Penn State alumnus Giffin 'finds light' in right place at right time

March 25, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Being in the right place at the right time is what would eventually put 2005 Schreyer Honors College alumnus and 2015 Penn State Alumni Achievement Award winner Andrew Giffin exactly where he wanted to be.

Not long ago, that place was a secluded site in the heart of the Yucatán Peninsula, where he was lighting a performance with renowned artist James Turrell. Prior to that, he was programming a spectacle of palm trees on the beach for a run of shows with the rock band Phish. Last year at this time, much closer to his Pittsburgh home, the acclaimed lighting designer was standing on a stage on the University Park campus, accepting one of the 12 Penn State Alumni Achievement Awards for 2015.

The stage is a familiar place for Giffin, whose clients seek him out to create lighting that transforms arenas, amphitheaters and screens into spectacular visual experiences. Giffin, though, doesn’t put himself in the spotlight.

“It was an incredible honor to be included in that group,” Giffin said about the 2015 Alumni Achievement Award winners. “The weight of it sunk in the evening before the ceremony, when I had a chance to meet the other recipients and realized just what esteemed company I was in at that moment.”

“The award is especially significant because it recognizes the accomplishments of individuals from an institution that itself is enormous," he added. "I’ve always said that such size is one of Penn State’s greatest assets, but enjoying the benefits of that also means accepting that you’re one person of hundreds of thousands who comprise its community of students, staff, faculty, administration and alumni. By focusing on specific success stories, acknowledgements such as the Alumni Achievement Award celebrate how all that infrastructure fosters meaningful real-world results.”

An extraordinary synthesis of the arts and sciences, Giffin’s work has been seen on an array of big-name projects including Ariana Grande’s “Honeymoon” world tour, iHeartRadio and Coachella festivals, and “Get on Up,” the Hollywood biopic of James Brown.

Giffin considers his strength to be envisioning creative potential with new technology. Since the tools develop very quickly, he is constantly devising engaging new ways to wield them. When asked about overcoming professional challenges though, he credits his interdisciplinary experience in college.

“Since light is intangible in many ways, the eternal struggle is how to best describe ideas to clients and collaborators,” Giffin said. “What Schreyer helped me find was the opportunity to work with talented people across very diverse fields. I got to experience and now I practice the different means they use to communicate complex ideas.”

Part of what inspires Giffin is the collaborative nature of the performing arts.

“Bringing the people together in the place that you’re actually going to produce something is an essential part of the creative development you can have at Penn State,” said Giffin, referring to the number of large and small venues available on and near campus. “I’ve done plays, musicals, concerts, TV shoots, building mockups, even a full-scale model of an airplane in those spaces drawing students, professors and professionals together from theater, engineering, architecture, psychology, music and more.”

Though the images he creates with light may be temporary, Giffin made some incredible permanent memories while at Penn State. As a sophomore taking a graduate course for honors credit, he was studying the same artist he would work with in Mexico years later, and his assignment was to create a site-specific lighting installation on campus. Giffin was fascinated with a set of doors just inside an entrance to the HUB with a wide-open space above them.

In the middle of the night, Giffin and fellow Schreyer Scholar alumnus Aaron Coble “acquired” a Genie lift from a building near Atherton Hall where they were living and added lights that projected up into the void. It was a substantial installation, powered by a long extension cord to which they attached a note for when OPP would discover it: “Please don’t remove, I need to present this tomorrow night. Don’t ask any questions and it’ll all be gone the next morning.”

Giffin’s strong sense of curiosity and discovery was cultivated by his parents, who put him in front of a computer at an early age, long before most offices had one. They also took him to science fairs and museums and introduced him to the arts with classical piano lessons and trips to rock concerts.

“Seeing The Who’s 'Tommy' with them as a little kid is what really first put the creative wheels in motion,” Giffin remembers. “I could already appreciate what was going on musically, then when I got to see the visual production — the beauty, vibrance and storytelling of it all, and especially how it was all so seamlessly woven together — it was moving to the audience and magic to me.”

Every toy, piece of electronic equipment or other household item in the Giffin home became part of putting on a show. His parents not only “endured” that, but continued to encourage him in the arts as well as math and science. Had it not been for his father’s interest in visiting the University Park campus during Giffin’s senior year in high school, he may never have found the "right" place.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is for prospective students to go visit Schreyer Honors College. The people (at Schreyer) I met with that day showed me that not only did Penn State have tremendous resources for doing everything I wanted to do, but it also had several means of helping me combine them. They were genuinely excited about what I was describing, and it was immediately clear that with the honors college, I was going to have the exceptional support of a close community within the larger University.”

-- Andrew Giffin, 2015 Penn State Alumni Achievement Award Winner

Two professors, Curtis Craig, a sound designer, and architect Bret Peters, in particular, were acknowledged in Giffin’s acceptance speech, and “were commendable for their eagerness to reach outside their normal academic fields.” Both invited him to explore in their disciplines with Curtis serving as Giffin’s adviser on his honors thesis and Peters inviting him to join his architecture studio class, which Giffin recognizes as the moment he began to gain the “essential design ability” of being a “more perceptive observer.”

“The combination of those diverse interests would lead me to Penn State, the honors college, and to where I am today,” Giffin said. “First and foremost, the honors college is the reason I attended Penn State. I mentioned earlier that I consider the University’s size to be among its greatest assets, but I almost missed out completely because that size can also appear daunting.”

Giffin had been considering smaller, private institutions, but when he discussed his desire to integrate theatrical design and engineering studies, the idea “was not well received.” He thought if his curriculum would be a challenge at a small school, it would be impossible to pull it off at a place like Penn State.

Then one afternoon in Atherton Hall, that attitude completely changed.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is for prospective students to go visit Schreyer Honors College. The people (at Schreyer) I met with that day showed me that not only did Penn State have tremendous resources for doing everything I wanted to do, but it also had several means of helping me combine them,” Giffin recalled. “They were genuinely excited about what I was describing, and it was immediately clear that with the honors college, I was going to have the exceptional support of a close community within the larger University.”

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  • Curtis Craig and Andrew Giffin

    Penn State and Schreyer Honors College alumnus Andrew Giffin, right, with one of his Penn State faculty mentors, Curtis Craig. Giffin recognized the role Craig played in his academic and professional success when he received his 2015 Penn State Alumni Achievement Award.

    IMAGE: Andrew Giffin
  • AAA

    Each Alumni Achievement Award honoree is nominated by an academic college or campus and invited by the president of the University to return to campus to share their expertise with students and the Penn State community. Alumni Achievement Award recipients demonstrate to students that Penn State alumni succeed in exceptional fashion at an early age.

    IMAGE: Penn State Alumni Association
  • Lighting designer Andrew Giffin

    Lighting designer, Andrew Giffin, a 2015 Penn State Alumni Association Achievement Award winner, on site at a corporate event.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated March 30, 2016