Lighting designer Nick Whitehouse and Solotech team up to light Britney Spears
Published Thursday, May 21, 2009
by Bryan Matthews

When lighting a high-energy and fast-paced concert such as The Circus starring Britney Spears, a lighting designer definitely has their work cut out for them. Covering a set designed in the round, accentuating the movements of circus performers, keeping the band lit, and making sure that the lighting design can hold up against the controlled chaos onstage are only a few of the challenges faced by lighting designer Nick Whitehouse. But together with an experienced lighting crew from Solotech and 238 VARI*LITE® automated luminaires, Whitehouse puts on a lighting show that truly makes The Circus one of the greatest tours on earth.

In the beginning, Whitehouse had the advantage of designing The Circus from the ground up, working also as the production design company for the tour. To get started, Whitehouse and his associates Steve Dixon, Bryan Leitch and William Baker at Road Rage first developed the concept of the set for the show, which would lead them to the lighting design.

“The good thing about this tour is we’re also the production design company as well,” began Whitehouse. “We came up with the set design first and then it grew from there with the additions of the video and lighting elements. The set is molded after the customary three-ring circus, and we had the idea that we wanted a large circular video screen above the center ring. Having the artist perform in the round, we knew the lighting challenges, specifically how would we get lights down low and behind all these performers that are onstage at one time? Lighting people in the round is often quite hard."

To surmount the challenge of lighting in the round, Whitehouse and his crew developed the idea of creating eight pods that would provide the top and side light, and then developed a unique setting of placing lights around the outside rim of the center stage ring inside the stage floor.

“In the whole design phase, there was a lot of back and forth when we were actually coming up with the concepts of the lighting design. We worked quite hard to engineer the lighting pods into the design so that they don’t block sight lines and they give us the lighting down low that we needed. I also love beams and the ring of lights inside the center stage piece would give us these great beams while complementing the performance of the artist onstage.”

As the set and lighting design were now in place, Whitehouse began selecting the actual fixtures which would be able to work within the physical footprint of the pods and the center stage ring, all the while being able to keep up with the energy of the show.

“For the pods, and in the large overhead truss structures, I would be placing many of the lights quite a distance from the stage. Some of the throws are about 160 feet. It was obvious I would need powerful fixtures with good optics and great colors. I also like to stick with lights that I know what they can do and how they will perform once in air. I’m pretty picky in what I use and it has to work like I want it to work. So for me, for this show, it was the VARI*LITE luminaires because they do it every time.”

To acquire the VAR*LITE luminaires desired, Whitehouse approached an authorized Vari-Lite Sales and Rental Dealer whom he had worked with successfully in the past, Solotech. Together they specified an automated lighting plot that consisted of 90 VL3000™ Spot luminaires, 70 VL3500™ Wash luminaires, 70 VL500™ 80V Wash luminaires, and 8 VL3500™ Spot luminaires.

It was now time for Whitehouse to capitalize on the attributes of each light that he enjoyed the most, and he knew exactly what each would do.

“The VL3000 Spots are my texture. They do a lot on the stage and they are the backlight for the performers. They’re also key light on the stage as well. To me they help bring the energy off the stage out into crowd. We use them for their great beams and the gobo break-up’s. They are always out in the crowd doing something.”

“The VL3500 Wash is simply a monster light. The ones I have placed outside of the set do a lot of the key light on the dances. They’re great because I can zoom down almost to a pinpoint and pick out the performers I want. The ones above the stage and in the stage floor are simply amazing. Again, I love the beams that come out of this light. It is easily one of my favorite lights on the market today.”

“The majority of the VL500 80V Wash luminaires are in the stage floor. The whole idea with this light trough in the floor is trying to get some back floor light, and they really do make the show pop in that little deck. Most of the time they are doing beams coming back through the artist so whenever an audience member is looking at the stage there’s a wall of light and color coming from behind her. And that’s the whole idea, lights everywhere.”

With his design now complete, Whitehouse is quick to acknowledge what he finds most appealing in the design process. For him, there is a comforting and successful familiarity with the lighting crew, the lighting fixtures, and he loves the VL3500 Wash luminaire.

“I really enjoy working with the lighting crew and the gear from Solotech. I worked with them last year on Alicia Keys and that was also all VARI*LITE luminaires. These lights work hard, all of them. There are not many features of each that I don’t thrash, yet they always hold up. But personally, I think the VL3500 Wash is definitely the best. The ability it gives me to go from a washed-out look across the whole stage to a fantastic series of tight beams shooting across a sold-out arena is unmatched in the lighting world. It is the only wash I need.”

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