Before joining Vari-Lite in 2022, Luke Edwards established himself as an in-demand Lighting Designer. Check out this 2020 interview with Luke.
As part of Cue Design, Luke worked with electronic music pioneer Gary Numan, as well as a whole slew of pop artists. His most recent collaboration is with British multi-instrumentalist and musical prodigy, Jacob Collier.
Where did the lighting thing start for you?
I lived in Belgium from the age of two, and in the small town I lived in (Mol) they would have a kind of light festival every year, with floats lit up in beautiful halogen lights and things. When I was 16, a friend asked me to help out and I met a guy who ran a local light and sound rental company. It all led from there. I began working for him, doing production for shows and projects around Europe.
Had you shown any artistic or creative tendencies before that point?
No! Nothing at all. I couldn’t paint or draw, but then I think we tend to have a fairly narrow understanding of what ‘creativity’ is. I believe everyone has the potential to be creative, we all have that ability to visualise, but not everyone finds a medium that works for them. There are so many ways that people can express creativity.
How did your career progress from there?
While I was working for that company I had some opportunities to do lighting design on various clients’ projects, and I think some of the clients liked having new ideas, from someone young and fresh, bringing a new viewpoint. Sometimes when things are done by the same people year after year, they can become a bit samey.
But there was no fast-track to being a designer. I started coiling cables, and worked my way up. It was a thorough education in the tech side of production, and it stood me in good stead, because I understand what’s involved in whatever it is I’m asking people to do. I know when I draw the plot whether something can be done – and how it can be done. Also, that experience means it’s difficult for people to pull the wool over my eyes!
When I was 21 or 22 I felt like I’d had enough. You know what it’s like - you don’t have a normal life. I’d worked crazy hours and weekends, been away, sacrificed seeing friends. I needed a change, and that I needed to move country to really get away, or I’d be sucked back into it! So I moved back to the UK. But then, after a year or so, boredom began to creep in and I thought, ‘I want to get back into this’!
I worked for a few companies doing various things, but I didn’t really have the contacts in the UK that I’d had in Belgium. For the 2012 Olympics I was working for Gallowglass, managing the provision of 500+ event crew members on a daily basis. It was a huge logistical exercise, but also really enjoyable because every day was a puzzle with all these pieces to be put in place.
I was networking more and more, talking to people, letting them know about my skills and experience, what I could do and what I wanted to do. Then one day I had a call asking, could I be in Belgium for the following lunchtime? An artist was going to start a tour and had lost their regular lighting guy, and my contact thought I might be able to help. The answer was ‘yes’ of course. I cancelled whatever was in my diary and went to Belgium. The artist was Gary Numan, and it turned into a long collaboration.
You’ve had a fruitful relationship designing for Gary Numan. How has that work challenged you and helped you to develop as a designer?
That first tour was basic, just a few fixtures, but fortunately Gary was at a point where he wanted to build his live shows up again, and I was able to grow and develop with him as he went. Each new outing was another step up, a new challenge – bigger budget, bigger rig, more complex show design – and at each stage I was challenging myself to tackle a new level of capability and responsibility.
I was extremely lucky. If Gary had been an artist who, at that stage in his career, was happy to plod along playing little shows and venues, I may never have had that opportunity. Luckily for me, he wanted to do something bigger and better each time, and I was able to be part of that upward trajectory.
I was lucky too that Gary trusted me and gave me the room and confidence to come up with the next show, and the next. He’s this legend of electronic music, he’s influenced absolutely everyone ever since, and he trusted me to create something that would make him look good on stage, and also be an environment that the audience could feel a part of.
And it’s similar in some ways with Jacob Collier. He’s a brilliant young musician and I believe that in 40 years he’ll have a similarly influential status to Gary. Jacob and Gary are at totally different points in their careers, but they’re both on an upward trajectory, for different reasons. I’ve been lucky to be part of that.
Jacob Collier has a completely different audience demographic. Does that change your approach to design?
I think more about the artist, and what they want, than what the audience might like. The audience experience comes from that, I guess. In between tours with Gary, I designed for other artists. I worked with Kelis, and various other pop artists, which was always a great learning experience. And with Jacob, his brain moves at a million miles an hour, he’s bursting with ideas and is so involved with every aspect of the show. There are so many instruments on stage, and MIDI running around everywhere. The band actually trigger parts of the lighting with MIDI: there are cues that don’t happen unless the band plays them. That was something that came out of our early discussions – Jacob and the band were keen to try it, and I thought it would be a great idea to experiment with. They asked me if it could be done, and I said ‘yes, absolutely it can be done!’ - and then I went and asked Avo how...
How far do you consider the possibilities of social media when designing a show?
