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Q&A: Lighting The X Factor

Lighting designer Tim Routledge on the creative and technical challenges of lighting The X Factor, and the key trends in lighting entertainment shows

When did you get involved in The X Factor? What was the creative brief?
This year we have not only shaken up the lighting design but also the management of the lighting. In April this year both Nigel Catmur and I were approached individually to design the show, both of us were keen to be involved however our diaries couldn’t quite work for the whole series so we approached the production team to offer a collaboration where we would design the rig together and then take it in turns each week to look after the show and the various extras required for each performance. The show is busy and changes a lot, so having the time to take stock and work up the next set of songs is working really well.

How did you go about meeting the brief?
We have used a variety of equipment all chosen to give us maximum flexibility and modern looks. For instance we have added a large run of LED strobe panels that can be used a wash light across the top of the screen – these form part of the scenery. They are very much in vogue lighting wise, for my recent Beyonce tour I added a 100m wide wall of 700 of these units.

We have also added 60 of a new fixture that has never been used before – Robe Spiider. It’s a fantastic new fixture that offers a beautiful crisp wash light and at the centre an amazing gobo effect.

How long did the set up take?
The rig takes about 10 days, we have a team of 10 crew from PRG led by Keith Duncan. The overhead rig goes in first, followed by screens and then staging. The floor packages and practicals follow after. We have a lighting team of a Moving Light Operator, Tom Young who works fulltime for me, Oliver Lifely on generics/key lighting, two vision engineers and a media server programmer looking after programming all the visual graphics on the onstage screens. 

Which lighting kit proved particularly important/useful?
We are using a brand new followspot system called PRG Ground Control. I have used it on several projects including Beyonces World Tour and a recent major film project. We have one of the systems on the XF and it’s a remote followspot system – instead of the followspot operators having to climb ladders and sit in the grid on flown spot chairs for long periods of time we have a moving light that is controlled by a handle down on the ground. It feels like a moving followspot but the light has a night vision HD camera mounted on the front and they use that to find their mark – the generics console operator has control of intensity and colour temperature and the operator just has to point it. It works for us on the show as our rear followspot has a small space to fit in and a chair and operator really wouldn’t be too practical and the operators love it.

What were the key challenges you faced along the way?
The set is inherently the same layout as last year that we have inherited. However the screen layout has changed somewhat. We now have a huge wrap around screen and this has reduced the number of entrances onto stage and also any dark holes between screens to house lighting effects have been removed – at first glance it’s a lighting directors nightmare but I very quickly fell in love with it and what we have ended up with is a stunning parallel run of lights both top and bottom of the screen that wraps around the studio. It’s bold, modern and enhances the wide look of the show.
 
What were you particularly pleased with about the end result?
When I took the show on I was very keen that we could make our mark and change it significantly, we didn’t in any way want to just replicate the same look. We really have achieved that with a new more fresh and zingy feel to the lighting and adding a new perspective tunnel of light overhead that force the viewers’ attention to downstage whilst adding to the drama of the “whoosh” you see before the contestants face the judges after each performance. There are signature parts to The X Factor that you embrace but with a new rig we have taken these to a new level and refreshed them for 016.

What are the key trends you are seeing in lighting at the moment
Producers are always looking for something new, something that no one has used before and the manufacturers can’t create new products fast enough. I am fortunate that I am creating a range of my own lighting fixtures. We started with a retro tungsten light that has really taken off and can be seen all over the world on various shows and I will be launching new products in early 2017. Initially I started designing them for my own use but they have been so well received that I got them into a major lighting manufacturer who now makes them under licence for me.

I guess shows are looking for a USP in their look. We have had a huge drive for LED screens on most shows and we are now heading to be using these not just as scenery or background but for clever more immersive and augmented uses. I would like to see more clever use of projection in broadcast and see some shows really embrace the possibilities of projection – LED screens can often feel too electronic and tiny rows of pixels often too formulaic in the back of shots.

We also specialise in clever timing in our programming and concentrate on intricacies and subtleties and steer away from whizzing all the lights around at all times. I think the audiences at home get tired of constant flashing and wiggling of lights – modern lighting design in the concert world has moved away from this and I hope we will see a shift away to a more defined and contemporary look.

How important is energy efficient lighting in the production market?
Aha, this is a very tricky point, as a lighting designer by definition I am not energy efficient - I turn lights on for a living. We have obviously had a big shift to LED lighting but there can be a bit of false saving here and because we have more lights on shows than ever before, the saving is often wiped out. Tungsten eye candy has also been popular in recent years which is very power hungry. I have to admit I haven’t seen a drive from managements on any of my projects to be energy efficient and this is often the last consideration for most projects. I do hope it does become a consideration and I hope a shift to more modern contemporary looks will reduce the need for large rigs of power hungry lights.

Which are your favourite lights to use on a production - and why?
I really don’t have a favourite set of lights as every project I do is unique. What works for one show really doesn’t work for the other. I start with the look and feel and brief of the show, followed by the space the project is being created in and work from there. There are some incredible developments in hybrid lights at the moment that allow one light to be more than a moving spot or wash light and we are seeing the ability for one light to be far more useful than before – they are becoming like Swiss Army knives – and in the world of every decreasing budgets, this is no bad thing.

I’m also more interested in sculpting and architecture in lights, so an interesting structure of lights is more interesting to me than the actual fixture itself.

The main thing for me is always picking my battles, be a responsible creative and drive for the things that I really believe in and let go of those that are not so important – I thrive on being part of a happy team and the atmosphere at Fountain Studios has been just plain fun and the result truly pleasing – you can’t ask for more than that.





Posted 07 December 2016 by Tim Routledge
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