Interview: Jeff Ravitz

At the end of May, ZioGiorgio went to the Czech Republic to visit the headquarters of Robe Lighting. On that occasion our team learned to know Jeff Ravitz, one of the most famous US lighting designers and owner of Intensity Advisors, the “Emmy winning lighting design studio”, a firm specialized in televised live entertainment, primarily multi-camera.
Well-known for years as Bruce Springsteen’s lighting designer, Jeff Ravitz has forged a reputation for transforming live entertainment performances into exciting, but also broadcast-proper, television shows. He has become one of the busiest TV designers, creating lighting for live televised spectaculars, concerts, awards, game and talk shows, comedy specials, fashion, ice show broadcasts, and studio-based TV productions.
Recent work includes television specials for Bruce Springsteen (HBO, CBS, PBS), Shania Twain (CBS), Michel Legrand (PBS), and Alicia Keys (FuseTV), as well as broadcasts and DVDs for artists ranging from Usher, Beyoncé, John Fogerty (Live By Request-PBS), and Journey, and comedy specials for Bill Maher (HBO), Wanda Sykes (HBO), Terry Fator (CMT), and Larry The Cable Guy (Comedy Central). He was the lighting director for the Vancouver Olympics nightly Whistler Plaza medals ceremonies and concert broadcasts.

JR in CzechRepublic_cc_left

Jeff Ravitz was awarded a Primetime Emmy for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on HBO and was previously nominated for Cher . . . Live at the Mirage. He has also received two Los Angeles Emmys for his designs of LA area programs and an Emmy from the Pacific Southwest chapter of the Academy. He received a third Emmy nomination for his design of the holiday special, Carols By Candlelight, and an additional two Emmy nominations (and a win) for the award show A Salute To Teachers. He has also been honored with four Telly Awards and two Aurora Awards for television designs. Very recently Jeff Ravitz has been honored with two regional Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lighting Design from both the Pacific Southwest and the Michigan chapters of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS). When and why did you start to fall in love with lighting stuff? What was your personal “illumination” that made you want to become a lighting designer?

Jeff Ravitz: I grew up close to New York City and saw Broadway shows at an early age.  Lighting always fascinated me, but it was a mystery.  I didn’t understand how all those lights, from so far away, and all aiming in different directions, could make the stage look so beautiful.  My high school auditorium had no stage lights, and so I had no direct exposure to learning about the craft of lighting.

When I started my college training at Northwestern University, my roommate was a lighting design student and he began to explain to me how lighting worked.  I started taking classes and I discovered that I enjoyed it very much.  In those days, lighting design was limited to theatre, ballet, and opera.  Plus, of course, TV and film, which I was not interested in at the time. Anyway, I was training to be an actor, not a lighting designer.

When I graduated from college, I worked as an actor, but also made extra money designing lighting for theatre.  One day, the Grateful Dead played in my town, and their lighting “blew me away.”  I had never seen lighting that had so much pure color and accented the music so strongly.  Before this, I was only exposed to very subtle theatrical lighting.  So, this experience excited me very much and I began looking for jobs designing lighting for concerts.  I found a local Chicago band that needed a designer, and I went on the road for two years, playing night clubs and college auditoriums.  We were also the opening act for famous bands, and I got to see a lot of big, professional concert lighting designs.  This opened my eyes to the possibilities, and I absorbed it with a fervor.  So, those were the experiences that turned me around and made me want to do lighting that reached far beyond what was happening in the theatre at that time in history.  In those days, the technology was simple, and there were no moving lights at all.  So, we all used PARs, ellipsoidals, and fresnels.  It was how we used them that made the difference:  Colors, angles, and timing.


Shania Twain “Come on over” Tour – Texas Stadium – TV Special -photo: © Neil Preston What are the most significant changes or additions you make when you adapt existing live shows by other designers to become broadcast-proper, especially in a multi-cam situation?

Jeff Ravitz: The biggest changes are usually in the angle from which light hits faces, color on faces, and brightness levels everywhere. The camera sees faces in close-up and in magnified detail.  So, I take care to make people look natural when they are supposed to appear natural.  Often, theatrical lighting hits faces very steeply, which makes them look harsh on-camera.  So, if possible, I try to adjust the existing lighting to aim at faces from a lower angle, and I try to use only one light from any given direction to create single shadows.  (Often, live shows have multiple lights from the same angle aimed at people.) Colors that look fine to the human eye often seem exaggerated or unpleasant on faces seen through a camera.  So, I adjust color.  And finally, theatrical lighting can often be very uneven.  One area might be very bright, another very dark.  The eye has no problem with this, but the camera does.  So, I balance the lighting levels.  And then, I pay careful attention to lighting the audience and sometimes, the venue’s architectural details. That’s the simple overview, but of course, there is much more to think about:  composition of shadows, definition of shadows, just to name a couple. During their life painters explore different styles and chromatic expressions. What was your evolution? What is the “Ravitz-Style” made of and what is most important to you when you’re designing live shows?