Absolutely, totally! It’s essential – all designers these days know that the show is being shared across social media before it’s even finished. Even the artists will often look at Instagram afterwards to see how their show looked. Everything you do has to have that in mind, that audience viewpoint – so with everything that I light, I’m lighting for camera. For that reason, I’m always looking for great light quality.
Which career highlights, or achievements, have given you the biggest buzz and why?
I think we all have a kind of bucket-list of gigs that we’d like to do . . . For me, the Royal Albert Hall shows with Gary and the orchestra was a real highlight – an ambition ticked off the list. I’d always wanted to play Sydney Opera House too, and I was lucky enough to tick that one off with Jacob Collier last year. In fact, I managed to do quite a few from my bucket-list last year. That’s been great, but the trouble is, it leaves you thinking, what do I want to do now?
I designed a show at the Rock in Rio festival in Lisbon a couple of years ago. When you’re at front-of-house you only see the section of the audience between you and the stage, so it can be hard to get a sense of what’s around you. Well, I saw a feed from the jib camera as it came away from the stage and looked back over the 80,000 or so people. That was a surreal moment. It makes you realise that you’re involved in a serious business.
The following year we did Rock in Rio in Rio itself, and lovely Terry Cooke, from Woodroffe-Bassett, came to speak with me. To my surprise, he knew who I was. That was quite a moment – the Woodroffe-Bassett guys are, you know, God-like – and the fact that Terry was aware of me was a moment I’ll always remember. Being ‘recognised’ as a peer – on any level – is hugely validating.
Is there anything you look back on as a low point or a failure?
I think for me, the times I’ve failed are the times when maybe I’ve reacted a bit rashly towards people. There were situations in the past that could have been handled better. Not dealing with conflict in the right way between band management and myself – that kind of thing.
What frustrates you most about the lighting business?
Nepotism. I see people getting work not because of how good a designer they are, but because of who they know and it kind of throws me that people are being overlooked. If it was based on merit, there would be some other people out there doing some really cool shows – that’s the thing that bugs me.
What advice do you give to those who would like to follow in your footsteps?
I’ve lectured for students at Production Park and I think 20% of the lecture was about design, the other 80% was on how to behave in a professional manner. A lot of that is about building strong relationships and establishing yourself as someone who can be trusted, and avoiding the pitfalls that can alienate young designers from a large part of the industry. Don’t undercut people, for example. Another big thing I’d emphasize is don’t undervalue yourself.
It’s been said that being a lighting designer is 10% design and 90% diplomacy. Does the resonate with you?
Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of it is being able to convince someone that what you’re trying to do is the right thing to do . . . That’s got nothing to do with lighting, it’s about being a good communicator and negotiator. We’re trying to push boundaries, to do something that’s never been done before, and you need to be able to communicate that, and to get people to buy into your vision.
How do you describe yourself, in terms of the balance between artist and technician?
I see myself as a visual artist, but also as a creator of the environment in which the artist can do their thing. What we try to do is create the right environment for the artist to feel comfortable in, and what we do has to support their art form. So, it’s partly our own art, but it’s also a collaborative creation. It has to be.
As a creative medium, it happens to be a technical medium. The control and the fixtures can be very complex, but the result is still very low-tech, in a way. Yes, the things that create the light may be high-tech, but the rules of light and color remain the rules of light and color forever. It’s this weird mixture of having to create something visually beautiful, but having to be incredibly tech-savvy.
Do you have a style of lighting?
There’s nothing that I think, ‘I’ll add that to give it my signature look’. Other people may think ‘yeah, that’s a Cue Design show because of X, Y and Z’ - but I don’t do anything on purpose. We all have our own way of doing things, but it’s not something I do consciously.
Also, I think style is something that develops over time. And then there are trends in style, too - like a couple of years ago the ‘in thing’ was having very backlit shows, whereas now that’s no longer the case. Having said all that, I do think I can recognise the work of certain other designers. I think Tobias [Rylander] is an example of that. I can look at a show and know that it’s a Tobias show – there’s something unique about his work.
You mentioned trends. Are you consciously aware of not following trends?
I do consciously try to be different, to be original. I want to offer value for my clients. If you’re just doing what everybody else is doing, then there’s no point - you’re expendable.
Can you tell me a Luke Edwards lighting design rule of thumb?
Sidelight! All the sidelights! Often I find front-light too harsh but sidelight, in theatre and dance - especially dance - is used to great effect, to make it look more natural and give a great depth to the image you’re trying to create. It’s something I love doing - especially with artists that hate front-light. Surprisingly, there are a lot of them! But then, being on a stage with a followspot in your face is horrible . . . I can understand why some people don’t enjoy that.
Successful show production depends on collaboration, which requires great communication. How do you ensure that runs as effectively as possible?
