The Light Master of Super Bowl Halftime


Feb. 1, 2013

Two weeks ago Al Gurdon was at a dance studio in Manhattan, having just wrapped days of rehearsing for Beyoncé's Super Bowl halftime show. Mr. Gurdon, the lighting designer for Sunday's show, stood in the midst of stacks of rack-mounted computers, consoles for controlling the machines, and screens on which virtual renderings of the show are displayed (renderings veiled in secrecy the CIA would be hard-pressed to penetrate).


These are the tools of Mr. Gurdon's specialty: the lighting for stadium concert tours and televised musical performances. The 53-year-old lighting designer has illuminated everyone from Coldplay to the Who to Madonna, in productions such as the last three Super Bowl halftime shows, "The X Factor" and the MTV Europe Music Awards. He also served as a consultant for the opening and closing ceremonies at last summer's Olympics.


Yet, surrounded by the machines that allow him to control all at once the color, aim, beam width and brightness of more than 2,000 lighting elements, he says: "I'm totally uninterested in technology for its own sake."


It's not that Mr. Gurdon takes his high-tech tools for granted. He recognizes, however, that the key to his art is knowing not just how to use all those wonderful toys but how and when not to. Any children's party DJ can brandish a kaleidoscopic cacophony of whirling spinamajiggers, frenetic gobo-trons and dervishing lasermabobs. Hyperkinetic, computer-controlled lighting has become so commonplace that any Holiday Inn function room can outglare Times Square.


So what's a lighting designer to do? Less.


Mr. Gurdon quotes approvingly from a 2006 technical rider that Iggy Pop has included with his performance contracts. A rambling and opinionated comic document, the rider is legendary in rock production circles. It begs lighting directors to stop with all the nonstop moving of the moving lights, saying, "Most LDs suffer from some sort of nervous disorder that won't permit their hands to stay still for longer than 8 milliseconds." The Iggy reminder for lighting directors? "Nobody goes home whistling the lights."


"You can have a light [flash] on every beat, but that's not always what you want," Mr. Gurdon says. Creativity isn't always about thinking up new things to add in. It's often about focusing on what can be edited out.


Mr. Gurdon's approach goes back not only to his own university training in photography but to watching his mother—an amateur photographer—work in her basement darkroom. In lighting for video he strives to create the sort of depth and texture that would make for an interesting photograph.


After attending college in London, Mr. Gurdon became a television cameraman. His first gig was on a children's show. Hoping to improve his camerawork, he applied to take a lighting course. But instead of getting signed up as a trainee "lighting cameraman" he ended up as a trainee lighting director—and found he had the knack. The chance to develop his own style came over a five-year stint lighting bands on the weekly British TV show "TFI Friday."


Mr. Gurdon avoids bright, candy colors. He has a taste for deep, saturated hues, using the sort of intense solids you see in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" nightmare sequence. His signature look is as much about darkness as light—and a heavy, glowering darkness at that. Against that dark background, he often paints in broad, brooding strokes with an ominous cochineal crimson or a dense cobalt blue.


The word that is most often used in describing Mr. Gurdon's work is "dramatic." It is a quality at the heart of his process. "I'll listen to the music, listen to the tone. It depends on the drama of the music. Sometimes there are dramatic hooks, or just a mood that suggests a style."


He strives to adopt a basic empathy with whatever genre of music he's lighting, illuminating the stage and the artist in a way that resonates with the aesthetic of the music.



"If you're doing a Tony Bennett concert, you wouldn't use a lot of lasers," Mr. Gurdon laughs. "That would be mad."


Using his emotional reaction to a song, he will choose a predominant color and stick with it. "I try to keep the colors consistent instead of jumping all over or changing all the time," Mr. Gurdon says. And then he starts working out the intricate choreography of the lights. He creates a chart on which he maps every measure of the music—at times, every beat—specifying what lights will hit what part of the performance.


How much difference does the lighting make? TV director Hamish Hamilton has helmed everything from Victoria's Secret fashion shows to the Academy Awards, and will be directing the Super Bowl halftime show Sunday night. "A lot of live TV can be very bland," he says, "because it has to be lit from so many angles." It's like going outside on an overcast day and taking pictures with a camera on your phone—everything looks flat and gray, because diffused light is coming from everywhere.


But take that same little camera to Miami Beach in the "magic hour" before sunset, and everyone and everything look fabulous. The only difference is the light. According to Mr. Hamilton, "Al gives you the magic hour."