The rambling piano chords that begin “Speed of Sound” couldn't be anybody but Coldplay; they have the band's stylistic stamp. That's what the new song sounds like. But if you've managed to catch the video, then you've seen a very different stylistic approach for the band.
Directed by Mark Romanek, the video features the four band members performing in front of a curved ellipse wall that consists of 640 Element Labs' VersaTubes™ placed on 6” centers. Lighting designer Michael Keeling's aim was to give the band a raw, onstage look with an emphasis on silhouettes and key lighting. Aside from the massive wall of light, VersaTubes were used in groups of two, four, eight, and 16 for key light. The result presents the band in close-ups and long shots with the ever-present VersaTubes seemingly just within reach.
“Speed of Sound” is the first single off of Coldplay's new album, X&Y, which debuted at number one on June 14th. The song's video was originally conceived as a handful of vignettes, and lighting was going to be very minimal, according to Keeling, who previously teamed with Romanek on Lenny Kravitz's “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” video in 1993. “Ultimately, I wanted to do something in a sizable fashion that would not one-up the Lenny Kravitz video but would show people something very fresh with new technology and simplistic style,” Keeling explains. That's when Keeling sent Romanek a teaser about the VersaTube, “which captured my imagination when it allowed you to use a light source of this new technology and switch to using it in a video format.”
The video went from the original five-scene concept using only 40 fixtures, then to 300 fixtures, and then to 600 fixtures when Romanek informed Keeling that the band wanted the video to be a single set performance piece. That upped the lighting ante to over 700 fixtures: 640 VersaTubes on the wall and 100 more used for key light. “This was our chance to do something along the lines of the Lenny video, but in a new format with new technology that will let us push the envelope and create something delicate and enormous,” Keeling says. “We could bring something to the table that is graceful, beautiful, and really shows the art of light.”
Between the VersaTubes and PRG's Mbox™ media server, Keeling found the perfect combination of technology to achieve his creative goals for the video, especially considering his lack of interest in the same old, same old. “Moving lights have been around forever, it seems,” he laments, “and I have been really bored with lighting recently and wanted to do something that was totally different.” Romanek agreed and told Keeling that if they were going to do something different, it was going to be all or nothing. Therefore, every light source for “The Speed of Sound” was to be LED (one 20k source adds light for the massive stage).
Keeling had no problem with using all LEDs because he has been fairly jazzed by the new technology. “Between the [James Thomas Engineering] Pixel Line, the [Color Kinetics] Color Blaze®, and the Element Labs product line, the technology really blows me away because you don't have dimmer processor delays or three different key strokes you have to go to; everything is right there, and it reacts so quickly,” he says. “The colors are so vibrant and so dimensional, and they say you can get a million colors, but I only need 15 or 20; if I get red-green-blue, and hue changes from them, then I'm solid.”
As for key lights, VersaTubes were set up on C-stands and rolling crank-up stands like Kino Flo's Image80 system, according to Keeling. “On wide shots, we'd pull from a close-up to max wide shots, and then two sets of electricians on either side of the band would pull [the key lights] that were doing the soft lighting out of frame as fast as they could,” he says. “It was just beautiful.”
Being completely LED-illuminated was not the only requirement the director had for the designer. Romanek wanted the band's stem tracks split out and to have the drums, bass, guitar, and vocals on separate tracks, which were then animated, and the lights were synthesized to each of the tracks, much like the level indicator on a stereo's equalizer. In the end, Romanek and Keeling opted to use Coldplay frontman Chris Martin's vocal track to animate “because it had such dynamics,” he says. “Roughly 75% of the video is driven by voice-activated animation.” The animation was created by Vello Virkhaus and sent through the Mbox and controlled via a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2 console. Martin Phillips served as the lighting programmer and created some of the content. PRG's Andre Lear served as Mbox technician, and Jeremy Hochman of Element Labs provided onsite VersaTube technical support. Harris Savides served as the DP, and the producer was Arris McGarry.
The ellipse wall of VersaTubes really comes into play after the first verse, which reveals the band in silhouette, and the viewer is still “in the dark” about what to expect regarding the upcoming lighting effects. “We start the lighting look with just a sparse hint of twinkling light,” Keeling explains. “Then my favorite cue is the first big light cue and wide shot with the lyrics ‘I look up at night,’ defining the massive space that Mark wanted. Chris then comes off the keyboard, and it's just teardrops falling off the wall like a dripping candle. I think that look is my favorite look I've ever had the chance to direct in my life. It's just so sentimental when you listen to the lyrics.”
The whole beginning of the song featuring the silhouette lighting was Romanek's idea, but Keeling loved it. “You don't see anything other than the massive space and delicate frame,” he says. “Mark has a great intuition for what he wants captured on film. He allows me a freedom of creativity but still has a lot of input. He is a director of great detail. I was flattered to work with this production team. For those creative geniuses out there, please don't stop creating new technology for our industry.”