Emmy-Winning Lighting Designer Talks Super Bowl Halftime Show Starring Katy Perry

By Priscilla Liguori 9/17/2015
Lighting Designer Robert Barnhart won his tenth Emmy for the Super Bowl XLIX Halftime Show Starring Katy Perry. Barnhart describes the unique vision for the show that was decided before Perry was even chosen to perform.

“We were trying to get away from a concert and trying to get closer to a moment in a ceremony like you might see in the Olympics…Katy really embraced that idea and brought what she’s so good at and made that work.”

The way the lighting team decided to do this was through projection. Projection is the process in which lights are presented onto a surface. Barnhart describes the surface he used.

“First, we wanted to cover the whole field with a very thin piece of silver, but that became impractical. So we did about 30% of the field.”

Instead of buying equipment to light the 80,000 people in the stadium, each audience member was given a white light and either a red or blue light.

“That sparkle that you get really just helps convey the size of the stadium.”

Barnhart says his primary objective was to make Perry look good in each of her positions, which was challenging with her high-paced routine and use of many props.

“She jumps back up on the LED floor but then she’s got sharks, trees, surfboards, and beach balls and if I just use a follow spot there, I would have to circle around all those things. So I had to use another key light system to make her look good, stand out, but not cause funny shadows.”

Barnhart enjoyed working with Perry and her creative team.

“She was very smart and in tune to the way she looks and everything around her too, details.”

Lighting design involves give and take, according to Barnhart. He smiles as he says that if he tried to control everything, things wouldn’t look good.

“I have found that when you are working with artists, you tell them what you see in your head, but not how to do it, and then you let them do it their way. Then you can come back, add a little 10%, take away a little 10%, whatever that might be, as far as creating.”

The Emmy winner jokes, “If you pull off a Super Bowl Halftime Show, you feel pretty good about it because you know a couple people probably watched it.”

Barnhart was also nominated for his lighting design in So You Think You Can Dance and The Oscars this year. He took completely opposite approaches in these shows.

He says that he makes the 150 dances in SYTYCD look different by using different patterns of lights, along with varying colors and focuses in those patterns.

“It’s not about the person’s face. It’s about the dancer’s body but it’s really also about telling the story the choreographer is trying to convey using the music and the dancer’s body.”

As for The Oscars, Barnhart says his main goal is to make sure the audience looks fantastic.

“While they’re listening to stories about themselves, they look great.”

The lighting designer says making people look camera-ready on stage is of course also extremely important, but easier to do. Another huge aspect of the show Barnhart focuses on is the set.

“There is usually 13 different acts so they’re trying to do 13 different looks, so the approach is understanding the scenery…Its one of the few shows that they build test scenery.”

Barnhart scouts out locations once they are decided and plans out lights on maps. He says important factors include the budget to buy equipment and achieving the look the producer and the network want. Barnhart starts working on Super Bowl Halftime Shows years in advance.