Luminous is a UK-based show technology company that applies technological and elemental mastery to transform an event, installation or experience, building the ground-breaking hardware and physical effects to create emotional, energised connections with live audiences.
With a background in large-scale live event special effects and a pedigree rooted in some of the largest SFX movie titles of the last two decades, Luminous is expanding into the attractions sector.
Blooloop spoke to its co-founders, Mike Badley and Edwin Samkin.
A background in fireworks and special effects
Edwin Samkin is an engineering graduate with a diploma in design and innovation. He has worked with explosives and special effects systems since 1996, playing a key part in the largest global events. Samkin’s role frequently blurs the line between technical and creative disciplines.
In 2009, he founded Event FX limited as a vehicle to deliver innovative Special Effects services to the live event sector.
“I started working in the firework industry in ’96 as a 14-year-old,” he says:
“Initially, I was cleaning equipment, not touching explosives, because I wasn’t allowed to. I worked my way up to become one of the firework company’s main display managers. I then decided I wanted to shift into special effects. So, I moved to London to pursue TV special effects. I did that for 10 years, SFX for X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, all that kind of thing.
“I decided to start my own special effects business in 2009. This focused mainly on supplying the sports world and then developed into West End theatre and ceremonies. I worked on London 2012, setting up the opening ceremony special effects. I also worked on Sochi Winter Olympics and the Rio Olympics.”
Bringing together new technologies
Mike Badley is a Chartered Engineer with a further degree in Professional Stage Management. Specialising in high-end special effects, he has worked extensively across movie production and large-scale live performance, combining new technologies to create engaging special effects.
In 2016, Badley founded Sigma Technical Limited to provide technical SFX consultation to Disney Star Wars and other major titles.
“I trained in technical theatre at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and went straight into working on movie special effects.
“The first proper movie as a trainee was Batman Begins in 2003. I’ve worked on Batman, Casino Royale, The Dark Knight, Quantum of Solace, Inception, lots of ridiculous, big, special effects movies. These were made in the UK, which is great because you think of a lot of these as Hollywood and inaccessible.
“In 2009 I moved to Devon with my family, and the rest is history. I first worked with Ed on TV shows in London. I also worked for a firm that was doing big touring productions for Adele, Muse Take That, and stepped back into film for The Last Jedi as a qualified and experienced engineer to look at the machinery, safety and equipment for special effects.
“Then Luminous took over.”
“Mike and I had been working together for other people. We saw an opportunity to start a company, Luminous, that designed and developed advanced hardware for the live event sector. We started thinking about it in 2016; Mike was making cool stuff at that point for my other business.”
Luminous was founded the following year and is now four years old. Rather than evolving gradually from a point of inception, the company launched itself at the deep end, Badley says:
“We jumped straight in on a Harry Potter and The Cursed Child install for New York.”
“We couldn’t have started with a bigger job, really,” Samkin agrees. “At that point, it was Mike on a laptop at a hot desk in Exeter with his long list of suppliers, and we had to make it happen somehow. Which we did! We evolved quite quickly from being at a hot desk to having our own office, to having a workshop, to having a large manufacturing facility within the space of a few years.
“If you look back at how we delivered that first important project, it is quite an achievement. We had a flame system approved by the Fire Department of New York. That is quite a rare thing to achieve, and we were praised by them for the quality of the build and the safety features. We walked away, a year after starting our company, with FDNY approval for our flame system.”
Luminous moves into the attractions sector
Several factors prompted the move into the attractions sector, with the pandemic affording the space to take stock.
“Most of our business before the coronavirus was building custom kit for West End, Broadway-specific show. We were developing our product lines in special effects equipment, and developing our ability to build hardware,” Badley says. “We have a partnership with a company in Holland and build equipment for them as an OEM.”
“The pandemic gave us time to think. The attractions sector mirrors quite closely what happens in big West End and Broadway shows. You’ve got a permanent venue and you need a complicated piece of equipment installing that has to run multiple times a day and be super-reliable. Often, it’s not things that are off the shelf.
