Ultra Music Festival, billed as “the world’s premiere electronic music festival,” has grown over the last few years from a one-day event to a three-day electronic music extravaganza. It has also changed “venues,” always in Miami, and this year held in Downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park, where a record 60,000 people attended each day. With production design by Stephen Lieberman, who also designed lighting and video, and served as lighting director, the many stages of Ultra Music Festival generated a veritable pulsating frenzy of visuals to accompany the DJs’ sets.
Lieberman, a longtime member of the Ultra family, has designed for the annual production every year since its second event in 2000. The designer notes, however, that every year is different, given the varying acts, as well as the location. “This year, we moved to a new property—actually our old property,” he says, noting that the first two years were held on the beach in South Beach, then moved for a few years to Bayfront Park, then to Bicentennial Park, and now back to Bayfront Park. “Even being back at Bayfront isn’t the same as the last time we were there,” he adds. “It has gained much more momentum since the last time. It’s now a three-day festival. Plus it’s not a flat dirt lot, so that was the most difficult hurdle to overcome. We were wedging stages into position within inches, and we also had to close Biscayne Blvd.”
While the festival has sold out consistently for its last few incarnations, including this year, the 20 12 event had the added pressure of serving several million viewers as the event was streamed live online, complete with a helicopter cam feed to get every possible angle of the stage. “Even my parents got to watch live this year,” says Lieberman.
With all angles to consider, literally, Lieberman went into his design with a twofold concept. “First, I obviously have to light the stage,” he says. “I don’t light it from a rock ‘n’ roll perspective, but we have this huge stage, and if you don’t light it well, it will just look like a dark hole. But the majority of the lighting aims for a light show for the audience. Where a typical rock show might be cue-to-cue, different looks, different stage looks, and then once in a while a big look out into the audience, we’re kind of the opposite of that. The design intent, specifically, is more big looks for the audience more often.”
The main stage, 200'-plus wide, featured massive video elements—a combination of more than 8,000sq-ft. of 37mm LED for I-Mag and the upstage screen and an additional 1,700sq-ft. of 15mm LED, both supplied by Andrew Gumper’s AG Light and Sound—including a video roof, back walls, and legs. Even a video floor in the stage deck was part of the original design to enhance the helicopter cam shots, but it didn’t work out logistically in the end. “This show has big spectacle visual elements, with lighting, video, pyro, cryo, lasers, and I want the audience to feel overwhelmed,” says Lieberman. “I want their jaws to drop and have it be tangible, like it can knock them over.”
Because the festival accommodates several artists that bring in their own production teams, and sometimes their own VJs, each performer can bring or submit content to run live. For everyone else, Lieberman runs the lighting, and Vello Virkhaus of V-Squared Labs serves content via his own custom VSL server setup, which is based around Derivative TouchDesigner.
Mountain Productions built the main stage, lighting for which included more than a hundred Clay Paky fixtures—Sharpys and Alpha Spot 1500 HPEs—as well as Philips Vari-Lite VL3500 and VL5 Wash units, Martin Professional MAC III Performance fixtures, Elation Professional Design LED 60 TriStrips, and Elation Professional Opti 30 Tri units. “The Sharpy is an amazing fixture for straight-up effects, so those were used for big, hardcore aerials that you could see from a mile away—spread out, fingers in the air, hand of God kind of look,” says Lieberman. “I used the Alpha Spot 1500 HPEs and VL3500s for stage lighting and various looks, and the VL5 Washes were for sidefills, shin-busters, and cross-stage looks, as well as to wash the DJ or performers and for camera shots with their warm tungsten source.” AG Light and Sound also supplied the lighting for the main stage.
The Elation Professional Design LED 60 TriStrips, Lieberman says, were used for “eye candy, and they’re great, as you don’t see the color unmixed. We used these for chasing and had the Opti 30 Tris inside truss as toners.” Lieberman also placed four Martin Professional MAC III Performance fixtures out at FOH for specials, using their shutters for framing out performers and key light. “I didn’t want to use followspots, with a followspot operator waiting all day for one act and obstructing the audience,” the designer says, noting that he did make an exception and use one followspot for a special appearance by Madonna. Martin Professional Atomic 3000 Strobes and blinders provided additional lighting effects.
Two MA Lighting grandMA consoles ran the show, with one tracking backup, which makes it a streamlined control process when guests come to run the console. “They can just work on the other console and then take over as lighting director when their acts go on,” says Lieberman, who says he prefers the original grandMA for festivals. “It’s still rock-solid, is great for playback, and has more executor buttons. It’s great for a live event when you’re busking.” Lieberman programmed the lighting onsite.
The festival also made use of the park’s amphitheatre for another stage, while AG Light and Sound built a separate mega-structure—referred to as “the beehive”—for a tent in which DJ Carl Cox was the headliner. “Andrew is great, because I give him a complex design, and he doesn’t give me reasons why he can’t do it. He comes up with ways to just do it,” says Lieberman of the beehive, which incorporated 168 hinged custom hexagon corner blocks, lined with pixel-controlled Barco VersaTubes, that became the roof of the structure, all fabricated especially for this event.
The beehive roof stretched out approximately 250' over the audience, and the DJ booth appeared to float on the stage. “This structure was different from the main stage, as it was more of an ‘environment,’” says Lieberman. “The main stage had more big looks on stage, but in the beehive, if we didn’t light the audience also, it would look ridiculous, because the whole stage is over your head, so you have to make it more immersive.”
Here, Lieberman’s rig comprised Coemar Infinity Spot and Wash XL units, in order to bring a nightclub feel to the room, as well as a wall with additional Sharpys and Clay Paky Alpha Beam 1500s. He also had Martin Professional MAC 101s, as he says, “just everywhere, because these shows run so long that I like to have as many types of moving lights as possible to vary the looks as much as possible.” AG Light and Sound also supplied the beehive tent’s stage decks and rigging. Ray Steinman was production manager, about whom Lieberman says, “I couldn’t have done any of this.”
Other vendors included Paradigm Productions for the lighting and Global Trend Productions for the video for the amphitheatre, as well as Felix Lighting and Large Screen Video for a fourth stage, with Lieberman again varying the types of fixtures used on each stage. “Electronic music can get really repetitive if you don’t come with a bag of tricks,” he says. “It’s just 4/4 time all day long, so the operator has to balance out a show and have elements to build upon—add, delete, build, break, do it again. All the various fixture types help us layer and tell a story as the day goes on, like the music; build it up and break it down, and then start all over again.”
Lieberman started all over again just a few weeks later at the Electric Daisy Carnival, another electronic music festival he designs annually, held first in New York, then in Las Vegas.