The Eurovision Song Contest sets standards in event lighting every year. A chat with the man who intends to do just that in 2018.

“Lisbon has a special light to it, a bright warm type of light,” Jerry Appelt says. And he should know. The renowned lighting designer has been creating perfect light on the stages of the world for more than 20 years now. His latest stage is the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), which will be held this year in the Portuguese capital.

Appelt believes that Lisbon’s residents also profit from the city’s favorable climate. The laid-back attitude of the Portuguese seems to rub off on the German. Wearing a fashionable cap and black sunglasses, he leisurely sat under the umbrellas of the Café Ágora. We arranged to meet with Appelt for breakfast at the getaway located across from the venue of the ESC, the Altice Arena.

Afterward, we headed over to the arena to attend rehearsals. The place was teeming with activity. Dozens of white sofas were being unpacked. The delegations of the competing countries will be sitting here in two weeks time. But Appelt’s attention was directed elsewhere, to the stage. At that very moment, Portuguese actors were going through the Russian show act. Appelt and his team were huddled around a huge number of mixing consoles and computer monitors set up in the upper reaches of the arena. The Russian song was blasting through the arena. Spotlights burst to life. Cones of light traveled across the stage changing colors as they moved. Appelt calmly expressed his thoughts about the light show over his headset. He occasionally moved his arms like an orchestra conductor, issuing instructions that his team smoothly carried out.

A broad range of new options

“There is a certain amount of routine to the work this time,” said Appelt, who is handling the ESC’s lighting for the fourth time. Nonetheless, he added that the ESC is always something very special and creates a new set of challenges each time. “Unlike previous years, we are working without huge multimedia displays this year,” he said. “We have gone back to focusing more closely on the artist and the action on the stage.” To do so, his team designed a 3D arrangement that includes a massive backdrop of 350 spotlights. “This sets a strong accent! It provides us with a wide range of playful options to stage a variety of different things.”

A show consisting of 43 individual performances definitely needs variety. “We are using the whole bag of tricks here: from very subdued light shows for performances like the Fado-inspired song of the Portuguese to a type of speed-metal performance of the Hungarians who we will almost blow away pyrotechnically.” Appelt said he tries to always attempt something new. This is why he always likes to use the latest innovations developed by manufacturers. And this includes many products made by the OSRAM subsidiaries Claypaky and ADB. “The Sharpys have been a defining style element for me in recent years. We are still using them too. Our latest workhorse, however, are the Scenius Unicos. And we have also added new innovations like the LED headlight Axcor Profile 900 to the program.”

The introduction of LEDs is currently the biggest development in event lighting. It is something that Appelt has mixed feelings about: “LED lights can easily replace discharge lamps in many areas. And I am really happy that I use much less energy than I did three or four years ago.” But when it comes to design elements, he simply doesn't want to do without halogen lamps because of their special dimming qualities and fast response times.

Lights and loudness

Technical developments in sound volume are more important to him. "Bright lamps are fan cooled and make noise as a result. This is something that you mustn’t underestimate." Also the size and compactness of spotlights still have potential for improvement in spite of the major strides made in recent years.

Digitalization of the work environment has fundamentally changed his job, Appelt said. "Fifteen years ago, we never gave a thought to IP addresses. Today, we are dealing with networks that are operating at full capacity. The true challenge lies in planning them in such a fail-safe manner that they are able to operate during an event such as the ESC with its 200 million viewers without any interruptions." But he is also a fan of the new virtual possibilities: "Twenty years ago, a light plan was submitted by fax, and that was that," he said. "Everything had to be configured by hand. Today, everything can be pre-programmed in real time in cyberspace."

Sometimes, he becomes nostalgic and thinks back to calmer times. "Years ago, we stood on the stage for two hours during a lighting rehearsal and thought about which shade of blue would be just right. The pace is much faster today." There is also a downside to the large variety of products on the marketplace, he added: "You can quickly get lost in this product jungle. For the ESC alone, we will be using 22 different spotlights. Each of them has a special job and, thus, its own justification." The spotlight of the future should combine as many qualities as possible. The latest followspot, ZAC-EYE made by Claypaky, takes a step in this direction. With the help of 3D sensors and artificial intelligence, the spotlight can automatically follow performers on the stage. "I am excited about this development," Appelt said. "The more things that can be automated reliably here, the more simple our lives will become."

Buffering with buffet light

Meanwhile a problem has arisen onstage at the arena. A design idea submitted by a delegation does not correspond with the length of the song itself. But Jerry Appelt takes it all in his stride. Does he always keep his cool? "To the chagrin of my wife, I constantly complain about the poor lighting I see in restaurants. I am talking about a fruit salad that looks like something that you would never put in your mouth. This is also an old trick used for buffet lines: Put the food under green light so that enough will be left over. You can be certain that nobody will select salmon that is illuminated with green light." This is also a proven way to keep capricious artists in check, he added. "When we are working on stage with the delegations, we have one sentence that comes in quite handy: Get your act together now, or we will simply turn the front of the stage pale green. That does the trick."