Twenty years ago, Wayne Howell founded that most enigmatic of lighting solutions design companies, Artistic Licence. TPi examines how it has skilfully occupied the contrasting worlds of rock'n'roll touring, theatre and, latterly, architecture...
If there’s one thing that can be said about Wayne Howell, it’s that he’s a great thinker — one of the most original and appreciated thinkers ever to have graced the entertainment technology industry, in fact. But before we celebrate the wealth of innovations that have emerged from his company, Artistic Licence, let’s go way, way back...
Howell cut his teeth on live productions at school and university, before transposing his fledgling enthusiasm into the professional world as a technician at Avolites... and the rock’n’roll lifestyle that came with it! It was also here that he was introduced to writing software and the discovery of a now obvious talent for foresight and invention, out of which grew Artistic Licence.
Through a constantly evolving process, Howell gradually moved Artistic Licence from its rock’n’roll background into a company focused on architectural lighting and installations whilst simultaneously building its international presence.
Always focused on the symbiosis that exists between the two halves of the company — product development and project design and installation — Howell has spent 20 years developing a sophisticated and prolific product range which can be taken both as total solutions or as components for incorporation into individual designs. A product range which, moreover, seems to anticipate rather than react to market demands.
Today, the whole process is backed by a 15-strong team of programmers, developers, project and sales managers based at the Harrow offices, and four sales and project support staff in Hong Kong, who evidently share the same infectious enthusiasm for their work as Howell.
There exists a genuine excitement for new product developments, an understanding of where Howell is coming from, combined with an eagerness to bring their own expertise to their work... and all laced through with the huge sense of humour which defines the company atmosphere.
So what is it that ensures Artistic Licence remains consistently in the forefront of technical design with products that, time and again, prove to be just what the industry has been waiting for? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the company name itself.
Even at the early stages of his career, there were traits in Howell’s work which, with hindsight, were to indicate how he manages to stay ahead of the industry in almost clairvoyant fashion.
Early work with Artistic Licence included nightclub maintenance contracts, designing interactive systems for trade launches and motion control for stage revolves. Each project demanded new solutions which in turn gave rise to new products. His experience in providing solutions across so many industry sectors reinforced the importance of lateral thinking and sparked the all-important philosophy: ‘Let’s not reinvent the wheel’.
It is perhaps Howell’s ability to think across conventional boundaries, especially in terms of control, which really puts him ahead of the game. The ease with which Artistic Licence products can move between rock’n’roll and installation projects, and from stage lighting to architectural control, echoes how comfortable he is operating within any of these environments.
His ability to think across Ethernet, DALI, DMX and RDM protocols — and get them talking to each other — has resulted in a range of control converters which makes Artistic Licence a true control polyglot of the industry. Most notable amongst these being Art-Net, released as an interim protocol to service the industry whilst it waits for ACN to be finalised. Criticised by some as trying to preempt ACN, by most it has been hailed as a god-send and, with its royalty-free status, as an act of guerrilla altruism!
Feedback has always been of prime importance to Artistic Licence’s work — “It’s not just RDM and Artnet that offer two-way communication!” states Howell. It is the attendance at trade shows and the feedback derived from clients, the involvement in industry trends (Howell has worked closely with ESTA on the development of DMX512-A and RDM) and the direct work on installations and projects which keep the refresh rate of product development high at Artistic Licence.
The Micro-Scope DMX tester was the first product to prove a commercial success for the company. As with so many of Artistic’s products, it was borne from Howell’s frustration at being on-site without sophisticated test equipment for the fledgling DMX512 protocol. His solution was simply to design one.
Working with set construction legend Charlie Kail on the mid-’90s tours of Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell and the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge put Artistic Licence on the map with the Lamp-Tramp control system which was used to control the intensity of the pixilated back wall.
“Wayne really saved my bacon on the Floyd’s Division Bell tour!” says Kail. “It had a hugely complicated set involving, amongst other things, revolves within revolves and three-sided, rotating periactoids.
“Suddenly I found myself without an electronics engineer only weeks before the tour was due to start. Then Wayne stepped in and saved the day with his electronics designs and his dedication. This was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted ever since. I’ve been designing sets for over 30 years and, in my book, The Division Bell is still my favourite.”
Kail believes that one of the biggest favours Howell ever did for himself was invent Lamp-Tramp “off the back” of the Division Bell tour.
“No one had thought to combine a lighting desk with a paint package before, which is effectively what Lamp-Tramp was all about,” says Howell.
The original Lamp-Tramp concept has since morphed into Colour-Tramp which allows colour control of two and three dimensional arrays and was subsequently recognised with a PLASA product award in 2003.
