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Light and Storytelling

October 15, 2010


I’ve figured it out.  A month and a half into grad school I’ve finally realized what’s been missing from my lighting education (and my life).  I’ve felt something has been missing from my lighting studies ever since I arrived here in New York.  I don’t know why I haven’t been able to pinpoint it until now, but now that I have I feel such a sense of clarity! It all makes sense!

My lighting has been lacking a story.

I first noticed a glimmer of this a few months ago as I was sitting in a dark auditorium at The New School, listening to convocation speeches from notable alumni.  This particular group of alumni had been gathered to commemorate the start of classes at the School of Constructed Environments (which includes the architectural, lighting, interior, and product design programs) through a presentation of their career successes and notable projects for the faculty and new students.  The catch, which was cleverly designed to prevent marathon portfolio presentations, was that the evening was going to follow the Pecha Kucha format, with each presenter being limited to 20 slides, each displayed for a maximum of 20 seconds.  I had never heard of such an event before, but the idea intrigued me, so a few of my lighting classmates and I decided to attend.

An hour and a half later in the auditorium, having heard from only five out of the ten presenters, all of whom so far were architects or architectural consultants, I was supremely regretting that decision.  Apparently none of those five people got the “20 seconds” memo, and so they sat on each slide, dryly discussing the work on it in overly-elaborate detail, for at least five minutes (and usually longer).  Lesson learned: never give an architect a microphone.

As drained as I was by that time, though, I was determined to sit through the presentations long enough to hear one speaker in particular: Paul Gregory of Focus Lighting in New York City.  I had already done a good amount of research on the award-winning lighting design firm in the past because of its connections to the theatrical lighting design community, so I was determined to hear from its founder and principal designer.

Let me tell you, Mr. Gregory did not disappoint.  He was not only the first (and only) of the presenters to adhere to the strict presentation formatting challenge that night, his presentation was the most compelling, informative, and fun!  It ebbed and flowed, quickened and slowed, instigated laughter, and elicited emotion, flying by quicker than the blink of an eye but lasting ten times as long in the memory. So what made his presentation so different from the others (aside from the pace)? He told a story. He told the story of how he came to love lighting and the theatre at an early age and how he used the skills he learned as a theatrical designer to successfully transition to the world of architectural lighting, succinctly, with passion and a great sense of humor!

I remember thinking to myself, “thank God theatre people know how to tell stories!”

Fast forward a month and a half and I find myself sitting in another dark room, staring at a projection screen, awaiting a presentation from an industry professional – only this time I know exactly what I’m in for.  I’m awaiting a presentation from Jonathan Speirs of the internationally-ranked, highly-awarded UK lighting firm Speirs and Major about lighting design and some of his firm’s recent works. Again, I wasn’t disappointed.

Jonathan began his presentation, “we like to tell stories with light.”  At first I was surprised, as his background was primarily in architecture, not theatre.  He certainly proved himself atypical of the architect-type, though, illustrating and describing each project for the audience beautifully, telling a story of how each project came to fruition, and demonstrating for us the exact slides he used to present the story of the proposed lighting design to the client. At every turn, too, he would stop to tell a small anecdote about a meeting with a high-profile client, or a design decision that changed dramatically on short notice, all the while progressing fluidly through his images and photos, keeping the audience engaged and entertained for over 90 minutes.

Just to give you a taste, the design for his concluding project, The Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi (for which his firm won one of the most prestigious awards in lighting design, the IALD Radiance Award) was impressive not only for its sheer massive scale, but for its use of storytelling in illuminating the structure.  The exterior illumination of the mosque, opting against a uniform appearance, has the unique textural quality of clouds slowly drifting by, a feat accomplished by thousands of projectors covering the entire surface of the mosque.  The clouds are not just flowing in any direction, however; they always move in the direction of Mecca, the holiest of all Muslim sites and the direction of prayer for Muslims.  In addition, the color of the clouds flowing across the structure mirrors the phases of the moon (a highly important element of Muslim religious tradition), fading from a pristine white during a full moon to a deeply saturated blue as the moon waxes and wanes over its 28-day cycle.  Thus, the illumination of the building is constantly in motion, telling a story of the mosque, it’s location, and the Muslim faith.  It’s quite a moving project (no pun intended).

After Jonathan’s presentation it hit me like a ton of bricks – I’ve been missing the chance to tell a story with my lighting, like I used to when I was designing for theatre.  Lighting is such an integral part of the story in theatre that its storytelling abilities are often taken for granted; yet having spent the past seven weeks in architecture school I realize just how much it really is taken for granted in the often conceptually-static world of architecture.  I’ve somehow lost that storytelling mindset in favor of a static, single-shot thought process.  I need to remember where I’ve come from.

Lighting for architecture can reveal a form just like lighting for theatre or dance.  It can fade in and out, reveal a detail here, a form there, entice you inside, make you take a second look, or simply open your eyes and your mind to the feeling of being alive.  There’s no reason a design can’t have an elaborate story behind it – in fact, I think it results in a stronger outcome.

From now on I’m going to make it my duty to remember where I’ve come from and how my background can inform my design process.  I want to bring the same passion and energy to my architectural lighting as I have when I’m cueing in a tightly-choreographed lighting sequence in a theatre.  I want to live in the moment that the light first hits your eye after the house lights dim out, and the moment after the final lighting cue has faded to black.  I want to hear the music and see the dance in my work, and I want others to see it too.

I want to tell a story with light … because that is what makes me happy.

What makes you happy?



  1. Stacy #
    October 15, 2010

    What makes ME happy? Reading your amazing posts, sharing in your excitement as you continue to discover who you are as a lighting designer, and imagining the endless possibilities of where your talents will take you. Awesome, Ryan, just awesome!

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