It’s a free-flowing, space theme for lighting designer Dan English
Published Wednesday, June 24, 2009
by Bryan Matthews

On April 12, 2009, The Dead came back to life once again in Greensboro, North Carolina, and lighting the way for the rock-n-roll legends was lighting designer Dan English.  Together with his colleagues from LD Alliance, English put together an out-of-this-world lighting design that embarks on a journey through both space and time.  No stranger to working with The Dead, English knew that as the 22-city tour played both indoor and outdoor venues, he needed versatile automated luminaires that would give him the flexibility to meld with the music while still having the punch to shine bright in both darkness and light.  For him, there were only two fixtures that could pilot this journey, the VARI*LITE® VL3000™ Spot and VL3500™ Wash luminaires.


“I was the first moving light programmer for the Grateful Dead beginning in 1982 and I worked in that capacity for almost 10 years.  In 2005, I joined Phil Lesh as his lighting designer and I did that until this tour for The Dead.  When we spoke about the design elements they told me they wanted to see something that has a space theme to it, but we would be playing both indoor and outdoor venues.  From there, I began working on a couple of designs and we moved forward.”


In his initial design concepts, English quickly became aware that the lighting design would also serve as the set design.  With no physical structures present on stage, English had to incorporate projection surfaces that would allow him to complete the feel of deep space.


“With no set, I needed some surfaces to project on.  We designed a 30 ft. round truss that has a mesh scrim.  This gave me a great projection area to incorporate the various space aspects they were looking for along with the 13-point lightning bolt which has always been an emblem of the band.  They liked the idea, so we went with it.”


Another challenge facing English was that The Dead have always been known for their musical “jam” sessions with impromptu solos and musical melodies that are not the same from show-to-show.  Not knowing what song the band might play next or where they might take each song is a challenge that would make many lighting designers a little wary, but not English.


“Working with The Dead has been a life-long project and I have a good feel for their music.  At the beginning of each show they give me a preliminary set list and then I have what I call the ‘Top 40’ which is what I consider their most popular and often played songs.  With each of these songs I have a definite idea on what I want to see happen with the lighting, so there are a lot of cues in them that I’m prepared for, but for the rest of the show I’ve got various effects and looks that I like to use.   Knowing the music is the key to lighting this band effectively.  You have to be able to keep up with them and know what they’re going to do.  Even though they do change things quite a bit without warning, if you really know it you can keep up with them.  The biggest challenge is that there is always a transition coming and there’s always a musical moment.  You have to anticipate what it’s going to be and how it’s going to come off.  The more energetic and dynamic they play the more energetic and dynamic the lighting has to become.”


Understanding that versatility was a key component in his automated lighting rig to make the musical transitions successful, English chose to use luminaires that he knew could pull it off.  In the rig, English hung 20 VL3000™ Spot luminaires and 6 VL3500™ Wash luminaires, purchased by LD Alliance from PRG.


“We have a company out here on the west coast called LD Alliance which is made up a few lighting designers including myself.   We’ve basically pooled all our equipment together and I’ve talked a few of them into buying VARI*LITE luminaires.  I’ve been a fan of VARI*LITE fixtures since I started buying them in 2006 and I think they are simply the best fixtures around.”


In his design, English would rely heavily on the VARI*LITE luminaires for their power and optics.  In his opinion, they are the only fixtures that could give him the flexibility to move seamlessly between indoor and outdoor venues without loosing any quality of light. 


“Outdoors you need more light to get the same effect as indoors.  Things have to be brighter and a little more pronounced; otherwise you don’t see them so well.  With our indoor shows you can use smoke effects and the darkness inside to make your lights look great.  But once you move outside, it has to be seen.  When it comes to combining power and optics, the VARI*LITE luminaires are the only one’s to use.”


With his lighting rig set, English moved into the programming phase and began to put his design to work.  For this tour, English chose to incorporate the gobo effects of the space theme with a rich color scheme. 


“The VARI*LITE luminaires are the main base stage lighting portion of the show.  I wanted to keep it interesting and artistic, and with these lights you can use any number of attributes to get that done.  I chose to use a lot of great color because in my mind that’s what the show is about.  A good color palette and a lot of nice, rich texture lighting.”


With the VL3000 Spot luminaire, English capitalized on the power, gobos, and optics that can only come from a VARI*LITE fixture.


“The higher intensity of the VL3000 Spot is awesome.  I think they’re actually brighter than any number of other automated fixtures that I’ve used.  Plus, the zoom is absolutely incredible.  It’s easily twice as good as anything else out there.  I also really like the stars gobo pattern and I used it a lot in this design.  There are two songs where rain is a theme and the VL3000 Spot gobo patterns really get that look and feel in the air.  The gobos have a very crisp nature to them.”


In the VL3500 Wash luminaire, English found what out other lighting designers around the world have discovered as well.  The intensity is simply unmatched in a wash light.


“I used the VL3500 Wash fixtures as back light on the band.   They are as bright as you could ever want a wash light to be, and the colors are stunning.  For our outdoor concerts, this light was able to punch through the natural sunlight with no problems whatsoever.  It’s a great light.”


Looking back on the tour and his lighting design, English reflected on the evolution that occurs with a lighting design; an evolution that would not have been possible without the use of VARI*LITE luminaires.


“I think that as a tour progresses the lighting actually gets better because I’m more familiar with what I’ve set up and what I’ve got going.  By the time the tour really gets going I’ve got a good idea of what I want to do and how exactly I want to use the lighting instruments.  With the VARI*LITE luminaires, I never felt uncomfortable that they would not be able to deliver exactly what I wanted to see.  The lights worked exactly as we needed them to in both the indoor and outdoor settings and the show looked great.  I really love the VARI*LITE automated luminaires.”


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