From the Heart of America June 1, 2005
by Paul Dexter
by Paul Dexter
Celebrity magazines fill the impulse-buy racks at just about every grocery, warehouse, and convenience store in the world. Advertising, with a celebrity attachment to it, has been proven to sell products better. Even our comparatively pokey industry magazines use this tactic by putting the well-known star on the front cover. Everyone’s fascination with the celebrity has fueled shows like The Insider and Access Hollywood for years. Yet am I alone in finding this approach unexciting?
What excites me more—in this industry, anyway—are the unsung heroes, in Somewhere, USA, who work their asses off, passionately creating something or taking the initiative to fulfill a basic need caused by supply and demand. Each of them has something unique to offer. We all have something to learn from other people’s experiences (OPE)—but what if they don’t write books or, aren’t featured on celebrity news? How can those be experiences shared? Ask questions!
It’s not easy, though. I’ve been writing a monthly column for five years, so I naturally ask a lot of questions. I have a reason to pry. But, most of the time, we are insular, because, in the course of contending with the day-to-day turmoil of work and celebrating our little victories, we sometimes forget to ask others about their lives. But that’s were the real treasures are found.
A case in point: I’ve recently been traveling with REO Speedwagon. We’re doing sporadic weekend shows, not a real tour where the lighting and sound is carried with the rest of the band gear. It’s a different situation for me, but I like it. It’s challenging and keeps my hands dirty. The last thing that I want is to be a spoiled, self-important, arrogant celebrity LD—this is definitely a people business and if you don’t work hard at it, you’ll peak and remain insular. You are only as good as your last gig—and making friends along the way keeps the phone ringing.
So it works like this: I advance the gig, find out what is available, and submit a plot. This has happened in Arizona, Las Vegas, Florida, Minnesota (you get the picture) and, most recently, in Oklahoma. Here’s what I found: The level of pride out there—the determination to accommodate with full service—is refreshing. Production people generally love their work. Only once there was an incident where incompetence nearly jeopardized the show. But, overall, the equipment has been in good condition and the technology has been recent to new. This is good because, in this kind of situation, the vendor’s mindset has to continually adjust to suit the event. It’s one thing to assemble a system for a tour and tweak it over time and another thing to change a system every time a new show breezes through town.
I thought it would be interesting to share a perspective from a vendor who serves Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas: Toucan Lighting (www.toucanlighting.com), owned by Robin Alvis. This is a totally grassroots lighting company story from the heart of America that, most likely, won’t get recognition or magazine exposure, regardless of how successful it is, because it’s not in the mainstream. It may not be filled with glory, but, at Toucan, OPE prevails. We can all learn from Robin’s story and I wouldn’t have found out if I didn’t ask.
First, a little background: Robin and his two brothers, Dale and Rick, were Air Force brats. Born in New York, they ended up spending their formative years living in England and Germany until Robin was 14, when his family finally settled in Oklahoma. Rick became a photographer and often took Robin to concerts where he met “lots of rock stars,” from 38 Special to Mötley Crüe.
Meanwhile, in 1984-5, Robin played in his own rock band. Wanting to increase the group’s production values, he built a box with PAR 56s and controlled it with a foot switch. He was soon more fascinated with lighting than pursuing a musician’s career. Fast-forward to today: He owns hundreds of PARs and over 200 moving lights: VL-2000 Series units, High End Studio Beams and Colors, Avolites consoles, Wholehogs, and Thomas trussing—all operating in three states.
I asked Robin a few questions.
PD: You’re business is doing well. What’s your educational background?
Robin: Formally? Only high school. But growing up, we vacationed all over Europe, which is an education in itself and it sure makes you appreciate America more. The rest was done on a learn-as-we-go basis.
PD: Any mentors?
Robin: My Dad. He said, work every day, pay all your bills on time, and owe no one. But Dad loaned me money to buy lights and supported my venture. He’s all paid back now.
PD: Are there others around you who are loyal to Toucan?
Robin: Yes, Misty Myers who I partnered with in 1992. After 13 years, she is the only person who has been able to stick it out. Even though we met here, we found out that our backgrounds were similar. She’s an Air Force brat, too, and graduated from school in England. Then there’s Terry Birdsley. His wife ran a
labor company and he worked as a stagehand. He was such a great worker that I hired him. That was seven years ago.
PD: You’ve probably seen a lot of LDs that pass through. Can you describe what that’s like?
Robin: We sometimes do four to five shows a week and must have seen 1,000 LDs come through here since ’90. I would say that about 70% of the acts don’t have lighting guys;15%-20% of them have lighting guys, but they don’t have an interest in doing lighting and are there just to hang out with the band. There’s one in particular, and surprisingly with quite a high-profile group, who said, “You throw some looks in the board and I’ll be back before the show.” I said, “Man, this is a big moving light rig!” His reply was, “Robin, there’s a golf course right next door.” Then, one promoter asked us to put up $500 worth of lights. Turned out that it was a sold-out show with 1,400 people. Nobody even talked to me about the lights. That happens a lot! Only about 30% of the acts that come through with LDs actually have an interest in lighting and a passion about what they do.
PD: How do you keep up on technology?
Robin: I personally go to every show I can that comes through here, to see what’s being used. There’s a 50-50 chance that it’s either going to be great or awful. But I’ve found that too many moving lights and strobing all the time isn’t creative. It’s like being in a haunted house with lots of colors.