“We’ve got big live event experience and experience of massive shows with billions of viewers. What Ed hasn’t fired in a stadium isn’t worth firing. And it’s not all pyro; it’s the whole range of physical special effects; smoke and wind and rain and everything else.
“From the film side of things, there have been huge budgets on the projects I’ve been working on. So, I’ve had a chance to play with some super exciting technology. Between us, we can turn conceptual work into reality.
“The attractions industry is exciting, with what is going on in the Middle East. There is a lot of noise in North America at the moment as well. Rides and venues are getting bigger and better, and everyone’s trying to outdo each other.”
Out of the ordinary effects
When owners envision a spectacular, out-of-the-ordinary effect for their ride or venue, Luminous can service that:
“We are unlimited in our scope as to what we can produce, and have the experience to produce it,” says Badley.
We are unlimited in our scope as to what we can produce, and have the experience to produce it
“It’s not just about the opportunity, though it is a huge one. This is a really exciting move for us into an area where we can do something impressive that that leaves a lasting impression.
“We’ve worked for a long time in the live event sector, where you never have enough time to make anything. It’s all last minute. In the attractions industry, things move a little slower. That offers the time to develop a really good effect, showstopper, or ‘wow’ moment, which in live events can be stifled because of the time and, possibly, the budget. It’s exciting for us because we can really show off what we can do.”
Enhancing the magic with Luminous
Luminous is currently also doing some big things outside the attractions sector.
“We are a supplier to the global franchise of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is our big flagship customer. That’s currently in five countries and expanding into two more at the moment. We design safety control hardware as well as some really exciting special effects equipment to enhance the magic.”
“Mike touched on our long long-term deal with MagicFX in Holland. They are one of the largest special effects equipment suppliers in the world. They provide their hardware to 3,500 customers across 92 different countries. Now they supply effects hardware to all the biggest productions around the world. The 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, for example, was used as a showcase for a new flame product that we designed and manufactured in the UK for MagicFX”
Luminous has also just picked up Disney Theatrical Group as a client and is working on Frozen the Musical and Beauty and the Beast, a UK tour.
Inventing new special effects
One of Luminous’ USPs is its ability to combine technologies to invent new special effects.
“It’s always a case of problem-solving. When you work on a big-budget movie, Batman for example, you’ve got a multi-million-pound budget, a hundred people on the SFX crew, and all these individual moments that you’ve got to get produced for filming. Batman’s grappling hook over here, a bat bike over there, and you’ve got to explode the side of a building in central London, for example.
“The brief on a movie is extremely varied. To undertake all those different jobs, a lot of different types of technology get used. For instance, hydraulics, pneumatics, complex fabrication, control systems, water management and pyrotechnics. You’re using all those different technologies to solve a problem.”
“The problem might be, ‘We’ve got this wall, and we need lots of bullet hits. And then we’ve got to be able to reset it within 10 minutes. We’ve only got Tom Cruise for this long, and we’ve got to get the shot today.’
“You start looking at all sorts of different ways to do this. When you’ve done that for a long period, you start to have a very good list of technologies that you can go to and tinker with.
“The lighting, sound and video industries are advancing rapidly and doing amazing things, but they often focus on a specific branch of technology. Special effects can be anything and everything. You’re manipulating water, fire, materials and gasses to do unnatural things.”
The right mix of skills
Detailing the process, he adds:
“Both Ed and I are qualified engineers. We keep an ear to the ground and look at the latest technologies that are coming out, as well as having the old-school ways of doing things. We assess what the artistic output needs to be because that’s what the customer will see.
“The artistic point of view is very much Ed’s world; I spend more time reading technical catalogues! From the technician’s perspective, we ask, why is this not being done or how could it be done better? Does it use a consumable that we can get rid of by doing something smarter? Why has this technology not been updated? Is this something that wasn’t possible 20 years ago, and is that why it isn’t being done?”
