For the last few years, production and lighting designer Susanne Sasic seems to have been the reigning monarch of the art rock scene, designing tours for Sonic Youth, Beck, The White Stripes, and David Byrne. This summer, she is back on the road with R.E.M. in support of the band's latest release, Accelerate, after desinging for tours in 2001 and 2004.
For this tour, singer Michael Stipe had a particular aesthetic in mind. He referenced the black and white urban landscape of Accelerate's cover art, as well as Op Art artists like Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. “He is very articulate and sophisticated, and ideal to work with because he gives you a framework, but lets you design,” says Sasic. The designer took these reference points and created a bold design of stark duotones to complement black and white video and geometric patterns, contrasted with luscious pinks and greens. Sasic also chose to frame the stage with light, rather than video screens, using a semicircle of Martin Professional Atomic Color Strobes around the stage and on the vertical truss stage right, keeping the video in the middle of the action.
Giving over the middle of the stage to five Barco MiTrix panels was a leap of faith, Sasic says. “Usually, I start my designs with a backdrop or a set piece, so it was interesting to start with a blank canvas, making a lighting design that leaves a big black hole and hoping video fills it up.” The skyline of five rectangular, 5'-wide panels of varying heights evokes the 21st-century urban cityscape requested by Stipe but also serve as film strips with shocking pink borders or single cells of a graphic novel, depending on the image. They are flexible enough to support wherever Sasic's design takes us, from a high school auditorium at the very beginning of the show when the dark is broken by the crackly black and white of 8mm film, to a gallery space of Op Art-inspired spiraling swirls.
Sasic first used MiTrix panels as lighting director on the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus Best of Both Worlds Tour. “I liked that they were transparent, and you could see other video and light through them and the layers of video as you moved around the room,” she says. “I would have layers and layers if I could.” The MiTrix are center stage behind the band, and for this tour, Sasic added two low res Main Light Industries Soft-LED curtains behind them, chosen because they add another layer of light and effects but would be easy to set up every day and not take up too much truck space. For the European festival circuit, the two separate Soft-LED screens become a solid 48'×33' wall.
As well as showing video, the LED panels act as backlighting, at times creating glowing silhouettes of the band, almost like Keith Haring's figures in motion. Sasic uses them as a light source in conjunction with Lycian M2 followspots on the left side truss to sidelight the band so that the shadows give strong facial contrast. “I liked the look of it, but also Michael Stipe gets distracted by front-of-house followspots if they are used too much,” says the designer.
Video images were supplied by Sasic and Accelerate cover artist Chris Billheimer, as well as the tour's video director, Blue Leach. “Michael Stipe wanted to see lots of black and white and a cityscape look that was unrefined or over-Xeroxed,” Sasic says. She jokes that “unrefined” worked out well because her Adobe After Effects skills were a little rusty.
Video director Blue Leach is comfortable interpreting R.E.M.'s visual vocabulary, having first worked with the band in Portugal in 2005. “Michael is a very clear and visually literate artist,” he says. “He wanted the feeling to be vaguely technical and old fashioned, and that is what blows my hair back, too.”
Leach uses the layers of high and low res screens to create a moiré interference pattern among them. He can also run separate feeds to each of the MiTrix panels. “Together, they can create interesting dimensional effects or run together in video harmony,” he says. Video equipment came from XL Video in LA and includes a Ross switcher programmed to feed the seven screens independently and a High End Systems Catalyst media server. “I storyboard all the effects, and my programmer programs them, and I fine tune them,” Leach adds. Hugh Davies-Webb programmed the video for the US leg, while Clark Anderson will program video for the European shows. Rob Wick and Danny Sheldon join the video crew in Europe. “It is a constantly evolving show, and the Catalyst can be reprogrammed on the fly because ideas make ideas when I see them on screen. It is really a tailoring device to stay loyal to the music,” says Leach.
The designers chose to use very little straight I-Mag during the show. Band close-ups appear in real flesh tones on only a couple of songs. Otherwise, their images are filtered by Leach to interpret the music and state of the crowd. “I'm plugging into the poetry of each song, and some are unequivocally hard, black and white songs like ‘Bad Day’ or ‘Horse to Water,’” he says.
Half of the songs on Accelerate are just under three minutes long, making the pace frantic at times. Leach varies the mood between swiftly intercut images of song lyrics, performers, and landscapes, which add to the energy, while the lush-colored, Op Art-inspired swirling spirals — during the song “Ignoreland,” for example — create a visual palette cleanser after the starker images and make a hypnotic contrast to the angry lyrics. The images update the song visually in a way that a literal interpretation of the Iran-Contra scandal, the song's inspiration, could not — a mesmerizing, colorful cover-up for dark deception and lies.
Stipe likes a lot of audience lighting and interaction and will sometimes ask Sasic for additional house lighting, and Leach is happy to give the audience its moment on the big screen. “If there is a group of people going bananas, you have to show them,” Leach says. To keep the images interesting, he uses a few low-tech tricks. “I bought a convex mirror at a truck stop once, and it is a great shape to see someone's face in,” he says. “It has a confluence with the song ‘Bad Day,’ with people pointing cameras in your face.” A handheld camera operator captures the Vermeer-distorted singer's face in it and sometimes uses it to film himself and the camera.
Although the video screens are integral to the design, they don't overwhelm the stage. Sasic chose the Zap Technology 4.5kW Xenon BigLite to stand up to the brightness of the video. “I had used a smaller version on Hannah Montana, and I really liked the square shape of the beam,” she says. “I love a big, wide block of light, and they don't get drowned out by the screens.” She is also very happy with the Coemar Infinity Wash XL fixture and its color system, using several on the stage and on side trusses for bold strokes of color. “They have really great color,” she says. “My favorite color is green, and you can get five really true greens out of them.” The designer also chose Mole Richardson Lite Mole DWE fixtures to put some incandescent light into the mix and for warmer audience lighting.
Sasic, who also served as programmer on this tour, is using an MA Lighting grandMA console, which she calls “the obvious choice” after using it previously on European shows, for the White Stripes, and on the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus tour. “We had a really great programmer on that tour, Laura Frank, and I learned a lot from her,” she says. “The grandMA feels very like the old Icon console to me. The file management seems solid and worry-free.” She adds that it is also a good environment for potentially testing moments on the road. “R.E.M. is pretty good at sticking to the set list, but they give us a multiple choice for the encore.”