On the basis of this report, it is a good thing that America’s production support system is strong. The ratio of touring lighting designers to touring bands demonstrates that lighting still remains a low show priority, unless it’s a tour that carries production. It’s companies like Toucan that are out there, propping up the inordinate percentage of touring shows that can’t afford production or a lighting designer and adding value for audiences everywhere that are going to see a show. Who’s the celebrity now? You won’t know unless you ask.
Back on the Road Again, April 5, 2005
by Paul Dexter
Okay…so the headline isn’t new! I borrowed the title from an REO Speedwagon song, but it reflects reality.
I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with life on the road. I started touring in 1973—and took a tremendous journey that no one could have predicted, riding the popularity wave of rock concerts in the days of the pre-corporate mentality. Ask anyone from that touring era— we could do just about anything we wanted in our little traveling world, while the rest of humanity conducted business in its usual rat race way. Not to be disparaging, but that was, and is, the way of life for the majority of working people—working to pay the mortgage, vacation for two weeks (if you’re lucky), and back to work. You may like it, but recent statistics show that most don’t.
I actually loved my on-the-road-job. I did so from the very beginning. It was liberating; it lent me a certain identity and an enviable lifestyle, more than any 9-5 job ever could. However, the grass being greener on the other side, after 20 years of road life, I decided to diversify, change course, marry, and move to North Yorkshire, England. One chapter ended and another began.
There isn’t much call for lighting designers in North Yorkshire and, for me, the move there was nearly a career killer. I thought that I could live anywhere and still carry on designing shows. I found out the hard way, that it wasn’t to be, and, in retrospect, I know why. So I tried to build a new career, because the prospect of getting on a bus with ten other guys after a long day, covering up with a polyester blanket in a hard bunk, and falling asleep while counting the road bumps was not my idea of a bright future. There had to be more and, whatever it was, I wanted to do it in one place! Other people did it; why couldn’t I?
Armed with the ingenuity accrued from years of travel and knowledge of international culture, off I went into the real world. At first, living in England was great. A cozy little cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, a new marriage, a little fireplace in the bedroom, and tea at four: Ahhh, how idyllic! I was traveling to
London to light videos and still getting touring work, albeit a little less frequently.
To add to the mix, there was another challenge to my previous lifestyle: Two babies came on the scene within 18 months. Nothing can put the brakes on building a new career and changing lifestyle faster than fresh, crying, poop-anytime-they-want babies.
Soon, a once-revered, LA-based, traveling lighting designer for Elton John and other world-class touring acts was now in a remote English village living in a small circa-1732 cottage with severe cold, constant drizzle and rain, foreign culture, a new family, and no work in sight. Furthermore, seemingly overnight, my
once-adoring wife’s perspective on me deteriorated, until I seemed little more than something stuck to the bottom of her Wellington boots after a walk across sheep farmland.
After ten years, enough was enough; I moved back to Los Angeles (alone, and I’ll
spare you the details). However, I had gained valuable commercial knowledge and business skills in England while assembling ambitious entrepreneurial projects (that’s another story!) and was now qualified to take a desk job in
addition to location design work. Good—no travel, but still a way to make money!
This was a crossover victory…for a while. Again, I learned a great deal about office environments and working from the perspective of production equipment vendors. But, readers, in this instance, I must admit that I felt like a cubicle slave—bound and tied to a location day in and day out. Given my lack of
job satisfaction and declining self-worth, it just wasn’t for me and I knew that it could be better—because I’ve had better.
So I, Paul Q. Dexter, am back on the road again, starting with a short stint as set designer and tour manager with the group Manhattan Transfer and now with REO Speedwagon as lighting designer/director. It feels like a new lease on life, giving me a vastly improved viewpoint. Without the luxury of the same console or rig for every show, enduring long drives damn hard work, I am, like many of you, achieving a creative result, working with like-minded people all over the country in a concert music environment that promotes a free and non-corporate
lifestyle. Can I get a “hell, yeah”?
This too will, most likely, change in time. Having gone full circle, after undergoing many changes and trying different business avenues, I am firmly convinced that if you truly follow your heart, you are somehow naturally destined to end up either on the stagecraft or business sides of our industry. Even though you may not be able to totally follow your desired path owing to family responsibilities or other personal reason, try to follow it the best you can. You’ll be much happier.
I’m also convinced that a person can’t be an academic or engineer one day and decide to change paths and be artistically creative the next. Creativity in art is an innate ability and so is creativity in business. In both situations, however, you need to hone your skills; in addition, it’s vital to work the two perspectives simultaneously—you’ll operate much better and achieve a superior end result by applying a broad understanding of both the artistic view and business view. Remember: no matter what choices you make, no experience goes to waste.
We all make choices in our lifetime and you can either waste precious time and lament over them or learn and move on, converting your mistakes as new knowledge. It’s as simple as that—it’s just that the learning process is more complicated for some of us than others. (Some people could screw up a winning
lottery ticket!) It’s human nature to build and destroy and getting back on the road again is the root of our industry’s development and one reliable way to start again and build. The road bumps are still there though.
Reinvention Feb 22, 2005
By Paul Dexter
I live in Hollywood, a town that exists in a perpetual-reinvention mode. The famous line, “You’re only as good as your last movie,” is the central truth, providing everyone in the film industry with a damn good reason to reinvent. In the film business, it’s a cruel fact: Either you stay cutting-edge or your callous competition will come through the side door–while you’re peering through the safe vantage point of the inside front window–looking for trouble-free opportunities.
Reinvention is the modern-day law of survival. How many out-of-work actors are there, all trying to live on their past laurels (“But darling, don’t you know who I am?”) and, chances are, failing horribly. This self-important attitude may have carried weight in the pioneering days of the movie industry, but these days, we’re all on short fuses when it comes to pretentious humans (OMG! – more than a few come to mind).
