New Zealand’s musical success stories are more often seen taking centre stage belting out songs to adoring fans. But there are a raft of unseen musician-adjacent talents garnering some serious global recognition for their work in the industry. Los Angeles-based lighting designer, Ben Dalgleish is one such Kiwi making a big impact with his business Human Person (which he co-founded with Ian Valentine) to create on-stage magic for some of the biggest names and live performances in music. Here, the duo lift the veil on the industry, and give insight into how their creative work impacts audiences around the world.
When you see your favourite artist live, it is often nothing short of euphoric. The lyrics finally come to life, and for a brief hour or two, it feels like you’re entirely immersed in their world. In fact, many believe that the best kind of live performance appears seamless, as though the artist themselves had conjured the entire experience, almost out of thin air. It’s an idea that show & lighting designer Ben Dalgleish very much subscribes to, despite his job being one of the most important for bringing any artist’s stage-show to life. The Los Angeles-based New Zealander has worked with an impressive roster of international talent (including Billie Eilish, Janet Jackson and recently, Swedish House Mafia & The Weeknd, whose headlining Coachella show had to be created by Dalgleish and his team in a mere nine days) via his creative studio Human Person, a venture he co-founded that brings music to an almost palpable visual reality.
When I sit down to talk to Dalgleish, the first question I have to ask is, what did he study to become a designer for some of the world’s biggest stars? The answer — he didn’t. Dalgleish jokingly brands himself as a high school dropout. Instead, he started his career by immersing himself in the thick of the music industry in New Zealand, working with the likes of Six60, before picking up overseas opportunities on international tours that eventually saw him land in LA. This is quite the contrast to his co-founder Ian Valentine, who was educated in the American college system, having studied digital art in New York City. It was purely by chance that the two wound up working on a show together — a fortuitous meeting that sowed the seeds for what would become a successful business relationship and careers that would take them all over the world.
For the duo, Human Person was designed to be an agency based on collaboration and recognition. In any one performance, they could be working with a crew of hundreds, and in an industry that demands that people pay their dues, recognition and respect can be hard to come by. The collaborative nature of his work is something that the designer reflects on often. “There can be a lot of ego in the industry, but Human Person is not just us,” Dalgleish shares. “The whole reason Coachella was special was because we had our entire team working on it from day one. We try to celebrate everyone.” This sentiment isn’t just talk either — it’s something evidenced on social media, where there is often an endless list of rolling credits for those involved in production. Dalgleish’s show and lighting design is just one tiny fragment of that.
As for the nuts and bolts of his career, every day for Dalgleish is different. Some days are filled with client meetings like the rest of us (only his clients are often massive international artists). Other days he’s co-ordinating lighting experiences for 125,000 people, shooting perfectly-timed fireworks into the sky as a final euphoric moment or organising strobe lights to heighten a final number. And although his vision for lighting design is a fluid experience for both the artist and audience, for a brief moment in our conversation, he lifts the veil on his highly creative mind delivering insight into the intricacies of lighting design that uplifts and transforms.
Akin to any other art form, the lighting design for a musician must be reflective of their particular vision and style. It needs to enhance their on-stage efforts and deliver some all-important wow-factor that offers fans a memorable, moving experience. It’s far more important than perhaps people give it credit for, and requires a meticulous eye and particular mind to be done at Dalgleish’s level. For instance, his recent work with Billie Eilish plays on geometric lines and vast spaces — a design that worked to enhance Eilish’s powerful vocals by giving them space to shine. His work is refined and purposeful, and thanks to his team’s encouragement, he isn’t afraid to try something new.
When seeking inspiration, his resources are vast and varied. “Everywhere in the world apart from concerts, and then also concerts,” he laughs. “It feels like outside of concerts is where I often find my best inspiration, like architecture and art… But I also have no ability to enjoy shows anymore — I’m always looking at them through a creative, technical lens.”
While Dalgleish is normally tasked with creating the lighting design for an artist, Valentine runs the animation side of Human Person, leading a team that creates larger-than-life visuals that play on some of the most enormous LED screens in the world. This critical piece of the show is woven together with the lighting and stage design — working in a harmonious dance that gives each element space to shine independently of one another. This kind of holistic show design is critical to the overall direction of Human Person shows, and the animated visuals illuminating behind the artist play a unique role in the balance of the performance. Working with animators across a wide variety of backgrounds across the planet, the visuals are often created on wildly fast turnarounds where client expectations can sometimes extend far beyond realistic timelines. Their team is proud of this fast-paced design, a core part of their process on almost every show.
Earlier this year, Human Person was tasked with one of their biggest projects to date — two headline shows for Coachella. From the geometric, moody inspired atmosphere for Billie Eilish to the almost apocalyptic reality created for Swedish House Mafia & The Weeknd, when it eventually came together, it felt like every moment of the performance made sense. And while the process of designing these immense shows is fascinating and creative and on a massive scale, Dalgleish and Valentine confess that their favourite part of the show is often when it is over. Sure, it’s a load off their shoulders, but there is also a moment of intense elation (likely triggered by adrenaline), where they can see their work come to life, hit every mark like it was meant to, and they can celebrate the efforts of everyone involved. There’s something about this that naturally speaks to the human experience.
Yet despite his impressive resume, Dalgleish wouldn’t characterise his career as a success story — yet. Instead, Human Person is a small fish in a massive pond, where in the scheme of the industry, he is but another artist still making a name for himself. “I think what sets us apart is how hard we are willing to work as well as an attitude of we can do this to the highest level,” he tells me. “I think that comes from both our backgrounds, starting in the trenches doing really hard shows, and also our backgrounds — me being from New Zealand with that number-eight-wire mentality, and Ian being from the midwest where the attitude is the same.”
Back-to-back headline acts at Coachella aside, Dalgleish describes the most surreal moment in his career as coming full circle last year, when he produced the show & lighting design for Crowded House’s New Zealand tour — a band that he (like most of us), grew up listening to in his family home. For Valentine, the pinch-me moment also occurred in New Zealand, where he found himself in the thick of the pandemic, working on local shows with impressive lineups, unlike anywhere else in the world. This summer, the duo and their team of collaborators plan to find more inspiration back on our shores with a summer festival lineup that promises incredible, immersive and a moment of elation for them when the show is finally over.
While in New Zealand, Ben Dalgleish and Ian Valentine will speak at creativity and design festival Semi Permanent Aotearoa, held from the 19th until the 21st of October in Wellington.