Elton John only holds the second-place record, behind Elvis, for most top 40 hits in history, but then again, Sir Elton still has quite a few tricks up his ruffled sleeves.
Take, for instance, his return to The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for various dates over a three-year run in his latest show The Million Dollar Piano, sporting exactly what the production’s name implies: a custom-built million-dollar Yamaha piano named Blossom, complete with its own LSI/Saco 3mm high-resolution LED screens to integrate with the production design.
The production, under the creative direction of Tony King, was jointly conceived and directed by Mark Fisher of Stufish and Patrick Woodroffe, with Fisher also taking on production design duties and Woodroffe additionally billed as lighting designer. Sam Pattinson of The Third Company took on the considerable task of overseeing content creation as screens content producer.
The creative team started discussions in April, not exactly an abundance of time to come up with a show for a superstar in a few months. "Keith Bradley, an old friend and Elton’s longtime tour director, called Mark and me, and asked if we could put together a show for Elton in five months," says Woodroffe. "Elton gave us no brief at all, instead allowing us completely free rein to come up with whatever we thought was appropriate for his show. It was an extraordinary example of trust and, of course, allowed us to fly."
"Elton said that he did not want to see any illustrations of what we were going to do," adds Fisher. "He just wanted to be nicely surprised when he walked into the theatre on the 25th of September, 20 weeks later." Fisher, of course, had a concept: "to present Elton as the King of Las Vegas and to take my reference for the divine power of kings from the height of the European Baroque. Think Versailles or the great churches of Rome, viewed through a haze of hallucinogenic drugs," he says.
The venue itself, also the home of John’s last show, The Red Piano, already features a proscenium-dominating 120'-wide, 40'-tall Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Vision 8mm LED screen, originally installed for Celine Dion’s A New Day in 2003. "In the original installation for Celine, the screen sat at the back of a stage floor that raked upwards 5'," says Fisher. "The rake has been removed, and the stage floor is now flat, so I added a 5' extension to the underside of the screen, bringing the overall height to 40'. The screen forms the backdrop to my stage design."
Downstage of the screen, and as wide, is a large sculpted bas-relief scenic piece that creates a frame for the stage that Fisher calls "a highly distorted Baroque portal with a broken arch in the center that leaves room for [percussionist] Ray Cooper’s riser." The portal, rigged from the theatre’s existing fly-bars, flies in and out during the show. Downstage of the portal are band risers that track on and off stage, and still downstage further is the piano itself.
Two massive scenic scrolls, each 36' long and 24' tall and lined with custom LED rope light, can pivot through 90°. "The scrolls are distorted versions of the typical brackets used in Baroque architecture and also used on the carved heads of violins, cellos, etc.," says Fisher. "Piano keys form the dentil molding on the cornice of the portal and the ribbon edges of the scrolls. The edges of the ribbons also include RGB LED rope light circuited in sections approximately 4' long and RGB cove lighting to highlight the detail of the scroll moldings and the plinth."
Standing guard over Fisher’s design are two 30'-tall gold Saluki dogs that sit just off-stage of the scrolls on top of the sub-bass cabinets. "The dogs are backed by burgundy and walnut velour drapes swagged over pipes," adds Fisher. "The pipes are terminated with cartoon rocket finials in red and gold." Sculptures for the backdrop, portal, and dogs were created from Fisher’s sketches by Jacqui Pyle. Her originals were then scanned and built to scale by The Scenic Route. The scrolls and plinths were built by Scenic Route directly from Fisher’s Rhino model.
Fisher describes the overall progression of the show: "When the audience members walk in, the scrolls are turned cross-stage, and the band risers are off stage," he says. "The Saluki dogs, the scrolls, and the Baroque portal are lit in gold. A static video image of a bas-relief sculpture of curtains and sun-rays is projected onto the LED screen. The effect is such that the LED screen looks like another piece of carved scenery. During the introduction to Act 1, the band risers roll onstage between Ray’s riser and the piano, and the scrolls turn upstage to close the gaps into the wings. After a few songs, the scrolls swing downstage, and the band risers roll offstage for Act 2, in which Ray and Elton take some songs as a duet. Then the band returns for Act 3. For Act 4, the Baroque portal flies out, and the scrolls turn fully upstage to reveal the entire width of the LED screen.
Tait Towers provided the stage floor, detailed CAD design, and additional automation to supplement the existing Niscon system. To accommodate the moving set pieces and tracking elements in the production, Tait Towers project manager Brian Levine says his team came in with Celine Dion in February when she also returned to The Colosseum for a new residency. "We installed an FTSI Navigator Automation System to program cues to run all of the Tait show elements," says Levine, adding that they worked with Niscon to write an interface through which the house automation operator can execute cues from the Niscon system that are stored in Navigator. The interface also includes a feedback loop, so both systems can monitor positions and share information. "This allows the automated production elements to have all of the benefits of the Navigator System while triggering from a front-end system that they are familiar with," adds Levine.
As The Colosseum schedule varies, and shows load in and out frequently, Levine says, "All of the set elements have to be fabricated in such a way that they can load in and out in the same timeframe that arena touring shows do. There are, however, a few scenic elements that we are able to store in the theatre for Elton."
