Hit me with those laser beams.
Pretty Lights is an experience; the live experience consists of soulful electronic music fused with a fantastic light show and a group of fans that refer to themselves as a family. The experience isn’t something that could be captured in just the music or on film. You cannot begin to describe in words, either; it’s just special.
If you’re unfamiliar with Pretty Lights, it is a collaborative artistic project lead by producer Derek Vincent Smith. The project started in 2006 and really exploded in the last several years, leading to a Grammy nomination this year for his album A Color Map of the Sun. As you might expect from the name, the light show for Pretty Lights is spectacular, but it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. EDM.com had the pleasure of talking with Greg Ellis, also known as The LazerShark, the lighting designer for Pretty Lights, as he gave us a behind-the-scenes look at life as lighting designer.
As you’re reading the interview, I recommend listening my playlist of my ten favorite Pretty Lights tracks below.
Music journalism is so focused on the artists and producers, but most of these artists would tell you that they couldn’t do it alone. It’s the “behind-the-scenes” people that really can make a show special, and the visual component is so important to the experience at a show or festival. I’ve always been curious about light and sound design, so I started by asking Greg about his background in light design.
"I am self-taught and have been doing lighting design for a little over 10 years now. I have been very fortunate to find myself in several situations where I was given the freedom and time to tackle each new piece of gear I needed to learn. It allowed me to develop my craft and techniques on my own terms and I couldn't imagine doing it any other way."
So I wondered what Greg had worked on in the past that landed him in the fortunate position to be the light designer for Pretty Lights. Surely he had to have prior experience before joining the Pretty Lights team.
"One of my best friends growing up Phil Salvaggio began working with Derek in 2008, convinced me to move to Colorado from Connecticut in early 2009. I was not guaranteed anything, but I knew the only way to move forward in my career was to take a giant leap of faith, and when that moment presented itself I dove in headfirst. Prior to that, I was touring with The Breakfast (progressive jam band based out of New Haven, CT) as well as working as the house LD at Toads Place. Between those two jobs is how I really came into my own as an LD. One allowed me to travel the country and learn first hand how to deal with a multitude of situations, where being a house guy gives you the opportunity to work with every style of music under the sun, as well as work hand in hand with other LDs."
Once you’ve worked in the music business long enough, you’re guaranteed to have some pretty crazy stories to tell. The one that Greg shared with us from Coachella 2013 will give you an entirely new perspective on the hard work that goes into a light show.
"There were some new fixtures being used as part of the festival rig, and somehow in the process of incorporating them into my show, my file got corrupted. I spent all night trying to fix it and figure out how to get everything right to no avail. I finally gave up around 8 in the morning. After a nice little power nap I convinced myself to say fuck it and start from scratch. The problem was I couldn't access the rig again til right before our set so I rebuilt the file blindly throughout the day while other acts were playing. The first time I plugged in was an hour before we went on and miraculously I pulled it off and the show was a blast. At the end I was on the verge of breaking down because the whole experience was so stressful, and then the show was so magical. Depending who you ask we played in front some 30-40,000 people and afterwards I was completely overcome with emotion. It's something I'll take with me for the rest of my career."
An outdoor festival like Coachella is just one type of venue that Pretty Lights plays at. Over the course of a year, Pretty Lights will play dozens of festivals (both indoor and out), arenas, and smaller indoor venues. I figured that there would be advantages and disadvantages to each venue, and Greg explained which venues he prefers for light shows.
"Arenas are hands down my favorite place to work. The bigger, the more wide open it is, the better. That can be the very opposite for audio, many times arenas are very troublesome for our audio engineers. They generally prefer theatres or outdoor shows."
One thing I’ve always wondered about light design is how much is done live. After attending my fair share of Pretty Lights shows (seven on the most recent tour), I have almost never seen the lights do the same thing. One small exception I can remember vividly are the yellow lasers that slowly move over the crowd during the song, “Yellow Bird.” When I asked asked Greg about the process, I was pleasantly surprised by the answer I received.
"My approach is considered a hybrid between improv and pre-programmed. There are dozens of songs that I have spent countless hours on creating specific cues for, but I do not necessarily rely on them at every show. Each venue presents it's own unique challenges whether its the trim height(space from floor to ceiling), how wide a stage is, the air flow etc etc. That will in turn have a great effect on how I operate from night to night. Some nights the lasers will just absolutely crush, other nights they might be useless. Same goes for the lights, so it's my responsibility to get the most out of the rig regardless of what pitfalls I may be facing. That's where improvisation is crucial. I may completely ignore certain cues and instead just go for what I think is gonna look best for that situation. The art of concert lighting, as well as live music in my opinion is at its best when the artists allow themselves to get lost in the moment and embrace spontaneity."
Those who have followed Pretty Lights for a few years have seen a lot of evolution in the light design. Many people remember the famous “towers” of LED screens that resembled a city (below). For the Analog Future Tour that took place this fall, the emphasis changed from LED screens to light rigs and lasers. I wanted to know what a light designer thought about these changes, and to see if they would spill any plans for the future.
"I am at my core a lighting designer. I personally am not a big fan of video, but learned to live with and embrace it when I had to. I am currently working on some new ideas for this year but I'm keeping mum on any of that."
I couldn’t get the new secrets out of him. However, we know that Derek, Greg and the rest of the team will have some surprises for for their next tour. Take a look at the comparison image below to see just how much the light design for Pretty Lights has changed from the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2013. There’s no telling what they might come up with next!
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