Travis Hagenbuch, Lighting Designer - Director, on working the Oscars, Grammys, Olympics, Super Bowl, & the Processes that go into Creating Visually Compelling Live Events.
December 25, 2015
I hail from a family farm about ninety miles from downtown Chicago. My entrepreneurial spirit was born there through countless opportunities to tinker with machines as well as the freedom to be as inventive as I could imagine.
While my work now couldn’t be further from farm life, I owe every bit of my work ethic and “dream big” tendencies to that place.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m now a Lighting Designer and Lighting Director who specializes in live events like awards shows, concerts, and Olympic ceremonies.
First Job in the Entertainment Industry
While in college I bounced around Cincinnati assisting theatrical designers, working for the school, and doing a few small designs of my own.
The basics of what grew into my design aesthetic grew out of those early jobs, at which I began to learn the nuance of color, texture, and, most of all, restraint, in all forms of visual design and media.
My first job in Los Angeles had nothing to do with my best-laid plans of mailing manicured portfolio samples to a dozen designers and firms.
Like most in design school, I naively thought my senior portfolio would be the ticket to gainful employment.
Instead, freshly out of college and through a series of well-timed events, I met my now-colleague Matt Firestone over a drink in Las Vegas; he invited me to shadow him on his next project, at which I met my future boss and mentor Bob Dickinson.
Bob owns Full Flood Inc., the lighting design consortium of which I’ve been a part ever since. (Several years later I discovered the college portfolio I had once sent to Full Flood; it was sitting in an office storage room, untouched).
Technology is moving at breakneck speed in live events just like other areas, and the imaginations of my peers aren’t moving any slower.
While I love to examine what others are doing with the constantly improving tools in my immediate world, I also devour news and information coming out of the worlds of contemporary art, museum design, mobile technology, and urban planning, to name a few.
Attraction to Light Design
I am very lucky that my parents took me to see concerts and shows as a kid, at which you could often find me staring at the lights and effects rather than whatever was happening onstage.
After thinking, “I could do that, too!” I learned the basics of electrical wiring through 4-H Fair projects, and my first venture into stage lighting came when my school’s PTA granted me $100 to build stage lights out of some plywood and spare parts in my dad’s farm shop.
I was just ten years old, but I was hooked.
I found myself interested in a triad of subjects in high school, and stage lighting became the unexpected intersection of their Venn diagram.
I couldn’t decide between science, music, and architecture, so I took a leap of faith (and a total left turn for a farm kid) and went to school to study theater design and production.
The ability to use the science and technology of light to creatively respond to music and storytelling is a compelling mix of the concrete and the abstract, of the subjective and the objective, and provides for close collaboration with peers.
I always prefer being a part of something bigger than myself, and these projects provide for that.
Steps of Lighting a Live Event
While some are thrown together last minute, most events start simmering between six and nine months out from the show date.
This early period includes surveys of the venue to understand basic mechanics such as where lights can be placed and how much power is available to make them work, and it also marks the beginning of collaboration with other departments, especially the Art Department that designs the scenery.
The process continues after a design concept is in place for the scenery, since the physical design of the production often defines the aesthetic upon which other departments build.
If it’s a music-based show, I’ll listen to the music to help choose equipment for features that I think will best reflect the songs in a visual way.
A light plot, or blueprint, is created that shows where all of the lights will be placed in the physical space, and equipment is ordered and budgeted for rental from that drawing.
Load in is next, the period during which the stage is built in the venue, the lights are hung, and I find out what mistakes I made getting that far.
On shows of this scale, something always slips through the cracks, and making a swift, smart recovery is essential. How you handle yourself after failure can make or break you, often without second chances.
Once the space is ready to go (and usually before it is), rehearsals begin. One a large music show, each act is allotted a certain amount of time to rehearse on the stage and with the cameras. It’s a dizzying process – some rehearsal days can include upwards of a dozen bands in a day.
Show day is the culmination of weeks and months of work.
Live shows are my favorite, by far. No matter how well (or poorly) things are going, the fact that you have to be “on the air” at 8pm Eastern will not change – and there’s nothing quite like hearing the ten-second countdown to being live to (hopefully) millions of people.
I’m usually on an airplane first thing the next morning, either headed the next show or home to Denver. The crew stays behind to pack up the stage and send the lights back to the vendor, where they are cleaned and sent out to their next client.
Pre-production for the next several shows had been happening during all of this, so the cycle overlaps itself several times in order to prepare for upcoming shows. Juggling it all can be hectic.
Various Titles Held
The world of titles can be a tangled web because we work so closely together that the lines between them are often blurred.
In general, the Lighting Designer books the show, designs the light plots and schematics, guides the aesthetic of the final product, and liaises with other Heads of Departments like the Producer, Director, and Production Designer.
The Lighting Director takes the Designer’s design and abstract ideas and turns them into physical reality by ordering equipment, giving instructions to the crew and crew leaders, liaising with the lighting equipment vendor, attending meetings, and being a stunt double of sorts for the Designer, who can’t be in all the places needed at once.
