“My favorite moment [of the 2017 VMAs] was Pink and her flying car. She started on one end of the room, performed on all stages, and in a seven-minute sliver of time the audience got to see everything we had done.”
The roster of shows for which Travis Hagenbuch has provided lighting design or lighting direction reads like a Who’s Who of awards shows, concerts, large scale events and television shows: The Academy Awards, The Golden Globe Awards, The Grammy Awards, The Tony Awards, The Emmy Awards, The Kennedy Center Honors, Conan, The Queen Latifah Show, Fashion Star in Beijing, China… the list goes on. It’s quite a massive achievement when you consider that Travis has only been in the business for twelve years.
PRG talked with Travis about his inspiration, creativity, work ethic, and his team at PRG.
PRG: Travis, you’ve accomplished quite a bit during the past decade. How did you get your start?
HAGENBUCH: I grew up on a farm in Illinois, an upbringing I really admire because it taught me a lot about work ethic and growing up fast. Our family used to go to Chicago to see shows and I thought they were really cool, like an escape from the farm [he laughs]. As I got a bit older I became interested in music, architecture, science and electricity. It was unique combination of different interests for sure but it sort of filled a void for all things outside of the farm. In elementary school, I got into theater and plays but from a production standpoint. There weren’t many kids interested in production, and we didn’t have much in the way of lights and scenery so I convinced the PTA to give me a couple of hundred bucks to go to Radio Shack and start the technical side of the plays. Shortly thereafter I got into community theater. When I started college I knew I didn’t have the discipline to practice music every day, or the drawing for architecture, so I focused on tech and theater. I had to convince my parents to let me go to the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. It was a great place for me - many of the kids there went on to Broadway, but I wanted something different for my career. So, I packed my bags and went to Los Angeles, no contacts or anything, but with enough money to last the summer. I went to Las Vegas one weekend with some friends and met lighting director Matt Firestone in a bar. Matt invited me to his next show to shadow him, and that led to working with him at the Stunt Awards in 2007, and it all sort of happened naturally after that.
PRG: Let’s talk about the Video Music Awards 2017, what was your inspiration for this show?
HAGENBUCH: The inspiration was just the romance of the idea of trying to make it all work, I really like being part of something bigger than myself…and working with Bob Barnhart and the whole team at PRG. The challenge was also part of my inspiration. On shows that have a strong set design concept from the start, designers will add light to their renderings. Sometimes their vision is unachievable from a physics perspective, but the first images we saw from Ric Lipson at Stufish in London were really strong, and sparked a wide-range of possibilities.
PRG: Can you walk us through the process of the show from creative meetings to implementation to live telecast?
HAGENBUCH: There were lots of meetings on Skype and conference calls. Given the caliber of people working on this show and how busy they are, it was a bit challenging to get everyone together, so we did a lot of small group meetings to talk about what the goals were and the reality of making them happen. There was a lot of engineering and technology work, a bit of robbing from Peter to pay Paul, and a lot of changes along the way. It was really exciting though…my first look at set design was in April and all the way up to one week before the show ideas were still changing. We all sort of joked about it. I think Patrick Boozer, who worked with us on the show said it best when he said, “We’ll pause the development just long enough to do the show and then load it all out.” [he laughs again].
PRG: How does the creative process transfer into the type of gear and crew you use?
HAGENBUCH: Scenic renderings and tech-savvy set designers keep lighting and video products in mind as they are designing, they know they want, whether it’s a linear shape here, a circular sign there, then they guide us and we’ll turn the stage picture into a silhouette or fill negative space with the functionality of specific gear. It’s the library we keep in our brains or that PRG tells us about or informs us that something new is being developed or can be developed. Bob Barnhart and his company, 22 Degrees, is great to work with on shows like this too because we all bounce ideas off each other. After we come up with an initial plan, I’ll put it into CAD and then send it to the PRG tech team and the electricians will figure out the power, and then production managers will determine equipment, power, crew, and everything else. The great thing is that everyone works together. Everyone understands that the live, variety show circuit in LA is a small group of people and we really do support each other.
PRG: How did the VMAs differ from other shows in the creative process? Timeline? Venue? Solutions?
HAGENBUCH: The scale of the show! Filling the entire Forum, a 360-degree room, was truly a unique challenge. Think about it…multiple performance positions, multiple stages, multiple camera angels, people performing everywhere. We had to light talent in a flattering way, while at the same time lighting variable backgrounds and of course, face and resolve all the usual challenges you face with a production of this magnitude. The PRG GroundControl Follow Spot system was really helpful because it enabled us to put a small lighting fixture up in the air without sending a human into the beams to operate it. It made it much easier to put smaller, lighter, more cost efficient lights into nooks and crannies all over the place to really make the show look incredible.
PRG: How did you work with the Bob Barnhart and his team to bring the VMA vision to life?
HAGENBUCH: I’ve known Bob for 10 years, this was our third time working together on the VMAs. We work very well together. On the VMAs we both got a look at the scenic drawings early with the initial ideas. I translated our ideas onto paper, worked on the fixture choice, placement, and then did the 3D drawings, planning for lots of tight clearances, and the unique concept applications like Pink’s flying car. Bob and I then work together on the details and he massaged the budgets, and we worked closely together with the PRG team to explore alternatives when needed.
PRG: What was your favorite moment of the VMAs and what would you consider your big win?
HAGENBUCH: My favorite moment was Pink and her flying car. She started on one end of the room, performed on all stages, and in a seven-minute sliver of time the audience got to see everything we had done. And the big win, well, I think it was actually using PRG’s GroundControl, as far as I’m concerned it was the star of the show. The show would not have come together they way it did without PRG, Local 33 and 22 Degrees and their ability to get it all done. We all worked seamlessly together, especially during the last two weeks before the show when everyone worked 16 hours a day. It was just an awesome experience!