Lief Festival: Creating the Perfect Stage Design, with Bram Schinkel

Lief Festival: Creating the Perfect Stage Design, with Bram Schinkel

Lineups aside, the visual environment of a festival can really add to the overall magic of your musical escape. From the famous sky-fillers of Tomorrowland and EDC, to the intimate hideaways of boutique events, we all remember the wonder of a beautifully designed festival.
After we were blown away by the gleeful stages at Lief Festival, here's what designer Bram Schinkel had to say about the creative process...

For any aspiring designers out there, how did you get into stage design as a career?

Actually, stage design isn’t a career I’ve pursued from the start. As a student, I majored in ‘illustration & graphic design’ at an art academy. I landed a job at ID&T as a graphic designer and then began my own company, DSYNER, focusing mostly on design jobs with an element of illustration. I designed Tomorrowland’s festival newspaper, for instance, and do campaigns for music-related festivals.

When XSENSE, the people behind World of Pleasure, SneeuwbalLief Festival asked me to do the campaign for Lief, I thought it would be a fun idea to pitch a stage with them as well. And it worked out well! I now design most of the stages for their events. I like doing things this way because it can really create a complete festival experience. I try to bring people into different worlds.

Some of Bram's early sketches ahead of Lief Festival 2015

Can you talk us through the stage design process? Do you work independently from the festival organisers at first, or is it a very collaborative process from the start?

The stage is never really the first thing that I do – I design a festival’s campaign first. We begin with a sort of briefing where the promoters tell me the direction they want to take the event’s look and feel this time. It’s always nice to have a sort of ‘catchphrase’ for that. In 2015, we chose ‘a journey around the world’ for Lief Festival. We took our inspiration from Disney. The XSENSE team and I actually went on a day trip to Paris for some brainstorm sessions and to have a look at their set-up there.

Once I have a general idea of the style, I start sketching little things I want to incorporate in the poster. In the meantime, ideas for the stage start coming up as well. Once the stage sketch is done, I meet with XSENSE’s technical stage designer to see if what I want to do is manageable – the promoter’s budget is a factor in this, of course. Once the technical drawing has been greenlighted, I receive the stage’s exact dimensions and then I can work out the decorative details.

The main stage in 2014

How long have you been designing stages at Lief for? Which year of design has been your personal highlight and why?

This is actually only going to be my fourth year at Lief in a row. My favourite stage… well, I still like the castle from 2014, it had lots of depth to it which was really nice. It was also the one that had the most resemblance to that year’s artwork.

It felt like you were walking around inside the festival’s flyer. But then again, last year’s ‘techno’ themed mainstage was very cool too. It had some perspective tricks in certain corners and lights worked into the towers. In addition, it was made of wood and decoratively printed wood panels, all themed to that year’s artwork of course.

The castle stage in 2014

How much does the location of a festival affect your designs? For instance, are there any particular challenges you face with a festival like Lief which is by a lake?

For me as a visual designer, it’s very nice that Lief’s surroundings are so lush. There’s a lake, trees and little hidey-holes everywhere. I haven’t explicitly taken the environment into account in my designs, though, but I’m pretty sure I will one day design a stage with a waterfall in it!

From someone who has been to Lief, I'd say the staging is definitely very playful and colourful. Are there any particular emotions, colour schemes or moods you have in mind during the design process?

Over the past three years, at Lief, we agreed upon using a limited number of colours for everything. That way, you can create a familiar look across the whole festival ground. It also allowed us to create better-looking, high quality flags and other decoration, since they don’t have to be made anew every time.

Lief – the name means ‘sweet’ or ‘cute’ in Dutch, actually – is a cheerful and colourful festival, but the lineup is pretty serious. I did keep that in mind when I originally picked the theme colours. And as far as the rest of the design process goes, I fill in the blanks with little ‘characters’: creatures or faces that are repeated in various decorative elements.

Which of the stages at Lief have been your favourite to design?

Last year I only did the main stage, but in my first year we had a giant gorilla at the covered stage, with all these car tyres and little monkeys surrounding it. It was a blast to create! But ultimately, of course, the main stage is the coolest thing to do – you can really give it all you’ve got there.

How long in advance is a stage put up before the festival? How many different roles are involved on the actual day of construction?

Since I’m no tech guy, I can’t really answer this, but I asked Nathan from XSENSE instead. We usually work together on the Lief stages.

Nathan says "We start out with the blocks of the stage’s skeleton. You can look at it as the backbone of the stage. This is what’s going to support banners, wood, lights and sound system. Once that is done, we do a layer drawing – depending on the sketch, it can easily take me 50 hours. We start building this layer construction on site for about 6 days before the event takes place. 1 day later, the decorative panels arrive and they take two to three days to attach to the construction. The day before the festival, we attach lights & sound and the finishing touch to the décor, e.g. the little birds that were hidden in last year’s stage. At nightfall we test the lights and do a test run of the endshow – without the fireworks, of course."

Do you get to experience the festival itself in full swing? How does it feel to see people dancing in front of your stages and DJs performing from them?

At the start of the day it’s a very funny feeling to have people walking around in a world thought out by, well, me. I always like to see people taking pictures in front of the stage, it’s a kind of compliment. Most of the times I go check out all the stages with my friends as we have a couple beers. I try to keep an eye on which elements work out well as the day progresses. And at the end of the event, just before the endshow, we gather with the whole crew in the front-of-house to watch the spectacle! Then, everything comes together: the lights, the stage, the fireworks and of course the animation video that we’ve been working on in the preceding week, shown on all the LED screens.

By the way – I am going to put up a ‘making of’ of one of these shows on my Facebook soon!

Are there any other festivals out there that you particularly admire for their stage design?

The answer to this has to be Tomorrowland, of course. The amount of detail in that stage is incredible – but then again, we’re talking about quite different budgets here. It’s a dream of mine to design it one day, though… I’d also love to have a go at Sensation or Qlimax. These events are not just about the decoration itself, there’s a complete, integrated show hidden in the décor that you also get to create. It’s a very complete picture.

Qlimax festival in 2014, Arnhem, Netherlands

And lastly, is there anything special you have in mind for this year's edition of Lief Festival? Any surprises you can reveal?

For this year… well, I can tell you I am currently working on some ideas. Actually, there’s a sketchbook full of strange little creatures next to me as we speak! I’m not sure about the stage yet, though. I think I might go for a little less grandeur and size, and a little more details, things that really complete the experience.  If you want to see the whole stage, well – drop by in the lovely city of Utrecht on the 3rd of September!

– Lief Festival 2016 tickets and packages are available here

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