Lights! Camera! March!

Lighting effects in marching shows can add a visual “wow” factor as well as a lot of logistical concerns.

Photo courtesy of “DRUMLine Live”

“Poltergeist” TV screens. Concert-quality lights. And LED. These are only some of the lighting effects being used by marching units across the country.

While music and choreography work together to create a seamless and competitive performance, directors are starting to add lighting effects to boost their unit’s overall visual “wow” factor. And with WGI Sport of the Arts’ approval of lighting effects in competition—for guard in 2011 and percussion in 2012— more directors are experimenting with everything from strobes to televisions as a creative way to enhance the mood of their programs.

Directors agree that while lighting can add a whole new dimension to a show, it’s important to have realistic expectations for what you may be able to use. As a few groups have learned, sometimes the reality of space or a shortage of manpower dictates how elaborate visual effects can be.

Bright Lights, Big Plans

When Music City Mystique decided to use lighting for its WGI performance, it proved to be a true learning experience for everyone. “When we started off, we were going to use it as a kind of background ‘mood lighting,’” says Josh Nelson, executive director. “Once we got the lights and got them going, we realized that they had more potential. We could change them into any color in the light spectrum. When we saw what we could do, we customized it to our performances as much as possible.”

The group invested in top-of-the-line, professional-grade effects. “The same kind of lights that you’d find in a concert like Metallica,” Nelson says. “Big productions use these quality lights. We spent quite a bit of time putting it together and customizing it to what our needs were.”

Once the group saw the potential of its system, the plan for humble “mood lighting” almost took on a life of its own. “We utilized different-sized columns as well as geodesic domes across the back and right side of our performance area; I believe there were 17 different columns all varying in height from 6 to 15 feet tall,” Nelson says. “All had high-powered light that we controlled in the front of the arena.”

Although the lights added a new dimension to their performance, Nelson says that the members and staff were careful not to shift the focus from their playing. “We set out to make sure that our performance would stand alone,” he says. “We didn’t want the lights to be the focal point, but we felt that it added another layer. It provided an aesthetic; we could change the mood just with the lighting.”

The performance space was one of the group’s biggest challenges at WGI. “They don’t turn out the house lights in our arena, so you have to get everything in daylight. We also can’t use spotlights, which makes it more challenging.”

United Percussion (UP) decided to use lighting to add a more personal element by connecting the theme of its show, called “NOW,” with the members’ personalities. “In life when we experience a special moment, we try to capture that moment by taking a photo or recording it,” explains Chad Moore, director of UP as well as its design and program coordinator.

The group projected a slideshow of meaningful moments comprised of photos or recordings submitted by ensemble members. Toward the end of the pre-recorded segments, they used several cameras around the performance space to capture a live feed of what was happening “NOW.” By making the audience part of the show, UP created a more personal, interactive experience.

“We always knew we wanted to incorporate lighting in some way, and with so many lighting options, we wanted to use it in a way that was unique,” Moore says. “The concept of the program really allowed us to explore the multimedia side of lighting.”

The use of creative lighting extends beyond WGI. In the fall of 2011, William Mason High School from Mason, Ohio, projected snowflakes during its fall field show, “A Winter’s Solstice.”

In the stage production of “DRUMLine Live,” musicians were their own light show, in a sense. During its 2010 season, LED lighting tubes were sewn into the performers’ uniforms and attached to their instruments, creating an almost supernatural effect.

“We called it ‘Ghostly Drummers’; the lights went out, then the lights on different parts of the musicians and instruments lit up,” explains Reginald Brayon, DRUMLine Live’s company manager/ producer. “Each musician’s tube had its own power source that we created, sewn right into the uniforms. It was an effort to get the lights sewn in, so we had to double up on spare uniforms. Because we’re traveling doing so many shows, the power sources would get disconnected or the lights would go out at the most inappropriate times, so reliability was a problem.”

While the result was impressive, Brayon says he and his technicians are “going back to the drawing board to find a more reliable connection” and revamp the effect.

Effective Design

Depending on the scale you envision for your lighting effects, as well as your budget, directors recommend consulting with a professional lighting designer. A designer can help you choose the best lights for your physical performance space, the atmosphere you want to create, and teach your crew members about operating the control board and the other technical aspects of lighting. Incorporating effects into a field show or indoor guard/ percussion performance adds a new list of logistical challenges, and consulting with a professional as early as possible can help you prepare for any troubleshooting over the course of the season.

Garrett Griffin, director of the West Johnston High School Band in Benson, N.C., collaborated with fellow band director and the group’s creative designer David Duffy for its winter guard show. Duffy conceptualized the visuals to tie into the band’s “Poltergeist” program. Taking a cue from the popular film, where a ghost invades a suburban home and terrorizes the family via their television, several flat screen TVs were set up around the performance floor.

“The TVs all played during the preshow, then they played the old ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ sign-off and went to static,” Griffin explains. “We had 10 consoles with 16 TVs, and some were the actual old floor model TVs from the ’80s. Then we toyed with the effect of taking some of the guard members’ faces and putting them in the static. A lot of other units used more interactive stuff, but we went with the theme.”

Griffin says that he has seen more units incorporate different lighting. “Last year a lot of the percussion world used the lighting effect to enhance the package,” he says. “The groups that did them well, they enhanced the visual package, but also the musical package.”

Lighting effects are not always foolproof, as even the most experienced directors and lighting experts will agree. One of the most failsafe ways to prevent outages or technical difficulties is to simply work within your means and be very familiar with your performance space.

“There’s always a risk when you rely on technology,” says Brayon, who works with a professional designer for DRUMLine Live’s shows. “One of the best things I can advise is to understand your environment and what’s going to work well in it. I’ve seen bands do all kinds of things on a football field, and you have to understand how it’s going to work. There are some things you’d love to do in a stadium, and you just can’t do them. If you can’t control your environment, you have less flexibility with what you can do with lights. It increases your costs tremendously if you try to control things you can’t control.”

Brayon has his own stories of lighting mishaps. “We’ve had lighting boards go out,” he says. “Then while we were trying to get the board back up, we had a different lighting person from ours try to create the same effects we had programmed into the board. Anything can happen!”

Muscle Power

Professional units may have the advantage of a few technical folks who can handle load-in and tear down, but high school groups must often rely on their parents’ muscle power. In many cases, parents may be called on to run the lights as well, calling for careful planning and communication since most parents are likely not lighting experts.

“Our load-in time was planned very carefully per gymnasium, depending on how much space we had,” Griffin explains. “At WGI we had two main power sources—front and back. We had a ‘roadie crew’ that went with us; their job was to make sure the guard wasn’t stressing or worrying about the TVs. Parents and other crew got the TVs working. We daisy chained the TVs together. To load out we said, ‘Unplug, grab as much as you can, and push!’”

Flexibility and a “ready-for-anything” attitude help when working with lighting. “It’s very delicate and requires a lot of attention, but I think people will continue to use it to see what the possibilities are,” Nelson says. “As we develop our show for the coming year, we’ll [analyze] the need for it and act accordingly. We learned a lot of lessons. Learn as you go until you get it the way you want it, but it is nice to have that extra element available to your design palette.”

About the Author

Sara Hodon is a freelance writer and proud alumni of her high school band’s front silks squad. Her writing has appeared in a variety of print and online publications, including’s Happen Magazine, History, Lehigh Valley Marketplace, Pennsylvania and Young Money, among others. She is also a copywriter for corporate clients. She lives, writes and relives her band memories in northeast Pennsylvania.

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