Stage and lighting design are elements we tend to take for granted but, when done right, can truly elevate a performance. Gareth Hadden and Grant Orchard are the founding members (and business and creative directors, respectively) of Formative, a bespoke staging and production design company. With Cassper Nyovest’s monumental #FillUpTheDome concert in the bag, we chatted to the duo about an average day at work, their key learnings since starting their business and why they maintain a ‘less is more’ approach.
What is your official/unofficial job title?
Gareth Hadden: Official – Business director. Unofficial – Coffee boy, HR dept, admin dept, accounts dept, sales dept, cleaner, assistant, problem solver – pick one!
Grant Orchard: Creative director and founding partner.
Tell us about yourself and how you ended up here…
Gareth: I ran away from corporate life in the UK to be a dive instructor in Australia and Fiji. It was in Fiji that I met my now (South African) wife Nicolette and then moved to Cape Town in 2005. Once here I worked for tech supply company Gearhouse for about six years but I always felt something was missing. That’s when Grant and I set up Formative four years ago and I haven’t looked back since.
Grant: Before swopping London for Cape Town I was enjoying a very long and successful freelance career. Over my freelance career I had worked all over the world for leading equipment rental companies such as Creative Technology and XL Video which provided me with an extensive knowledge base of most entertainment technologies. During this time I was fortunate to work alongside some of the planet’s greatest show designers in senior technical engineering roles on major projects. Concerts and tours for artists such as Linkin Park, Jay-Z, Kasabian and Elton John. Most of the major European music festivals including Glastonbury, V-Festival, Isle of White and Rock Werchter and television shows such as X-Factor UK, Britain’s Got Talent, the BAFTA’s, MTV Awards and Eurovision Dance to name but a few.
I think due to this immense exposure into the entertainment world I realised early on that I did not want to just be the person that makes the technology work, I wanted to be the person that designs and creates the work. I have been in this industry for 20 years now, since I left school at 16, but I am finally here now creating the projects so I am a happy man. When I’m not working I try and spend as much time as possible catching waves in the cold Cape waters. Surfing is my newfound passion.
What prompted your move to South Africa?
Gareth: My wife Nicolette initially but then I fell in love with Cape Town and the people. This city is now certainly my home. I love this place! There’s so much to do and there’s such diversity.
Grant: I think every Englishman wants to live by the beach at some point in their lives. I was getting busier and busier with freelancing all over the world and not really having any time at home with my partner. As she is South African it was natural to explore opportunities within the country. I spoke to the guys at LEDVision/Gearhouse SA and mentioned I was thinking about moving over and they immediately offered me a position within the company due to my experience. We packed our bags and the rest is history, as they say.
Tell us about Formative Design and how it came about?
Gareth: I always say it started out of frustration; the need to do more, to be more creative, to do cooler stuff. Working for a tech supply company meant that we had to use what was in the warehouse, which could sometimes be quite limiting. Now we get to play, design and showcase whatever we can think of. We are always pushing boundaries and that is awesome. We have amazing clients who understand us and let us play. Who can say that? Our initial business plan was simple: “Make money and have fun doing it”. People laughed at us then, but so far so good.
Grant: As I mentioned earlier I was working for Gearhouse at the time in Cape Town. While they are still without a doubt the leading technical provider in South Africa, I was feeling stuck for exactly that same reason; they are a technical supplier and I wanted to create. I met Gareth at Gearhouse as he was also in the Cape Town branch and feeling equally frustrated. We both wanted to do the same thing yet had quite the opposite skill sets that complimented each other…so we went for it.
The company’s philosophy is ‘less is more’. Tell us a bit about this approach?
Gareth: People massively overcomplicate things, you don’t always need a million lights for a show. You need to create moments in time that create emotion. We aren’t big fans of tech so we’ll always do our best to hide it. I recently built my own high-end bike. It’s got everything you need and nothing more: one brake, one gear and it runs off a belt not a chain. It’s super clean and simple yet it’s a real head turner and always draws attention. Using the bike as a euphemism, that is what Formative is to a T.
Grant: I think when it comes to producing a show that is visually stunning the less you do the more impactful it becomes. The impact comes from how you use the tools you have: the lights, the video, the sound, etc. A lot of my inspiration comes from architecture. I like clean and simple design and we never try and overdo a design. I think there are too many people who like to have everything flashing all the time and don’t take the time to create the moments which is what makes entertainment at the end of the day. You can create a performance with two lights that can be just as impactful as a performance with 20 lights. It’s all about how you use them.
Please explain what you actually do and how an average day looks for you?
