Monday, April 5, 2010

Passing on the Road: Ian Knight

In general, it seems that road dogs have a shorter than average lifespan. No surprise, really. That's part of what we signed up for all those years ago. Live fast, die young, I forget the rest. As Mickey Mantle is reputed to have said, if I had known I was going to live to be this old, I might have taken better care of myself.

Late last week we learned that Ian (Iggy*) Knight had passed away in London. Ian was never really a friend of mine, but we all knew him. He was a pioneer in staging and special effects design for concerts, and some of his effects inspired pervasive and lasting technology. He is also the inspiration for one of the most important lessons I ever learned about design.

Before you get the impression that Ian was some sort of intense, towering visionary, I'd better stick in a picture. This is Ian backstage at a Led Zeppelin show, striking a welding rod against a piece of railroad track to simulate lightning. He is wearing laser safety glasses, which of course offered zero protection against the welder.

If you don't stop it, you really will go blind.
Photo courtesy of Steve Jander

Also, almost every time I saw Ian he was carrying a rum and coke, probably on the assumption that it was after 5:00 in London. I heard that he switched to screwdrivers for a while after his doctor told him that his drinking was killing him. He apparently decided that the cola was the problem, and that orange juice would set him right. I assume he eventually cut back or stopped drinking, or he never would have lived this long.

Ian is probably best known for some of the effects he designed for Led Zeppelin, but I knew him for the Genesis mirrors. If you were fortunate enough to see Genesis in the late 70's or early 80's, you saw the mirrors. Mylar was only just then becoming commercially available, and Ian designed six octagonal mylar mirrors, each eight feet across, able to rotate 360 degrees on two axes, and computer controlled. They were designed to hang over the stage, and we bounced every type of laser, spotlight, floor light, side light and flashlight we could find off of the things.

Photo from here

Here's where the design lesson comes in. Mylar was important because it was lightweight, so the mirrors could be hung in the lighting rig, turned with small drill motors and transported easily. The problem was that they were built in Holland, where at the time there was virtually no aluminum, and therefore practically no one who knew how to weld it. So they built the mirror frames out of tubular cast iron, which meant the motors had to be huge, which meant more power, etc. When it was all said and done, each mirror unit weighed in at 450 lbs. That meant extra bracing, extra rigging, extra power, and an extra truck to carry it all. As we used to say, from the people who brought you wooden shoes...

The mirrors taught me that one little detail can have tremendous and lasting ramifications. We hauled those things around for years. It drove us all crazy, but Ian took it all in stride. Ian took a lot in stride. I doubt he ever knew how many of us learned from him.

*All men from England named Ian were called "Iggy" in those days. I think it was a law.


  1. before the days of pvc pipe, too. argh. that fabrication 'fail' makes me want to scream...

  2. That's cool. I like knowing a pioneer who knew a pioneer...I might have seen a G concert, but might not have.....don't remember it now if I did....

  3. I just had my husband read your post and his eyes practically popped out of his head and he was all "Dude, you TOTALLY need to leave this guy a comment...he's soooo cool!".

    So there you go. Consider yourself cool. Meanwhile, my husband is now playing air guitar and is still a huge nerd.

  4. daisyfae: I wish that were the worst I had seen. Of course, this same group of people produced technical miracles on a regular occasion. We designed pyro effects for the Superdome that they still talk about.

    Amos: You would have remembered seeing Genesis. They were one of those groups that were much better than you expected when you saw them live. And the shows were marvels of music and technology.

    Miss Y: Thank the Captain for recognizing how cool I am. That job is where I learned to play air guitar with a tape measure on my belt. It doesn't get nerdier than that.

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