I Paint with Illumination

An Interview with Marc Brickman

‘For me, the tools of illumination are LEI (light emitting image), projected image or the 3D image (an image charged with lighting to allow it to emerge from its background). Light is a powerful translator of energy, but for its power to be effective, it needs its opposite. It is from that negative space that I begin to manipulate light to create a series of panels.

‘Given this framework, each pictorial space is charged with varying levels of illumination that play in and out of shadow – I see it as an evolving kinetic ‘frieze of motion’ and no moment is ever static.When the energies of light or image converge, the light seen is spectacular and its effect on the viewer is profound – not because of its intensity, but because of its interplay with what the viewer is not allowed to see.’

Marc Brickman is a world-renowned lighting and production designer. His credits include concert tours for Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Blue Man Group, Black Eyed Peas, Keith Urban, Chris Botti with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and John Mayer and Cirque Du Soleil. Recognised as an innovator in the industry, his awards and accolades include Emmy Award and Cable Ace Award nominations for production design and Best Director, and Lighting Designer of the Year.

Marc created the lighting for the 1998 Winter Olympics Closing Ceremonies in Nagano and the 1992 Summer Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies in Barcelona. His numerous works for film and television include Steven Spielberg’s AI and Minority Report, and Sam Raimi’s Spider Man.

BB: Marc, you are a world renowned and award-winning artist and designer. Yet your profession is, shall I say, quite obscure to the general public. Can you tell me more about your background and explain what you really do?

MB: Yes, I am a production lighting designer and director. I create LIVE entertainments that I’m sure your audience has experienced at one time or another, and I’ve been doing it for close to 40 years.

BB: The perception of what art is has evolved very dramatically in the last couple of decades, certainly in my lifetime. What is your own definition of art?

MB: Art is a label that is used quite broadly these days. Anything can be defined as art if one feels like calling it art, even though there is also the traditional perception of the word. I would define it as an expression from one to others. It’s quite amazing how much art there is in the world.

BB: Do you collect art?

MB: I collect and I also paint. I study art and I am mesmerised by painters. I aspire to be a great painter.

BB: Will printed matter survive the digital age?

MB: Oh, absolutely. I don’t even think it’s a question of survival. It’s just going to live alongside digital media. I don’t see printed matter going away, at least in our lifetime. I love the new digital world also, with everything at your fingertips instantaneously. So I think it’s just a matter of a marriage, really, between the two.

BB: As a parallel, do you think that lighting design productions will be superseded by VJing?

MB: No, I don’t think it will – one can have lighting, video, audio, in conjunction with other elements work together to make up the show. VJing is the driver of all those elements digitally in real time. The lighting design is one of those elements, a brother in the family.

BB: Do you remember a time when lighting design was not commonly used in music performances?

MB: Well, I think it has always been used, but it really came into its own – and became an art form – in the 1970s when technology was introduced. But there have always been lighting and lighting performers, even going as far back
as the late 19th century and earlier. Loie Fuller had the first light show at the turn of the century.

BB: What have you done to be recognized as a cutting edge innovator in the touring events industry?

MB: Throughout my career I have always looked at other disciplines, other areas of new technology alongside new inventions to apply them to my designs. In 1992, at the Barcelona Olympics, I suggested that we turn off the stadium lights because those lights were used for football, and we weren’t doing football – we were doing an opening ceremony of the Olympics. So I was the first designer to turn off the stadium lights and to use theatrical lighting for the event. Since then, it’s become the norm as evidenced in China almost 20 years later. I believe my design at the time influenced opening and closing ceremonies going forward.

Before Pink Floyd went out touring in 1994 I went to the U.S. military and asked to see what new technology they had to offer. They suggested that I use gold lasers. The lasers they referenced were being used to split isotopes during the day at Hughes Aircraft. I used them at night to light up the skies across the globe.

So, I suppose, it’s being able to see the integration of new technology as applied to live design that’s propelled me up the ladder. Art is funny. What I mean is, you can take something that otherwise might seem ordinary, (or in the case of the lasers, extraordinary but rarely seen outside the realm of science labs) and re-purpose it as an artistic presentation. I always think about the eye of the beholder.

marc brickman

BB: Do you think the complexity of lighting design will improve further or do you think people will go back to a minimalistic light show, so that the focus remains on the act itself stripped of any embellishment?

MB: Everything is open to interpretation. If you have the budget, you’d have all the bells and whistles. And if you don’t have the budget, you have to rely on yourself. The business hasn’t changed that much, it’s just fashion that does. The technology has got a lot faster and there are newer things, but people use the tools pretty much the same way, often in bad taste (laughing). But in all seriousness, I think that it’s really dependent on the type of entertainment that a team is putting together – it’s never just about one person when you put a show together.

BB: In your opinion, what would be the most fundamental difference between Europe and USA on a cultural level?