“There are so many new technologies coming out. For instance, there are exciting motor and control technologies that are faster, more efficient and much cheaper than they used to be. We are looking at what the artistic output needs to be. From a technical standpoint, is it installable, is it the right price? Is it using loads of energy, and if so, why? How can we use the latest tech to re-imagine how something is done, or to do it for the first time?”
Luminous bridges different disciplines
Samkin says: “We occupy an interesting space which bridges all these different disciplines. We might see a new control system development used within automation, and say, ‘Hang on. That could work really well in controlling a Special Effects project.’ We can bring that technology across into our world.
“Mike touched on how we have to bridge both the creative and the technical. This underlines that we are not just a technical company. We creatively use technology and have to take a creative vision and make that a practical working thing.”
It is about understanding a creative brief, and solving that riddle with technology, to realise a vision:
“Luminous is not just a technical solutions company. We can advise, pre-vis and demonstrate some cool live special effects and how they can be used creatively for any project.
“We have several projects lining up for next year in the theatre sector, where they’ve brought Ed in right at the beginning, as they’re conceiving the show. This is when they need someone that technically knows what can be achieved when it comes to some of these more interesting special effects moment, and Ed is then able to advise. We might make up some little demos and take them in.
“That often helps with the creative process. It means that people don’t show up right at the end saying: ‘Can we do this physics-defying thing?’
“Often they don’t know what’s possible, and we show them.”
Bringing something new to the table
Samkin had this experience on Harry Potter:
“They hadn’t realised that you could colour a flame effectively on stage in the show. It’s in the second part of the show now: the blue flame is really important.”
“We can demonstrate stuff that people don’t even know is possible. So, they wouldn’t have thought it up or asked for it,” adds Badley.
Luminous has also done some work with virtual reality companies to add an authentic touch to immersive experiences:
“We’ve been working with 4D, bringing in the real stuff and adding to the authenticity of the experience,” Samkin says. “So, when the side of your virtual spaceship gets blown off, for instance, and there’s a lava river running past it you feel the warmth and hot wind on your face.”
The Luminous range of high-end special effects services is produced in-house.
“A big push over the year has been to bring in-house more and more things that we were outsourcing,” says Samkin. “We’ve got a fantastic metal fabrication capability now that we didn’t have 18 months ago. Pre-pandemic we had some capability but outsourced a lot of it. Now we do it all in-house, which is a really important development for us.”
A bright future
The pair have been planning to bring Luminous into the attractions sector for some time. Four weeks ago, one of the world’s leading ride designers and manufacturers approached them with an idea for water effects.
With the speed and agility we have inherited from the live events sector, the service we provide is really valuable for the amusement sector
“We designed a solution, and within 36 hours sent them videos of a demo. They were really happy with the speed at which we were able to show them a full demonstration of how the hardware would operate, along with a full proposal and costing. It flags for us that with the speed and agility we have inherited from the live events sector, the service we provide is really valuable for the amusement sector.”
Luminous brings big screen magic to attractions
Essentially, Luminous brings Hollywood special effects within the reach of the attractions sector as a whole. Whether that means super-sized water effects, huge flames and explosions, plumes of white smoke or hurricane-force winds. Badley sums up the offer:
“We’ve got access to the tips, techniques and the book of tricks that the biggest Hollywood effects companies use. I’ve done it for 20 years. We’ve also got Ed’s huge experience: he’s done these massive global events that are super-critical. They’ve got to work; they’ve got to be big statements that impress a crowd.”
A Hollywood effect, of course, is done purely for screen:
“It’s often a one-hit-wonder; you can’t reset it which is not great for amusement rides. But coupling that with Ed’s experience, where it’s live, it’s got to happen again and again, we have a great combination of experience as a company.
“It’s about being able to bring that big screen magic to a live experience for the end-user.”
Luminous will be attending the Saudi Entertainment and Amusement Expo from 7 – 9 September 2021. Attendees can find the team at the Experience UK booth #1F20