Over the past few years, Robert Grobler has established himself as one of the key entertainment technology specialists and senior lighting designers at the Gearhouse Group, South Africa’s largest technical supplier for the events industry. Grobler has actively worked in the entertainment technology field since the age of 18 and has developed a reputation as an exceptional operations professional, with skills that include technical drawing, concept art, lighting design, project management, as well as live concert and television lighting.
Grobler has served as a lighting designer for some of Gearhouse’s highest profile clients – including Ultra South Africa, among others. He has earned the reputation of being among the most knowledgeable and experienced practitioners in the field of lighting and networking for the live events sector in South Africa and is actively involved in various training programmes aimed at educating others in this relatively new and ever-evolving discipline.
Grobler kindly consented to share some of his insights and experiences with Pro-Systems News in a recent interview.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED IN THE ENTERTAINMENT TECHNOLOGY INDUSTRY?
As a youngster, I worked backstage on a few small shows as a hobby while at high school in Kempton Park, where I discovered that I had an eye for this industry. Originally, the plan was for me to go into accounting – needless to say, that didn’t work out.
Halfway through grade 11, at age 17, I realised that I was working extremely hard to achieve the results required to get into a university to study accounting – but it was not something that I was going to enjoy doing. I started looking at what I was doing for shows from a different perspective and considered the possibility of developing it into a career. Shortly after that, I was afforded the opportunity to work for a video production house (Plum Productions) that had built a little OB van for a new television show on Kyknet. During my matric finals, I started work on the first ever episode of ‘Dis hoe dit is met Steve’ – a show that I ended up working on for ten years, starting out as the OB assistant/coffee runner and ended up the lighting designer.
After school, I studied at the Tshwane University of Technology – then known as Pretoria Technikon – for three years while freelancing in between. I originally went into audio, and halfway through my first year, I started looking at lighting and rigging. I graduated with a National Diploma in Entertainment Technology and have worked in the industry for the past 18 years.
WHAT ASPECT OF YOUR TRAINING HAS BEEN MOST BENEFICIAL?
Throughout my career, I have tried to develop my knowledge across disciplines – because my theory is that come crunch time, I need to be able to jump in and help when another team is struggling or behind schedule. At the end of the day, we all have to pull together to deliver a show, and if you can help others, you do. It is also really helpful to be well-rounded as a lighting designer because you can keep all of the different aspects of a production in mind when putting a show together.
WHO HAVE BEEN YOUR MENTORS OVER THE YEARS?
I have been privileged to work with a number of excellent and inspiring people over the years. Over the past five years, Tim Dunn has played a big role in shaping my career while working with Gearhouse from a creative design perspective. Tim has taught me to look at the finer details of the production design and how to ensure no elements get overlooked when taking it from concept to reality. Over the years I have come to rely on Tim for his wealth of knowledge and experience. If I come across a challenge or need some guidance, I know that I can always give him a call.
Another mentor worth mentioning is Ed Worster, head of television at Rapid Blue. Ed has got one of the best eyes for television lighting. He has a way of pushing your boundaries to the next level – and will keep pushing until you exceed his expectations and the results speak for themselves.
IS THERE A SPECIFIC PRODUCTION THAT STANDS OUT AS YOUR FAVOURITE?
One of the highlights of my career was having the privilege of working on the production side of Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Tim Dunn was the set and lighting designer on the event, and I went along to assist. Like so many South Africans, I always hoped that I would have the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela in person. I, unfortunately, never had the opportunity and the closest I could come to paying tribute to him was doing the very best job I could on his funeral ceremony.
The most difficult part of the job was keeping in mind that this was not just another show – but rather a deeply meaningful and poignant occasion that was being observed by a global audience. We all worked crazy hours to ensure the best production possible – but I kept having to take a step back and reflect on the enormity and gravity of the occasion.
HOW HAVE YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN TRAINING?
Christopher Bolton and Joshua Cutts of Collective Works got hold of me a few months back to help them out with a lighting design training course that they were developing. They got me in to talk about the practical side of networking and network protocols for the entertainment industry.
Over the years, I have worked on a number of shows where networking has been a large and challenging part of the job. I have learned a great deal about various aspects of networking – including a lot of the theory behind it, how to make it simpler and how to troubleshoot problems.
I really enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience with young aspiring lighting designers. In the long run, people are not going to remember me for a cool gig that I have done – once the doors are closed, and the show is over, it is quickly forgotten. I find much greater satisfaction in training people and seeing them use the skills that I have developed through trial and error as this contributes towards improving standards across of the whole industry. By sharing knowledge to develop the next generation of lighting designers, we can ensure that the industry will continue to grow.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE THAT YOU HAVE FACED?
The worst feeling in the world is when you hit a snag, and you can’t fix it. I don’t know how – maybe we are all undercover rocket scientists – but somehow we always find a way to fix the problem, or mask it, or come up with a workaround before showtime. The most important skill that one needs to develop when it comes to dealing with technical problems is not to panic. It is easy to give into one’s emotions in these situations, especially because we are all so passionate about what we do. One has to learn to keep your head, take a step away from the situation and come back with a different approach, and then try to get everybody on board to action a solution.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR YOUNG TECHNICIANS ENTERING THE INDUSTRY?
The best piece of career advice that I have ever received was from my mom, who said to me that it doesn’t help if you make a lot of money – but you are miserable while doing it. When choosing a career, make sure that you do something that makes you want to get up in the morning.
Working in the events industry is not the easiest career path. The hours are long, clients can be difficult, and you have to be able to work under pressure. While it is challenging at times – I can’t imagine doing anything else.
The most important thing that young people coming into the industry need to realise is that nothing comes easy. The biggest mistake that a lot of youngsters make is arriving with very unrealistic expectations. They walk in, right out of college, and think that they are going to make it big on their first show.
To make it in this industry, you have to start right at the bottom and earn your stripes. Rather get to know the tools of the trade, learn the equipment and how it all gets pieced together. That way when you eventually get to design a show and need something changed, you understand the potential impact it might have on delivery time and the crew working on the job.
Never ask the crew to do something you won’t do yourself! Roll a cable or load a truck. Make your fellow crew members a cup of coffee. Some of the best business deals and friendships start with a cup of coffee. If you make sure that people can rely on you to do the jobs that are not glamorous, eventually more responsibilities will come your way – which will create the opportunities to work alongside the guys that will teach you what you need to know to make it to the next level.