Let’s cut to the chase; it’s not that different in our industry—people stay in business by staying cutting-edge. Sometimes they make fools of themselves in the process, however, by trying a little too hard. For example: In your experience (and if you have no experience, follow along and get some) how many clients, after hearing your proposal, have replied with this industry’s most-asked question: “What can you give me that no one else has done?” followed by, “We don’t have much money.” Great–I love a challenge.
Here’s when the BS really starts to flow. The latest catchword to hit our industry is “convergence.” (When did convergence replace “synergy”?) Just the word itself and the way that it rolls off the tongue is enough to make prospective clients salivate with excitement. After getting a brief sales pitch, he says, “Are you saying that all this stuff can be integrated into one design? That’s fantastic!”
Sure it is! But it’s getting to the point where I think that the industry thinks that the BS is credible. Like those actors I mentioned, we’re beginning to believe our own publicity. (“But darling, don’t you know who I am?”) It’s not about the design, it’s about the convergence. Our magazines are full of news referring to the biggest productions, conventions, and such that boast the use of all the new gear…converging.
Just for the record, the only reason that convergence is unique is because (fairly) recent technology developments enable all of the new and improved production media to be controlled by a single source. But wait a minute…
Let’s rewind: The pyro-encrusted chrome PAR cans and analog consoles are quickly headed for the surplus anachronism category. Call me an old guy if you want, but I have a distinct memory of attending an imaginative Jethro Tull concert in 1971 that practiced authentic “convergence,” with film projection, set, lighting, scripted audio, and stage effects. Back then, the lighting designer was the single source, screaming down the headset at 10 other people to make it all happen. There are many other examples of convergence in live productions that I could mention.
So, what’s the big deal about convergence and why is it being touted as new silver bullet? First, let’s make a distinction between what’s really new and what’s a reinvention. Our industry reinvents itself by continually updating and then selling modern technology–it has to, as a matter of survival. We are, after all, a business and the innovative new “convergence” is, all too often, simply a fresh marketing term for what is a natural technological progression. It’s no different from other evolving technologies–vinyl winds up as a CD, a Sony Walkman morphs into an Apple iPod; a cumbersome 80s cell phone is cast aside for a Blackberry.
Here’s some of what’s new and available right now in our industry: stage design, preparation, and organizational software, the expanding use and control of digital imagery and intelligent lighting in one unit, the LED as a light source and, overall, gear that is safer and more efficient. In our case, however, instead of casting aside the old equipment, doesn’t “new and improved” technology simply add to the theatre-crafts instrument repertoire?
What concerns me is the idea that we might be losing sight of the centuries-long tradition of creating magic in theatre, instead replacing it with a new approach that that boils down to how much stuff can I cram into the design because I need to use all the latest gadgetry? Regardless of all the new technology at our disposal, sometimes that dusty PAR can and a little 12-way analog console just might be the right tool for the job—you’ll never know.
Even while our industry publications go wild for sold-out, big-budget tours and new architectural lighting designs that ooze technology, there are plenty of less-glamorous entertainment assignments that feed the industry’s overall well-being—projects where your basic conventional design style is exactly what’s needed–with a large budget or not. “What can you give me that hasn’t been done before?” may be an invitation to roll out the latest jargon, like “converge it,” when dealing with a difficult client, but good design is the real answer to the problem.
Practicality isn’t exciting though. I want ten LED screens, 200 moving fixtures, and 20 trucks–what a thrill! That’s the celebrity-driven world we’re in and it serves to either intimidate you, because you’re not making boatloads of cash from high-profile projects or, conversely, it motivates you to learn more about what’s going on and reinvent yourself to adapt to rapidly changing times. Even if you just finished a mega-hit show, you’re only as good as your last gig and you can’t hold on to the identity that it brought you for very long. The trick is keeping up without selling out—know what’s new but remember what’s good about the tried-and-true.
It’s more obvious than ever that, in business, everything changes all the time—any comfortable position is likely to be challenged, sooner rather than later. The single, fixed-identity career may have worked for previous generations, but it’s a liability in our technology-driven world. So reinvent yourself, but don’t forget who you are. Don’t fall in love with too-trendy ideas. And by the way, don’t get stuck on the marketing term “convergence” for too long, either–as it’s going to go out as fast as “synergy”.
Regardless of all the new technology at our disposal, sometimes that dusty PAR can and a little 12-way analog console just might be the right tool for the job—you’ll never know until you try it.
In your experience how many clients, after hearing your proposal, have replied with this industry’s most-asked question: “What can you give me that no one else has done?” followed by, “We don’t have much money”?
A Pervasive and Common Mistake Jan 22, 2005
By: Paul Dexter
Being of a certain (ahem, mature) age, I’m naturally concerned about things that were of little worry in the past. I’m not alone, or I shouldn’t be; statistics reveal an intensifying problem that demands our early attention.
Age brings its own set of new circumstances and relative concerns. When you’re two, it’s a toy you must have. For a teenager, it’s pimples and romance problems, then which-college-do-I-attend followed by career-path problems, finding a job, marriage troubles, and so on–it doesn’t end!
The issue for me these days is dealing with the years that I underestimated the importance of continual investing. We all need to do it, to prepare for our retirement years, a rainy day, or the fact that we are one divorce, serious accident, or natural disaster away from a miserable, uninvited life change. It’s not all gloom; good fortune can come your way, too. But, more often than not, circumstances beyond your control can cause major changes.
