A Rush Of Light: Four Decades In The Making

An Interview With Lighting Designer Howard Ungerleider

By Craig Leach, Professional Lighting And Production, Summer 2011, transcribed by John Patuto

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Taking in a performance by an artist at the top of the industry while at the pinnacle of their career is to witness the long and meandering paths of experience, talent, knowledge, and hard work meet and perfectly intertwine at a single point. It's an awe-inspiring, yet rare occurrence that forces the audience to reconsider everything they thought they knew about artistic and creative inception, design, implementation, and performance. It's something Canadian iconoclasts Rush know much about.

For the past 37 years, night after night of playing packed venues all over the world, Geddy Lee (bass/keyboards/vocals), Alex Lifeson (guitar), and Neil Peart (drums) have performed their hard-hitting, eclectic mix of philosophical, sci-fi, and fantasy inspired music to the backdrop of one of the world's most well-known and well-respected lighting designers: the indispensable Howard Ungerleider.

Although Ungerleider has designed and thrown many different sources of light for the likes of Van Halen, Carrie Underwood, Tool, Kid Rock, General Motors, and the Government of Canada, it is with Rush that he is most closely attached. "I am always here, always running it, always living and breathing it," says Ungerleider of the work he has done with his most well known collaborators. In fact, Ungerleider, who runs Toronto-based special effects and design firm Production Design International, first began his long and storied relationship with the band in 1974, filling a Renaissance man role, which included but wasn't limited to such responsibilities as: tour manager, tour accountant, travel agent, and LD. From there, as Ungerleider reveals, "It just evolved."

After 37 years of "evolving: it is apparent that a high level of trust has been developed between Ungerleider and the band. "One great thing that I really enjoy is they give me complete artistic control over putting the lighting together," says the LD during the afternoon set-up amidst preparations for the band and crew's welcoming of a sold out audience to Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, ON as part of the band's most recent Time Machine Tour.

Having complete artistic control allows Ungerleider the freedom, ability, and resources to develop the light show that he feels best represents the theme, imagery, and essence for that particular tour. For the Time Machine Tour, the conceptual development began months before the band hit the road.

The Inspiration

Ungerleider reveals that while in the planning stages for a Rush tour, the vision for the product ion and design are birthed out of brainstorming sessions attended by Ungerleider, front man Lee, Lee's brother Allen, and film director Dale Heslip. For this tour, the think tank, under the direction of Peart, decided to implement a steampunk theme.

With inspiration from the writings of Jules Verne and movies such as "Wild Wild West," steampunk imagery - copper piping and gauges, Tesla tubes, steam powered mechanical devices - is featured heavily throughout the three-hour performance. This theme is reinforced by the film clips and animation played on the 8 mil LED screen backdrop and the stage set, including a custom-designed drum kit highlighted by copper stands, time travel imagery, and Tesla tubes.

However, the coup for the show and easily the most exciting and dramatic component of the steampunk-inspired lighting system is the 28,OOO-lb. custom, articulating truss loaded with lights that's flown over top the band.

The Spider

Affectionately referred to by Ungerleider and crew as Ihe Spider, the custom designed and manufactured trussing epitomizes the steampunk theme by taking inspiration from the films with in that genre. "There was always something in those films that I saw and always stuck out," remarks Ungerleider. "There were these big, wild looking mechanical machines, and I am thinking: 'I need one of those.'"

Enter Show Distribution's Sebastien Richard and the crew from 5 Points Rigging out of Nashville who were able to realize the design requirements of Ungerleider's rig. The Spider is built out of truss supplied by Premier Global Productions and 12 RSC LightLock Light Stabilizers that allow the dual hung fixtures to drop smoothly as they descend. Again, LightLocks are an important component to the system as they allow the lights to remain stabilized despite the movement of the lighting bars and truss. The movement is achieved by the use of 16 half-ton lift hoists that travel at 85 ft. a minute and 12 quarter ton lifts that can travel at 104 ft. a minute. All hoists were supplied by Show Distribution.

The Spider is built around a custom octagonal hub designed by Ungerleider that features eight protruding hinged truss "legs." The end result is impressive both aesthetically and for its range of movement; as Ungerleider explains: "The centre of the hub can move up and down while the legs can actually bend up or down as well. It can really articulate."

