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‘People smile when seeing a sad building dressed up'

Jane Hanks meets a lighting expert who brings Lyon to life for the Fête des Lumières

Every year, for four nights in early December, over 2 million people visit Lyon for the Fête des Lumières, when a variety of different artists light up buildings, streets and parks with over 50 light installations which create a magical atmosphere. One of the lighting designers is 59 year old Daniel Knipper, who has been creating light shows all over France and the world since the 1980s. He told Jane Hanks what effect he wished to create for the public:

“I want to open people’s eyes to see the building I am lighting in a new way. When people are walking in a town they look down at their feet or at their smartphone and I want people to break out of the bubble they live in, look up and see new horizons. I use lighting, rather than video which means I don’t impose an image on a building, but I reveal what is there in the building itself, and each one has its own story.

I work with methods which come from the theatre and I use spotlights, with different colours and different qualities and I work with shadow as well as with light.

The architecture of the building is very important. I have worked a great deal with Strasbourg cathedral (pictured, left) and the building itself has a lot of things to recount and to light it up is to reveal its stories such as its relationship with the people who built it.”

How did you become a lighting designer?

I was working in theatre lighting and then I was asked to do a son-et-lumière for Strasbourg cathedral, which I continued to do for more than 20 years and where I learnt a great deal about my work.

People were also very important. If I had not met Henri Alekan, the cinema photographer who in his later career concentrated on lighting buildings, and studied his books such as Des lumières et des ombres, I would not be doing what I am today.

How do you start working on a project?

First I need to study the building and decide what would suit it and imagine what it will look like lit up.

I have to go to the site several times to understand it. I have to consider whether it is a two-minute show with lights or is it one which will require changing lights throughout an evening?

I can use up to 600 spotlights for one show and I have to work out where to place each one for the best effect and which colours to choose and what quality of light I need. Sometimes you cannot put the lights where you want because it might be in the way of the public or there is something else in the way, so there are always challenges. I also have to work out how the public will approach the building and see it. In the theatre there is a relationship between the audience and the stage. In light shows the relationship is between the public and the building, so where they are in relation to it and how they approach it is very important.

What is the next step after you have worked out the initial idea?

It has to be planned on paper and that can take up to a month with visits to and from the site and working on the techniques to turn the ideas into practise. Then it takes about a week to set it up. It is different from video which is created in a studio. A light show is created around the building.

Are you present for all the projections of your shows?

Yes, because it is important for me to see the reaction of the public and to talk with them to see what they are feeling.

What kind of things do people say?

They can say lots of things. I can give you an example. I worked in a small village, La Chaise-Dieu in the centre of France and there is a music festival in September and I was asked to light the Abbey, which is in the centre of the village. I went into a shop opposite to buy something and the shopkeeper thanked me for what I had done.

I asked him why, and he said that he had worked in the shop for thirty years. He said he went there in the morning and left in the evening but this was the first time he had ever really looked at the Abbey which had always been right in front of him. 

What type of projects do you take part in?

They vary. For example, in August I was at La Fiesta de la Luz at Quito, Ecuador, organised in collaboration with the Lyon light festival. I was invited to work on two projects.

One was to work with a video producer on the exterior of a building, and another was to work on the interior of a country church built in wood. The idea was for the local inhabitants to be able to rediscover their church and look at it in a new way. I tried to show its mysterious side and worked a great deal with lights which give a warm glow and shadows.

For thousands of years, we relied on fires to give us light, rather than artificial light and these provoked shadows which we still relate to today. For me, shadow is as important as light when creating a show.

What are your inspirations?

I take a great deal from great painters, like Georges de La Tour for example, Van Gogh, Miró. The painters are very important for me.

Do you always work with historic buildings?

Sometimes I work with modern buildings. For example, I did a project with students in a professional lycée and their building was modern and not very interesting. So I tried to come up with a theme that would work and used the paintings of Mondrian as he was someone who used simple ideas and simple, strong colours.

It was an extraordinary experience because the students loved this new way of studying as we had to work in the evening up to ten o’clock and it was fantastic to introduce them to an artist.

It had an effect on the people who lived in the area as you could see them smiling when they walked past this sad, grey building, dressed up as if for a party.

What do you like working on?

Each project has its own interest, but I like working on projects which advance my art. Recently I worked on a project with video producers and I am keen to work in this way because we have different ways of working. They focus on the front of the building and I work from the angles and together we can combine two methods of creation to come up with a new creative form of expression.

There is a lot to discover still in this job and it does not stop evolving. The importance of the Fête des Lumières in Lyon is that many different creators work together and we learn from each other.

It is always difficult to come up with something new and we always try to create something that takes us out of our comfort zone, so there is always an element of danger.

What is the joy of working in this job?

It is the reaction of the people who see your show. I did the lighting for a music festival in Alsace and it satisfied me when the members of the orchestra said the lighting made them feel good. But on top of that, it also made them feel the power and the sense of the building they were playing in.   Dec 6-9 2018


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