One action that you can take at any age is to create a routine investment program for yourself. In fact, the earlier a person recognizes this, the easier it becomes; once you have such a program in place, you can relax about money–a luxury that most of us don’t have. For example, if you started 10% annual return account at age 15 and put $3,000 a year into it until you were 19, and then didn’t touch it until age 65, you would accumulate $1,615,363.40. At 15, though, you can’t imagine that you’ll ever get to be 65. Moreover, it’s hard enough for a 15-year-old to scrape together enough change for a Big Mac and a tube of Clearasil. Yes, the concept of a compound interest account goes right over the heads of most youth and the public education system seriously doesn’t provide financial education for kids, or adults for that matter.
This is an entertainment-technology magazine, and its editorial content, concerning productions, technological innovations and notable people is certainly pertinent to its readers—but so is financial health. This subject has as much relevance to our business as any new product guide. It affords us some peace of mind as we delve into our unpredictable life journeys.
In my humble opinion, there isn’t enough emphasis on the importance of saving for the future, and clearly there is substantial evidence that validates the need for us to talk about this issue more and, at least, to begin to consider some alternatives that are available.
Just as the anti-smoking campaigns grew out of the wave of government and private lawsuits claiming the tobacco industry for decades concealed the full extent of the health dangers related to smoking, there’s a chance that someday we’ll see ads warning about the dangers of debt and the importance of saving. Phillip Morris pays for the anti-smoking campaigns; in the future, perhaps credit-card issuers and mortgage lenders will be expected to pay for media spots to educate people on the harmful effects of debt and how it can be a barrier to a person’s ability to save and build wealth.
It’s not such a crazy idea. There is such an epidemic of debt and bankruptcy (record levels of more than 1.61 million filed in 2004) that non-profit (The American Savings Education Council, or ASCE) and government programs (the Financial Literacy and Education Commission) were created to develop a national strategy for financial education.
The three most important issues identified were: 1.) educating Americans about the dangers of debt, 2.) integrating personal finance into all stages of public education, and 3.) raising the level of financial knowledge among adults.
“We live in a culture of debt in the United States that is promoted on many levels by the federal government, its sponsored organizations, and private companies,” says Dallas Salisbury, CEO of the Benefit Research Institute in Washington DC and chairman of the ASCE policy board. “It is imperative, that instead, we start encouraging a culture of saving.”
These concerns are particularly important to the people who make up this industry, which is more casual and less structured than most. With the feast-and-famine nature of our business for many freelancers, how the hell can you possibly put money away? Even with eligible employees, more than 30% don’t participate in 401K plans. Is this a no-win situation?
No, it’s not. As the bills that come in, you probably pay everyone else and whatever is left over you can keep, right? Wrong. If you want lasting financial change, you have to decide right now to pay yourself first; each payment should be at least 10% of that paycheck and it should be paid into a compounded interest account. Better yet, make it an automatic payment. That way, you don’t have to follow a budget or be disciplined. If you decide not to pay yourself first, here are your other options: Win it, marry it, inherit it, sue for it, or budget for it. What’s the likelihood of that?
In order to prioritize saving, using this method, all you need to do is arrange an automated system of investment, an act that should take up an hour or so of your time. If you do it, it will help you maintain a decent lifestyle until you quit your job or you can’t do it anymore. It’s okay to say you bought that new bit of advanced visualizer software, or a palm pilot, but at the end of the day, you have to pay yourself—and you have to that first. Start by setting up an automated system; start with smaller amounts and increase it as you get used to it. To find a fee-only financial planner to help you with this concept: National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, 800-366-2732, www.napfa.org/index2.htm
The ads that we see in all media promote debt by companies that profit from the culture of debt. Getting credit cards is easy and the ads make it seem glamorous! Those companies have an agenda and are telling consumers that it’s not only okay, but also smart, to go into debt–not so.
Don’t wait until it’s a crisis. Take the above information on board and with this New Year, seriously start with a smart saving strategy. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are. It’s important at any age, in any business–-even our illustrious, but insular, young industry.
Sources for this article:
“There’s No Such Thing as Safe Debt,” by Humberto Cruz, LA’s Daily News
“To Protect Your Nest Egg,” by Lori Lucas. published by CFA Hewitt and Associates
The Automatic Millionaire: A Powerful, One-step Plan to Live and Finish Rich, by
David Bach, New York Times Best Selling Author, published by Broadway Books
(Paul Dexter runs Masterworks Lighting Design.
Celebrity Access Interview – Paul Dexter Dec 17, 2004
Industry Profile: Paul Dexter
— By Jane Cohen and Bob Grossweiner
Besides his lighting design projects, lighting designer Paul Dexter is busy with two new ventures: the launch of two new companies — Masterworks Lighting Design and Road Cases, an industrious project that was established to chronicle the tales of all those touring road warriors.
Paul began his lighting career in 1970 in Los Angeles at the young age 16, transforming 42 Hawaiian pineapple cans into lights and operating them with crude double pole switches. At 18, he was asked to tour with Elvis Presley, but did not take the job. Regrets? It is doubtful. The very same person, Marilyn Rennegal, he turned down introduced him to lighting designer James Moody, (who at the time was) part owner of Sundance Lighting. So began the start of Paul’s touring career.
