David Walters (Interview 27)

I’m conscious that this interview has been quite a while in the write-up. Of course, I have no one to blame but myself and the busy-ness of life since I sat down to talk with David Walters beside a cosy fire after a delicious dinner on the last day of July. However, I’m also going to blame him (at least in part) for the vast amount of fascinating material I’ve had to sift through; I recorded our chat and took copious notes that night.

David Walters is a softly-spoken, articulate, and passionate raconteur. He is also particularly modest about his own achievements and I had to probe to find out more about his work. That night he was genuinely enthusiastic in sharing his vast knowledge on the subject of light itself, something that clearly engages him. What I had thought would be a simple chat about his work as a lighting designer and the challenges of Water Wars – the show we were both then working on – became a wonderfully rich tutorial for me on the philosophy of light, technology, art, and sustainability.

I feel privileged to be where I am right now. I have at my disposal ways of creating light no one else has ever had.

As we get started, David sets the scene like an expert tale-teller. He riffs on the philosophy of light as a metaphor for goodness and knowledge, and moves on to the social history of light creation.

In order to light cities some species of whales were hunted to extinction for their oil, and I learn that the probably well-lit streets of Denmark in the 16-17 centuries were fragrant with the smell of cod-liver oil! Candles were once a marker of wealth – ‘Staying up all night was very fashionable in the 18th century,’ he tells me, ‘if you could afford it.’ Such conspicuous consumption means that one night’s revelling could burn up the equivalent of a worker’s annual salary. However, this form of lighting was also a sustainable product. ‘People ate their tallow candles when times got hard.’ We head then towards the introduction of gas lighting, and I find out why ‘limelight‘ got its name. We move right along in lighting history to the coming of the incandescent bulb and the invention of whole new kinds of light throughout the 20th century. This culminated in the development of the LED (light-emitting diode) which, David tells me, has been around for a while, at least since the 1990s. ‘We’ve learned how to mix white via the RGB spectrum but,’ he notes, ‘LEDs were not very powerful or useful.’ Apparently it just took a bit longer to learn how to ‘cajole more light from them using chemical elements.’ At the mention of physics, my eyes may well have glazed over, so David moved on swiftly to art history.

He mentions the Impressionists, and especially Monet’s playing with light. Caravaggio and Rembrandt he dubs masters of lighting – lighting designers, in fact. ‘In Rembrandt’s imagination he could see and light his subject. He was way ahead of the technology,’ he adds with a smile. There was much more but, by this stage, I knew I could never hope to incorporate all the material into one article, and so I rather avoided the task of sifting and sorting. You know how it goes. So, here I am on the last day of the year looking back over my notes and recalling a night that remains one of the most enjoyable of 2011.

I found out as I got to know him a little better during our time working together, that David’s something of a polymath. Artist and meticulous technician yes, but he is also a scholar of geology (his first degree was taken at USQ when it was the DDIAE). He was able to lead the company through a wonderfully lucid session one morning on global warming and the history of flooding in Brisbane. However, he is best known as a lighting designer, and maintains an enviable, international reputation in the field. I had, of course, heard of him and seen his work over the years, but we had never actually met until July at the first reading of Water Wars in which I had been cast, and he had been appointed as lighting designer. Over the course of several weeks we got to know each other a little better and I hope it isn’t too presumptuous of me to say we got along pretty well. It prompted me eventually to ask if he would submit himself to an interview and that was how we got to be chatting, ironically enough, by firelight one winter’s night in Brisbane. As for Water Wars, I learned that David had set himself a pretty formidable challenge with this particular project.

The script asked for a lot. I had to try to find an overarching visual metaphor to reflect some of the integral aspects of the play – water and flying were quintessential. There was also the issue of sustainability so that the child at the centre of the play would inherit something. These were the themes in the piece, so I believed the design practice should reflect them.