Richard, who is responsible for all the automation work on the tour, consulted closely with Ungerleider and Head Rigger John Fletcher to build and provide movement for the Spider. The crew spent time in LA at Sony Studios to program all the motions and make sure everything was in proper working order before heading out on tour. The time was well spent; as Richard says, they were able get the system accurate to 1/32 of an inch.

The range of motion offered by the rig allowed Ihe crew to design some very natural movements. At one point, the Spider wiggles and tweaks and opens up like a tarantula. As Richard comments: "It's very impressive to see it move with the lighting integrated. It's pretty amazing."

Throughout the first half of the show, the Spider lays still, operating as a fixed lighting truss. "I don't really move the Spider until the second half, sort just sits there, like an element of surprise," says Ungerleider. "It's a three-hour show, so I like to progress it along and hold back and just sort of tease a little bit"; howver, "When it starts to come alive," he says, "that's the part of the show where you just go, 'Wow."

To bring the Spider to life, Ungerleider employs what he considers "one of the brightest LED fixtures on the market: the Phillips Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 48 and 72, which he implemented to outline the system.

Watching the crowd's wide-eye reaction to the Spider during songs such as "Witch Hunt" and "Vital Signs" is proof enough that Ungerleider and the crew achieved what they were hoping for.

The Rig

Complementing the Spider, the rest of the rig was designed with the philosophy that less is more. Although that sentiment may be difficult to believe after witnessing what Ungerleider can achieve with the system, he emphasizes that it's about "the proper placement of the fixtures and how you use them and your effects."

As a custom rig, the crew is reliant on the one system for the duration of the tour, shares Ungerleider: "We don't piggy back. It's all in real time." As such, the rig has to offer reasonable set up and dismantle times to facilitate the crew and trucks being able to leave quickly and get to the next venue.

"We're keeping the show condensed into seven trucks," says Ungerleider. "To a smaller Canadian band, that may seem outlandish," he notes, "but in the big picture of touring, it's actually quite subtle," he says, pointing towards Lady Gaga's tours, "which carry 25-30 trucks."

With a full-time crew of around 30 members supplemented by an additional 30 local workers that are hired on for each date, load-in, set-up, and tuning takes about 10 hours while load-outs have been clocked down to an efficient two-and-a-half hours.

In addition to the Spider, the lighting system is comprised of 24 Elation Impression LED washlights rigged 10 two circular trusses flown high above slage left and right. Other fixtures include 15 Coemar Infinity ACL 300w fixtures positioned along a horizontal truss above the stage, which Ungerleider says "are more than ample to cut through," before remarking that having the larger 700w versions of the same light "would be sick, but [he] doesn't really need it." The system also consists of 33 Martin M2K Washes, which feature a custom colour palette chosen by Ungerleider, 47 Vari*Lite VL3000 Spots, seven High End Systems SHOWGUNs and Cyberlight 2.0s, and six Lycian M2 followspots.

The two towers on stage are outfitted with 43 Martin Atomic 3000 strobes, which are on three phases wilh colour changers. Ungerleider uses the strobes for various songs throughout the evening when he feels an added punch of flash is required.

A notorious customizer, Ungerleider has also incorporated 22 5-ft. and 50 4-ft. MR16 Zip-Strips which he had hot-rodded to be able to pull on some pretty surprising effects. "I wanted them to do scan chases, which they don't normally do. My crew is cursing me me for this," jokes Ungerleider as he explains he had all the MR16s rewired to allow him to send streaks of light through the fixtures. Well worth it, though, as Ungerleider remarks that the effect achieves his desired reaction of "freak[ing] people out because they're thinking: 'How can it do that?'"

The system showcases a mix of LED fixtures and traditional theatrical lighting. This mix is important to Ungerleider, who notes that with LED technology coming to the forefront, "what you don't want to happen is have a boring show full of LED," a trend he has noticed over recent years. "I like to try and keep the theatrical lighting aspect alive and intermingle it with LEDs."


An important element to Ungerleider's overall design was the manner in which the lighting and video rigs interact. For this video-rich tour, it is an aspect that cannot be overlooked.

From the concert's opening to its closing, the 40 x 20ft. wall of Win vision 8.75 mm LED panels that serves as the stage backdrop projects a mix of prerecorded film clips starring the members of the band, animations, and live performance shots. In this sense, as Ungerleider explains, "The screen is part at the backdrop for the set because what we're doing is actually putting masks on it. We create the steampunk mask and run video inside it." Another noted benefit to the LED screen is the minimal transport space required, compared to trooping around a full set. "You don't have to carry anything because your screen is actually your scenic."