Jeff Ravitz: I come from a theatrical background.  Therefore, I do try to create depth, dimension, and levels of visual priority to direct the viewer toward what I think is most important –  not unlike a cinematographer.  I’ve always been influenced by the great painters’ use of light:  Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Vermeer.  Color inspiration came from modernists like Agam and impressionists like Renoir.  And of course, I love the work of the great directors of photography, from film noir to avant-garde. But, I also had a musical background as a child and teenager.  My original interest was in Broadway-style music and classical, but rock and roll grabbed me pretty tightly.  So, when I began lighting live shows, particularly live concerts, I found that I could tell the story contained in the music by using precise timing to follow and accent it, dramatic angles to reveal the performers moment-by-moment, and bold colors to define and create layering.  Also, I like the element of surprise.  I try to change the viewer’s perspective and do something unexpected to highlight a particular moment.  You see, when I started lighting concerts in the ‘70s, there were only a few examples to follow, like the Dead.  The rest, I made up as I went along by using the same philosophies that worked for theatre lighting:  Follow the story, even if it’s only a 4 minute story that’s told in a song. And highlight what’s important. That served me well, and I earned a reputation as a “theatrical” rock and roll designer. There are quite a lot of different brands, producing a great variety of professional lighting equipment. What are your all-time favorites?

Jeff Ravitz: I hesitate to claim any favorites, because there are so many excellent brands available to us.  When I began in the business, Altman and Strand had a lock on the conventional equipment we used and all the rental vendors made their own consoles.  When moving lights were introduced, I was one of the first Vari-Lite customers and that was extremely exciting.  Since then, so many manufacturers have learned from their predecessors and every year, one of them leap-frogs over the last one to give us something new and original.


Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band “Live In Barcelona”, CBS You have worked with a lot of very important artists. How much do they actually interfere in your lighting design? And/Or: How much do you let them interfere? Who was (or is) the most “hard-to-please” or demanding performer?

Jeff Ravitz: Ha…that’s a dangerous question to answer.  But, here goes!  My first big break was with the excellent ‘70s rock band, Styx.  The designs I created for them were very much a product of many deep and detailed discussions about the show we were creating.  We would usually take up to a year to develop a tour concept, which generally occurred while the band was recording their new album. I felt very included by them, and the process was a back-and-forth of all of us throwing out ideas.  Of course, I had theatrical experience, so I brought most of the production ideas to the table for them to approve.  Also, their manager at the time, Derek Sutton, was a very creative and visionary man, himself, and working with him was very stimulating.  So, they never “interfered” but rather, we collaborated.

When I worked with Yes, who were a favorite band of mine, I found that they wanted very specific things and they often directed me toward colors and cues that were in their minds.  I, of course, worked hard to give them what they requested, but during a two-hour show, many of my own ideas emerged, too.  Over the course of the tour, they began to trust me to interpret their music in a way they liked, but they always reserved the right to question and re-direct me.  They might have been in that category of hard-to-please and demanding, but ultimately we were in sync.

Working with Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band has been an interesting evolutionary process.  When I started with Bruce in 1984, he had just ended a twelve-year working relationship with the only other LD he had ever worked with.  And now, here was a new guy, me.  I thought we would talk for hours, but instead, we had only a fifteen-minute conversation about the overall style he liked and about certain songs that had moments he wanted to be handled in a specific way.  But then, he set me loose to do my job.  Our real collaboration came on a nightly basis while on-tour.  I went into his dressing room before every show, again during the intermission, and finally, after the show, to talk about any ideas either of us might have.  He would tell me about new moments for that night’s show and we might discuss how to treat them.
Over the years, those conversations grew shorter and there was more discussion before the tour and much less on a daily basis.  And when I stopped traveling full-time with the show, it became really important to agree on things as the tour was being designed. We would talk about cinematic styles, painters, photographers, and Broadway designs.  Sometimes, to this day, he will contribute ideas, or other times, he will just allow me do what I think is needed and then, perhaps, he’ll ask for changes during rehearsals.  Bruce could be considered demanding, but only in the best way.  He has a very keen instinct about what works for him.  He knows that my team and I are the ones that see his show from the audience’s point of view, but he still has an amazing eye and he knows best about what will work for his music and lyrics.

Ringo Starr is another wonderful client.  Ringo and I have a brief discussion before each tour, where I describe what I propose to do for the upcoming show.  For Ringo, my associate and I develop stage designs, too, and Ringo is most interested in that.  Otherwise, for lighting, I’m on my own and he seems to be pleased with the results.


