The magic of light

Koert Vermeulen, Founder & Principal Designer, ACT Lighting Design

There is a kind of mystery in how we perceive light. It is pure physics, colouring our lives and enhancing almost every experience. Among those who look even further and deeper are Koert Vermeulen and his company ACT Lighting Design. Bringing together innovative technology and incredible concepts, they create visual masterpieces.

The Belgian company ACT Lighting Design (ACTLD), founded in 1995, came to broad attention in the beginning of 2000’s with massive “Le Reve” and “Decrocher la Lune” shows. At that time these were the cherries on the company’s various projects in events, architectural lighting design and art installations. It was the ceremonies for the Youth Olympic Games 2010 in Singapore that finally put ACTLD on its own pedestal. Since then, they’ve became one of the most in-demand when the most state-of-the-art technological solutions are needed — be it entertainment, events, architectural and urban experiences, or art installations. Koert Vermeulen, the founder and principal designer of the ACTLD, spent most of his life in lighting, and he knows how to add emotion and visual splendour to a 35,000 crowd rave, create symbolic light designs for historical buildings and festivities, or turn the regular public spaces into the hi-tech eye candy. And it is not only the beauty and art — efficiency is just as important. What presumed to be an interview with Koert Vermeulen, turned into a whole lecture. Let’s get enlightened.

Light is nothing. It is energy, perhaps the greatest source of energy we know, and we have the arrogance to believe we can control it. It is intangible. You can feel the earth beneath your feet, you can feel the wind — but Light remains a mystery. A secret. Yet without light, our world would not exist. This is its fascination. We never see light, we only see reflected light. Yet it's that reflection that makes things exist.

Koert Vermeulen, Founder & Principal Designer, ACT Lighting Design

EDUCATION AND EXPERIENCE

I decided that I want to be in lighting when I was 14 years-old, which is quite amazing to know from such a young age. I started doing everything that I could to keep myself in this business - helping out people working with the lighting, DJ-ing at small parties and concerts, being a stage-hand and a chauffeur — whatever I could do. If the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd came to Belgium and their crew needed people to unload the trucks, there I was, right up until I was 21. During that time I worked on all levels of production companies. Being able just to talk with, say, a stage-manager or lighting engineer of Tina Turner for 15 minutes while unloading the truck, was worth a year in a university in my opinion. The key is always to get as much influence and experience out of everything you do. The education you receive will only help you in the first 25% of your career. The next, and most important step, is to get experience in all disciplines and at all levels. It’s not a bad thing for someone who aspires to be a lighting designer to get knowledge in the costumes or scenography, and try to build sets with their own hands. The experience of being in a multidisciplinary environment is one of the most important things. And when I’m looking at hiring people, this is what I base my decisions on. The person who shows me they’ve thrived in a multitude of different environments has better chances than just a very good lighting designer.

My only regret, I suppose, is that because I started at such a young age, I never had the opportunity to have a mentor - Just some other lighting designer who could’ve taken me under their wing for some years and shown me methodically what can be done. I was too young and busy doing my own projects and businesses first-hand. But that was the nature of my path. Now in ACTLD we take a commitment to take on students and interns, just to get these people mentors, experience, and answers to difficult questions. I’ve learned from making an enormous amount of mistakes, though I was lucky that those mistakes were done on small projects without being crucified for them. Making mistakes is also a part of learning process.

INSPIRATION AND IDEAS

Once I did a little study for a magazine that asked designers about their inspiration. For three months I tried, probably not too scientifically, to observe my inspirations — whether these were travels, books, blogs, personal experience or anything else. I kept the log about those things, and I also kept the log of the influence they had on me. The interesting outcome was that may be only 25-30% of the ideas generated came from my inspirations. And more than 70% came from interaction with other designers and the people within ACTLD or teams we worked on different shows. Those interactions appeared to be the most efficient to create visions and ideas, and, in the end, visuals that would explains visions. I was really surprised by this. I was like, “Oh, I should be hiring more people to talk to than reading more books!” But then again, if I had to put aside travels or books, then interaction with people would not be so open and fruitful. When you talk about inspiration it’s very much about discussing ideas with people who tend to implement them most efficiently.

When you talk about inspiration it’s very much about discussing ideas with people who tend to implement them most efficiently.

