Avolites: The Changing Roles in Visual Design

Avolites console controls The Fillmore at Harrah's Casino in New Orleans.

Avolites Director, Steve Warren continues his series of articles talking to leading figures about the current state of play in the industry with a close look at the changing roles within it, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we need to keep up with new technologies.

In the first part of this series of articles, we looked at innovation and how we’ve gone a very long way in a very short time. It is, after all, only 18 years since the first LED PAR came out, and the ongoing collision between lighting and video means that the job has changed out of all recognition since the days when new entrants were expected to jump in and drive a lighting console and essentially figure it all out along the way.

On the one hand, this new complexity has led to more specialisation. The roles within our industry have become more focused and narrowly defined as they have needed to, as the productions have become larger, more complex, and incorporated many new technologies. Not only is it difficult for one individual to have the skillsets required to bridge across everything a major production will throw on stage now, but even with increasing automation and centralised systems it is becoming impossible for one person to control it all. And that is even before you get into the very real considerations of what might need to be done in case of a technical failure.

“Roles have changed so that Lighting Designers now become show designers or visual creators because it all has to work together,” said Lighting Designer, Nick Jevons. “The Lighting Designer’s task has evolved to become a conduit between the client, production delivery, and console programmers.”

Immersive, interactive and augmented reality have become buzzwords in the industry because that really is the shape of things to come — perhaps even more so in whatever industry emerges from the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. Socially-distanced productions are likely to have such technologies as part of their design brief. The designers and programmers of tomorrow will need to have much more understanding of the others technical aspects of the show than their peers of a decade or two ago. They will need to be on top of lighting video, lasers, effects and audio, not to mention the interconnection protocols for each of those disciplines that are required to be able to bring it all together into a truly immersive environment.

“There is an element of our industry turning from a craft to an engineering process, due to the increased channel numbers and networking requirements,” said Chris Ewington at i-Pix.

As such there has been a changing of attitudes in the industry. I would argue that the craft elements are still very much present, but that an understanding of the processes that underpin them is now a fundamental skill as well. The past twenty years, as well as being a highly accelerated journey into innovation, have also been a journey towards increasing professionalism.

“We all now take a much more grown up approach to our work,” said Dave Green from Realtime Environment Systems. “Twenty years ago, there were a lot of people having a lot of fun. I think it’s still very important that we all enjoy our work, I love my work for sure. And people enjoying what they do is a big driver of innovation. But there are responsibilities now that we were not considering in the naughties. And I think the successful companies in our industry have come to terms with that and have adjusted their working practices accordingly.”

In the past, getting into industry was a hit and miss process and needed a huge element of luck alongside a splash of serendipity. Today and in the future, the route is far clearer and new talent has a direct route forward. For those who can afford the time and cost involved, there are many specialised universities now offering excellent degree courses. These universities are working closely with manufacturers to give students the most up-to-date knowledge and experience.

It is fantastic to now see the real professionals like Backstage Academy, Rose Bruford, Mountview, Central, WCMD, Guildhall, USW, GSA and many others, all offering degree courses in technical theatre and production.

All of which makes a bit of a mockery of the UK government’s recent tone deaf and ill-judged ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.’ campaign featuring the immortal tagline ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’. The skills in this industry are already second to none, whether they have been taught via the academic route or via many of the manufacturer-led programs. Why should an industry full of highly skilled and specialised professionals be forced to change career paths simply because their role is not understood by the wider governing bodies?

Today all major manufacturers, us included, also have online and in-house training programs that are free or very low cost. Most also offer accessible training versions or entry-level products that allow new users to get all the way up to power-user levels with very little more than their own efforts – their future is in their hands and defined by their determination. Indeed, these training efforts have been redoubled by many as 2020’s pandemic has ground on, partly in an attempt to create a community in the face of adversity, partly to ensure that when live events start again we can all hit the ground running.

On balance, though this is a pre-pandemic statement and we don’t have enough visibility into the future as yet to be as certain, university training and manufacturer-led programs are probably satisfying current needs. To progress quickly upwards in our industry, it is necessary for individuals to have a solid grasp of the software tools available. I often tell those new to our industry, that the learning process is the fastest way to stop pushing boxes or testing cables and that is fully in their control.

“The most necessary requirement for new designers coming to the industry is a sense of enthusiasm and wanting to be part of it all,” said TPi Awards Lighting Designer of the Year, Tim Routledge, and he’s not wrong. In fact, talk to anyone about the best way for new entrants to get a foothold in the industry and the talk quickly circles back to attitude. It might not be easy to define, but we all know it when we see it.

“What’s been interesting for me talking to employers recently is that the skillset that people first mention isn’t the technical one; it’s the personal and professional skillset,” commented Backstage Academy’s Rachel Nicholson. “As a sector we’re people to people focused, and while the technology has advanced it has also driven more demand for those people to people skills.”

Nicholson also talked passionately about not just hitting government targets for a first job and how the important thing is to foster curiosity and teach the skills of self-learning that will take people beyond that into their second and third jobs and the entire career that stretches out before them.

As part of that I feel we must move away from the zero hours, race to the bottom in terms of personal wages. Ticket prices have gone up drastically in recent years as the music industry turns to the live sector to replace the revenue that had been lost with the growth of steaming services, and with that crews and designers need better compensation for their work. Perhaps even the best way to achieve this is with better transparency of the services crew and technicians provide. Certainly, clear accreditation of skills and experience will also force the issue of better compensation for those who make these productions happen.

All of which gives even more weight than usual to the edict of learn, learn and learn some more! And for those reading this and still looking to get into the industry, do not give up. So many experienced professionals tell me of their tireless efforts in contacting companies for work when they started out – if you’re trying to get into the industry and you have the work ethic it requires and the attitude it seeks, you will get there in the end.

There is a bit of an irony here though in that the interpersonal skills that are so prized in the industry are having to become increasingly mediated via technology. Nicholson says this is an inevitable consequence of larger teams and larger productions, you get to spend less time in the same shared space. “You just have to adapt,” she said.

This leads us on to the interlinked subjects of collaborative working and working conditions in the industry. Design, set creation and delivery teams now work so much more closely to produce the inspiring projects of today. This has been accelerated in recent years, but is nothing compared to the advances in online collaboration in recent months.

We are all learning rapidly, and this will be a benefit to the industry in speed of project delivery, more ambitious projects and reduced costs and time of face-to-face meetings. A year of working from home and Zoom meeting has only served to amplify this requirement. Indeed other industries, such as post production, have been extremely quick to set up remote working pipelines which you can well imagine will persist in the future.

“Online collaborative working is essential in the modern age,” commented Dave Green. “I expect to see the tools for this improve with emerging VR and AR technologies in the next few years. VR & AR are great for the environment and that is going to become a very hot topic.”

It’s an important area. We need to have a discussion not just about the roles that people fill within the industry, but the people who are filling them. We are short on diversity, woefully short in areas, and while one of the buzzwords that was echoed back to me time and time again while writing this piece was ‘professionalism’ there are still hangovers from the old days and perhaps a certain macho delight in long hours and working practices that exclude people with families, and women in particular, from the industry.

“I would love to see more diversity in 10 years time,” said Rachel Nicholson, and that’s a really important issue for us all because more diversity leads to more creativity.

You get the feeling that the pandemic has changed a lot of processes in place and ways of working. Hopefully as a result we learn to embrace change in a more positive way and this helps us move forward in all aspects of change.