A Light Discussion With The Creative Minds Behind The City’s Most Prominent Skyline Features.
Thanks, in part, to contracts with groups like ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin and Three Dog Night, the Dallas-based concert production company Showco established itself in the ’70s as the premier provider of large-scale stage sound and lighting in the country. That’s how, in December of 1980, Showco employees Jim Bornhorst (father of Blackstone Rangers drummer Daniel Bornhorst), Tom Walsh, Brooks Taylor and John Covington found themselves standing in the 500-year-old barn in England where the members of Genesis were recording their then-upcoming album, Abacab, and rehearsing for that release’s subsequent tour.
The employees were on hand to show off a prototype of the world’s first automated variable color moving lighting system. The band was impressed. They not only ordered 55 units on the spot, but they gave the Dallasites enough start-up cash to launch Showco’s sister company, Vari-Lite, which was launched so they could continue innovating the medium.
A few years later, Vari-Lite expanded into Europe and hired Daryl Vaughan as its first European director of marketing. After a decade of touring with acts such as Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Pink Floyd, U2, Frank Sinatra, George Michael and Sting, however, Vaughan decided he wanted to lead a slightly more stationary life. Along with his wife Judy Jones (herself a former Dallasite), they formed a company called Light Partners in the mid-’90s,
Around the turn of the millennium, Vaughan relocated this business to Houston in order to translate his concert lighting experiences into more exciting lighting displays for building environments.
“We felt it would be a great opportunity to exploit what was being done in architectural lighting using theatrical-type fixtures,” Vaughan says now.
He’s followed through on that much, too. You’re familiar with Vaughan’s work whether you even realize it. One of his current projects is, perhaps, the most prominent fixture and defining components of the Dallas skyline: Reunion Tower.
Ever since the tower’s owners swapped out the 260 incandescent bulbs that previously illuminated the 561-foot-tall observation tower’s sphere in favor of colored LEDs last New Year’s Eve, Vaughan has been responsible for creating the designs that decorate the sphere on a nightly basis.
“The unique aspect about Reunion’s sphere is that it is there for one purpose,” Vaughan says. “It’s a specific structure there to exploit these lights. Of course, originally it was the old incandescent bulbs. They were still beautiful to look at, but now we’ve got the color option and it gives us even more creativity. That’s what it is. It’s what we call ‘direct view lighting.’ They’re lights for lights’ sake, if you will.”
And they offer Vaughan the chance to give the skyline a slightly different flavor on certain nights of the year. Be it a design he creates for a holiday or a sporting events, Vaughan says many of his ideas sort of suggest themselves. In recent months, he’s turned the tower into a Jack-O-Lantern for Halloween and an American Flag for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
The real trick part, Vaughan says, is trying to imagine the tower’s sphere as a flat image and individually programming the 260 LED nodes manually.
“One of the difficulties I face is that all of the programming and design I do is blind,” Vaughan says. “I don’t have the luxury of having the tower in front of me. It’s tricky because I have to really make use of my vivid imagination, trying to envision what these things are going to look like. Once or twice I think I’ve missed, but most of the time I think I hit the target. They [were developing] some software to enable me to look at this in a 3D rendering on a screen, but that never came to fruition. Instead, I’m working on a flat surface. The sphere is, if you will, unrolled rather like a map of the earth. So you get some distortion north and south.”
Still, it’s a process that Vaughan has perfected to the point that he doesn’t have to see the tower or be in anywhere near it while he’s creating the tower’s designs. In fact, he doesn’t even necessarily have to even be in the country while he’s remotely programming new designs.
“I am able to remotely access Reunion from pretty much anywhere,” Vaughan says. “That’s useful for me because I do a huge amount of traveling. If I’ve got a good internet connection, I can sign in from anywhere. I was putting the finishing touches to the Thanksgiving show only the night before. I shot it up there a bit before midnight on Wednesday. And I [was] sitting in Houston thinking, ‘OK, that’s live.’ In fact, I had to do a little live tweaking. There were a few sequences that looked a bit dodgy, and I was able to sort of change it on the fly.”
