Production/lighting designer Marc Janowitz began discussing his design for My Morning Jacket’s Spontaneous Curation Tour stating, “Physics was the biggest challenge on this one,” a challenge created by his very own design, which has, as its central element, a festoon-style hanging system of moving lights dangled in midair.
“This tour for the band is a shift from promoting a particular album to really exploring their whole catalogue of music,” explains Janowitz. “It was a chance for me to create a design that could be a visual home to whatever they wanted to do for the night. I had a lot of different ideas, but then at New Orleans Jazz Fest, where there is no lighting, I was watching them perform a great cover rendition of ‘Carnival Time,’ and I just got this idea in my mind of a big old backyard party. So what can I do for a tour design that is going to make the show feel like that party every night?”
The answer to his question would be hanging festoons of light around and above the band, but Janowitz elevated the idea. His festoon lamps are 50 GLP X4 Impression automated RGBW LED fixtures. “Lighting people think in terms of lights mounted to a rigid structure, and you don’t immediately consider that, when a light weighs only16lbs, it means you can kind of dangle it anywhere,” notes Janowitz. “So that’s what I did—created a festoon of lights—but the actual fixtures are Impressions. You look up, and it looks like there’s nothing holding these lights in place; they’re just strung around like you strung around a bunch of light bulbs.”
Janowitz chose the units very purposefully for his gravity-defying design, noting that he likes the homogenized source, “so when you look at the face, whatever color you are mixing, you see; you don’t see the individual colored pixels,” he says. “Also, they’ve added a white cell so you can really get into the pastel range quite nicely. When you look at the front of the light, it has 19 small lenses, each one of which—through a macro channel—can be individually turned on or off. That allows me to just turn on the center pixel, so I have 50 of these X4 units overhead. I point them out at the audience, turn on just the center pixel, and it looks like light bulbs strung up there.” These complement the more traditional TMB Digital Festoon lights that hang around the band, on which every “bulb” is an RGB LED with its own DMX address.
During the show, the X4s create an effect Janowitz particularly likes. “It just looks like we have strung light bulbs up everywhere, but then the lights move,” he says. “They move down while turned on, and it just looks like it is raining light bulbs. I don’t hide the fact that they are moving lights; that is part of the dynamic of that design.” Janowitz found there really is a negligible amount of sway. “I barely notice it,” he says. “I can have them rocking out, and I will stop them on a dime. I get more sway from the wind when we play outdoor venues.”
VER, who provided the entire lighting and rigging package, fabricated the festoon ladders for Janowitz. “The entire festoon system is customized, from the clamps to the ladders to the cases,” says Janowitz. “In fact, we don’t actually take the lights off these ladders; it’s all pre-rigged. There are 10 soft ladders with five lights apiece on them. VER had crates specially made so the lights go in single file; the ladder stays attached. Also, the wire harness, customized by TMB, stays attached. It is kind of wild, because we get the grid flown, and within minutes, there are 50 more lights attached to it. It is really almost that easy.”
Of course, it wasn’t that easy to originally engineer, but research and testing resulted in finding the right solution. “When you first think about stringing 18' of soft ladder horizontally between two locations and putting a bunch of weight on it in various ways, it is hard to image what all the dynamics are going to be,” the designer says. “We did different setup experiments at VER’s Secaucus location. In order to create a lighting design that looks like it has no structure, you end up needing quite a lot of structure overhead. We hang a grid that is comprised of a downstage, a midstage, and an upstage truss, hung and articulated at different heights, and then we use CM Prostar ¼-ton motors for picking the festoons.”
The beauty of this design is that it never really hangs the same way twice. Plus, Janowitz has three different setups depending upon the size of the venue. “The lights go in the same locations, but what happens is that, if the festoon ladders are trimmed a foot differently, it not only changes the height, but it changes the shape,” he explains. “Because you’re tugging on a string from both ends basically, and everyone picks it up and tugs it slightly differently, every setup is just a little unique from the last one. I have an A, B, and C version. The A version is about 48'-wide with all 10 ladders; the B version comes down to 40'-wide and has six of the 8' ladders; and the C version is just six ladders without even hanging the grid; we just punt in the C version.” The band now has a design to use no matter the location.
Janowitz also has 18 Philips Vari-Lite VL3000s overhead, six on each truss, down, mid, and upstage. “Originally, those were all hung on T-bars, so I could get a light to a location that wasn’t shooting through a ladder to get to its target but also to add to the idea of light being suspended without structure,” comments Janowitz. “It turned out that it became the one time sucker of the day that wasn’t worth the look, so we ditched the T-bars and just put the VLs straight into the [Tyler Truss] HUD Truss, and it worked out just fine. They actually create some interesting structural shadows, and it really enhances the whole vibe, which I wouldn’t have found out if I hadn’t just tried it.”
On the floor, Janowitz made just as deliberate choices for both source types and purpose. “I really like the idea of just using PAR cans in the floor package,” he says. “I like that the one source of the show that is directed at the band is a nice warm organic tungsten vibe. I also thought I had enough color-changing with the rest of the rig, so even my floor [Martin Professional] Atomics, which I typically would put scrollers on, I leave white.”
He does have three pods on the floor, each an eight-foot HUD Truss that is flipped upside down so it is like a tray, with five Clay Paky Sharpys and six PAR cans. “These three pods do a half curve around the band from behind, giving me more of that chunky tungsten light to shoot through them,” the designer says. “And I have the Sharpys to shoot over and do nice aerials—the ‘poor-man’s lasers,’ as I call them. I hold off using them until toward the end of the show. Otherwise, they can become the toys you can’t put down.”
The set list proves to be another challenge for this tour, as it is constantly changing since the band creates a song list from fan requests via twitter. “They call this tour Spontaneous Curation, and it has lived up to its name,” says Janowitz, adding that the band plays some songs they may have only played once live in the last 14 years.
Janowitz, who operates his own shows, uses a High End Systems Wholehog 3 console to “spontaneously” create looks, running the entire show every night from what he calls “one punt page. I don’t have a single song preprogrammed,” he explains. “I have two full expansion wings with my Hog, so I have everything I could possible need at my fingertips. My philosophy is if I can’t fit it on the one page, then it is probably not a look I need. My crew would probably tell you that if I can’t fit all the looks in one page, then I’ll try to add more wings.”
Janowitz makes a point to acknowledge the team it took to realize the design. “I have been discussing how hard it was to defy gravity in the real world; actually making it work in the 3D Vectorworks world was a whole other challenge,” he says. His associate, Ben Price, did the 3D work, sketching, and drawings, and he helped engineer the system. The crew for this tour is led by crew chief Ray Wszolek and included tech Eamon Keane, stage manager Jimmy “The P” Purich, and production/tour manager Eric Mayers.
Janowitz admits he really relished the challenge of making his initial idea of a backyard strung with light bulbs become a reality. “How do you take something that, in your mind, seems really simple? I am just going to string up a bunch of lights and turn it into something that is actually safe, structurally sound, and able to tour. In the end, it really is elegant how it’s fabricated and deployed—an elegant solution that is kind of equal to the elegance of how it actually looks in the show. It evokes easy simplicity, 50 lights following curves and swoops, appearing to be floating in midair, just dangling from a wire.”