Ben Nicholson - Visual Dynamite
Billing itself as a ‘Concept Factory’, Ohio, USA-based Lightborne is a design studio, production company, and editorial house which has become a touring visuals specialist. The company has worked with acts such as Katy Perry, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift. TPi’s Kelly Murray speaks to Lightborne’s Executive Creative Director, Ben Nicholson, about the company’s origins, development, and how to succeed in the relatively new touring visuals sector...
Lightborne provides content and implementation for live show environments such as rock and pop concerts, and stage productions from festivals to TV shows. It is a company that thrives on visual creativity and technological innovation, yet this story actually begins a far cry away from what we’re talking about today. Lightborne’s Executive Creative Director, Ben Nicholson, initially went to university to study marine biology and found himself intrigued by the idea of working in media instead.
‘Media’ is a loose term at the best of times, but while majoring in creative writing, Nicholson began to teach himself how to edit video using Avid Media Composer software alongside his friend Jeremiah Shuff - also a former Lightborne employee who now edits for Beyonce. After graduating, Nicholson had various jobs in motion picture graphics houses. Becoming interested in non-traditional media formats, he became one of the first Motion Graphics Artists at Lightborne, a role which would inevitably shape the future of the business. “Over the last 14 years, it’s grown from being just a few people to being a team of 30 working in graphics for commercials and videos,” he said. Nicholson currently runs a division within the company working with live concert visuals specifically. Having worked primarily in commercials in the beginning, his friend Shuff - then editor at Lightborne - had the opportunity to show his editorial reel to Music Video Director Shaun Silva, with a view of working for country artist Kenny Chesney doing music videos. Said Nicholson: “Kenny was working on Big Star, a music video in which he wanted to have projected imagery playing behind him. He was getting big enough to go into arenas. That meant we were able to branch out into live visuals quite quickly with him. We were really fortunate too because Kenny’s tour had media server and lighting operators working at a top level, which was a great introduction into the industry.”
Chesney was Lightborne’s only music artist client for a few years but when a break in touring occurred, an opportunity with Jay-Z and Eminem came up - and it snowballed from there. “There were a lot of big players we would run into but we didn’t know how big they were at the time. An interesting thing we’ve learned in this business is that there’s a pretty small community of people working at a high level. That means that you don’t know where your work’s going to come from; it could be via management, from a set designer, an LD, or even from another video company that needs a bit of help with a tour they’re working on.” This sentiment is based on a mutual work ethic between similar companies, Montreal-based Geodezik being a prime example of another visual company that Nicholson and his team often work closely with. “Olivier Goulet [Geodezik’s Founder] and I are friends. There’s kind of an understanding now that if someone needs help with something, we do it.”
As an example, Lightborne did visuals for a song on Taylor Swift’s Red tour which was Geodezik’s client. Lightborne returned the favour with Katy Perry, having Geodezik work on a few songs for the Prismatic tour. “We basically make sure that things go smoothly with each other’s jobs. If you pitch for a job and don’t get it, you can still help each other out. It’s a great way to do business because it comes back around. I think other companies desire to work in this way too. Everybody in this line of work realises that this is a difficult sector to become successful in, so our peers really tend to support each other.”
Like any other area of an all consuming but highly creative and technical live tour, the key decision makers want to work with the people and companies on whom they can depend. “It’s very relational,” continued Nicholson. “That was a big thing on Katy’s show. All of the relationships on that tour were developed and solidified quickly because everyone had to work very closely together. The success of the show is a true testament to that. We loved working with Katy’s management team; they were really wonderful people and the amount of trust they put into us and into Baz Halpin was phenomenal.”
Lightborne has in recent years worked very closely with Irish-British Lighting and Set Designer Halpin, through whom they won the Prismatic tour contract. “We actually knew of Baz because we shared an agent for a time. We started doing show promos for him for artists such as Usher. Katy’s tour came along after the promo content we did running up to her album release, and Baz and her management were so happy with what we’d done that they brought us on board for the tour.”
Behind the aesthetically engulfing and bespoke visuals you’ll see on tours the company has worked on, the technical wizardry behind Lightborne also puts the company in good stead for being able to deliver what is asked of them. He continued: “Our Implementation Director, J.T. Rooney, is a whizz. Part of what gets us hired for tours is our technical confidence - our deliveries have to be spot on.
“And most importantly, what we do is create. We’re innovators who are constantly discovering new ways to make beautiful content, utilising new software such as Octane Render - the world’s first GPU based, un-biased, physically based renderer - and refining it for bespoke live situations.”
The company has also incorporated d3 Technologies d3 Designer software into its pipeline as a pre-visualisation tool used during early compositions. “We usually get CAD renders of the set design and then plug them into the d3 software which works really well and allows the client to see their vision too. Plus if any changes need making, it can be done swiftly,” he noted.
In terms of operating the content, Nicholson has noticed certain trends when it comes to touring media server choices. “Catalysts and PRG’s Mbox media servers are like the work horses of our industry. When you get something a bit out of the ordinary such as projection mapping, you’ll see more d3 Technologies, Green Hippo, coolux, and Ai. The Mbox is what we started out using though, and it’s great to see how much the technology has developed. It’s very lighting console friendly and very stable.”
A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
This is undeniably an interesting time for the live production industry in terms of where visual content will go next. In the last decade it’s blossomed into a vital story-telling tool for artists and become an engaging element for the audience, yet it has to make good business sense too. “A lot of people are now looking at the economics of what we do as content creators. It’s great to be able to make ‘cool stuff’, but you also need to be able to make a living out of it too,” said Nicholson. “The word ‘sustainability’ is being used a lot at the moment and that takes time and expertise to understand. Other companies are definitely talking about it.”
It’s very refreshing to hear an enthusiastic and supportive attitude such as Nicholson’s. It is perhaps this wholesome ideal that will further drive the company forwards, as well as its savy tech skills. “Your ideas must come in on budget, on time and be technically accurate. That’s what separates the good from the great reputations. You have to be very strategic about how you do things, and that will be seen in the value you give to production managers. I’m after a badass business model that will sustain Lightborne for years into the future...”