I love designing for live music. I think it goes back to my start in this crazy business, running lighting in bars like Providence, RI's infamous Living Room. That same summer, I got my first taste of lighting by working as an electrician at Trinity Repertory. It all took root immediately.
It seems funny now, somehow. The club stuff I did I saw as something that was steady, with reliable cash. Belly up to a Leprecon LP1000 two-scene preset and run 24 PARs. That console had more pitchers of beer spilled on it than most fraternity rugs, but you could count on at least half of it to be running predictably. Theatre was what I did for love; music, for money. It's still that way upon reflection. But my love for designing live music has grown very large.
I quickly learned that designing live music for concerts was very visceral; it demanded a Zen-like flow. I loved it. There's no question in my mind that running shows live is very much related to jamming directly with the band — incredibly gratifying stuff.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I was very happy to get the call from LeAnn Rimes this summer with an invitation to design her new production. It was an addition to a summer workload that already included designing a very large new production for Nickelback. It meant that I would be living on buses for much of June and July, with back-to-back production processes. But I took it on with relish.
In this case, I was joining a formula that included Steve Fallon, who has been designing lighting for Rimes for some time. Decisions were quickly made with regard to the scenic construct. Risers would be faced with LEDs. We would also include three “deconstructed,” irregular panels of Barco MiTrix upstage.
The placement of the MiTrix offered itself immediately to scenic content. I wanted to give the production real form through some graphic structure. Some of it felt right as Las Vegas-style light wall elements. But it was a big priority for Rimes that the design reflect femininity and warmth, in addition to straight-out dazzle. I incorporated this in several ways. I referred to a garden motif in some of it, with content constructed of organic elements. I wanted a verdant backdrop but shaped and stylized — topiary by Gaia, if you will. I began with some vector graphics of vines and leaves that I cooked up in Adobe Illustrator. I brought these “hero” elements into After Effects, where I created a 3D composition. By converting these Illustrator graphics to layers defined as paths, I was able to use After Effects to trace their edges with light and animate their color values and scale values without losing any detail. By adding some other stock leaf elements and a final illuminated backdrop to receive the shadows of the garden layers, I created my paradise in a convincingly dimensional way.
The MiTrix was really bright and very coherent — actually, surprisingly coherent — and it moved really well. This was a must, logistically. We had to serve a very tight truck pack and also be able to play in a wide variety of venues. Showrooms, sheds, rodeos, theatres — there was a bit of everything on the schedule.
Rimes has intense focus in her work. The new album, Family, resulted from a process where she took a great deal of control over the producing aspects and the writing. The album enjoys a rich influence from Delta blues, with gumbo-soaked banjo riffs, and phenomenal slide steel guitar. The opening number, “Nothing Better to Do,” is about serving time for crimes of passion. The music video was really well done, set in prison, with a fantastic dance number and some very cool shadow play elements with searching beams of light. Rimes wanted an intro developed that would lead us into this scenario and crank up audience excitement. It was evident and natural that we begin with a prison siren's familiar cranking wail in the dark and then moving lights searching the audience. Add a stark vector graphic of a chain link fence and strobing beacon lights, and it provided a perfectly silhouetted environment for the band to enter. A huge downbeat and then — bam — sweep all to center, revealing our star, and cue the intro sequence for the music video.
I am not a fan of using music videos in concerts. A music video is a very different thing from the content created to impart atmosphere. Having huge replicas of themselves on screens behind them can devalue the veracity of the performers being right there, and it comes dangerously close to watching television for the audience. It needs to be approached with caution. I discussed this extensively with Rimes, and she agreed — pretty much. “But there were just these two numbers…”
In those cases, it worked beautifully, so you can take all that drivel for what it's worth. The bleached color correction gave the “Nothing Better to Do” footage a stark prison vibe, and the imagery had the perfect grit of a '50s or '60s Southern gothic. Plus, in my view, it gave the audience a nice, supersized dose of Rimes right away. It gave us permission to leave that for a while and go scenic with the content in the following numbers. We made a conscious decision to omit IMAG from the show. I approach IMAG with the same caution I do music videos. In big venues, I understand the logistical need, and I'm not unsympathetic to using the power of a great talent's face at supersize to punctuate the flow and drive audience energy. Having a live, cued, and operated camera rig was financially difficult. Using lipstick cams was a possibility that we explored pretty vigorously early on. But my thought was that the music was really so rich and textured that I wanted to put it in a beautiful scenic jewel box and reveal it without the overt slam of IMAG.
One of the things I do for most shows in the initial stages is to develop a color/atmosphere progression chart, which, in very simple blocks of color, reveal the palette that the show is developing. One of Rimes' other priorities (and a sensible one at that) was that all elements needed to develop in the show with an arc and rhythm. My little chart served me well in this respect. I could get a macro view of a show as it moved from big flash to subdued hues and then on into the heat. Thoroughly embedding the content and lighting together from moment one is obviously critical.
Fallon was no small part of this. The irascible Irishman was wielding a set of Vari-Lite VL2500 units that spaced around the perimeter of the backing MiTrix panels, in addition to a substantial front-of-house truss with Martin Professional MAC 700 units.
We worked on teching the show at Sound Check's ample Nashville rehearsal stages. We were able to hang the rig in its entirety and enjoy a week of climate-controlled comfort. The show's control elements had been decided upon prior to my arrival, so it was my first time using the Martin Maxedia Media Server and the Martin Maxxyz console.
Programmer Keith Hoagland made the transition a smooth process, though. I found the Maxedia to be immediately accessible. I was fairly disappointed in the convoluted way used to achieve dual outputs from one server. Basically, you had to give up the server's media interface to achieve a second output. It seems ridiculous at this stage where many consumer gaming machines can support up to four outputs, and where other servers, such as Hippotizer or Pandora's Box, handle this with ease. It was a substantial drag for me initially, but I resolved most of that difficulty by carefully mapping my footage so that I could reliably locate media events to specific parts of the stage in the content-creation phase. After this initial difficulty, the server proved very simple to program, and Hoagland knew the Maxxyz console very well, so consolidating lighting and media cues was a breeze. Hoagland is one of those programmers who really enables a designer to reach and achieve levels of subtlety and complexity. He's fast, accurate, and intuitive.
The result was a show that looked, felt, and sounded very tight. Rimes is really coming into her own; her vocal powers were undiminished. All we had to do was put that at center, decorate accordingly, and stay out of the way!
Bob Bonniol is a projection and multimedia designer, and a principal in MODE Studios. He and his wife, Colleen, are the creative consultants for the second annual Live Design Projection Master Classes held at LDI2007.