The Cure on the Bestival Main Stage in Toronto. Photo: Cherryl Bird

Bestival Toronto Lighting Rivals European Mega Festivals [Videos, Photos]

The night was electric.  LED strobes lit up the sky. Warm kaleidoscopic colours washed over festivalgoers. Laser beams of light illuminated the air and haze enveloped The Cult on the main stage.

The Cure on the Main Stage at Bestival Toronto finale
The Cure on the Main Stage at Bestival Toronto finale. Photo: Cherryl Bird

Lighting director Eric Belanger is a sorcerer of lights. The lighting at Bestival Toronto was so spectacular, it deserves the label “light show”. It could have been a draw on its own as it was enough to keep the interest of the audience on its own merit.

But the intention behind this kind of choreographed spectacle of intense power is to enhance the work of the musicians and performers on stage, not to usurp their place in the spotlight.

The spotlight, backlighting, mood lighting or ambience are specific to the performance, the site, and the likes and dislikes of the artists. The light show is crafted in the same way a choreographer would create a dance, a director would sketch out the movements of the characters in a play or create a digital storyboard for a documentary.

Eric Belanger, Bestival Lighting Director
Eric Belanger, Bestival Lighting Director. Photo, courtesy of E. Belanger

Belanger has worked with an illustrious list of artists and events:  Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour with Cirque du Soliel, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Kesha, Daft Punk, and even the recent NBA All-Star 2016 in Toronto are among them.

The lighting director works with the lighting designer to create a flow between the costumes, movement choreography, set list, and stage layout, in a way that delivers to the audience the maximum experience.

They must consider the genre of music, the style of the show, the size of the venue, the shift from sunny day to evening or whether it’s indoor or open air.

All these variables were set in motion for Bestival Toronto to take shape. Lighting was crafted to fit the atmosphere, drive energy, and generate visual pulse to meld with the music resulting in thrilling effects that undoubtedly heightened the festival experience.

Lighting director Eric Belanger is a sorcerer of lights

Such spectacular tours like the one we just experienced at Bestival Toronto just don’t happen on their own, they’re designed by engineers and technicians and fall into the category of an equal mix of science and art, a little bit of magic and a dash of alchemy.

This is why we’ll have to call lighting designer Eric Belanger an artist as well as a magician for his role in creating the atmosphere out of plain air at Bestival as director of all things lighting for the entire festival, a role that is integral to the success of such an event; moreso, large-scale productions like Bestival that took place over two days with an audience of 15,000 people each day.

Belanger says he designed the lighting and video for the Big Top,  an Arabian-influenced circus tent style structure with a stage that had a line-up of top-tier DJs spinning electronic dance music (EDM) from noon to closing on both days. He also “advanced and liaised all three stages with the vendors to be in accordance with the artists’ needs”.

Learn how Bestival got started on Core Magazines’ YouTube Channel
Video: Interview with Ben Turner, Bestival Director and Partner

It wasn’t just a case of set it and forget it. In addition to being responsible for the big shebang as lighting director and keeping everything coordinated throughout the entire two-day event, he programmed and operated the Bollywood stage.

“It was a lot of work,” Belanger admits, with a note of satisfaction in his words.

Lighting at Bestival Toronto surpassed expectations and sets a new level of spectacle for countries outside of Europe. This kind of intense display of electric power is reserved for mega festivals.  Canadian festivals aren’t as big as the European ones like Global Gathering in Glastonbury, UK, which holds 100,000 people and the original Bestival that takes place on the Isle of Wight, also in the UK, with a capped audience of 55,000 festival revellers.

The electromechanics that went into Bestival’s Bollywood stage, which was transported from the UK and reconstructed at Woodbine Park in Toronto, was astounding. It is a monstrosity of a stage that resembles a full-scale Indian temple with ornate architectural details engineered to withstand pyrotechnics. To see it in full bloom, illuminated under the night sky, plumes of fire, puffs of smoke, and pulsating laser beams of light shooting in multiple directions, is a sight to behold.

It’s hard to imagine creating a piece of art with such finesse and using it only once. It is remarkable. If you missed it this time around, don’t fret, Belanger says the Bollywood stage will return next year for one last time.  You heard it here first.

The Bestival Main Stage used 3 X 400A 3-phase for power. Belanger says he used 2329 single RGB 5-Volt LEDs on the Bollywood stage. He makes a point of telling me that they were “all single controlled,” which means they are all individually set and manipulated.

“No video mapping was done,” Belanger adds. He “just took the time to do proper grouping and tasteful programming”.

The stage was designed by Spacial Installation, and the mandalas by Specialz Lighting.

As the name suggests, Specialz provides hard to source, specialized lighting. They did six fittings for Placebo’s latest tour and are a resource for Carl Burnett (Pet Shop Boys), Max Conwell (Placebo, Morrissey, Razorlight) and Cormac Jackson (Franz Ferdinand).

Jackson says they are able to bring “obscure ideas to life,” like the eight 9-ft high kicking female bespoke mannequins with moving lights for heads on stage with them.

In the case of Bestival, “it took a week to build the whole festival – even a bit less – we started the build on Monday morning and opened doors at noon on Saturday…and [planned] months before to get all the conceptual and contractual work done, says Belanger.

The size of the show doesn’t seem to faze him, he has been a part of some of the biggest events ever constructed. Belanger was the lighting director for the tribute show Micheal Jackson The Immortal World Tour and lighting designer for, what he refers to as a “quick five-minute opening number,” also with Cirque du Soleil for the NBA All-Star game at Air Canada Centre in February.

Martin Labrecque, Lighting Designer with Cirque du Soliel since 2005 and for the The Immortal World Tour, recommended Belanger for a role with the show. He says Belanger stayed with the tour for three years, first as lighting programmer while Immortal was in creation and became lighting director after the  premiere.  He implemented any changes and oversaw “that the basic concept was respected,” says Labrecque.

“Belanger started his career in lighting in Montreal doing warehouse parties for Bad Boy Club Montreal, Playground, KOX, and Groove Society…”

Belanger was also lighting director for the Kanye West Glow in the Dark tour (2008) featuring performers like Rhianna, Lupe Fiasco and N.E.R.D., the Daft Punk Alive tour as LED technician (2006) and as lighting director (2007), with Lady Gaga’s The Fame Ball Tour (2009) up until her first Grammys, as well as with Elton John and Kesha (2011).

With such display of creativity and technical skills, I wondered what training he has under his belt, to be able to do this specialized kind of work. Surprisingly, Belanger says, “I learned it all from scratch in the field.” He texted: “never went to school for this”.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years now…and I still learn new things every day,” he tells me. “Technology goes so fast,” he points out. I’ve done so many (shows) since then.

Belanger started his career in lighting in Montreal doing warehouse parties for Bad Boy Club Montreal, Playground, KOX, and Groove Society, putting him at the centre of club culture. He then moved to Toronto where he worked at JOY, opened Fly, did some gigs at Industry, applied his lighting skills at David Dean and Jason Ford’s Unity parties when they were at their highpoint up until around 2002 before moving on to touring and corporate shows.

Bestival is hardly over and Belanger is on to the next gig. “Now I’m starting the homework for Digital Dreams before the prep next week,” he says.

Digital Dreams television spots show a similar level of investment and creativity in lighting for the EDM festival. If it’s anything like Bestival, the skies will be lit for miles. And the night will be electric.

by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird

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