While his process can be a difficult one at times, Vaughan’s not alone in his struggles. Like Vaughan, Pat Anderson faces similar inconveniences. Anderson, who works for developer Matthews Southwest runs the lighting program at The Omni Dallas Convention Center Hotel.
“The computer thinks that the entire skin of the building is one big LED display, but, in fact, it is only 20 horizontal rows of approximately 2-inches tall,” Anderson says. “So the display on the computer looks great, but, in reality, on the outside of the building, there are only 20 rows of lights. In addition, the computer has no idea that the skin wraps around the building. It thinks that the screen is flat. Therefore, I must create the design with the idea that the left side of the screen is on the front of the building and the right side of the screen is on the back side of the building.”
Interestingly enough, despite their similar roles and their respective buildings’ relative proximity, Vaughan and Anderson have never actually met. This is even more surprising when one considers how often their two designs seem to coordinate.
“We’ve both said, ‘We need to get together,’ and I dare say at some point we will, because it would nice to coordinate,” Vaughan says. “I think we’ve coordinated by happenstance on a number of occasions. One I can remember is the OU-UT game. It was obvious that we were going to have the crimson-and-cream OU and the UT with the burnt orange, and the back was BEVO. The Omni was doing the same thing, so it looked like we had swapped notes. But it was just a happy accident.”
One potential reasons for the lack of communication: Reunion Tower isn’t Vaughan’s only project in town. Light Partners recently worked with The Davis Building downtown to add what he calls “reflective view lighting.” As opposed to the direct lighting methods employed by The Omni Hotel, Reunion Tower and the Hunt Oil Tower, The Davis Building and the Statler Hilton are meant to accentuate and enhance specific attributes of their respective buildings in addition to simply adding nighttime visibility.
“What you’re doing is using light fixtures to illuminate the building itself and, in my philosophy, enhance the character of that building,” Vaughan says. “It’s not lighting just for lights’ sake. The building comes first and the lighting comes second. What you’re doing is taking an existing building and making it visible at night, but you’re also attempting to draw out some of the characteristics and features of that building that may not be immediately apparent to people. I prefer that type of lighting. I love architecture and I love buildings.”
No matter which type of lighting Dallasites prefer, the fact of the matter is that both have a dramatic impact on the city’s overall aesthetic, not to mention the way the city is viewed by visitors.
“I think [The Omni Hotel] has a great impact on the aesthetic of the downtown skyline, and it certainly is a great thing,” Anderson says. “Also, as more and more of the buildings are using LED lights that can change colors, I think it would be great if most or all of them could coordinate from time to time. As an example, imagine all of the buildings in downtown turning red for Valentine’s Day.”
As powerful/unifying as Anderson’s vision may be, though, Vaughan argues that a city with LEDs on every building is a potentially dangerous thing. While Vaughan admits that Reunion Tower’s sphere doesn’t have sufficient pitch to simulate a video-like resolution, The Omni Hotel and Hunt Oil Tower, on the other hand, have the ability to create much clearer images. With this ability, Vaughan argues, comes also the temptation to monetize these buildings’ displays and potentially damage the city’s character.
“What I don’t want buildings to become just electronic billboards,” Vaughan says. “I think that the Omni, because it is very bold and very exciting, you have this huge canvas which can, in effect, become a huge billboard. What you’d be doing is becoming a sort of Times Square in which you just clatter buildings with direct view lighting in order to, at best, promote an event and, at worst, promote a product. I think there’s always a temptation for the Omni to see that as a billboard. They can probably sell that space. That becomes borderline iffy for me because I still love buildings for what they are, and want to illuminate buildings creatively and not just clad them in lights for lights’ sake.”
It’s an opinion Vaughan feels very strongly about. No matter whether it’s with one of his reflective view projects like with the Davis Building or while employing his extensive knowledge of theatrical lighting to a project like Reunion Tower, Vaughan remains extremely aware of how impactful lighting can be to a city’s overall vibe.
“I am very conscious of the lit environment and I am weary of it becoming overkill,” Vaughan says. “I don’t think we want to look like Shanghai or Beijing.”