MB: I think these days everything is global – it’s hard to distinguish between individual cultural identities anymore. Perhaps this would upset some people, but I find the identity of world cultures to be more marginalised now than ever before. I don’t find that many differences when I travel – I see Starbucks everywhere I go and all the same stores in every city. No matter what place I go to, there is a Starbucks. So to me, there isn’t that discovery of a new place when you travel. It’s all one big theme park. I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m just saying that part of the charm and mystery of the world has been lost. Yet to me, it was more beautiful and dangerous 20 years ago. One was able to disappear for days at a time without a tracking device in your pocket. But you know, it is what it is.

BB: What are your thoughts on light pollution and energy saving?

MB: There is no light pollution where I live – I see the stars every night when I look up – but in the cities you can’t avoid it. But I’m not sure if that’s pollution. Now energy saving, that’s a big issue. I think some of those fairly large touring shows and benefits that are produced are not perhaps concerned with their footprint. I know there have been a lot of attempts to make the producers aware of energy savings. It’s a work in progress really, which I’m sure will succeed.

BB: Do you follow politics? Pink Floyd’s The Wall carried quite a political statement. What is your opinion on political art and politically engaged artists?

MB: I think artists have quite a platform upon which to create awareness about various causes globally. And I think over the years they’ve succeeded in making a great impact. I did have a great moment when Nelson Mandela first came to the U.K., just days after he was released from prison. He appeared at Wembley Stadium where I was privileged to be one of the designers of the tribute show. I remember seeing him on one of the monitors via the cameras backstage, right before he was introduced on stage. For a few moments, I was able to watch him candidly, gazing out on a crowd of a hundred thousand people ready to greet him. I thought it was one of the most amazing and surreal moments that I’d ever experienced because I was able to witness a very private moment of this great individual. I’ve had more than my fair share of really great moments like that throughout my life.

BB: Do you have any memorable anecdote from your professional life?

MB: I have been really lucky in that I’ve been to some amazing places with Pink Floyd. We broke a lot of ground. We were one of the first, if not the first, band ever to play in Russia in ‘89. I remember going to Moscow for the first time, we were still objects of attention to the citizens. Also in that same time period we played at the Grand Canal in Venice, where the city government was overthrown a few days after the show because they allowed a quarter of a million people to jam in St. Mark’s Square. When we floated our barge on the Grand Canal, it was quite an event – the yacht carrying the city officials almost sank. There were so many boats in the canal, we had to sail our barge back out into the ocean to unload after the show concluded. The Italian Navy wouldn’t let us pass unless we paid a toll. Gondoliers wanted to be paid a surcharge for loss of business. It was like a game of pirates and cowboys. Those were crazy, crazy times.

We finally played at the Palace of Versailles. That was really unbelievable. The best part of the story was that we had to set up on the weekend. It was the middle of the summer and the landlord was away. When he returned late that Sunday night he was just shocked at what we had done to his courtyard – there was equipment everywhere and a stage in the middle of the front gate.

I was delegated to talk to him, so I took him on to the stage. We were facing the Palace of Versailles and I spoke over the walkie-talkie to light it all up. As all the lights turned on and the whole palace lit up, he and his wife turned to me and said, ‘do you think you can make that area over there a little bit more pink?’. I knew at that moment that we were okay. And we were until we flew our pig up over the palace and then he got very, very upset. He demanded an apology from the English government for flying a pig over the Palace of Versailles. I love being able to make a living as an artist, and I’m really lucky to watch real life play out as a series of artistic moments that couldn’t be scripted any better.

BB: Which performer from any era would you most like to design for?

MB: That’s a really hard question. I don’t just design for performers, I do all sorts of things. Someone said to me once that they’d most like to collaborate with Rembrandt if he was alive today because Rembrandt was always on the cutting edge. He was technically very professional and always very aware of his surroundings and what was available to him. I’d go along with that.

marc brickman

BB: Vision is seeing what is not there. How do you prepare a show? Is the conceptualising the most important part of your work?

MB: I try never to repeat myself. I’m always trying to always create something new using new technology, something that nobody has ever seen before or putting pieces together that shouldn’t be used together…that’s maybe why the word “risk” is often scrawled in red ink next to my name.

So I think, coming up with the idea is always the thrill and then trying to sell that idea to people who really have never seen it or cannot see.. People don’t feel comfortable buying something that has never been done before. I think that’s the hardest part of my job – trying to sell something that’s new. It makes people uneasy because it’s risky and risk is not something that a lot of people feel comfortable with.

BB: Where do you see yourself in the years to come? Have you got any project you have yet to achieve?

MB: Let’s see, I see myself painting, raising my daughter, loving my wife into old age and creating. We’ve created a great project together – a world called feefifofun.com It’s a virtual play space for children. Originally it was designed as a “park in a box” – to be a children’s play space similar to a kind of interactive Cirque du Soleil for kids only. Now it’s a website with stories and characters and music- lots of fun. Our artist is Alan Aldridge (world renowned illustrator known for his work with the Beatles) I’d like to see that actually take off and be successful. We’re currently in production making apps so look for FeeFiFoFun in the spring.