Everyone in the live entertainment industry knows that each production involves a massive amount of behind-the-scenes work before you and your crew ever get to the venue. As a lighting designer, your job isn’t just about designing awesome looks and triggering that strobe cue right on the downbeat—it’s also about communicating extensively with production managers, vendors, technicians, and crew to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. In the industry, we call this work “the advance.”
The Show Kernel
Before we get into the history and process of advancing gigs, there’s one key term you should know: the show kernel. This refers to the core elements of your show that allow you to maintain a consistent look from venue to venue, no matter the scale. The kernel is a combination of plots, documents, show files, intellectual property, and your own knowledge of the act. Think of putting together the kernel as the advance for the advance—with thoughtful preparation you can do a version of your show no matter how big or small the stage is or what kind of lighting rig you end up with.
What is an Advance?
If the show kernel is a package of information that lets you adapt your show to any situation, the advance is all the work you need to do to realize that vision on stage, in front of a crowd. This includes communicating by email, getting the right person on the phone, drawing detailed plots, touching up someone else’s diagrams, and generally communicating what you need to pull off an awesome show.
Time is a finite resource. It can’t be manufactured, but it can be “bought” by communicating and ironing out the details in advance, giving you more time to deal with the unexpected complications that are bound to come up later. Simply put, the more work you can do ahead of time, the easier your job will be on the day of the show.
“You used to physically draw out separate plots for lighting, rigging, and patching, then take them to a copy shop and use the good-old “sneakernet” to hand-deliver or mail out copies to anyone who needed them.”
The History of the Advance
Long before you could attach a PDF to an email or collaborate remotely on a Google Doc, advancing a gig was a much more manual process. You might use a drafting table to physically draw out separate plots for lighting, rigging, and patching, then take them to a copy shop and use the good-old “sneakernet” to hand-deliver or mail out copies to anyone who needed them.
In the 1980s and 90s, technology started to streamline the process, but it still didn’t look like it does today. Even after AutoCAD made it possible to draft in 3D on a personal computer, you’d still have to physically mail floppy disks or CDs to send people data, and use fax machines to send documents. Lighting consoles like the Wholehog II made it possible to clone your show for different venues, but it was a tedious process that still involved a lot of manual work.
Then, the PDF came along and revolutionized the process. Finally, you could easily create and share documents in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get format that preserved every detail perfectly. The advent of broadband internet meant you could instantly send your plots and show files to anyone that needed them, even from a hotel room. Today, lighting design software is more powerful than ever, allowing designers to create models with unparalleled accuracy.
- Tour – Since a touring act usually carries all of its equipment with it, you typically won’t need to make any changes to your lighting plot for each show. When it comes to advancing each stop on tour, the responsibility falls more on the production manager than the lighting designer. They’ll be in charge of coordinating with venues to find out where the loading docks are, where the power is and how much of it there is, as well as other logistical factors. If the production manager identifies any venues with obstacles like a small stage or low trim, you may have to make some changes, but you’ll likely have plenty of time beforehand to figure everything out.
- Festival – Festival lighting rigs are generally designed to accommodate a wide variety of acts and therefore you might find that some specific elements of your show are hard to replicate. However, these rigs are usually large and versatile enough to allow you to realize some version of your show kernel (with a few compromises). If your act is headlining the festival, you may have more say in putting together the lighting rig—or even dictate it completely—but this privilege also comes with the responsibility of making sure the rig is flexible enough for other acts. Festivals require a huge amount of planning, teamwork and collaboration, and that certainly includes the advance.
- Corporate event – Large corporations often book big venues for important summits and retreats, adding entertainment to the program, alongside keynote speakers and panel discussions. If your act is booked for a corporate event, be prepared for a more rigid structure than other gigs. You’ll likely have to share the same stage as the speakers, and the schedule will be tight. Your advance will include finding out exactly when speakers will be on stage, figuring out how to seamlessly transition between consoles, and adapting to inevitable schedule changes. In some cases, the host will want to keep the identity of the act a secret, meaning you may have to use a code name in emails and remove identifying labels from your gear. Fortunately, corporate events are usually booked far in advance, giving you plenty of time to prepare.
