13 Questions With a Music Festival Lighting Designer
“Climbers are real. Always keep watch on your truss. I once found a few guys dressed in tiger suits atop my scaffolding at Burning Man and they did not want to come down.”
Meet Jason “Magellan” Hager, a Lighting Designer/Programmer/Operator at Wormhole Tahoe.
Jason, tell me about your experience lighting outdoor concerts and music festivals. Are there any famous acts or shows you’ve been a part of? And what’s your favorite festival that you’ve worked and why?
I have been lighting up festivals in the Northern California electronic music scene since 2011, and I have also been the lead Lighting Designer on two national tours. I have been the lead Lighting Designer for Camp Questionmark at Burning Man in Black Rock City, Nevada each year since then and have lit up a number of famous artists over the years, most notably being Diplo and Skrillex.
Burning Man is most definitely my favorite for many reasons, but it is also the most challenging build and operation by far!
What are the differences between lighting indoor and outdoor performances?
I would have to say the main difference between indoor and outdoor gigs would be the ability to control the haze/fog. Outdoor shows are usually unpredictable with wind and weather factors, and indoor shows tend to look better because you can fully see the beams of the moving lights the whole time. The disadvantage of an indoor gig would most have to be light pollution, I have done a number of shows in a room with white walls and that makes it very easy to overpower a room with light.
How did you get into lighting festivals in the first place?
Back in 2011, I was working in San Francisco, and throwing EDM shows in my free time. I was asked by Camp Questionmark founder, Brian, to bring some of the lighting I had collected for those shows to his Burning Man fundraiser festival called Emissions. I jumped at the opportunity and used the deal I got on rentals from my job to bring out a small rig of LED movers and Battens to light up the second stage there. I learned really fast what it’s like to light up an outdoor festival as it started POURING rain to the point where the festival was shut down. Later that night, it turned to snow and I had to abandon ship, get all my lights off of the stage and call it for the weekend. Needless to say, I was hooked and have been working multiple festivals each year since.
What was your best lighting design ever? Which one looked the coolest? And which was the toughest to pull off?
If I were to pick a favorite, I would have to say it would be The Earth Stage at Oregon Eclipse Festival in 2017.
This stage was definitely the coolest looking stage I have ever worked on, built by The Reliquarium, an art collective based out of Rhode Island. It was a custom fabricated steel structure that was woven with canvas, and inlaid with over 30,000 addressable LEDs, also being projected on from the front. As for the toughest to pull off, that would be when we built a 65ft tall scaffolding tower at Burning Man and my job was to safely rig, cable and program all our lighting fixtures and flame effects in 60+MPH winds.
What is one thing you wish Festival-goers would do, or wouldn’t do, that would make your life easier?
I wish people could figure out how to look at the music schedule instead of asking FOH crew.
How do you tailor your lighting rig to the type of music?
If I am doing EDM, I would mostly be using eye candy/beam fixtures with just silhouette lighting for the DJ, and tend to program a lot of strobes. As for bands or theater, I would have to make sure the downstage lighting package is sufficient to light up everyone on stage and have a few types of spot fixtures for key moments. Most shows like this will be cue stacked and a more organic feel than my EDM shows.
I imagine there are huge differences between lighting an EDM DJ and say, working a country band. What are those differences, in a nutshell?
I mostly work in EDM and have a bit of experience on those huge rigs. They take a lot of preprogramming, or a super solid master show-file to clone from. I have been both the lead designer and a guest on stages like this and they are a whole different animal than lighting a band. I feel lighting an EDM stage is all about flowing along with the music and accentuating the “Drops” whereas lighting a stage for bands is focused mostly on being able to see the band, and highlighting focal points of the songs.
Do you prefer older, tried-and-true tech that you know inside and out, or do you love learning and playing with new tech?
New tech all the way. I am always trying to find new ways to more efficiently and effectively light up a stage. Being able to send 20 universes via one CAT5 cable is huge and something that I would not be able to live without. I am currently working on perfecting a system of integrating lighting and video content and hope to find new toys that make getting just the right look that much easier.
Do you incorporate video walls? Why or why not.
Yes, absolutely. As someone who is trying to bridge the gap between lighting and video, I feel having a video element at a festival is very beneficial in many ways. I have been using a system of merging video content into my lighting fixtures to create a seamless look, while still retaining the ability to control my lights as I would for any other show. Also, media servers are powerful tools in your programming arsenal. I can create looks using video clips in seconds that would take much longer to program with say, a pixel mapper.
Do you have any advice or tips for other pros in the field about lighting a music festival?
Hurry up and wait.
And what are some common mistakes to avoid?
Not properly advancing the show. The worst thing about festivals is arriving to see a giant art piece where you planned on hanging lights. Also, ALWAYS use an opto splitter when possible. They will save you a lot of headaches. Lastly, always have your own power distro, and if you must share a power source with sound, make sure you are balancing your load properly!
Ever get into a fight with a stage manager or a sound engineer?
Absolutely, sound people just can’t seem to grasp our need for haze during the focus!
Finally, do you have any funny or inspiring anecdotes or mishaps that may have happened lighting an outdoor show?
Climbers are real. Always keep watch on your truss. I once found a few guys dressed in tiger suits atop my scaffolding at Burning Man and they did not want to come down. So I climbed up there and let them know that they were standing right next to a flamethrower. They didn’t seem to care as it “was not on” at the moment. Luckily, I had my wireless controller in my pocket so I pulled it out and gave the torch a poof. They got down really fast after that!
Thanks for your time and expertise, Jason. If you’re interested in working with him go to WormholeTahoe.com. And if you live or like to visit the Tahoe and Reno area, Smoked Out Soul Music Festival happens July, 3rd and The Great Depressurization is Sept. 4th, both of which are being produced by Jason and Wormhole Tahoe.
Would you like to be featured in our Pros Behind the Shows profile series? Email us today if you’re a sound, stage or lighting professional with summer festival experience.