Foster The People (FTP) is riding high on the success of its debut 2011 release, Torches, and the hits keep coming more than a year later, so the tours keep growing. Lighting designer Zachary Matusow, who has been working with the band for the past year, says he comprised the entire visual creative team until the band’s success started warranting larger shows. This time, Trevor Stirlin Burk joined in as set/production designer.
“On this last run, we sought out to create a stage environment unlike anything people have seen before at a concert, and we set several design constraints from the outset,” says Matusow, noting that the five-member band supplements more traditional instruments with synthesizers, MIDI controllers, auxiliary percussion, and more. “We did not want our stage to appear as merely a live demonstration of technology, particularly with video elements.”
Possible designs ranged from an entirely interactive video environment, to massive automation elements, to doing a role reversal where the audience members, on camera, became the focus of the show. “We wanted to be sure to complement the band’s already stellar live performance visually but also address spatial concerns to allow them to interact freely. In a way, FTP performs instruments like a jam band, where moments of deep individual musicianship are interspersed with band members taking visual cues off one another.”
To address the spatial needs, Matusow incorporated spiral risers, from All Access Staging & Productions, increasing in height, but the design also had to take into account playing at venues ranging in size from 2,000 to 13,000. Some stages Matusow describes as “absolutely brutal, fighting for every bit of height out of the motors, or places where all dead hangs had to go back onto our three trucks,” he says. “We battled some brutal heat, and the tour hit a somber note when we were the first band to play at Downsview Park in Toronto following the stage collapse [on Radiohead]. It’s a very eerie feeling standing on grounds where just a couple days prior someone was killed doing the same job as you in that moment.”
The drawing that serves as the album artwork, designed by Japayork and reminiscent of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, was an early consideration for the design. “We wanted to create a world in which the characters could live,” says Matusow, who was also inspired by Mark Fisher’s studio, Stufish, noting the use of inflatables on tours for Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. “I daydreamed about one day turning our Torches characters into oversized inflatables.” Enlisting LA-based Frank the Plumber, Matusow fulfilled that dream, using Inflatable Design Group to build the inflatables, and with Frank et al also providing scenic, video, and content creation resources to the tour.
The icing on the design cake was Burk’s addition of a “sun,” originally planned as a truss-mounted spot chair, with an operator in costume as a Torches character, but eventually ending up as a 20'-diameter circular WinVision 18mm LED wall embedded within vacuum-formed scenic treatment manufactured by Global Entertainment Industries. This sits in front of a built-in door on a floating platform for the actor costumed with an enflamed matchstick head (lovingly dubbed “Matchstick Man”). “The actor can follow the action of the music, picking up intros, solos, sing-a-longs, etc., and also, at moments, interact with the band, torment them, tease them, perhaps even speak to them,” Matusow says. “To me, the actor is a vehicle for portraying these different human conditions. Like the masks of drama, our masked character, in tandem with video content, can express love, heartbreak, sadness, sinister, scary, comedy, tragedy, etc. I was ecstatic about this, because not only did I feel it could beautifully complement the emotional range of each song but also because, on a design level, it forced a wildly asymmetrical element into the design, which I’ve always wanted to do.”
Working closely with Burk, Japayork re-imagined elements of his original artwork to model the inflatables, as well as for the face of the sun LED wall. Additional WinVision 18mm LED panels, referred to in the design as the “balconies,” are flown to extend like rays from the sun’s face. Burk notes that the panels had to fulfill certain requirements. “Good off-angle viewing, the sun’s internal door had to be able to be fabricated to work with the panels, and it had to look good on both the convex and concave trusses,” the production designer says. SGPS ShowRig provides the trussing/rigging, including a custom mount and floating platform for the sun LED.
The video content itself is fed by a Green Hippo Hippotizer HD managed by a laptop running Zookeeper at FOH and controlled by a High End Systems Road Hog. “Content is all custom created to live in the world we created, inspired by the album artwork,” says Burk. “In addition to content playback, we use the server’s capture card to take in and switch four lipstick cameras that are then layered with color and content in a couple songs.” Ethan Shaftel edits the screen content, while Mat Stovall programmed the screens and lipstick cameras, and assisted in drafting and pre-viz rendering process. Steve Haskins is the tour video director.
Japayork also illustrated a line-art cityscape that was digitally printed on two sections of backdrop, created by Sew What?, and mounted onto curved truss. “It serves as the glue in the design, linking all of these disparate elements together as one cohesive stage picture,” says Matusow. The entire set was drafted in 3D in Vectorworks, with pre-visualization renderings created using ESP Vision. Many content mockups made use of Adobe Photoshop.
1 High End Systems Road Hog Full Boar Console
43 WinVision 18.75mm LED Panel
4 WinVision MCU Processor
1 Green Hippo Hippotizer Stage V3 w/Internal Dongle
1 Green Hippo Zookeeper
4 Sony XC-555 Lipstick Camera Kit