Tait engineered and built the scenic elements for Madonna's MDNA tour, of which there are many (check out the list here), from a complex lift matrix to the video wall automation system on tracks and rotators, to the winches, hoists, and a slack line setup. The moving parts of the tour are driven by an FTSI Navigator system.
Adam Davis, vice president at Tait, who was involved with scenic designer Mark Fisher and production manager Jake Berry from the start, notes that the "early planning stages" for this tour weren't so early after all. "The time frame was intense,” Davis says. “Madonna refused to talk about this tour until she was done with the Super Bowl Halftime Show, so that left a very right window of time to build that show.”
“Very tight” translated to approximately five weeks design time and four weeks build time—sort of unbelievable if you look at the scope of the tour. “If you look at a front view of that show, there’s actually nothing we haven’t built,” says Davis. “Even though we didn’t provide all the video screens—they’re from Danny O’Bryen at [NEP] Screenworks—we’ve done everything in the air, minus the lighting system, everything you look at from a front elevation, and everything on the ground.”
As Fisher started designing, assisted by Ric Lipson, Tait started engineering—the two necessarily working in tandem on a project of this scale—enlisting all of the company’s resources across the globe to build two rehearsal stages as complete mockups while finalizing the third touring stage, with two shifts of support staff for rehearsals. “We are a very nimble organization and able to really focus the entire organization of 400 people on the same thing at the same time,” says Davis. “We mobilized all offices. Engineers in Belgium custom-designed the video modules, our shop in China custom-manufactured it, while the guys in Vegas at FTSI were engineering the lift mechanism for the lift matrix, and the guys here in Lititz were bringing it all together and engineering the control.”
Tait even went to a neighboring factory in Lititz, PA and rented it for three weeks. “We hired people from every shop in town and brought in four supervisors to supervise assembly of the lift matrix,” Davis adds. “We’re engineering it, but there’s a constant feedback loop with design. Engineering solutions we provide necessarily affect the design. Mark Fisher has an incredible understanding of all aspects of the logistics including load-in, load-out, and everything we have to worry about on our end, but also form and function.”
Having provided scenic elements and automation for previous Madonna tours, this is the first time Tait has provided such a complete soup-to-nuts package. “Building and engineering the whole system, there’s a difference in the efficiency of how the show moves because we’ve thought about the whole system, operational savings, labor, and transportation to make it run smoothly,” says Davis. “But we have 35 years experience years breaking things. We learned how to do it all the hard way, by doing it ourselves.”
The lift matrix with LED screens is one of the more complicated parts of the show. Integrated into the Navigator control system, the matrix’s mechanics had to be stiff and rugged for roadworthiness. “That matrix reminds me of ‘97 or ‘98 when we tracked the first video screen,” says Davis. “This lift matrix is the same type of thing—the ability to create any scene you want at the push of the button, except this one can evolve from a prop on stage to an entire background to a close-down to a box. It’s pretty amazing.”
One thing that makes the matrix so unique is the way it’s programmed. “We’re using the FTSI Navigator software to run the elevators, but we’re actually running them using the video content to get the complex moves,” says Davis. “We’ve streamed realtime video content that drives the moves of the elevators, and then we take the actual position from the elevators and output it to the servers to control the content. It’s crazy closed loop, where you start with content to drive the motion but use the motion to drive the content, so that as we move the elevator, we’re keeping the image in the right place.” Each lift array is about 1m-square and can travel up to 8’ high. Video runs on the top and three sides.
“Our process is prototype, prototype, prototype,” says Davis. “Take the lift array, for example. We made a lift, then did a second prototype right away. We showed Madonna, who was very concerned with a lift that was so stiff, as she wasn’t used to that stiffness. In the end, those elevators are incredibly precise and rigid in their up position, which is a challenge with the amount of weight they have. Third is final prototype, and by then, we have a real solution and understand the supply chain for the necessary components.”
Four hydraulic slack lines unfold out of the stage for various aerial moves. Tait had done some work with Madonna on slack lines for the Super Bowl Halftime Show, but Davis says there was a much bigger learning curve this time. “We’re really hitting a button and watching the stage turn into a slack line assembly, and you end up with lines with a tremendous amount of tension in them,” he says. “We have to be able to regulate that very accurately to get the artist the correct performance environment—getting that all to fit in, erect itself, and resolve those forces, which actually go through the lift array while it’s in compression, as the lines themselves are in tension. In the air, there is a bunch of hoists and winches tracking with it all.”
A high-speed 60'x43' white curtain that tracks at 12’ per second around a 120’ U-shaped track that envelopes the entire stage also requires custom automation. “It’s unique challenge in that it crosses the other tracks, so there’s two main automation track systems—one running upstage-downstage and two that make Js stage left-right and curve upstage,” says Davis. “The high-speed curtain track has to cross the main automation track.”
And Tait was doing all this while working on Opening Ceremony for the Olympics. “We are pushing the boundaries of technology,” says Davis. “We have 12 guys just writing our software for our graphics-generated automation system work. From foam carvers and scenic artists, to servo-motor electrical geniuses, I find it fun to put together this melting pot and see how it comes out at the end.”