THE CONCEPT AND THE EVERYDAY LIFE

We have different designers at ACTLD to work on urban projects who would probably be mostly involved in lighting of architectural and public objects, like the Brussels railway station or shopping centers. You start with a briefing with lots of constrictions which is very different to how we think about a purely artistic project. When we started the OVO project, for example, we did not even had a client, it was just a concept. It was one of the most exceptional lighting art installations to ever emerge purely from our willingness and boredom. At some point someone from our team said, “Let's do a beautiful project with no client limiting us in our ideas and asking us to adapt the project for a certain aim. We’ll see if there will be a client for this later”. So, it was a totally different approach, completely liberal — but liberal to the extent that it sometimes became difficult to design difficult to design. With limitations you design quicker and more efficiently. But when you have no client, budget constrictions and deadlines, I can tell, from the purely design point of view, that it becomes a nightmare. But we made something that we are very proud of. On the other hand, with the Brussels railway station it was all about restrictions. You cannot use dynamic light, the budget is this, the city limitations is that. But all together it gives you totally different solution. It is not better or worse, it is just a different approach. Zeleno Park in Moscow was a part of the IMX (Immersive Experience) project, which was a balance between these two approaches. The client was looking for a unique experience in the area, so that people would come to the mall and stay for some more time. He didn’t know what or how it might be done. Looking from that point, the first thing we started working on was a design strategy. It’s not yet the visuals, and not something to do with forms or functions. It’s all about what this thing should come with — A design narrative, if you like. The element that we put on the table was a modern structure with interactivity on a real level with a public — the latter being also kept in mind as a part of the design strategy. Content and content adaptation was also an important element. And, finally, we needed a permanent technical solution that could be managed from outside.

In a lot of projects nowadays you have to be able to change, adapt and reconfigure your structures into something that attracts people continuously. Fashion has understood this very well: every six months there is a new line, a new colour or some other element that attracts people. With those four elements we came to work. The analogy for the client was the Caesar’s Palace shopping mall in Las Vegas: there is a small show with fountains, lighting, and animatronics which every time attracts 500-1000 visitors to it and, eventually, to the mall. So, the client realised that he wanted a pretty similar thing, with all the layers of interactivity on top of it - An attraction that can communicate with people and can be seen for free. When we presented the project to the client, he understood completely where we wanted to go.

The Tree of Life, Milan

EXPO 2015

 

The project was inspired by the drawing of Michelangelo Buonarroti and designed by Marco Balich and studio Gioforma, artistic director of the Italian Pavilion of Expo 2015. The structure was built by Orgoglio Brescia. Koert Vermeulen joined the creative team as Lighting Designer & Director of Mise-en-Scene. Installed in the middle of Lake Arena, the «Tree of Life» interactive structure with an inner skeleton made of steel and an outer cover in wood, is over 30 meters high. On top of this gigantic trunk stands a hat that simulates the intertwined branches of a tree, with a diameter of 45 meters. For this monument with its advanced technology, constantly illuminated with LED lights, Koert Vermeulen & ACTLD created in total 1260 shows to produce the genuine dynamic effects through a play of light, video, water, fireworks, as well as bubbles and sounds. The Tree of Life changed as the hours go by, becoming the centre for many of the events in the Pavilion’s extensive schedule.

© 2016 ACT LIGHTING DESIGN — www. ACTLIGHTINGDESIGN.com

Photo by Luigi Caterino

LUMIERE INTEMPORELLE

Strasbourg, 2016

 

 

This multimedia spectacle created by ACTLD and its partners Drop the Spoon, Musicom, ADC and VYV for the prestigious Cathedral of Strasbourg illustrates the poetical story of light and time. Inspired by the first illuminations of the Cathedral in the 18th century, the creative team produced an impressive and authentic spectacle to enhance the millennial architecture of the Cathedral and to tell an enchanting story of an incredible time travel. The project was approached with a sensitive narrative and a multitude of visual effects projected not only on the cathedral, but also on its surroundings. The public discovers several scenes depicting the epic travel of light since the beginning of time.

For the best visual impact several lighting and video equipments were directly integrated into the buildings. A particular attention was given to rigorous norms and regulations applicable to those buildings classified heritage. Almost 700 Boogies® LED candles, created by ACTLD, were implemented into the facades of the Cathedral and its surroundings and were especially programmed for the spectacle.