A colorful history of worldwide concert touring ensued as a lighting designer with artists such as Rick James, Motley Crüe, DIO, Ozzy Osbourne, Elton John, and performing in the opposite end of the live stage spectrum – the Bolshoi Ballet at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Paul married and moved to North Yorkshire, England from 1986-96. Observing the area as a cultural desert, he decided to take action, conducted feasibility studies and developed a media center concept, working closely with Coopers and Lybrand and the Teesside Development Corporation, one of Margaret Thatcher’s flagship projects. Paul’s project, Keys North, was an ambitious groundbreaking property and media venture that he created, which included a sound stage, recording studios, theatre, radio station and retail shops. Paul held 12 acres of land for four years, while seeking investors. The FM radio license was awarded, however as the ’91 recession hit, his project soon ended.
Returning to Los Angeles in 1996, Paul worked with other industry related companies such as Presentation Services Limited, A-1 Audio/Lighting and Entertainment Lighting Services, during which he studied graduate level lighting theory via Penn State’s Internet course.
He actively keeps up with new technology. He was lighting consultant/director for the movie “Rock Star” and designed lighting with Hiro Yamagata for the amazing and lauded $3M art installation, using holographic materials, lasers and light in Malibu, Calif. and New York City, in 2000-2001.
During the past five years, Paul has been an industry author for several publications and most recently with articles published monthly in Lighting & Sound America. In April 2004, he founded Road Cases — a company established to document and produce a series, on film, of touring days as described from the collective memories of those that lived it; the concept has attracted interest from major cable TV. In October (of ’04) Paul set up Masterworks, a lighting design service company.
What product has had the biggest influence in lighting design?
Without a doubt, moving lights have changed the way that a designer considers every design, with emphasis on entertainment. First, they don’t have to have nearly as many fixtures because of multi-function capability. Second, nobody has to go up on a ladder or climb a truss anymore to spend hours focusing. It’s a great (relatively) new tool but often misused as a primary source. I still like to have a balance of conventional fixtures, whenever possible — too many moving lights often looks too geometrical and clinical.
What makes a good lighting designer?
Passion. A sense of design is innate. If you’re an academic, you’re not going to wake up one day and say you’re a designer. There are a lot of good designers out there, but there are a lot of self-proclaimed designers, too. You still don’t need to have a qualification to “say” you’re a designer.
Where is intelligent lighting headed?
I really don’t know. I could have never predicted the way that it is now!
How difficult is it to keep up with all the changing technology?
If you’re in the business, it isn’t difficult at all. You just keep adding the new technology to the repertoire, just as you would build a selection of tools for your garage wall. Technology seems as though it’s progressing fast, but it’s like looking in the mirror at yourself everyday: you’re aware of changes, but you’re not shocked to see yourself after one night’s sleep.
What advances do you foresee in lighting technology five years from now?
I couldn’t predict that, but LED seems to be on an unstoppable path. Pundits predict that by 2025, LED will be the primary source of light. That means we’ll see more LED replacing bulbs. The brighter they can make them, the more bulbs they’ll replace.
How difficult is it to compromise a design with a budget restriction?
A production without budget constraints isn’t a luxury that I’ve enjoyed that much. It’s a challenge to make a limited budget transform into the desired visual outcome to everyone’s expectations. All you can do in that instance is forget about effects, point the light in the direction of the action and try to create a little background to add some dimension. Timing is also paramount. I have made audiences awe, simply by moving a black drape to reveal a lit backdrop at exactly the time in the music when it was meant to be. It’s still big value for money if you can do that.
What lighting trends do you see in large-scale productions as well as small-scale productions?
In large scale, always add more stuff to fill the picture up! It’s like an insurance policy. It protects you from having a void when you run out of ideas. Projection and imagery are already a huge lighting integration tool – that’s a definite trend, because methods have drastically improved and it’s what the TV generation wants to see. Explaining the small-scale trend is easy! Besides theatrics, a small amount of lighting effect and calculated timing sometimes has more purpose and wow factor than overwhelming new technological effects. Too many effects desensitize the audience anyway. The trends for small scale can’t do much more than basics, owing to the imposing financial equation, but using experience and knowledge, you can still accomplish a lot.
What have been some of your favorite tours, lighting-wise?
Of stuff that I did, DIO definitely – lots of theatrics there. Motley Crüe was just balls out big lights rock fun and, of course, Elton John. He’s at the top of my list as far as live performers — lighting and set-wise; I got a lot of artistic leeway. It was an extremely exciting time. Of other tours I liked were early Genesis when Alan Owen started experimenting with Vari*Lites, Allen Branton with David Bowie and then, there was early Jethro Tull, who, in the early 70’s was already integrating projected imagery. There are so many!
How did the idea of Road Cases come up?
I wrote an article in 2000 called, “Is There Life After Rock ‘n’ Roll Touring?” Allow me to give you some background, first. It has been a fascinating journey for me and others that helped pioneer the production side of touring. You didn’t need credentials apart from the love of the game, but it became a career path and I knew it would end someday. The problem with that is that it didn’t end until some 20 years later. After that, finding a new direction was far more difficult than I ever imagined. That’s because the road wasn’t a job so much as a lifestyle, and it can’t be duplicated in day-to-day business life. There are many out there facing the same problem and it’s a new problem.
Anyway, my friend, Larry McNeny, who was tour manager for Ozzy in ’81 when I was touring with him too, has kept in contact. One day he called me and said he had an idea about creating a series for cable TV but using the backstage perspective of this unrepeatable era that we lived. He said, “What do you think of the name Road Cases?” The penny immediately dropped for me owing to my feelings about this already, my research and interest in the subject, so we got to work.
It’s still early in the game, but how has industry support been?