Ringo Starr & his All Starr Band, 2010 This year Prolight & Sound in Frankfurt was another big success for LED fixtures. Are LEDs going to replace traditional discharge lamps completely?

Jeff Ravitz: My prediction is no.  I think there will be additional sources, too, that are yet to be developed, which will give us a closer substitute for what we currently like most about discharge and tungsten lamps, but with more efficient power consumption. In the meantime, I do think LED technology will continue to improve in response to the demand by designers and end-users who still relate to the quality of light that that is created by those “legacy” sources.  That way, we will have the best of both worlds. How do you imagine the future of professional lighting?

Jeff Ravitz: Lighting has been undergoing major developments for the last thirty years, after a few decades where there was not a great deal of technological forward motion.  Today, the lighting designer is the head of a big creative and technical team, becoming more of a lighting “producer” or “conductor.” It’s already happening.  The LD often cannot be an intimate part of every lighting process – at least, not like in the past.  The LD must trust other talented co-designers more and more with the final product.  Then, the lighting designer stitches all these pieces together and directs the individuals and sub-teams to be a cohesive part of the final result.
Programmers are a big part of the design and cuing process, unlike the board operators years ago. Eventually, there will be the “executive programmer” who only directs and manages the team of programmers, and reports to the lighting designer. In fact, I’m sure that already happens.
One huge controversy is the “ownership” of video imagery.  In some cases, video products are part of the scenery, or are the scenery.  Since this technology is often controlled by a standard lighting control console, it is assumed that the lighting team will be responsible for it, both for control and for creative content, even when it is actually scenery.  But, this takes quite a bit more time, and in most scenarios, the extra time is not available.  Therefore, more high level, expert job categories are created.  Again, those teams must coordinate with the lighting designer.  This process will continue as technology expands. In this moment, what are you working on and what is your schedule for the coming year?

Jeff Ravitz: I’m preparing two projects to finish out the summer.  The first is a television concert featuring a twelve-year old piano genius, Ethan Bortnick.  In addition to his rock band, he will be accompanied by a full orchestra and a choir of one hundred singers.  We worked on his last show three years ago when he was nine!
The second production is a concert by a Native American performer, Robert Mirabal.  He plays traditional Native American music, as well as rock music, and he will have a full band and dancers onstage.  This show will take place outdoors in New Mexico, where we will see the sun set behind the stage at the beginning of the show. What does Jeff Ravitz do when he is not thinking about kelvins, cues and light structures?

Jeff Ravitz: I actually do have a life away from lighting!  I have a family, who I spend time with.  In the winter, I am an avid skier.  I am the family cook, and I enjoy finding new and interesting recipes to prepare at home.  But, discovering great restaurants in Los Angeles as well as throughout the world is a passion of mine, too.  Finally, I love museums, movies and to read, but there’s never enough time for everything!


Beyonce “BDay” Live from Tokyo (AOL Music LIVE! & DirecTV) You’ve lighted top artists, the biggest events, TV shows and massive celebration spectaculars, earning the most important awards. Where do you still get your motivation from and do you have a lifelong dream you haven’t realize yet?

Jeff Ravitz: I am still quite motivated by the desire to learn more and to improve my skills.  That never stops.  When I see good lighting anywhere, I can’t wait for my next opportunity to incorporate exciting techniques and styles into my next design.
I began my career with the hope of working on Broadway.  I was attracted to the high degree of professionalism and artistry.  Someday, I might have the opportunity.  I would enjoy adapting another designer’s Broadway lighting for a television production.
I was very lucky to get an early break in my career, and as a result, I never had the opportunity to assist or work under an experienced, seasoned lighting designer.  It’s too late for that, now.  The designers I admire work a parallel path to mine, but I would be delighted to collaborate with any of them if I had the chance. What was the most embarrassing live or TV show you ever did?

Jeff Ravitz: Ooh, let me think of one that I can actually talk about!  I will say, with no prejudice toward this genre, that all of the most embarrassing shows that come to mind were Hip Hop concerts.  Maybe I just haven’t been lucky enough to work for the best, but the Hip Hop shows I’ve done have been mostly festival style, with lots of acts on the bill, one after another for hours.  There is no real form or plan to those shows, and people just wander on and offstage randomly, with groups of people just standing around behind the performers and in the wings, maybe paying attention to the show, maybe not.  Very often, the songs just end in what sounds like the middle of a verse, like they lost interest or decided they would rather do a different number.  But everyone stops one or two seconds apart, so it sounds like a huge mistake.  During one such show, in St. Louis, half of the lighting system went out in the middle of the show.  But the performers continued like they didn’t even notice, with the entire right side of the stage in total darkness.  That might have been the worst one for me!  I’ve been trying to forget that one.


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