comprised largely of video and a stadium size that rivals any across the United States, Dickson also needed an automated luminaire that could keep pace with the lumen output of the LED panels while not being washed out from a spectator’s perspective high up in the top rows of Reliant Stadium. His choice overcome this challenge, the VL3500 Wash luminaire.

The set is all video, and it’s bright, so I needed these lights for the incredible beams. As the stage spins, depending on your perspective, sometimes they’re behind it [the video set] and sometimes they’re in front of it, but you can always see their huge beams. The stadium is such a big room, I have to shrink it down and then make the lighting just as big. These lights do exactly that. I love how you can get such a tight beam in the VARI*BRITE® mode. It’s pretty awesome.”

But video, stadium size, and a new artist every night are not the only challenges that face the lighting instruments at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The stage is actually on the dirt floor of the stadium where only a few moments before a rodeo was taking place. So how do the VARI*LITE luminaires hold up under these conditions, very well added Dickson.

I’ve got to give it to my lighting techs for being so proactive on keeping them clean, but these lights hold up really good.”

As the rodeo ended on March 22, 2009, Dickson and his crew always take a few moments to reflect on their favorite aspects of the entire production. For Dickson, his favorite is simple.

“I like the creativity and I love being creative. And I love that the VARI*LITE luminaires allow me to do just that.”

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Lighting Team:
Jim Brace- Lighting Designer, crew chief, conventional programmer
John Dickson- Lighting Designer, overhead automated lighting/ media server programmer
William Anglin- perimeter automated lighting programmer
Aryn Freysteinson- Mitrix/ Hippo support
Robert Behounek- Automated lighting tech
Justin Fortier- Automated lighting tech
Brian Stephenson- Conventional tech
Bobby Dominguez- Syncro Tech
Eric Braudaway- Syncro Tech

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