Support has been great, and we’ve got sponsors, which is a milestone, but could use more! It was important to create industry backing from the outset. The last thing I wanted for this project was for it to be perceived as some ego-fueled dream. Many have seen the sense in the idea and rose to the cause. Do you know we’ve had nearly 6,000 hits on the website since April ’04? The industry publications have also been outstanding supporters too, by publishing press releases about it and offering space to promote it. Awareness is key. This project will succeed only if we can inform the broad spectrum of people worldwide who toured. There are thousands out there that have toured, and each person has at least one or two stories. Some of them are really funny, too. We have only scratched the surface.
What prompted you to start Masterworks?
Oh my God! I wish I had an exciting answer, like a multi-millionaire investor gave me money to start it or was able to announce that it was a bolt-of-lightning stroke of genius, but in short, my last employer (ELS) pushed me out. Employment for the comfort of a weekly check was an equation that was never going to add up for me, particularly in an office environment that expects consistent income in a volatile business. The move was a wake-up call for me to get back to what I really have had the most success with during my life and what I enjoy most doing, and that is lighting design, with all its pros and cons.
What do you hope to accomplish with Masterworks?
To combine all of the aspects of my experience, both commercially and creatively, and have some fun doing it too. Having said that, clients will depend on me to discriminate with expensive decisions, and that I take very seriously. Through my experience, I understand how commerce and politics can dovetail into the creative and imaginative part of our industry and usually, that’s two people – you know – a great artist isn’t typically a good businessman and vice versa or, the baseball pitcher isn’t normally the one that hits the home runs.
I’m more of an artist than a businessman and recognized that early on. I worked hard to learn business – and paid dearly for it too – so that I could perform better, but it didn’t come naturally. Now, I can honestly say that I identify with both sides, owing to lots of painful practice. It’s added value, and I’m ready to pass the comforts, which that combination may bring to my prospective clients. I’m totally confident with achieving a good business transaction with the exchange of bringing light to either practical illumination jobs or art forms.
Any new projects on the horizon?
Considering that Masterworks is a start-up, the prospects are bright. I’ve a client with a period 1930’s house in Hollywood that is decorated wholly Venetian-style. I’ve designed some practical solutions with unobtrusive new technology fixtures that compliment the décor – the install is just about ready to commence. In the meantime, I traveled to Monterrey, Mexico with DIO for a metal festival, and I may go to Russia for the fourth time in the spring with them.
There’s a permanent install in the works, too. I’m designing a theatrical stage system for a new-build 3,500-seat arena style venue in Southern California, which is hi-tech and should be finished by mid-2005. With the new regeneration schemes in downtown Los Angeles, I’m also working on closing a contract to design a stage system for a new theater, which will start in 2005 and finish in 2006 and there’s an exhibit booth for NAMM show in Anaheim. Lately, I’m actively working the plan to bring awareness to Masterworks and Road Cases. Outside of that, it’s anyone’s guess what may come up for either one of my projects, but the foundations are solid, so I’m pretty optimistic about it.
First concert attended
I’m straining to answer this one, but I think that it was Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in 1970 with the Doobie Brothers as the opening act in San Diego. Flo and Eddie from the “Turtles” were in the band at that time.
How do you stay fit on the road?
When you’re a working lighting designer, you’re the first in and the last out. You get plenty of exercise. When I didn’t do load-ins and strikes anymore, I used to run, or take long walks, when I could, and sightsee, which is much harder in some places than others. It’s particularly good in Europe.
First concert worked
Rock concerts when I was 16 back in 1970 for an all-original band from Claremont, Calif. called “Central.” It’s funny, before I built my first lighting system, I helped set up the gear back then and take pictures. My nickname was “fotofrog”. In those days, “Van Halen” opened for “Central” a couple times in local recreation halls. I looked at that band and thought, “Those guys will never make it!” After that my first “professional” concert was in Fresno with “War” and “Climax Blues Band” in 1973 working as the third man on the lighting crew.
First industry job
Sundance Lighting. Marilyn Rennegal (a formally trained theatrical lighting designer with a Masters in Theater from UCLA and part-owner of Sundance) and I met when I was 18 years old at a battle of the bands contest featuring “Rare Earth” as the headliner at Riverside Raceway in California. She asked me if I wanted to tour with Elvis [Presley]. I didn’t take it, but she introduced me to Jim Moody, also with a UCLA Masters and part owner of Sundance. I can remember how we cobbled lighting systems together in front of Jim’s house and measured cable distances around the pool. That association was the beginning of my touring career.
There are so many that I can’t think of a favorite, but I’ll say that one would have been a live concert broadcast on Sky television, with 30 million viewers all over Europe, in Verona, Italy with Elton John. It was in the 2,000-year-old Coliseum, the same venue where the Christians were fed to the lions. I lit the stage but also the decrepit architecture. Working with Elton and watching him perform each night was a thrill, but this night was surreal. It rained all day, was really nice and clear for the concert and then rained all during the load-out.
Every time a tour ended. There’s an indescribable loss that you feel along with identity crisis. You’re living a liberal lifestyle, jetting all over the world; you’re given itineraries, money, luxury hotels, chicks for free and job satisfaction. It’s all associated with controversy and a memorable escapism experience that’s shared with thousands of people. It’s a natural high that I truly miss.
In 1986, I toured with DIO in support of the album “Sacred Heart.” The stage set was a 23-foot fire-breathing, hydraulic-driven Dragon, two eight-foot tall Knights that tracked and shot lasers from their eyes, a working drawbridge and a multi-media crystal ball. Coordinating all the scripted theatrics, which I wrote with Ronnie, with split second timing was certainly concentration and focus on par with an orchestra conductor.
