Sunday, 19 February 2006

what's a gig, then?

Last week, Bedshaped asked for more information about what a 'gig' actually involves.

Well, obviously, it depends on the gig. This is a long post - but most gigs are long :).

Most of our business is lighting for corporate clients. We also occasionally do data, sound or powerpoint - ie, set it up and operate it during a show. B is also involved with lighting for contemporary theatre, primarily the Birmingham-based Stan's Cafe (who, by the way, now have a blog, and would probably appreciate you dropping by to say hello ...)

Shows are, mostly, things like trade shows, conferences, corporate dinners or corporate parties. They take place in purpose-built venues like the NEC in Birmingham, Earl's Court in London or the MICC in Manchester (three very big ones); or in hotels, country clubs, cinemas and theatres. We don't, generally, do rock-and-roll type stuff, as it doesn't pay so well and is, anyway, a particular genre of its own. We also don't own our own kit - we hire in what we need from hire-houses, which a) gives us more flexibility and b) means we don't have to find the budget to buy it, insure it or maintain it.

We basically have two kinds of clients - production houses and our own end-clients. Production houses are themselves hired in by end-clients and then hire us either simply as lighting technicians for simpler jobs; or for bigger jobs as a specialist lighting team that they virtually hand off that part of the bigger job to. When one works for a production house, one is effectively part of their team - you wear their t-shirts and you toe their party-line. It's VERY bad form to give your own card out to an end-client if you are working for them via someone else. A "you'll never-work-for-us-again" type offence.

It's the same kind of work for our own end-clients - but we make a bit more money, we control our own budget a bit more freely and we have a bit more control over our own destiny :).

A small gig will be one of us going along to a hotel at 7am, unloading the truck, setting up a few lights pointing at a lectern on a stage and fading the lights up and down as required. At 5pm, you take it all down again, put it back on the truck, drop it back at the warehouse and are home in time for a late tea.

A big gig will be a bit different.

For example, a three day conference, with evening events, for five hundred people.

The planning can start months and months ahead, sometimes even years, because of the scale. We have a few things on the books now for 2008.

You do a design - where are the lamps going to go? Where will they point? What colours will they be (done with gel)? What patterns will there be in them (done with gobos)? Do you need to be able to change the look of the room, for example for a disco after a meeting? Do you need to fly anything in the air, off truss (big steel beams that you hang from hanging points in the ceiling, usually getting it up there with motors)? Or will you build a goal-post-type arrangement with the truss? Or will you do it the simple way, with lighting stands?. You'll also do a risk assessment at this point - on a big job, the client and/or the venue will ask for one. Otherwise, you just do a less formal one for yourselves.

From the design, you create a kit list - what cables do you need? What power do you need? The lamps don't just plug in to the walls - they are usually run from three-phase power at a venue, which is plugged in to a distribution unit (distro) and then run in to a set of dimmers, which breaks the current up for the individual lamps. This is all controlled from a lighting desk, which lets you fade the light up and down, switch the lamps on and off and move the heads on the moving lights up and down and round and round.

You then work out how many crew you are going to need for the job. Do they need to be technically experienced? Or can you get some big hefty rugby-playing types in for a four hour call, to help you in and then come back at the end, to help you out? There are a couple of specialist agencies that actually hire hefty-types out for just that purpose. We also have a floating pool of trained technicians who we call on to help us, which we are currently expanding. Laurence Wooster being a case in point.

From the kit list, you also work out what kind of transport you're going to need to get it all to the venue. We usually get the hire-house we hire from to deliver it for us. This has the added advantage of not having to load the truck yourself at stupid-o'clock in the morning - the kit arrives on site and you just unload it.

On a big job, it can take three hours, or maybe more, just to get all the boxes of kit in to the venue - particularly if there is restricted access, or other people are trying to use the lift at the same time.

You then start your rig. You put up the truss, you plug in your distro and your dimmers, you run out your multi-core cables (really big, heavy, power cables; I can't carry a long length, they weigh a tonne). And then, finally, you start to put the lamps up, with the smaller cables that run out to them.

Usually by this point, if it's a dinner, the venue are trying to put the tables out - so you have to stop using a cherry-picker or a scaffolding tower to rig stuff (you only use them in very large venues), and go to ladders, five or six meters above the floor.

In my experience, the venue always want to put the tables out before one is ready; there is often a lot of bad feeling between in-house staff and managers and the technical crew. We feel that they deliberately go out out to make our lives difficult; and no doubt they feel the same about us. Again, in my experience, they tend to not want to work as a team - they just want to do their bit and shuffle off, leaving us moving heavy bits of kit around tables covered with glasses and tableware.

At the same time, the set crew will be building the stage, the sound crew will be putting up their speakers and the data guys will be rigging their projectors.

For a big show, it can take two or three days, with perhaps a total of ten or twenty people working eighteen hour days.

The final thing that you do, once the rig is in and before the show starts, is programme the lighting desk. You can set the desk to remember particular 'lighting states', to use during a show. "Managing Director giving motivational speech" state. "Comedian" state. "Eating dinner" state. Various "Awards" states. It makes it easier for the person operating during the show, because they don't have to change all those states on the fly. Sometimes one gets a chance to programme, sometimes one doesn't, because you've run out of time.

If the end-client is organised, before a show you rehearse. This doesn't always happen, but it's good if it does, because it gives everyone time to iron out technical glitches.

Once the show starts, the technicians become invisible. We walk in and out the back way in our black clothes, we sit behind the control desk and make things happen, unobtrusively. If you notice us, it is generally because something has gone wrong.

Some people operate the show; and the rest of us, we wait.

We wait.

And we wait.

And we wait.

Until the dinner is finished or the disco is over and the punters have, finally, been herded drunkenly on to their coaches, or have retired to the bar.

I often sleep under the control desk while the gig is actually on. Being able to sleep in slightly uncomfortable places is a valuable technical skill :).

So, 11pm. Or midnight, or 1am.

We start the de-rig.

It probably takes an average two to four hours to pull out an average sized show and get it back on the truck.

Everything has to be done in reverse. The lamps come down and go back in the flight cases. The cables get coiled and put back in the cable trunk. The dimmers and the distro get dismantled and go back in their cases. The motors come out of their boxes again, their chains get attached to the truss and it gets lowered and banged apart.

By this time, everyone is so tired that we are simply running on adrenaline.

The refreshments normally go home with the end client, so you're lucky if you even have water.

I've started taking a one gallon boiler and tea and coffee with me, to look after the crew.

Very often, clients don't really think very hard about food and drink for us. We do expect to be fed. It's not a perk exactly - more that we are busting our asses to get the show up on time; finding food takes time we don't have. And we need to eat - it becomes a health and safety issue if you are doing eighteen hours of hard physical labour without drinks or proper food.

On the show we did last week, it was specified on the Purchase Order that the client would be providing food. They did - a couple of sandwiches for each person, eight hours apart. No tea, no coffee, no water. It was disgraceful and caused a lot of bad feeling. We don't expect cordon bleu. But a hot meal is necessary if you are expecting your crew to work from eight in the morning to four the following morning, which we sometimes do.

So - the kit goes back on the truck; the least shattered person drives home. If it's a properly organised job, or more than a couple of hours drive from home, you will have a hotel room booked for you and someone else to drive the truck.

We have one client we work for who is very well organised and often plans the de-rig the morning after the job finishes. This is wonderful.

It's fun work. We all enjoy it. It's stimulating, challenging, creative and very much non-routine.

But it's knackering and as we're getting older, it's taking it's toll :).

Bedshaped, does that tell you what you wanted to know?

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