LD Spotlight Interview: Elation, June 2019
Lighting and Production Designer
Travis Shirley has a fantastic story to tell. Exposed to the music scene and lighting at an early age, he has combined a passion for what he does with the unique opportunities that have presented themselves to forge a design career that is clearly on an upward path. Not many people can say they are living their dream. Travis can.
I read that you grew up backstage at concerts and at recording studios. Tell me about that.
From a young age my dad worked in the local music scene in the San Francisco area. When I was 5-8 I was exposed to his own concerts but he was also in an event production company. I distinctly remember one event he was doing at a Marriott Ballroom in downtown San Francisco where they had a bunch of parcans and I remember being extremely intrigued by the lighting console. The lighting guy was nice enough to let me play around a little bit and that got the juices flowing.
It sounds like you knew that lighting was your thing when you were quite young.
To tell you the truth, I wanted to be a singer. I loved lighting but I wanted to be the male version of LeAnn Rimes. I thought my dad’s connections could help me but he left the music business and got into the golf club business instead.
Where did that leave you?
My dad eventually formed some great relationships with country music stars like Brooks and Dunn, Vince Gill, and John Michael Montgomery. Through the ad deals my dad cut with these singers I got even more exposure to the music business and production, particularly with Brooks and Dunn and lighting designer Larry Boster. At the age of 10 or 11 he took me under his wing. Brooks and Dunn had a long lasting relationship with Bandit Lites, as did Larry Boster, so after high school I went to Full Sail University, then Larry Boster and the team at Bandit welcomed me to Nashville where they taught me the ropes of the business. I was 18.
You have a great story about circumstance and opportunity. Can I hear that?
When I was on Van Halen with Sammy Hagar in 2007 and working as an FOH tech for a Steve Cohen design that Ethan Weber was running, I had a broken finger and it would sometimes take me a while to clean it up. When I came out after one show, all the busses and trucks were gone. As a 19-year old kid, it was pretty scary. I happened to hear that the band’s plane was grounded so I found the hotel they were at and called the tour manager, Mark Robbins. We had breakfast together and I told him about my passion to be in the business and he said he remembered hearing about me even though I was like the 11th guy on the lighting crew. He said he had seen me run some of the opening acts and thought I did a good job. He actually offered me a seat on Van Halen’s private jet the next day so I could get to the next show and at some point he said ‘why don’t you come out and be the lighting director for James Taylor’s next tour.’ So you can say, if I had never missed that bus who knows where my lighting career would have gone. That same man, Mark Robbins, called me 20 years later to ask if I wanted to do production design on Christina Aguilera so literally it has come full circle.
You’ve designed for names like Christina Aguilera, Smashing Pumpkins, Enrique Iglesias, Sam Hunt, Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, Pentatonix, Linkin Park. Have you developed a certain lighting design style or is there a look that defines a Travis Shirley design?
I don’t think there’s necessarily one genre or style that identifies me. I’ve always been one to say that a good designer, a good director, should be able to walk into any kind of situation and make it work whether that’s a rock concert or pop concert or fashion show or whatever. However, I do find myself keeping things very clean overall with clean lines, attention to detail and very precise reasoning for why everything is happening. I also want everything to be interlaced; that goes for cue structure, set design, lighting design, video design. I think I’m constantly evolving with all of them.
Some of your latest designs have featured big groupings of fixtures – walls or pods. What does that give to your design?
That’s really a blessing of what manufacturers and vendors have available right now. There’s so much good, inexpensive product available that is small in size that it’s given designers more flexibility with quantities and allows you to make a big statement. Sometimes though I have to pinch myself and focus on the project at hand because it could lend itself to being the easy way out at times, which is why when you do use big groupings it’s got to be very intentional and very conceptual. Anybody can put a big pod of lights up and make it look good.
Has the lighting design process changed over your time?
I think the process has changed a bit. I think programmers have a bit more influence on cue structure than they did maybe 10 years ago for example. I think the process is shared creatively a little bit more than it used to be. However, I don’t think that necessarily applies to a lot of the shows I do. I’m still fairly involved with the cue structure components of the show and still like to spearhead most components of most shows I do.
From the moment you sit down to begin a design to the final show of a tour, what's your favorite part?
Obviously to see something come from an idea in my head to paper to an actual tangible show is pretty amazing. I think probably my favorite time is when I walk into that rehearsal studio for the first time and see it hanging there. That’s always very rewarding for me or very terrifying depending on how the day is going.
When does fixture choice enter your head? Is that something you think about right away when you’re designing or does that come afterwards?
Generally speaking I’m more of a shape and structure guy. Obviously I have some ideas and thoughts about what kind of lights are out there that we can use but unless it’s a very specialized look I’m going for, generally speaking we just put X’s and O’s up there until we start the vendor conversation. On Florida Georgia Line that kicks off here in a couple weeks, I knew I wanted to have a big matrix style static wall of lights upstage so I knew right away what kind of light I was looking for. In this case it was the Elation Cuepix 16 which we use 180 of.
Anything else in the pipeline?
We just sent out Dustin Lynch in Canada, and then we had Sam Hunt at StageCoach. Then we’ve got Pentatonix and straight from that into Rascal Flatts and from that to Florida Georgia Line.
You’re busy. What do you like to do when you’re not doing lighting design?
It usually involves a lounge chair, a margarita, and some sand. I have a nice umbrella with my name on it down in Tulum, Mexico.
What’s something about Travis Shirley that people don’t necessarily know or might find surprising?
People probably don’t realize that I’m living my dream. Literally, I’m living what I dreamt about when I was 7 years old. I don’t take anything for granted and I’m extremely grateful to everyone who gave me my start.
Any advice you would give to a young lighting designer just starting out?
I’m not going to say you need to keep your head down and climb the ladder like we all did because I think times have changed. I’m not saying that anyone can just jump to the top but with the way technology has changed, there are some great art students out there who can probably show some older guys a few things about how to do things differently.