Private event – This category encompasses a wide variety of private parties, weddings, fundraisers and other one-off events usually booked by individuals or private groups. Since the venue, host and other factors can vary so widely, be prepared for anything. You might be entertaining 50 people on a $300 million yacht with all expenses paid and an unlimited lighting budget, or you might find yourself working with a small lighting company to set up in a cornfield with limited electrical access. Whatever the circumstance, be as specific as possible with your advance to ensure as smooth a process as possible, and remember that your host might not have the same level of production experience to which you are accustomed.
- TV appearance – If you’re working with the right act, you might be fortunate enough to light a TV appearance on a popular late-night show or a high-profile concert program like Austin City Limits. Depending on the nature of the show and the network’s budget, you might have total freedom to create an elaborate custom lighting rig, or you may have to hand over creative control to an in-house team. In either case, it’s important to get all the details hammered out ahead of time so there are no surprises when you show up for the gig. Since TV appearances are unique, one-off events, your show kernel might not be as relevant as with other venues. However, it’s a great opportunity to wow viewers by creating something distinct without worrying about the logistics of taking it on the road!
Timeline of an Advance
Now, let’s talk about the process of advancing a gig. Bear in mind that this order is not set in stone—some of these steps may happen out of order or concurrently.
- The show gets scheduled – First, the act’s management makes a deal with the host or venue and decides on a date for the show. For tours, there will be many dates for many shows, while festivals often occur over multiple days with a rain date in the case of outdoor events. At this stage, your management will provide your act’s rider, which will include elements of your show kernel such as lighting and rigging plots.
- Make contact with the local production team – Your first point of contact with the production and venue staff will likely be on a long email chain with many recipients. At this stage, it’s extra important to be professional in your communication, since you never know who might be on the other end. After all, it’s critical to maintain a good rapport with key decision-makers. Always communicate as clearly and concisely as possible, be assertive enough to ensure the level of production that your artist expects, know where you’re willing to compromise, and most importantly, don’t forget to “reply all.”
- Identify who’s in charge of meeting your needs – After the initial contact, you can start a new email thread with just the people relevant to your department, such as lighting vendors, technicians, and master electricians. Usually, there will be one or two key people in charge of the “nuts and bolts” aspect of the show, so start talking to them early and get in their good graces before things get complicated. Typically the production managers or technical coordinators often have lighting experience, or at least know how to speak your language and get you what you need.
- Exchange information and documents – At this point, it’s critical to send your most up-to-date information because things may have changed since the venue team received your rider months ago. As part of your show kernel, you should already have up-to-date lighting plots, rigging plots, and patch diagrams that are ready to go for your ideal show, but you’ll often have to modify things a bit to adapt to each individual gig.
- Work out the details – Next, start a dialogue with your contacts to determine anything that may need to change. Do you need to substitute any fixtures the rental company doesn’t have in stock? Is there anything about the venue that changes your plans, such as a shallow stage or low trim height? Is there a unique lighting opportunity to take advantage of, such as the natural backdrop at Red Rocks Amphitheatre? Some of these discussions may take place over the phone or video chat, so be sure to reiterate anything important in an email afterward. This way, you’ll always have a paper trail that others can go back and reference.
- Send updated documents – Update any plots, diagrams or documents to reflect any changes you’ve made after negotiations, and send them to each person involved so that everyone will be referencing the most recent information. Name your files accurately and use version numbers so there’s no chance of confusion. Even if you’re only changing small details like a fixture position or patch point, if it’s not written down, you can’t expect it to happen.
- Prepare for the show – When everything’s set in stone and the day of the show approaches, do a final check to make sure everyone (including yourself) has all the information they need, and that every little detail has been taken care of. When you pack your bags, make a checklist of useful items like a USB stick, wireless access point, and any other gadgets, splitters, or adapters you may need on the day of the show.