Interview with Gunther Hecker – Cue Design

Gunther Hecker is one of the most esteemed lighting designers in Germany, although using the term “lighting designer” in his case doesn’t really cut it. With his company Cue Design he combines a range of creative resources to produce visual spectacles, offering a complete solution for lighting, set and visual design. He was favoured by fortune in meeting the German lighting guru Günter Jäckle, who was something of a mentor to him, offering his first opportunities to work on large gigs of artists such as Herbert Grönemeyer, Jose Carreras, Marius Müller Westernhagen and Udo Lindenberg.

After setting up a company called Planquadrat with German Soul and R&B singer/songwriter Xavier Naidoo, he went totally independent, focussing on offering complete design services. Since 2013, Cue Design has been based next to the main building of leading international provider of event and media technology, satis&fy. Today, Gunther Hecker’s Cue Design realises show designs for top German artists like Herbert Grönemeyer, Die Fantastischen Vier, Xavier Naidoo, Cro and many others, but also sets and spaces for corporate events and others.

Die Fantastischen Vier (Foto: Anna Imm Photography)

LightSoundJournal: When and why did you start to fall in love with lighting? What was your personal “illumination” that made you want to become a lighting designer?

Gunther Hecker: I’m coming from theatre originally. I started as a scenic painter before then changing to lighting. It was purely by chance that I got to know Günter Jäckle and started to work with him. Before I knew it, I was stuck in the music business, but one that’s unrecognisable from today’s. In 1990, there was no real music industry in Germany. So I first worked in theatre in Heidelberg and in 1990, everything started moving.

LightSoundJournal: Who is Cue Design?

Gunther Hecker: In principle it’s me. [laughs] I have three employees and a lot of freelance staff working at Cue Design. We preferably try to make money with design, not with rental of equipment or other elements. Special construction projects are our favourite to work on, and so we push in that direction within our business.

LightSoundJournal: What is your role at Cue Design?

Gunther Hecker: I mainly take care of the creative part, and other staff members think about the technical issues. For example, I work a lot with Marc Lorenz, one of our freelance collaborators. He knows everything about servers, all types of signals and how to connect them to make them work.

Herbert Grönemeyer, Tour 2016 (Foto: Carsten Klick)

LightSoundJournal: How would you describe the “Hecker-style”, and what is most important to you when designing live shows?

Gunther Hecker: For me, the very starting point is to understand what the artist is doing on stage. It’s not always about utilising the latest fixture or the most stunning effects. I am noticing more in the industry that fewer and fewer are still able to make “light”. They may be able to operate the fixtures perfectly well, but it is not easy to find someone who is capable of making real light. Our business can mislead groups into making incredible shows, but many have very little to do with the band playing music on stage. My first approach is always to ask myself: “What are they doing?”, “What do they need?” “In which direction does it have to go?”. Then I start thinking about images and after that what type of material I want to utilise. I am very open when it comes to specifying lighting equipment. So in summary, my strategy is to try to understand what it is the artist doing and what he needs on stage, rather than thinking “I want this or that fixture”, which is something that initially makes no difference to me.

LightSoundJournal: What do you think of the evolution of lighting technology that has taken place in the past few years?

Gunther Hecker: It’s been a quantum leap in the last twenty years. 3 or 4 years after I started my lighting career, Vari-Lite shipped the VL5 and VL6 moving head luminaires, and suddenly Pink Floyd had hundreds of VL5 on stage. It was quite a revolution. In comparison, in the same period in Germany, you were well equipped if you had 10 moving heads in your rig, even for stadium shows. In those days, if you could program a wave on the Vari-Lite Artisan console, you were a king! Maybe there were only other five people in Germany who could do that. Everything has changed so much, to a point where you cannot compare it anymore. It has become a complete different world.

CRO, Live @ Erfurt, 21.12.2016 (Foto: Markus Wilmsmann)

LightSoundJournal: Do you consider yourself an artist?

Gunther Hecker: No, I feel more like a service provider. If I was an artist, I would design a light show or stage, bring it to the market and say “Here is my creation, who wants it?”. In our case it is reverted, because a musician or artist will come to us and ask for a stage design, and then you will work together with the artist, or on a stage play, or for an industrial corporate event, etc, and create something for this story or purpose. A real artist can’t help it, the art is naturally emanating from him or her, and he or she has no choice but to let it flow. Instead, I would describe ourselves as service providers with an artistic approach.

LightSoundJournal: That sounds like a bit of an understatement to me. I have seen some of your designs and I really think you’re an artist…  

Gunther Hecker: Okay, of course the work must have an artistic starting point. I’m always looking for something new to build. I’m happy when I can create something innovative, that nobody has ever seen before. I don’t want to simply assemble what other companies offer and what’s already on the market, this would be too easy for me. When speaking about video, we always keep an eye on what is actually happening in the art scene, and we really care about the issue and think about how we can create new things. With the German hip hop group Die Fantastischen Vier we’ve been employing the Quartz program for years, as it allows us to work on the video streams and all the effects with real time rendering. It’s very exciting for us to use this technology. Live cameras have also become an important part of the show. We take the live image and send it trough a processor to alienate it, before sending it out again. In the past few years we’ve worked very hard to minimise latency, trying to achieve as little frame offset as possible, so that it really comes across par for par.