The Lighting Programmer translates the abstract aesthetic intent into lines of code by programming the computers that actually make the lights move and change color to the music. This person has so much input into how the show actually looks that they are often also called a Lighting Director.
Mechanically, prospective Lighting Directors need basic skills like CAD drafting, an understanding of modern lighting equipment, color theory, and how cameras react to light.
But those skills are often assumed. In this business we spend a lot of time with our coworkers – we work together, we play together, we travel together, we eat together.
Attitude and personality go a long way.
The old adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” couldn’t be truer, and clients want to hire interesting, easy going people as much, or more, as they want to hire talented ones.
Combine all of the above, and you have it figured out.
Categories of Shows
The two main factors that differentiate shows and affect the design process are genre and venue size.
The Golden Globes, while very high profile, is at its core an awards show in a ballroom with no live music. It’s a very different experience in scope and scale than The Grammy Awards at Staples Center.
Celebrities’ faces and clothes take center stage at the Globes, and the style of lighting follows suit. The color of the scenery behind the microphone can even be changed at the last second if it clashes with the color of a winner’s outfit.
The Grammys are all about responding to the music – and as such the lighting can be more experimental, with less emphasis on perfectly lit gowns (although they’re still important of course). That design is more akin to a rock concert on steroids.
The tech behind the actual lighting instruments I use is constantly evolving and becoming more exciting with each passing month, and LEDs have changed everything.
Those things will continue to evolve and improve at an increasing pace, but technology has actually had the biggest impact on how I balance work with my life outside of the theaters, arenas, and stadiums.
Between Dropbox, Skype, and others, much of the preproduction portion of my job can be done from anywhere with access to the internet and an airport.
I decided to test that, and a year ago I moved from Los Angeles (where I had spent nine years working, networking, and developing a client base) to Denver, where my partner Matt and I started HagenStein Design Inc. and do preproduction from home, flying to venues for shows as needed.
It’s resulted in a transformative improvement in quality of life.
Adding to the above, it definitely helps that Matt is also in the business as an Art Director, so he has a more patient understanding of the hours than others might.
Nevertheless, my total of 185 nights in hotels in 2015 clocks in at having spent over half the calendar year away from home.
Many colleagues spend more time away, but that’s plenty for me. I keep a balance through communication while I’m gone, and by following the old rule of “work hard, play hard.”
Taking time off is essential, even if it’s interrupted by a conference call or few emails.
I’m happy to pause a ski day for an hour to join a conference call or to check my email from a chairlift if it means I get to spend most of the day outside.
Check your attitude at the door, and don’t act like you’ve been doing this for 20 years when you’re only 20 years old.
At this level it’s assumed you have the skills – your attitude and work ethic will set you apart and keep your phone ringing. If you don’t figure that out quickly, a lot of people are waiting in line for their chance!
How 2015 is Informing Plans for 2016
I’ve recently grown attracted to diversity in genres.
In 2015 I worked on TV Awards shows, an Olympic-sized Opening Ceremony, concerts with the San Francisco Symphony, a TV game show, and a concert musical on a cruise ship.
I’ve always touted being a well-rounded jack-of-all trades, and I believe that finding solutions to challenges across a variety of genres will help broaden my skillset in the long run.
Just as the lessons learned managing an Olympic-scale project can be applied to one in a small ballroom, those learned in a basement with four lights work their way up the ladder, too.
Everything is a learning experience.
Freedom Within the Job
Creative freedom varies from project to project along with the members of other teams. Some directors have very specific ideas, while others rarely inject their aesthetic opinions.
Sometimes the TV network provides input on what goes out on their airwaves, often the Art Department has opinions on how the scenery was designed to be lit, etc.
The change from project to project keeps things interesting, and the ability to adapt to different personalities from project to project is key.
Ultimate Professional Goal
My specific ultimate goal is to be Lighting Designer for an Olympic Ceremony someday.
Beyond that, I just want to stay involved in the creation of live events in ways I find motivating, exciting, and fulfilling.
Whether I stay in Lighting specifically or not, as long as the adrenaline rush of a live show can still make my stomach lurch, then I’ve passed the litmus test and know I still I find a lot of passion in this.
My biggest challenge of the last ten years has been recognizing when change is positive and necessary.
By 2013 I had largely been in the same position for six years, and while the projects were numerous, high profile, and rewarding, my day-to-day work life had started to grow repetitive.
I took a leap out of my travel-heavy schedule to help design the lighting for The Queen Latifah Show, after which I stayed with the show for a year, managing the day-to-day operations of the Lighting Department and designing looks for the musical acts that appeared on the show.
Leaving my comfortable nest as a Lighting Director of Events and Awards Shows was nerve-wracking to say the least, but in the end I grew to appreciate having a normal schedule, and multiple doors were opened that have led to new and exciting projects since I rejoined the freelance world a year later.
Social media has had surprisingly little effect on my career so far.
While I often want to post socially about what I’m doing, the work is usually protected under an NDA. Even if it isn’t, there is an unspoken understanding that if you want to work again, you won’t spoil any surprises. (I’d call it an obvious understanding, but people break it too often for that!).
This niche of the business is so small that most of my networking happens via word of mouth and recommendations.
