We sat down with Marc Brickman, groundbreaking Lighting Designer, Director, and Creator of Iconic Light Art, whose work has reached audiences of millions worldwide. Marc’s best known as an artist and entrepreneur who has overseen lighting productions for several decades for music icons including Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, and the late Whitney Houston, among others.
In the live event space, Marc has led the way for lighting and drone art. He created the opening and closing ceremonies for both The Barcelona and Nagano Olympics Ceremonies, and he holds the Guinness World Record for the largest drone installation at the Noor Riyadh Festival in the Saudi Arabian desert.
In addition, one of the world’s most iconic buildings — The Empire State Building — has entrusted Marc to lead their lighting displays since 2012. He recently created events there for Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” the opening of the Whitney Museum, and crafted the idea for Eminem to perform “Venom” from the roof!
Brickman’s reach also extends to Broadway, Las Vegas, and national theater events. He made his Broadway debut back in 2007 with Young Frankenstein. Marc also co-directed and co-produced Once Upon A Dream starring The Rascals, which completed a sold-out Broadway run. He’s worked regularly with both Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group.
We sat down to learn what made him a leader in his field and what advice he has for other entrepreneurs when it comes to making your own rules!
Grit Daily: Tell us about your background and how your career started. How did you find your path to lighting director?
Marc Brickman: I’ll take that title, but it’s more than lighting director, more designer and director in an overall sense. So how did I start? I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I grew up in the nineteen-fifties, a picturesque childhood of middle-class America. I grew up on rock and roll – Ed Sullivan, Soupy Sales, and the greatest influence was Jerry Blavat.
My father decided that I should go to Central High School, which is the second oldest high school in America, an all-academic boys public high school in Philadelphia. I did ninth grade through twelfth grade there, graduated, and got into college – the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. Then was dismissed from that college six months from the start for not attending gym classes.
In tenth grade, I started building a light show. Without getting into really great detail, I started at the bottom. A lot of hard work, a lot of belief in myself that my work is worthy of recognition.
Grit Daily: What were some of the big moments of your early career when you thought, I’m on the right track here!
Marc Brickman: Never! I never thought I was on the right track. It was more a matter of survival. It was moving so fast that I just needed to keep up. I’ve really never had a feeling that it was safe. I always thought I was going to be found out as an impostor.
Grit Daily: What has been the most challenging thing about your career? How do you describe your work to others?
Marc Brickman: I don’t know if the word challenging is the right word, but always trying to be original, whatever I create. And how do I describe my work to others these days? It’s much easier if I just call myself an artist. It gives me a license to be able to do anything, instead of being in a cubby hole
Grit Daily: As a lighting designer, what was the largest-scale project you’ve led? Was it the Olympics? Tell us about it!
Marc Brickman: I don’t think it was the Olympics, because the Olympics overall is massive, but not necessarily my role with them. But ‘92 is really the beginning of these massive events. We really broke the mold. It was a producer called Pepo Sol from Barcelona and an Australian producer called Rick Birch. They hired me, and then there was a whole team of creatives from everywhere — it was huge. There were a lot of moving pieces. The lighting part of it was crucial because it was treated very differently than using stadium light. But was it the largest? I don’t think so.
I think it was probably Genesis’ 1992 tour, where we actually got rid of the roof overhead, and we had all the lights on wires, on cables over the band. We introduced the Sony Jumbotron for the first time ever, which was a basically led-type video screen. I split the Jumbotron into three parts, so you could have one big screen, or you could have three smaller screens, and two of the screens were on railroad tracks. All of this had to be ballasted under the stage. So we had two big swimming pools of water under the sound decks on stage left and stage right. That was really involved and crazy. Load-in took maybe a week. We had two or three different units of staging. The railroad tracks, the ballast, the pools, and the staging. And we’d leapfrog them between cities. So that was really massive.
I would say, that’s probably the biggest one until we got to Pink Floyd in ‘94. So two years later, I went up another notch. It was my theme of not having the box. We went out with our own version of the Hollywood Bowl.
Grit Daily: You have a pretty impressive client list working with icons like Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, and Bruce Springsteen. What do these stars have in common when it comes to creating a show? How do you approach working with them?
