Q&A with Lighting Designer Paul Gregory: Reflections of a New Year's Eve Creation

As midnight approaches on New Year's Eve, thousands of people across the world will tune in on TV to see the Times Square Ball light up and ring in another year. Paul Gregory, president of Focus Lighting, Inc., founded 1987, is part of the team that has been putting the celebrated luminescent creation together since 2006. A master of lighting design, and with a portfolio that includes restaurants and retailers - including FAO Schwarz and Toys"R"Us - Gregory's work also spans museums and theaters, such as the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Gregory is passionate about theater. He explains that while he studied architectural lighting design at Parsons School of Design in New York City, the home of many of his projects, he got his start at the Goodman Theatre School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was trained in theatrical lighting.

Fusing theater, architecture and nature themes together is what makes Gregory's designs unique.  His work has earned him multiple awards and an induction into Architectural Lighting Magazine's Hall of Fame. This year, his team at Focus Lighting restructured the Times Square Ball extensively: Custom features were created to maximize the light emitted by the 32,256 LEDs and enhance the brilliance of the Waterford crystals. The 2013 ball theme: Let There Be Light.

Gregory spoke exclusively with IMT Career Journal and reflected on his professional path and the process behind his New Year's creation.

IMT Career Journal: As the founder and president of Focus Lighting, what are your job responsibilities?

Gregory: I am responsible for concepts and the big ideas for our lighting design projects. I am constantly training the staff and trying to improve our methods of lighting design.

IMT Career Journal: How did you get involved in working on the Times Square Ball, a New York City landmark? What are your responsibilities for that project?

Gregory: We got involved when Jeff Straus of Countdown Entertainment called to interview us for the lighting design position. He was also calling five other lighting design teams, some of them offered to design the ball for free. We talked about concept and the narrative that would make the ball and the lighting great.

I was the designer who analyzed the project. I had to make the crystal sparkle and make it beautiful. We asked, "What are the primary views?" "Where will it be seen from?" After much work we decided we were designing for a five-foot, 50-foot and 500-foot views of the ball. At five feet, you are part of the press corps, on Dec. 31st, looking at the ball on the roof of 1 Times Square. At 50 [feet], you are viewing the ball from your TV. At a distance of 50 feet, the ball is about as big as it would be on your TV, and at 500 feet, you are in the plaza below the ball looking up on New Year's Eve. It was important that each individual crystal sparkle and the ball as a whole look sparkling from those distances.

Credit: Focus Lighting

IMT Career Journal: What role has education or training played in your career path?

Gregory: Being trained in theater I was designing the lighting for 20 shows a year. This was fantastic. To put light on 20 sets of scenery and 20 sets of costumes and actors provided a wonderful training ground. It also taught me to prioritize. Each show had an opening night and a list of 80 things to get done and only time for 20 to be completed before the audience showed up. I learned fast.

The training in theatrical lighting also taught [me] about color and form and contrast and motivation. All tools can be used to make an architectural project beautiful.

IMT Career Journal: What qualities or characteristics do you find are necessary to be a successful lighting designer leader?

Gregory: You need to constantly analyze your visual environment. What do you see and why? You need to be able to see and capture the beauty found in nature, such as a sunset or a rainbow or the reflections of a waterfall. You must constantly ask yourself, "What are you seeing and how can you reproduce it in an architectural environment?"

IMT Career Journal:  How does nature translate to architecture?

Gregory: A diamond or a star in the night is sparkling. When you take the qualities that you see in nature, and break them down, [it works]. We found that when the sunlight passes through the canopy of trees, sparkle off the water, it is [a template] for design.

IMT Career Journal: What lessons learned from past jobs help you accomplish your current responsibilities?

Gregory: I think that the lessons are learned from past jobs are everywhere; we are learning constantly every minute. Every meeting we have with engineers, to discuss the best installations. Lessons are everywhere all the time, in every industry, whether you're dealing with music, art, paint or glass.

IMT Career Journal: What is your latest project?

Gregory: I'm working on the lighting design on the reopening of Tavern on the Green now. It's quite challenging. People have seen so much great design (cites Cirque du Soleil) so I don't want to disappoint.

IMT Career Journal: So where will you be on New Year's Eve?

Gregory: I won't be in Times Square this year. I'll probably be reflecting on life by a lake.


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