The other greatest career challenge was weaning myself off the road and finding a new direction. That has led to many left turns.
Best business decision
I’m a risk taker so I can think of more bad decisions! With that said, bad choices have been my learning base. One of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein is: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” That always makes me feel better when I make (another) mistake! If there was a good business decision, it would be sticking to my convictions and choosing my own career path instead of allowing others to influence me. I knew what I wanted from a very early age, but you know, I was getting the usual advice – go to college, go into the coast guard, stick with a good solid traditional job. Bullshit. Nothing is certain in the job market anymore so I’m glad that I chose my career. I’ve a lot more transferable skills to offer because of it.
Best advice you received
Keep it simple, stupid. I just wish that I could follow it! Life is complicated sometimes!
Best advice to offer
Believe in yourself! There is this strategy that many use: if you can’t keep up with the Joneses, keep the Joneses down. It’s called winning through intimidation, and it absolutely wrecks creative people. Creative people are generally not very good at business. If you’re creative, get some business experience: read books, watch others and learn about business strategy and the commercial market. People in the business world could give a hoot about artists and design, but design is the only thing that will differentiate one show from another or one product from another. Basically, we all have access to the same tools. Somebody has to transform a creative or innovative idea into reality. Who’s going to do that? A bully accountant? No. Talent does that. By getting business experience, it levels the playing field and they can’t intimidate you out of your creative mind.
Most memorable industry experience
I have two. I remember that I was asked by Frank Zappa’s road manager to take Frank’s guitar to him in the dressing room after a show when I was 16. It was very exciting because he was extremely charismatic. The other is when Rick James was yelling at me in the dressing room for not bringing up the lights up when he said too. That scared the crap out of me. The mitigating factor was, as I was watching him rant and call me names, I couldn’t take him seriously because he was wearing these ridiculous pink curlers in his braided hair extensions. Anytime after that, when someone thought they would get to me by yelling, or acting irrationally, I imagine them with pink curlers. It works every time.
What friends would be surprised to learn about you
You’re really are digging deep, aren’t you? That I work hard, and risk, so that by contrast, I can be lazy. It’s not a very balanced motivation though.
Industry pet peeve
There isn’t enough room here for that question to be answered! I’ll try to narrow it down. I can’t bear shows with lighting guys who think that they have to use all the effects by the third song. Shows need to be structured so that you save stuff. I’ve been to some concerts, and it’s so bad that my favorite part is the black out. Stop moving the damn lights all the time! It loses impact if you don’t use contrasts, and it also desensitizes the audience for that time when there’s a cool effect — it goes right past them. It’s like premature show ejaculation. Save some for the climax!
The other is that our industry media doesn’t pay enough attention to what’s going on with people. Life and what people are thinking about are glossed over and hushed. We talk about it, but what you’ll read is only about people in a professional sense; who is working on what show or company personnel changes and you’ll see the typical shot of the sound guy backstage wearing the laminate. But what’s really going on socially with people that should shape the way our industry could pursue real answers? For example, after 36 years of touring productions, freelancers haven’t got any long-term protection by way of group health insurance, 401K or even advice to save is a huge issue owing to the feast and famine nature of the business. And yet, every production in the world requires a professional team to make entertainment work, but they want people to work for rates that are disproportionate to today’s expenses. I know some real pioneers of this industry that are left in a bad way. They gave and gave and all of the sudden the ride stopped. Mind you a lot of it was bad money management. Putting $100 worth of coke up your nose used to be more important than a savings account. I’m trying to organize an association right now through my project Road Cases (www.roadcases.org) that has set goals to try to help the old road guys and the new touring professionals establish life as a freelancer.
And one more thing: I detest the way that corporations have ruined our village industry. They are imposing rules and time schedules that are used to sell products. The greedy bastards have wrecked the concert touring industry in so many ways because we’ve molded everything to accommodate the bottom line. Rrrrahhh!
I’m a minimalist, so my desk has only the latest basics needed to operate, communicate and create. I am proud of past achievements, so I hung up gold/platinum records from the bands that I’ve worked with and my favorite show pictures on the walls.
If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…
…doing something else equally as entrepreneurial. I can’t imagine it any other way and I can’t bear working for other people. Every time I did I learned something, but I always regretted the compromising situation that it left me in. Whatever it would be, I would have to do it on my own or create the environment.
Ronnie James Dio. He is one of the most caring individuals that I have ever met and has helped me understand and harness raw attitude and creativity. Theatrics and live presentation are extremely important to him. He was able to articulate to me ideas and I could translate them into effect and drama. It is a development process that Ronnie is proactive with from beginning to end. Most artists don’t take the care or time to communicate theater with the designers. Professionally and personally, he would make time for me in good times and bad. Ronnie is an example of what a great man should be!
Paul can be reached at: 818-709-4314.
Finding Success in the Free Agent Nation Dec 10, 2004
By Paul Dexter
You don’t need to be a celebrity with riches and fame to be special. Of course it helps, because with fame and riches, the media is closely trailing you, so with good or bad news to report, it’s a perpetual free marketing machine. If you’re exposed that much, you must be special and more cash and fame follows. What a circle of dilemma!
Reality shows have exposed many out that aren’t special, but they made it on TV and get the spotlight anyway – Anna Nicole-Smith comes to mind and enough already! Ken Jennings, the $2.5M winner after 75 appearances on Jeopardy was probably the most unlikely nerd to ever get on TV, but in the end so deserved – after all, he made game show history and a ton of cash.