Finding a balance between the LED screen and the rest of the lighting system is important to Ungerleider. "I find that when you create, there's a unity between the screen and the lighting rig," he notes, emphasizing the importance of colouration so the films blend with what is going on onstage with the lighting.

Helping Ungerleider ensure these requirements are met and all those video cues are hit at the right time is Video Director David Davidian from DannyO Video based out of Los Angeles, the company that also supplied the LED wall. Davidian's HQ is backstage, where he minds the control of a Canadian-made Ross Vision SWitcher, a 3ME switcher with DV effects employed to control all the cameras (three manned and five robotic), and some of the effects.

"The main control for the look of the show," says Davidian, "is the [two] Green Hippo media servers, which do the entire playback on the graphics and the effects on the screen." There are an additional three Catalyst media servers that handle the playback and placing of images on tile drum riser.

Here the steampunk feel is continued through the various video masks used by Davidian to frame the live footage being simulcast to the video wall. "Most of the videos are de-saturated and tinted so they look a little 'antique-y'," says Davidian, noting the video "both accentuates and plays on the steampunk theme."

Front Of House

After all the brainstorming, consultation, designing, building, testing, and set-up is done, Ungerleider's real job begins at FOH with a flick of his wrist as he motions for the house lights to go down. "It's like an artist that paints or a musician who loves to get out there and play," shares Ungerleider. "This is my creative outlet."

"They play serious music, and in order to keep up with serious music, you need a serious program and serious cues," says Ungerleider, who, along with Lighting Technician and Progrdmmer Matthew Tucker, triggers the cues and systems throughout the evening. Ungerleider runs things from an active subwing connected to a High End Systems Road Hog Full Boar, which is monitored by Tucker, who is also responsible for the cryogenic cues for some songs and the smoke effects. "The two of us work very, very closely together. It's all teamwork here," states Ungerleider of his work relationship with Tucker, while adding: "It's very important to have a good team of people who are reliable doing this and the support team we put together on this is one of the best you can get."

One can be easily distracted from the performance happening onstage when watching Ungerleider perform his duties at FOH. He exudes a certain known confidence that stems from his long relationship with the band, in-depth familiarity with and appreciation for the music, and a level of skill, talent, and knowledge that translates into a spectacular show of light and design. "I try to make everyone happy, as well as myself," shares Ungerleider, "because life is short." Luckily for the 19,000 concertgoers who were fortunate enough to witness an Ungerleider production on this particular night, leaving happy was a given.

'80s Throwback

When Rush rematerializes from the first intermission, they delve into playing Moving Pictures, their highest-selling album, in its entirety. For this portion of the show, Ungerlelder borrows from himself in achieving the desired effect.

"Moving Pictures was an album created in the '8Os and I wanted to actually replicate what I had done in the 80's for them but with newer technology." He continues: "When you've worked with a band this long, you can pull from the past. I knew what I had designed back then, and with the new technology, it's pretty slick to do it this time."

He admits that the response to this has been great: "Even people in the audience and some of the fans are noticing that the integrity is there, and they comment: 'It looked just like it did in the '80s!'" This reaction pleases Ungerleider, who says "It's great because, in their minds, people have anticipated what they want it to look like ," comparing it to "when you hear a song on the radio and it brings back memories - that's what I'm striving for."

Crew List

Lighting Crew

Designer & Director - Howard Ungerleider
Production Manager - Craig Blazier
Stage Manager - George Steinert
Lighting Crew Chief - Kenny Ackerman
Lead Programmer - Tim Grivas
Lighting Technician/Programmer - Matthew Tucker
Master Electrician - Joey Bradley
Lighting Technician - Matt Levine
Lighting Technician - Bill Worsham

Video Crew

Video Director - David Davidian
Video Engineer - Bob Larkin
LED Engineer - Gregory "Grit" Frederick
Camera Operator - Adrian Brister
Camera Operator - Lindsey Haney


Pyrotechnlcian - John Arrowsmith

Rigging Crew

Head Rigger - Albert Pozzetti
Rigger - James Harrelson
Motion Control - Sebastien Richard