Radio City: Andi Watson's Layered Look For Radiohead


When a stage collapse in Toronto that killed drum tech Scott Johnson cast a pall early in the latest Radiohead outing, announcements that the Canadian Ministry of Labour would be investigating several parties (including Radiohead’s own touring company, Live Nation, and others) led to seven canceled shows. That investigation is still pending, but the band resumed its ongoing 2012 performance schedule.

Check out some footage from early in the tour:

Andi Watson has once again taken on the overall visual design duties. A longtime collaborator with Radiohead, Watson admits, "I think I am continually developing ideas in my head for possible Radiohead tours." His groundbreaking design for In Rainbows from 2008 used a 100% LED lighting and video system. This time had to be just as environmentally friendly. "Having started on that journey, I wanted to keep that ideology alive so looked at ways we could improve upon last time," he says. "I reached the conclusion that we couldn’t gain much by getting in fixtures that were only slightly more efficient as their environmental cost in terms of fabrication outweighing the marginal gains."

Working closely with production manager Richard Young, who the designer credits with "his enthusiasm for some of my more random ideas and his support in making things happen," Watson says there are always huge learning curves with each Radiohead design. His own consciousness of his design’s environmental impact resulted in recycling much of the existing stock of fixtures, metalwork, trussing, etc., as the band had purchased many elements of the last design, since much of it was custom, including truss sections that were in the band’s storage facility.

That said, Watson notes that the design had to be unique and not just rehashed. "Of course there are major parts of this tour that are entirely new and custom, but it was inevitable that there would be," he says. "We had moving video elements manufactured, for example, which we have never had before, but in order to make as much of the live video of the band fit the performance area, that was something that I needed to bring in."

Watson, who initially wanted to use no lights at all and work solely with video sources, says his design goal was "to create a unique, beautiful environment for the band to perform within that synaesthetically represents the music as much as is possible." Eliminating all the lighting sources didn’t work out in the end, especially due to the variety of venues and the inclusion of several festivals in the lineup. "It was necessary to make some elements modular, and we spent a lot of time looking at the design in terms of its reaction to wind, which was a big worry for Coachella in particular," the designer adds. "I have managed to reduce the number of lights to an almost minimum, but it is something I would still like to do. Maybe next tour!"

And the video is certainly prominent, coming in levels and layers. Four SAMSC Design Catalyst media servers drive the content to four stage elements: A custom LED "bottle wall" built by James Thomas Engineering is topped by 880 1m Barco VersaTube HDs, and both are further crowned by a 28'x3' Creative Technology CT Touring Flyer 12 LED screen as the header. These three sections set the stage for 12 additional 3'x3' CT Flyer 12 LED screens (aka "puppet screens") that perform complex moves via custom hardware from Kinesys and using Kinesys K2 software, recently updated to integrate with a Stage Technologies 60-axis “pod” system. The pods contain four-point hoist winches, each lifting a corner of the screen and able to rotate to create multi-dimensional movement within the screens.

The Catalyst media servers run custom software. "In particular, we have complex multi-channel audio for sound analysis, and also we are driving the bottle wall from one of the media servers, which requires some magic," says Watson. "The content is in the form of pre-rendered video texture combined with the treated, live camera feeds." Watson teamed up with longtime collaborator Pip Rhodes, working in Adobe After Effects, on the pre-rendered content used as base textures on the screens. Cameras include Sony H700 RPTZ units with RM BR300 based control stations, as well as additional fixed cameras.

More than 100 songs are programmed into the MA Lighting grandMA 2 console, with the networked system also including 20 universes of MA-Net and 13 universes of Art-Net. In addition, the dedicated bottle wall Catalyst server outputs more than 120 universes of Art-Net to a combo Blackmagic Design/AJA Video Systems processing/distribution server.

"I think the biggest challenge is the number of songs and their seeming random appearance in the set," says Watson. "With 100 unique songs, there are 100 unique visual responses. That is a truly staggering amount of programming, and there is never enough time to do that in rehearsals, so sometimes it feels like a continuous game of catch up. Having said that, I feel happy that we have achieved what we have."

The lighting, although minimal compared to the video, isn’t to be dismissed. Most fixtures in Watson’s rig perform double duties. "Nearly all of the lighting is used both as structural elements and also as keylighting," he says. "For example, we have [PixelRange] PixelSmarts at the side of the stage and on the floor keylighting the band, but we also use the 12 puppet screens as band lighting, audience lighting, and effects lighting as well as for showing band images. There are songs where it is all about the puppet screens and songs where they are very secondary, and the bottle wall or VersaTube wall are the key elements. I tried as much as practically possible to shift emphasis to create environments that were unique within the limitations of the system."

Watson’s rig also includes iPix BB4s and BB7s, PixelRange Custom Skyline Follow Beams, Martin Professional MAC 101 RGB LEDs and MAC 101 CT LEDs, and Pulsar ChromaFloods. Le Maitre Stadium Hazers, Hazebase Base Hazers, and London Fans provide additional effects.

"It isn’t really very easy to generalize on the look of the design, but hopefully it has continuity to the feel of it," says Watson. "Any of the songs can appear in the set at any point. As a result, it is difficult to achieve a programmed visual flow, and each song has to exist and work in isolation as well as in sympathy with the others. I have felt for a while now that my design path is leading me to create what are effectively installation pieces as opposed to simply touring lighting designs, and I am happy that this design continues that."

64 iPix BB4
6 PixelRange Custom Skyline Follow Beam
32 PixelRange PixelSmart LED Fixture
30 iPix BB7 LED Fixture
1 Kabuki System
1 Custom LED Bottle Wall
880 Barco VersaTube HD 1m LED Fixture
24 Martin Professional MAC 101 RGB LED
8 Martin Professional MAC 101 CT LED
15 Pulsar ChromaFlood LED Fixtures
4 Le Maitre Stadium Hazer
4 Hazebase Base Hazer
8 London Fans
12 Puppet Master Winch Assembly
Custom Truss, Metalwork, Substrate, Rigging by James Thomas Engineering UK

1 CT Touring Flyer 12 LED Screen (Front Header Screen) 28 wide x 3 high
12 CT Flyer 12 LED Screen (Puppet Video Screen) 3 wide x 3 high
9 Sony H700 RPTZ Camera
5 Sony RMBR 300 Based Control Station
15 Fixed Camera
4 SAMSC Design Catalyst Media Server
1 Blackmagic Design/AJA Video Systems Processing/Distribution Server
1 Custom Autodesk Video Engine

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