The Big Picture
Content for the Mitsubishi screen is crucial, and The Million Dollar Piano includes scenes from John’s professional and personal history, as well as footage of space, scenes from New York commemorating 9/11, and more. Fisher, Woodroffe, and Pattinson all had some input into the content. Pattinson, who has worked with Woodroffe on several other projects including tours for The Rolling Stones, Genesis, and Take That, to name a few, took the lead as screens content producer, bringing on Luke Halls as creative director for the content.
"Luke focused on the structural content inspired by Mark’s stage design, which provided the structure for the show’s video content," says Pattinson. "He also advised on the out-of-house commissions in context of how they would work in the show. This meant that we had a conceptual thread throughout the show."
The content is copious and extends across the main Mitsubishi screen as well as among the various V-9 LED video surfaces from PRG Nocturne on the band risers and the 3mm custom LSI/Saco screens on the piano itself. With Fisher’s Baroque set inspiring the main theme of the video content, the footage is also deliberately more personal than John’s last run in this venue. "We wanted to bring the show back to Elton and make it more intimate, so we followed the style and lines of the set, gradually revealing more screen as the show progresses," says Pattinson. "We also tried to offer as much variety as possible, which entailed using a lot of different methods—studio and location live action shoots, animation, Adobe After Effects, Autodesk Maya, [NewTek] LightWave, [Maxon] Cinema 4D, and hand-drawn animation."
Stefaan "Smasher" Desmedt, who has worked with Pattinson on several tours, programmed the video, which is triggered from the lighting department’s MA Lighting grandMA via a UVA d3 media server setup on Dell PCs that feeds the main screen, LED panels on the risers, and the piano’s LED panels.
The content project team was also massive. Damian Hale, for example, directed the animation for "Philadelphia Freedom," advised by Tait Towers’ own James "Winky" Fairorth, a Philly native and whom Pattinson calls "a great addition to the video team." Pattinson’s core team for the pre-production and onsite at rehearsals also included Mark Hough, Terry Scruby, Dave Shepherd, Shiv Pandya, Gareth Blayney, Jon Botros, Chris Cousins, and Jevgeni Repponen.
Pattinson also outsourced some content. "I asked Jennie Livingston to direct the piece for ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,’" he says. "She directed one of my favorite documentaries, Paris Is Burning, and this was the perfect opportunity to work with her. The brief was to represent New York City through portraiture of its citizens. I also asked Shona Heath, choreographer Wayne McGregor, Blue Zoo Animation, Trunk Animation, and Richard Cullen to create material."
Shine A Light
Woodroffe’s lighting design began with consideration of that great big screen. "The screen is impressive, but it was also one of our biggest challenges," he says. "The last thing we wanted was Elton’s performance to be dwarfed by a giant cinema screen, so we deliberately looked for ways to take focus away from it. The two huge scroll pieces that curve up and over the central performance area force the audience’s attention to Elton, who sits below, but they also mask a large section of the screen behind, stopping it from becoming a cinema screen and a distraction. The composition of the scenery leaves a wide space at the center of the screen, so we can pull focus there if we need to show a specific piece of film.
Woodroffe’s lighting design comprises a combination of in-house units and additional fixtures supplied by PRG to supplement the house rig. The lighting includes 36 Philips Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash units, 19 VL3500 Spots, 32 VL3000 Spots, 24 VL2202 Spots, 18 VL2416 Wash units, 64 Coemar Infinity Wash XL units, 34 Clay Paky Stage Profile SVs, 14 Sharpy units, and four PRG Bad Boy fixtures. Four Robert Juliat Aramis followspots round out the lighting system, which is controlled via the MA Lighting grandMA console that also triggers video.
For specific set pieces, 32 PixelRange PixelPar units highlight soft goods and the band risers, while 16 Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12s and 22 ColorBlast 6s are inset into the piano riser, the dogs, and the scroll risers. Demfis Fyssicopulos programmed the lighting, Kevin "Stick" Bye is the lighting director, and Braden Stroup is the lighting project manager/production electrician.
Preprogramming was essential, given the schedule. "Demfis, Stick, Braden, and I spent a week at ESP Studios in Las Vegas, where we were able to lay out the basis of the show matched to rough images from Sam Pattinson," says Woodroffe. "This gave us a fighting chance when we got into Caesars of being able to put the whole show together in less than five days!"
Even given the time crunch and the scale of the production, Woodroffe says the experience was surprisingly easy. "Tait delivered the set on time, Demfis worked fast and efficiently to translate the work from the pre-viz studio into something that worked in real life, and Elton’s key team of technicians and management couldn’t have been more accommodating," he says.
The Piano, Man O’ Man
The piano itself is no small technical feat. Covering the outer layer of the instrument is a smoked, transparent acrylic skin under which the 3mm, high-resolution LED video canvas was customized for this project by LSI/Saco. The screen was specifically designed so that, when off or displaying black content, the surface appears to be the deep wood finish of the actual piano.
"This project has been over four years in the making and a great collaboration between the Yamaha team and the LSI/Saco team to truly create the first-ever audio-visual interactive musical instrument," says Jonathan Labbee, vice president of business development for LSI/Saco Technologies, Inc. "Normally there is a clear separation between touring- and art-based projects. However in this case, I truly believe that we were given the opportunity by Elton’s production to create a signature art instrument that truly is a masterpiece, and who better to do it than Sir Elton John?"
The Million Dollar Piano wrapped its first series of dates in October, with additional shows on the schedule for February, and more to be added for its full run.