Gareth: I was asked this question earlier by a new client and my natural answer is always: “We do cool sh*t!” but I guess I’m not really allowed to say that. This is one of the joys of our industry and of my job. One day I’m the admin boy, the next the rock ‘n roller, then the corporate boy, and then looking after some of the country’s best talent. A common misconception is that our jobs are glamorous. Not so. Last month I was picking up litter and garbage in a marquee that was reaching above 40 degrees inside because one of our suppliers had messed up. The month before that I was in charge of the complete production element for Cassper Nyovest’s #FillUpTheDome concert so every day is different and brings with it different challenges and rewards.
Grant: My role is to conceptualise and design every project we produce. This can sometimes include stage, lighting and screen content. Typically each day starts with me sitting with the designers as well as the logistical and technical team members to go over projects in the pipeline. We work through any design or technical concerns and issues that need to be addressed and always endeavour to find the best creative and, of course, most cost effective solutions. The rest of the day is spent with the teams continuing with their work – including me!
In the afternoons I do a bit of research for new projects that are on our radar. I generally start the conceptualisation process with good old-fashioned paper and pencil which I then translate into basic 3D. That concept is then filtered through to the 3D designers who accurately redraw the design into a workable product to present to client.
Formative Design is pioneering something new in the South African production industry. What inspired you to go into these uncharted territories?
Gareth: Again I come back to being frustrated. At my previous job, I clearly remember being in a meeting telling the team that we had free rein on the design for a conference. They came back with the same design as the year before but had merely added tassels between the screens. This was the beginning of the end for me. The following year when Grant and I started Formative that same client became our first one and our design and execution blew them away. It was an amazing feeling. Grant did an amazing job on the design and truly set the precedent going forward. And the client is still with us, by the way.
Grant: I was fortunate enough to have been involved in many pioneering shows and worked alongside designers from all around the world using cutting edge technology, so I have seen what can be done and how. It seemed to me that nobody within South Africa was really pushing the boundaries within our industry but I knew I could do it so I decided to take all my experience and step into that position. We would really like to get involved with more local music artists and help produce great shows for them. It seems to me that the production values of music shows is really lacking and this is a field I would like to explore more.
What has been your favourite project to date?
Gareth: Cassper Nyovest’s #FillUpTheDome concert which took place on 31 October 2015 at the Ticketpro Dome. Our team did such an amazing job and it was to international standards and – if I may say so myself – blew the industry away. I personally had a very different role on this job which I thoroughly enjoyed and wish to develop going forward.
Grant: My favourite project so far has to be without question Cassper Nyovest’s #FillUpTheDome concert. In many ways it was a dream project. We had an artist who was out to prove a point and wanted the best production money could buy. We had complete creative freedom to simply make it epic. We put together the entire show within a month and it was a very historical moment for the South African music scene.
What are some of the skills needed to pursue a career in the field?
Gareth: Passion – you can learn the rest.
Grant: Creativity, ingenuity, a good understanding of entertainment technologies and the ability to function with very little sleep.
What key learnings have you taken away from your experience?
Gareth: Great staff – I love the saying: “You can’t do epic sh*t with basic people”.
Keep going – A lot of people thought we were stupid to leave an established company and set up shop to form such a niché agency. Four years later those same people are applying for jobs at Formative or trying to sell us their services.
Relationships are key – Whether with suppliers, staff or clients. Without the right people around us we’re just a few good ideas milling around. We have been blessed with amazing clients who treat us more like partners than suppliers and that makes us want to work harder and produce better. Our suppliers are super important to us too and we treat them accordingly. They are treated as partners which in turn makes them deliver. Just imagine: it’s 3am and you urgently need a supplier for a particular job…those relationships are key.
Grant: This goes back to our overall philosophy of ‘less is more’. Usually the first idea you have have is the right one so don’t waste time overdoing it. And know when to say no!
What exciting projects is Formative working on at the moment?
Gareth: We are fortunate to have annual events that we can plan for throughout the year. However, we are adding some exciting new ones to our portfolio in 2016. I think the team is especially looking forward to the next Cassper Nyovest show as it will allow us to play and showcase our ideas. Formative is growing at a nice and controllable pace. We’ve just moved into a new studio office, added a new designer to the team and have an estimated two new staff members projected for the end of the year.
Grant: Currently we have a few great corporate projects in the pipeline, a fun music video, a huge interactive installation project, a national television show, and some very exciting music events. This year we are probably going to give producing our own massive music show a go with the most amazing production values South Africa has seen. Watch this space!