When Pixi-Web, Artistic Licence’s best-selling product, was created in 2007, it took LED applications to another level by acting as a lightweight, modular and transparent video screen. For the first time, Artistic Licence formed an exclusive alliance, with A.C. Lighting, to distribute the product internationally under the name of Color Web. Pixi-Web has proven extremely popular at numerous live events, in clubs and on TV shows such as the recent Any Dream Will Do and Britain’s Got Talent.
Moving away from showmanship, it was Maurice Brill Lighting Design that called upon Artistic Licence to work on the Broadgate project in the City of London in 2003. For this, Artistic Licence chose to implement the first use of RDM (not officially released at that point) which allowed two-way communication with the 650 in-ground LED fixtures (with a combined total of 100,000 LEDs).
The power of RDM allowed the large number of fixtures to be configured in a fraction of the time that a conventional control system would allow. In addition, it provided new features such as the ability to upload software to the fixture and retrieve sensor information. Three sensors were implemented relaying information on temperature, input voltage and moisture from each fixture, thereby slashing maintenance time. Devised by Artistic Licence, it is unsurprising that Colour-Tramp was the first controller to support RDM.
“We don’t typically use theatre control desks in architectural projects so Wayne adapted the Colour-Tramp system for use in an architectural environment,” explains Rob Honeywill, LD for the Broadgate project. “This enabled us to preview the design as a whole, designing the looks we wanted in house, replaying and tweaking them as desired before finally downloading them on-site. It made the whole process of working between office and site environments a whole lot easier.
“Wayne also had the task of co-ordinating all the trades on site, enthusing the mechanical, electrical and trades teams to run with the ‘one vision, one goal’ concept behind the new idea.”
Last year, Orri Petursson of lighting consultancy Speirs & Major Associates commissioned Artistic Licence to provide an extensive LED lighting solution for The O2’s entrance, based on the new Pixi-Tube product range.
The LED system was controlled via the lighting control system specified for the Peninsula Square outside the O2 which utilised Artistic Licence’s own Colour-Tramp control system, Art-Net, DMX512 and RDM distribution.
The functional and security lighting are all controlled from the same Colour-Tramp unit, successfully integrating building management, maintenance and lighting control into one control centre.
“Artistic Licence provides a unique and comprehensive service for lighting installations that employ different protocols and system requirements,” comments Petursson.
“I was especially pleased with Colour-Tramp's on-screen graphic representation of the scheme as well as the option of having multiple playbacks, each tailored to the lighting element it controlled. And having Wayne on hand proved to be invaluable; he never tired or failed to deliver on the various tweaks and changes I asked for.”
More recently, Nich Smith approached Artistic Licence when lighting the John Murray Archive in Edinburgh. Using Candle-Power LED dimmers for the showcase lighting, Smith specified the Candle-Power dimmers for their ability to control both 1W and 3W LED fixtures in the same enclosure. Nich Smith’s design work was subsequently rewarded with a 2008 Lighting Design Award.
Artistic Licence’s 20th anniversary was quickly followed last month by the launch of Artistic Licence Asia Ltd. Headed by Simon Fraser from Ptarmigan Consulting, the new company will build upon the earlier success of the existing sales office, taking Artistic Licence project and product solutions to a wider audience in the blossoming Middle East and Asian markets.
The opening of Artistic Licence Asia occupies the immediate future, demonstrating Howell’s customary foresight and executed with the calculated, no-fuss approach that Artistic Licence has developed throughout its history.
The company has evolved from a long business relationship with Fraser and numerous projects and product sales that have highlighted the tremendous rate of development in Asia and the importance of becoming involved at a relatively early and exciting stage in the region.
“We took a couple of years to assess the market potential and to work out how we could work together,” explains Howell. “We’ve now decided it is time to make it official and are very excited to be launching the company.
“Simon and I have a very similar, no-nonsense approach to business and the Hong Kong operation will be run in along similar lines to Artistic Licence in the UK, concentrating on the two pronged approach of product sales and projects. This will work very well in the Far East as, unlike us in the West where it is denounced as partisan, a specifier has more gravitas if he is backed by a closed relationship with a manufacturer.”
Despite retaining its strong rock’n’roll roots, its future markets are becoming more formal. A few years ago, Howell’s trademark ponytail disappeared, causing a ripple of raised eyebrows across the industry grapevine.
Could suits be next on the agenda? Certainly the formality of doing business in the Far East might seem to imply so. However, the personalities within the company are as strong and individual as ever.
Howell seems determined to bring down the Tower of Babel of control protocol whilst currently filling in as the industry Babel Fish!
And it’s not only our industry that has acknowledged Howell’s achievements. Twenty years after starting his company, Howell has just been added to Who’s Who!