I think you just need honest and open communication. Don’t try and hide anything, just lay all your cards on the table. You’re all there for the same thing, which is to make the show look good: no-one’s deliberately trying to sabotage anyone. We’re all here with one goal, and that’s to make this show awesome!
What traits do you admire most in the people you collaborate with?
I think it’s not being afraid to go down a route they’re not normally comfortable with. That goes both ways: I’ve had instances where I’ve thought ‘I’m not sure about that, but I'm going to trust you’ and we’ve come out the other side and it’s been incredible. So I think the trait I admire most is people not being scared to try something. We’ve always pushed every show we do, we’ve pushed technology, we’ve pushed manufacturers, we’ve pushed fixtures and we’ve pushed consoles to do stuff that people think we shouldn’t do! I admire that in artists as well, especially Gary. He could play it safe at this point in his career, but he’s not. I admire just being brave.
When you approach a new design, do you think in terms of specific lighting fixtures, or do you think just in terms of the desired light effect/performance?
A bit of both, to be honest. If there’s an effect I want to achieve, then I’ll think about how to do it at the same time. I spend a lot of my downtime talking to manufacturers and seeing new products for that exact reason, so when the time comes, I know what’s out there. I feel it’s part if my job to know what’s available, so reading the press, attending trade shows is important to me. If something new comes out I’ll contact the manufacturer and ask for a demo. It takes time and money to do that. It’s an investment which, as a designer, you have to make. You have to know your toolkit.
Personal relationships help with that. Most rental houses offer good kit at good prices, so the thing that differentiates them is how easy it is to work with them. That’s the key and it’s what we should all focus on. How frictionless is it working with us? And if you’ve got a good relationship with a manufacturer, they’re going to want to support you and want you to be the first to use this technology. That happened with Avolites – without those close links we’d have never been the first show in the world to use their Synergy platform. Relationships are paramount.
If somebody showed you a new fixture, what would make you reject it immediately?
If the red is orange! Oh my God, it’s such a bugbear of mine! I understand, from a technological viewpoint, it’s not easy - but if you’re selling a fixture for the best part of 10 grand, I’m sorry, you should have been able to figure out how to get red!
Apart from a good red, what do you look for in your lighting instruments?
Recently I’ve moved away from gimmicks – eye-candy stuff – and moved towards wanting the best quality light output, which comes back to my point about social media and lighting for camera. I don’t really care how many lumens it has, I just want to know what it looks like. Most lights nowadays have enough output for that not to be an issue anyway.
But use your tools appropriately. If you’ve got a song where the video content is massively white, don’t try to fight against it.
That’s the second Luke Edwards lighting rule of thumb . . .
That’s the second, absolutely! It’s true though.
How far is low power consumption important for you?
For me, it’s not a consideration. I’m on this end of the multi - I don’t really care as long as the light looks good! I’m aware of the environmental impact, of course. At home, we try as much as possible to reduce waste, to buy food locally and all of that, but then, when you consider the number of flights I took last year . . . Unfortunately, our job requires us to travel around the world, and we create a carbon footprint by doing that. So, we do try, but is my metal drinking bottle making much of a difference if I take 95 flights? It’s difficult to balance my ideology against the realities. But if you compare the impact of the band touring against flying the entire audience to one place to see the show, I think we still come out as the most efficient way of doing things!
You’ve recently used LED-based Vari-Lite fixtures – the VLZ Profile and VL2600 Profile & Wash. What did you think of them, and of the current state of LED stage lighting?
I think the VLZ was the first useful LED-based profile, so that was very interesting. We used them with Gary Numan for a specific purpose - to light an orchestra without putting a load of heat on them. They did that well and that was a nice introduction.
And then the VL2600s came about and for me, it was such an improvement on the VLZ because I think with the VL2600, a lot of people would believe it was a normal lamp. I think that’s the key, making people comfortable with technology. I think the VL2600s are incredible fixtures and we’ll be using them for a good few years to come.
With LED lights in general, I think a lot of manufacturers are still struggling with heat management issues, and to get the colors right, because it’s such a different way of doing color. With the VL2600s, especially the Washes, they’ve got that Congo UV color, like if you mix cyan and magenta together it has this really deep, almost black-light blue. It’s easy to get with a normal lamp, but with LED it’s quite difficult, and they really nailed that.
What’s missing from the LD’s toolkit? What would you like to see from manufacturers?
For me, it’s no longer eye-candy. I just want a decent light. I want something with good quality output, good clarity in gobos, nice colors. There’s been a trend for hybrid fixtures, which try to do everything, but I think we’re going back to good spots, good washes – the basics. And I’m sorry, but if you can’t make a show with them, then you shouldn’t be doing it. At that point you’re not really relying on the technology, you’re relying on your know-how and skill as a designer.