Water Wars, a fable of sorts, was set in the not too distant future in a place where water is once again scarce and the government of the day has imposed a virtual police state. Fines for water wastage are draconian, and neighbours are at one another’s throats. Given the theme of the play, it wasn’t surprising that the production values for the inaugural production of Water Wars at The Round House Theatre in Brisbane this year, emphasised sustainability. Producer Nicholas O’Donnell from Umber Productions set the pace with a commitment to ensuring the production was kept honest through its use of environmentally conscious, recyclable materials. What did this mean to a lighting designer?

I limited the amount of power used. I know it was a kind of arbitrary thing, but I set myself the task – and the show was a touring piece – to run from a 10 AMP (domestic) socket. It simplified things.

It certainly did. Water Wars ran on less than 10 AMPS and, as far as the company knows, it is the first time it had been achieved in the world.

We spoke a little about the drive for sustainability in theatre companies in Australia. He mentions STC and Artistic Directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s ‘amazing achievements at the Wharf Theatre.’ He tells me that the contract at STC stipulates the maximum amount of power that can be used in a production. He goes on, ‘the Head Electrician there spent 18 months researching what was on the market and what could be done. It’s easy to get gimmicky but his approach was holistic. Ultimately you have to ask what can we do, and how much will it cost? If you can generate power in a sustainable way then there is a place for incandescent lighting. It’s easier to recycle.’

I ask what rig and equipment David used for Water Wars. 

  • LED strip lights which mix RGB wall washes;
  • LED Parcans (Par 64s) that mix RGB bright, directional light;
  • LED pin-spots that mix RGB to provide a directional beam;
  • Tiny fittings that house diachronic bulbs (50W – 7W) for front of house;
  • Sophisticated Selecon conventional lights that use LEDs;
  • Battery-powered ‘hose’ lights;
  • Low-voltage 12v 6v incandescent pins and mini profiles.

He tells me that creating the colour palette – not a continuous spectrum – means a different, often softer feel to the lighting. With LEDs, it’s easier to produce blue and green than red and amber, and incandescent lights have a bias towards the red end of the spectrum. ‘I’ve taken some bold design decisions this time. Incandescent lights are different and I’ve gone with the strength of LEDs where you can get bright lights. You can’t get a bright white though so I mixed incandescent with white LEDs for the daylight scenes. We made the night-time red to reflect the heat and dust in the air – Brisbane is in drought. We went for a quite different look for the dreamscapes which are blue.’

He tells me that the biggest challenge in Water Wars has been, ‘getting my head around this approach to lighting. I don’t know of anyone else who’s taken it on. It’s challenging – bloody and dangerous at times but, at other times, very rewarding.’ He continues, ‘… and just because we have the tools doesn’t mean it’s good design. I’m conscious of LEDs being fitted in to what we’ve always known. We’re in transition. We’re in a catchup game now and, for the first time, we have tools we don’t quite know what to do with. We’ve now got computers which have given us extraordinary and sophisticated ways of controlling that light, once we’ve generated it.

When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – that’s good design. Like a good script, good design has elemental sections which come together.

Where I am learning is in the area of control. There are old ways of doing things but now there is so much flexibility. For example, there are 60, 80, 100s of channels of control. I’m having to learn to re-think in design terms.’


David Walters
For the past 30 years David has worked as a professional Lighting Designer in Iceland and Australia. His work experience spans lighting designs for opera, theatre, ballet, dance, puppetry, circus, son-et-lumieres, exhibitions, major events and architectural and landscape installations. In 1986 David returned to Australia to take up a position as Resident Lighting Designer with the Queensland Theatre Company. Since 1990, as a freelance designer, he has worked extensively throughout Australia and designed for the Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Handspan, Playbox, La Boite, Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus, Nimrod, Company B, Expressions, Queensland Ballet, Australian Ballet, Opera Queensland, The Powerhouse, QUT, QPAC, Zen Zen Zo and Bell Shakespeare Company. Throughout his professional career David has maintained close ties with Iceland where he has worked for the National Theatre, the National Opera and the Reykjavik City Theatre.

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