Marc Brickman: Well, I get to know them. I’m a music fan. The shows were always inspired by how I felt emotionally. I liked their music. I could imagine myself being in the audience, and I could also imagine what the audience wanted to see. So that really is the guiding light in all of this. How do I approach working with them? Well, really, you know, as humans. I would always try to approach them with a great deal of respect, but also not be afraid to tell them what I was thinking and how I felt.
Grit Daily: You lit up the Empire State Building (more than once) — talk about a tall order. Tell us what goes into that. How do you create the vision and execute on it?
Marc Brickman: So we have lit up the Empire State Building successfully for the last 10-plus years. It’s a lot of technology that we keep updating and upgrading and staying relevant. It’s an incredible honor to be there, and it’s been amazing to work with all the people that are involved. The vision was created by Anthony Malkin, the CEO of Empire State Realty Trust. He was the one who found me. He had a vision, and I executed it. The best way to describe what I do is that Tony built the race car. It was his vision in terms of what the race car was going to do and the team that was going to be around it. And I’m the racecar driver.
Grit Daily: One of your career achievements is also a Guinness World Record Moment! Tell us about that drone installation in Saudi Arabia and how you see drones evolving in live shows.
Marc Brickman: What we did in Saudi Arabia really is how I see drones evolving. The key to that was not just throwing images or advertising up in the sky. It was to tell a story and to be able to sync audio with the drones perfectly so that it was one thought, not just ambient audio with ambient drones flashing in shapes like dragons or elephants or whatever, where random image doesn’t mean anything. It looks cool on Instagram, but you don’t walk away saying it was a great moment.
Drones really have the potential of being able to define the sky as a canvas. It’s a big thing to be able to work on the largest canvas in the world.
If you watch the show, you’ll see how everything is in sync at every moment. We have a proprietary app that runs on your phone that allows you to be involved, even if you’re 10 miles away from the take-off site. As long as you’re in line of site, you can listen latency-free to the audio program in sync. That is really a completely different approach.
Grit Daily: You’ve also worked on live shows in Vegas and Broadway, like Cirque du Soleil, Blue Man Group, and Young Frankenstein. How do theater shows differ from outdoor concerts and other live installations?
Marc Brickman: Well, theatre is so intimate. You have a lot more opportunities to be very intimate with the audience in terms of visuals and lighting, working with the actors, and really engaging in the whole atmosphere and the emotion. It really differs from outdoor concerts, which are usually on a much larger scale — 10 times, 50 times, 100 times larger. For live installations, like the drone show we did, are the creations that really interest me. Where I’m able to engage a whole city in the moment, that’s really the practice that I’m most fixated on these days, being able to create moments like a solar eclipse, where everyone is looking up and engaging.
Grit Daily: If there’s one project you haven’t worked on but could, what would it be?
Marc Brickman: One of mine! Not a show or event that someone else conceptualized but one of my own ideas. A lot of ideas that I’ve put out there in the world have been ignored because no one else has ever done them. I followed all the rules, all the business plans, all of the marketing, etc., etc… but because no one else had done it already, no one is brave enough to fund it. I would love to see some of those come to reality, because I know they could be an alternative to the mega-productions. A human approach to the art.
Grit Daily: What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs wanting to get their start in this field?
Marc Brickman: These five things have really guided me — Humility, Belief, Truth, Punctuality, and Love.
Humility. I’ve kept my mouth shut all these years. That’s helped me to understand and also to fly below the radar, to be able to experience all kinds of things. Inside of humility, try to be very respectful when you’re working and respect everyone else.
Belief. Believe in what you’re creating. It’s a scary one — to actually believe that what you’re creating is going to be acknowledged and recognized and have an impact.
Truth. Always tell the truth. You have to be able to deal with all the lies that surround you and the manipulation that occurs, and if you can stay truthful, it’s not going to affect you as much. Stand your ground, and the truth will ultimately come out.
Punctuality. Well, the best that I can say is my dad, who I miss, always said to me, “The early bird catches the worm.” I think that applies to every second of your life.
Love. There’s nothing stronger in the world. And yes, I am an old hippie, but you know this concept of love is part of us as humans, and it’s very important to always have a big, open heart and lots of love for everyone that you meet every day.