I find that keeping an up-to-date CV on LinkedIn is helpful for new clients, but beyond that I haven’t needed to actively market myself.
Top Moments in Entertainment
Vancouver 2010 Olympics Opening Ceremony
I’ve been an Olympics junkie since I was a kid, and working on an Olympic Ceremony in some capacity had always been an ultimate wish of mine.
Thanks to almost nothing other than being in the right place at the right time, I was lucky enough to get that wish when I was just 25, serving as one of the Lighting Directors for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics Opening, Closing, and Medals Ceremonies.
It introduced me to an entirely new level of professionalism, precision, and pride in work that besides being inherently inspiring has probably affected every show I’ve done since.
Baku European Games Opening Ceremony
The Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Baku 2015 European Games followed five years later.
Although not widely seen outside of Europe, the show was larger and had a bigger budget than the 2010 Olympics. Helmed creatively by Dimitris Papaioannou, the Greek director responsible for the Athens Olympic Ceremonies and some incredible work in the dance world, the show was like an opera on the grandest of scales, and an experience I’m lucky to have had.
Democratic National Convention
In 2008 I was fortunate to be invited to follow the Full Flood gang to Denver as an Assistant Lighting Director for the Democratic National Convention.
That was the year that then-Senator Obama gave his speech from Mile High Stadium, so we had two venues to light. I’ll never forget arriving at the stadium after a full day of Convention business at the Pepsi Center Arena, only to find Obama already there, waiting for the rest of the production staff to arrive.
While we waited I got to see him rehearse his speech from about ten feet away with hardly anyone else in the entire stadium.
One year on the Academy Awards, my duties were mostly complete by the start of the actual show. Having nowhere good to actually watch the proceedings, I found a spot just offstage where the winners would exit with their statues, many of them overwhelmed.
I could imagine so many of their stories as they exited the stage with their newly minted awards – it was really inspiring to see their reactions to their hard work paying off in such a huge way.
The Super Bowl Halftime Show
The experience of being on the field during a Super Bowl Halftime Show is a rush unlike any other.
The intricacies of setting up a hugely complex stage (complete with lights, speakers, and special effects) in a matter of minutes with hundreds of volunteers are unparalleled.
My job during the Bruce Springsteen show was to run from the sidelines to the stage with the control cable that funneled data to all the lights strewn out on the field; it was such an insane example of (mostly) organized chaos that in the days before commonplace GoPros I strapped a camera to my chest to record it from my perspective.
The footage looks like the Blair Witch Project, but it’s a fun memento.
One of the pieces of advice dispensed to me by a gray-haired stagehand was, simply, “Don’t make plans.”
I didn’t appreciate the notion at first, but it’s true that our schedules are so unpredictable that often the idea of a social life can seem like a distant dream.
While I’ve been fortunate to work on many of the world’s major live events, I always balance it by remembering the missed parties, missed times seeing friends, and missed nights at home that it took to be working so much.
Daily Steps for Short & Long-term Career Goals
I will always strive to remain humble and keep things in balance.
With that foundation I think I can achieve any number of goals. I try to resist the common modern urge of constant work, a trap I fell into in my twenties.
Like many, since my phone is also my alarm, it’s the first thing I reach for every morning.
I’ve had to teach myself to not read my email before getting up, and although my home office is just steps from my bed, I try not to walk straight to my desk.
To me a good, successful working life is only as good as the rest of it.
I would sink without cloud-based calendars. Sometimes my life feels like one never-ending conference call, and I could never keep them all straight without those reminders.
They also help us Full Flooders keep track of each other as we traverse the globe doing shows.
I often find it difficult to introduce people to new organizational workflows, and as such I usually have a hard time finding one that fits every show I do.
Common denominators between most people usually include Google Docs, Evernote, and the ubiquitous Dropbox, which serves as the catchall, the library and the spine of most of my projects.
Concretely, I graduated from The University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music with a degree in Theater Design and Production.
From there I moved to LA with hopes and dreams in tow.
More abstractly, I never tire of learning. We all know that technology advances faster than many of us can follow (especially after we’re out of our twenties), so I try to stay current and constantly stimulate my brain through the consumption of ideas, media, and art.
I have three shout-outs to fellow Lighting Designers:
First to Matt Firestone, who, without knowing me, invited me to shadow him on his next show after meeting me in that bar in Las Vegas in 2007.
That moment changed everything and was the impetus that introduced me to nearly everyone I’ve worked with since.
It had everything to do with the old cliché of being in the right place at the right time with the right attitude.
Next to Bob Dickinson, who kept hiring me on Full Flood jobs in my younger days even when there wasn’t much for me to do. I kept showing up and learning, and when the opportunity came for me to step up, I was already in a good place for it. The rest is evidenced in an ever-growing pile of backstage passes in my desk drawer.
Finally to Bob Barnhart, another Designer at Full Flood who taught me much about respect and dispenses some of the best advice I know.
My favorite pearl of wisdom: “You don’t want to be the last antelope in the herd.”
Anything Else to Share with Our Readers?
This can be a convoluted, time-sucking, frustrating business, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. At the end of the day, what more could I want?