© 2016 ACT LIGHTING DESIGN — www. ACTLIGHTINGDESIGN.com

Photo by Didier Boy de la Tour

TIMELESS ELEGANCE

London, 2015-2017

 

 

During the festive season of Christmas 2015 and until 2017, “Timeless elegance” light art installation illuminates Regent Street. The original artistic concept is a sculpture of time, nowadays genuine luxury. The ACTLD team came with the concept of “suspension of time”, by showing each element of an enchanting innovative clockwork mechanism, which pave a “golden way” for the visitors. The heart of installation is a challenging lighting scheme with a custom created combination of video projections, dynamic pixels, tinsels of light and LED screens integrated in the decoration. Every hour, visitors can watch an exclusive compilation of video projections and programmed lights that bring the sculpture to life. This ambitious dynamic installation is designed to evolve in time, reflect the brand values of Regent Street and convey its atmosphere of glamour during the festive period.

© 2016 ACT LIGHTING DESIGN — www. ACTLIGHTINGDESIGN.com

Photo by Tomasz Kozak

When you have no client, budget constrictions and deadlines, I can tell, from the purely design point of view, that it becomes a nightmare. But we made something that we are very proud of.

PSYCHOLOGY AND PHYSIOLOGY

It is bullshit to think that the red light makes you feel uncomfortable, or the green light makes you feel good. We follow a lot of research that is based on chroma-therapy and colour. I can tell that in chroma-therapy you use light and light frequencies to influence certain elements, like blood flow; it is a proven technique, and helps as good as alternative medicine. Some people say it helps because they think it’s helping them, others say it is total non-sense. Let’s admit it helps — but it helps only when frequencies of the colour waves are so very restricted that we are talking only about a couple of nanometers, and the length of the red light needs to be so focused and small that only in a treatment room you can create the atmosphere on which it is possible to give you a feeling of relief.

For me it is purely a psychological and cultural matter. We all know that the warmer the country, the more people tend to use white or colder colours. The farther we go to the North, the more people inclined to warm colours. And it is not a proven thing from the audience. What we see in any theatre or any show is that we cannot create the circumstances needed for colours or other light to really do any psychological or physical alterations to a human body of any kind. The worst thing that can be done — and we do it from time to time — in the Cinescenie show, for example, is using all the red and blue LED’s with a stroboscope between them. It gives an effect of disorientation, and we use it in a show because at war people are fighting — you don’t fully understand what happens, you are lost, you don’t know where your enemy is. It is a purely psychological effect that is created by different zones of your brain. Reds are little bit in the front, blues a little bit in the back, when the lights flashing you have to constantly re-focus your eyes which, actually, give you an effect of not being in the same place at the same time. It is a trick that can be done with people for a certain purpose. It is similar to what illusionists do; they use a lot of things to make you believe in magic.

THE CLIENT AND THE AUDIENCE

The client matters. You can have a good project when you are disciplined and talented. But you can only do a great project when a client is a “good client”. At certain projects I felt that the client, or the producer, or a person responsible for implementation of the project can do or cannot do it. This is the difference for me. The client is the one who supports the design vision into the reality. If he understands what you want to do, if he can see beyond simple digits in budgets, then it is a shift of focus. I’ve seen people who had a great vision of the whole project and were able to support us in good and even crazy ways — so that we were able to deliver.

The audience is a good measurement tool for knowing how well you've done. Still, there is the problem with it. The audience sees only one choice that you made for them as a designer: “This scene is blue”. The people who you work with — artistic directors, producers or anybody else in the process of designing into reality — they choose the end result with you. So, the public doesn’t know what would have been the other choice, we give it only a kind of our final best that we could have done. So, the audience is much more forgiving than a client who is able to see all the possibilities and options. Yet, the audience is the one who reacts and claps in the end, and it is the reason why you do what you are doing.

As lighting designers we can’t solve the problem of the world poverty, and we cannot cure diseases — we are very low in standards of world improvement. But, I think, what we really do is a thing similar to what a film-maker does: we help people to see another point of view on everyday things. An artist does that with paintings or sculptures, or art installations; film-makers do that with movies. We help people to get out of their daily routine and look into the other world, even if it is only a couple of minutes, or a couple of hours. It’s something that's been true since ancient times; the people need to be entertained. You always need an extra element to your life. It is not only the eternal work-eat-sleep tedium. Keeping that kind of feeling, I absolutely love to create events or designs for the audience. It is a piece of what scenographers and directors do, but you feel that you are a part of that — applause is what makes it working again and again.

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