Video designer/director Richard Stembridge discusses video design for Arcade Fire's The Suburbs tour
Besides working directly with Arcade Fire on the design for The Suburbs tour, production designer/LD Susanne Sasic also collaborated with video director Richard Stembridge, who had previously worked with the band, so they could ensure the lighting and video work together in support of the production design and the band’s music. “Rich was solely responsible for content creation and camera placement,” says Sasic. “However, he and I had many conversations prior to the tour about how to approach it. We worked together to coordinate our respective looks for each song at rehearsals in Montreal and continue to develop them further as the tour is progressing.”
Stembridge’s video design consists of layers of custom content mixed with live cameras and a combination of front-of-house projection and LED video screen. “The texture of much of the projection content is painterly and gives the washed out, faded look the band was looking for,” notes Sasic. Stembridge chose the Pixled F-11 11mm LED video screen for the billboard, hanging as a single unit with the billboard surround slightly in front of it. Using XL touring frames, it all only weighs 700lbs and measures 20'x11'.
“I used the F-11 on a Deadmau5 tour and it is, by far, the best LED product I have ever worked with,” Stembridge says. “It’s very affordable for what it is. In terms of configuring it, it is very easy to deal with—very easy to cable it, and there is barely any control to it. Also, the F-11 is a high-quality screen with very high color depth, which means that it will work well at low levels like when I am going into songs or fading cameras. When I fade out of black, it’s a very smooth fade.”
Stembridge came up with a unique way of making the LED screen work with the band’s concept of faded imagery. “In keeping with the album, they wanted something that wasn’t crisp and digital-looking,” he says. “They wanted something that was softer, had kind of, not necessarily ‘old film feel,’ but certainly not a big, bright LED screen right in the middle of the stage. I covered the screen with 4mm-thick 4'x8' Polycarbonate sheets which then has Lee Filters L225 Neutral Density Frost, a medium frost and .6 neutral density built into it, attached to the front of the plastic panels. It sits on the front of the screen and makes the screen look really, really soft, so it doesn’t look like an LED screen. It is mounted about 4mm in front of the LED panels, which have a pixel pitch of 11mm. This distance in front of the screen is just enough for the pixels to actually bloom for a slightly softer image.”
Stembridge’s video design also includes front-projection onto the backdrop, printed with an image of a freeway overpass with streetlights and sky in the background. He has come up with a solution for projecting on the backdrop without hitting the band and all scenery between the FOH projectors and the drop. “At the load-in, I put the projectors up and take a photo from the projector lenses of the stage from front-of-house,” he says. “I take that photo and use [Adobe] Photoshop to create a mask that cuts around the billboard and stadium lights. It does a soft blend over the backline and where the band members are, so it’s not hitting them in the eyes too badly. That sits permanently on top of everything that I project. From the front, it appears that all of the projection on the backdrop is all rear-projection, because none of it hits anything onstage that’s in front of it. It can be very time-consuming, and it’s quite hard for festival situations trying to get it all aligned during the changeover, but when it works, it works incredibly well. There are several different masks that I use; one is the actual image of the overpass itself with the background completely cut out. That allows me to project the image on the backdrop but then have the sky moving and so on. I deal with really fine detail, so even the streetlights are cut around. When you see the sky moving behind it, it really appears to be behind it because the lights in the foreground stay perfect.”
Like Sasic, Stembridge operates all of the video live. “I am running this all off two Catalyst V4 systems, one controlling the LED screen, the other controlling projection,” he explains. “They are both the highest possible spec, with solid-state drives, and each has three Active Silicon LFG-4 cards. That gives me 12 composite camera inputs into each media server. I run it all with Hog PC running in Hog II mode with a couple of playback wings. I am running 60 layers of video across the two machines, and there are multiple layers of content playing back merged with video inputs at the same time. I honestly believe that it’s the only system that’s capable of doing what we’re doing seamlessly. The projection itself is all HD; it’s all 1,920x1,080. The end result that you see onstage looks quite simple, but the machines themselves are really working incredibly hard.”
Stembridge takes all the cameras right into the Catalyst media servers, which controls all of the routing and switching. “This tour, I have tried to get away as much as possible from static cameras,” he says. “I am now using a total of seven robotic cameras, which are the Sony BRC300s. I have my two video technicians operate those for me during the show, and I call the camera shots to them. I have gotten the static cameras down to six: two on each of the two drum kits, one on the lead mic stand, and one for the area with the organs and synthesizers.” All of the video gear for the tour is from XL Video.
Both Stembridge and Sasic went into the XL Video LED Lab in New York City to prepare for the tour. “When we first started talking, I sent Susanne over to the Lab to see the Pixled F-11 for herself,” says Stembridge. “It made our conversations much easier. At the time, I was on another tour, and we weren’t able to meet each other until the actual design process got started. This is the first time that I worked with Susanne, and it has been great. We both work on the same plane.”
Sasic and Stembridge will continue with the tour as Arcade Fire starts playing European and Canadian dates through December.
Michael S. Eddy owns Eddy Marketing & Consulting, which handles marketing, media relations, and events. He also freelances as a writer on design and technology, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has worked in the entertainment technology industry for over 25 years with ETC, Rosco, Barbizon, and Kliegl Bros., and as a lighting designer and technical editor.