There are more ways available for the average person to get noticed or find the right time and be in the right place now, than ever before. Longer living, larger population and global economy are among the various factors. We have the Internet and you can market product worldwide from the back bedroom of your house or, there’s software that enables you to create storylines by filling in the blanks within a good and evil formula, then make a reasonably high quality movie on your laptop. Today the workforce of America is changing to accommodate a new mentality of; there are no guarantees, contrary to traditional perception within the last generation, or so, ago.
This has unleashed a new age of the “free agent” nation, whereby average people are opening their own businesses and marketing themselves as “someone special” – it’s all about me! Here are some facts from Dan Pink’s book, “Free Agent Nation”, (April 2001). It’s a bit time sensitive, but the trend has been established and substantiates the claim and naturally, one can expect that the percentages have since increased.
· Fewer that 1 in 10 Americans now work for a Fortune 500 company
· The number one private employer in the U.S., by body count, is no longer GM or AT&T. It’s Manpower, Inc., the temporary work agency.
· Between 16 and 25 million of us are freelancers or independent contractors. There are now 3 million temps – including temp lawyers, temp engineers, temp project managers, and even temp CEO’s.
· Microbusinesses, defined as companies that employ four or fewer people, are home to another 12-27 million of us.
*The bottom line is that we’re on our own. Stable employment at large corporations is gone and lifetime employment is over. It is not theory, it’s happening now!
One of the advantages of our industry is that people are moving in, around and through it all the time. It’s almost a given in the entertainment industry and for that reason we are ahead of the curve and poised for the evident freelance movement. We change careers, but usually within the industry that we know and love – lights, audio, staging, projection and all of the ancillary jobs that it creates. There is plenty of new opportunity in our media village, but you have to be observant, have a little bit of luck too and your niche will likely be discovered.
A case in point is a man that I’ve known for about 5 years, Manny Parodi. I want to deem Manny, right from the start, “someone special”. It’s doubtful that he’s going to bump Jessica Simpson off of the cover People Magazine, but we all know that as soon as that spectacular cleavage goes, she will too. I’m referring to someone special with substance, not necessarily rich or famous. Consequently, he’s one of the best-kept secrets in LA, and known only within a small circle of his growing list of clients and friends.
Manny is the founder/owner/president of a company in Los Angeles called Production Storage Group (www.productionstoragegroup.com). If you didn’t ask him questions, he wouldn’t offer to talk about himself. Modesty in this instance is an endearing trait. But I’m glad that I did, because he has a fascinating background and a following inspirational success story, which vindicates the “it’s about me” state of the workforce trend.
Manny’s business was borne out of sheer determination to give up road life and find his role in the “free agent nation”. It seemed to me though, that while talking with him, working at anything but his own company isn’t an option. His mindset is consciously geared for developing a functioning circumstance on his own, with no consideration for seeking traditional lifetime employment opportunity.
Personal history is important to understand where that mindset came from. Born a U.S. citizen in April of ’64, Manny is descendant of prestigious Cuban Heritage. His grandfather was a senator in the “Machado” Government, during a significant transitional period of U.S./Cuba relations, circa 1925-1933, through the stock market crash and eventual government turmoil. He accumulated immense wealth during his lifetime. Upon his death, Manny’s father, inherited the wealth and a host of properties. At one point he bought the entire U.S. WWII war surplus left in Guantanamo and sold it to sugar cane and tobacco growers and ranchers. After Castro nationalized U.S. Banks, businesses and commercial property to retaliate U.S. economic embargos, the family’s land was confiscated. Manny’s father fled from Cuba in 1960 to Miami with a mere $90.00 and subsequently, worked hard to fulfill the American dream.
As you can imagine, entrepreneurial sense is innate with Manny and he was raised with a strong work ethic. He attended Cal State Northridge, and then worked in Real Estate and marketing until 1988, when a tumor was discovered in his face. Surgery saved him, but he felt he cheated life and wanted a radical change. So, he quit his job and began working with Mike Hirsh of LA Stage Call. To make a long story short, he learned all aspects of production, forged relationships and a touring career ensued with the likes of Duran Duran, Gloria Estefan, Natalie Cole and Michael Jackson. By 1997, Manny began looking for exit routes to get off the road. Lonely hotel rooms began to take their toll.
In January 2000, Christine Aguilera’s management called to reserve Manny as Stage Manager for a tour starting in July. In February, the management called to ask if he could find storage. Incredibly, there weren’t that many options to store big set pieces. The proverbial penny dropped. He did one more tour, saved all the money and with his other savings, he leased an 80,000 square foot building and started his own storage facility, with one employee – Manny Parodi.
Production Storage Group solved a simple need to store touring sets and cases, full of stuff that artists, such as Cher, Incubus, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Beyonce, Alanis Morrisette…want to keep, but aren’t using. There’s more. Disappointed with hiring trucking services to satisfy his customers, one was created. Shaun O’Brien and four drivers, with a Ryder Truck relationship, efficiently run it. By minimal overhead and one employee, in 2004, Manny doubled his business and has begun the search for another LA warehouse.
With the upward trend of carving-your-own-niche-society, there are certainly more people out there that have unique stories to tell that aren’t famously recognizable. It’s just that most of the time; we are so entrenched with our own busy lives that we are missing a social phenomenon, so I’m glad that I could bring this story to you, about somebody special, that you won’t see in a tabloid, while waiting in line at the supermarket.
*From “Re-Imagine – Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age” – Tom Peters
Paul Dexter, Masterworks Lighting Design