Xavier Naidoo (Foto: Anna Imm Photography)

LightSoundJournal: Your working area is quite big. Isn’t it a bit of an understatement to consider yourself just a lighting designer? Do you still sit behind the lighting console during shows?

Gunther Hecker: Cue Design offers a complete solution, with lighting, stage and set design, and video. At the end of the day, you may also find me behind the lighting console. With artists like Herbert Grönemeyer, Xavier Naidoo and Die Fantastischen Vier I’m doing also the lighting, but in April for example, we’ll have David Garrett on tour and I will not sit at the console. I did the stage and lighting design and attended the rehearsals, but at the shows an operator will do this job.

LightSoundJournal: Is there a lighting fixture you particularly like at the moment?

Gunther Hecker: Different fixtures for different applications, this is key. I use a lot of Robe products, and I really like the Mac Viper Performance, but I’m not fixed on specific brands. A fixture has to work well and has to fit within the lighting design.

What console are you using?

Gunther Hecker: At the moment I use a Hog 4.

LightSoundJournal: Are you a long time Hog user?

Gunther Hecker: I started learning on an Artisan console before the Hog 1 was released. At the time of its release I was interested in it, but at that point the console wasn’t competitive. But then the Hog 2 console arrived, and it was easy for me to work with because the people from Hog had previously worked at Vari-Lite, and the philosophy of programming was very similar. So, I stayed with the Hog. I have obviously cast an eye over what MA Lighting has to offer, but for me it would not be that much a benefit to use it. I never have huge, complex tv shows to do, where five linked consoles are needed to run the show, so I’ve been always satisfied with the Hog. For a long time, I didn’t use the Hog 3, until it started to function well, and now I’m very happy with the Hog 4.

LightSoundJournal: You have worked with a number of very important artists. How much do they actually interfere in your design? Or rather, how much do you let them interfere?

Gunther Hecker: There are different species of artists. Some don’t have any imagination and are completely uncreative, and others know perfectly well what they want to see, how and where to set the effects etc. In our business, it is important not to bring in too much ego, but to make it a team effort. When you get suggestions from the artist, that’s the best thing that can happen. Just take a look at a live show of Peter Gabriel’s. He knows exactly how he wants to express, display and sell himself in that moment, and he is surely going to explain his ideas to the designer. This is the best way of implementing something interesting on stage. It’s much more difficult to create a show for a band that has no clue about how they want to sell themselves or want to come across.

LightSoundJournal: Who was (or is) the most “hard-to-please” or demanding performer?

Gunther Hecker: Let’s put it like this: Die Fantastischen Vier and Herbert Grönemeyer really know how they want to appear on stage, but there are many other artists that have no idea and really don’t care about it, so it’s up to us to do it for them.

Die Fanatstischen Vier, “Vier und Jetzt” Tour 2016-2017 (Foto: Anna Imm Photography)

LightSoundJournal: What does Gunther Hecker do when he is not thinking about CRI, cues and set design? Do you have any hobbies?

Gunther Hecker: No. When you are doing this job, you have no hobbies. You have already transformed your hobby into work … [big laugh] but the real problem is time. At the moment our norm is to have four/five productions running at the same time, so it’s very difficult to find any free time. If that happens, I like to view paintings and exhibitions, photo and video installations, but for the rest I have to say that I’m married to my job.

LightSoundJournal: What are you working on and what is your schedule for the coming year?

Gunther Hecker: We had a very busy end of the year in 2016, with several productions from Germany’s top acts concentrated in six weeks: David Garrett, Cro, Die Fantastischen Vier, Xavier Naidoo and BAP. This month we’ll have Joy Denalane, a Berlin based artist, then David Garrett will go on tour again, as well as Daniel Wirtz, an artist from Frankfurt. In the summer we get back on the road with Die Fantastischen Vier and other German bands, like Freundeskreis from Stuttgart, and others.

LightSoundJournal: What’s been the most embarrassing show you have ever worked on?

Gunther Hecker: I remember a show with Josè Carreras, in the beginning of the 90’s, in Innsbruck, at the ski jump. There was a stage in the run-off area, with television broadcasting and a big audience. I had some moving heads to ligh Carreras, and everything was going fine, when suddenly the moving lights stopped working and there was nothing I could do about it. I had to wait until there was a break to replace them with traditional lighting fixtures. It was really embarrassing to see Carreras standing in the dark and to have all the spectators and the broadcasting people around my neck! [laughs].


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