For three days in early June, thousands of country music fans from around the globe flooded downtown Nashville, eager to see Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, and other superstars perform at the 2009 CMA Music Festival. Despite rainy weather, the festival broke all previous records for attendance, with around 50,000 people crowding into LP Field each day. It was one big party, and nobody was celebrating more than I, along with my colleagues at Mantra Design, our New York City design and visual effects boutique that created the content for the performance screens behind the artists. For us, it was a job well done.

Often I don’t think people, even those with design and similar backgrounds, realize the true value of performance screens. They seem to think they are a static part of the background—mere window dressing for the action occurring center stage. In truth, when done right, they push the performance to an entirely new level of energy and excitement for the audience. Putting them together requires a talented graphics team, good planning, and the occasional bout of spontaneous ingenuity.

Once we got word from the CMA Music Festival’s producers that we had the job for this year’s show, we began gathering a list of the artists participating and the tracks they were going to perform, in order to determine the treatment. The earlier we can do this, the better, because when creating content for performance screens, you’re looking to complement the track or tracks, along with the performer’s personal style. The goal is to make it look like part of the performance—it can’t seem disconnected in any way—and it also needs to mesh with the overall look of the event.

After reviewing the artists and tracks, we decided to do the screen animations and other elements primarily in Adobe After Effects, as it keeps our render times down and allows us to be flexible when needed. We did 3D components for two artists using Maya and Maxon Cinema 4D, and the rest were done in After Effects.

Once we determined the treatment and the design tools, we began drafting design boards for each artist, both as a deliverable for the client, as well as a means of helping us maintain a consistent overall look for the show. We like to board things out for most of our projects, even if it’s just showing two frames for each treatment. This is especially important if we want to undertake some more complex ideas or if there’s a concept we really want to push. This way, there won’t be any surprises for the client.

As each screen begins to take shape, we add it to the pixel map of the screens themselves that we drop into After Effects to create our canvas so we know exactly what space we have available to us. It’s an essential part of the entire process, because it gives us a big picture view of the screens and allows us to troubleshoot anything before the content goes live on the actual screens themselves.

For example, one of the screens we did for the CMA Music Festival was for Kid Rock’s performance, a major element of which was his name as a logo. Originally, we built a very chromed-out logo, but when we took a look at it in the pixel map, we realized it might end up looking broken up and illegible on screen. So we were able to rework it to make it much more seamless. We couldn’t have done it without the perspective we were able to get with the pixel map.

We started the actual animation process as soon as the client signed off on the draft boards. As we got into this phase of the project, things started to really pick up. We were creating screens for approximately 20 artists, so moving things along was sort of like a game of leapfrog: One person (freelance or staff worker) was creating work, while another was posting another piece of work to an FTP site for the client/artist review. At the same time, pieces of work posted earlier would come back with comments, and somebody would take care of revising those.

We did both looped and “built-out” content. The built-out content is a big undertaking and very time- and labor-intensive, so we very carefully make the decisions ahead of time as to which artist/song will have a fully built-out screen. Counting revisions and approvals, building out content for one song takes a week on average.

With the CMA Music Festival, we did build-outs for four artists, and the rest was looped. Build-outs are especially tricky when it comes to live performance, because if an artist changes his or her mind about a song’s performance, you have to be ready with replacement content. For example, if an artist decides to have a one-minute guitar breakdown in the middle of a song, you may not have accounted for that if you were going with the studio track. And you don’t want to run out of content before the song is over. For this reason, we always give clients built-out content with the parts broken out, along with looped content, as a back-up.

For this production, we had the good fortune to work with an amazing client and production team who were well-versed in performance screen content. Craig Robillard, the principal owner of Glow Design Group, creative producer of screen content Lee Lodge, and Mike Swinford, the lighting designer for the show, were prepared in case a performer switched tracks on site or decided to change the look. Whenever that happens, Robillard has imagery we can go to, so we can avoid a scramble to pull together a new look.

Going back to the overall process of the screen content, as we got toward the end of client approvals, we started doing color variations. This is where we give the clients each screen frame in separate colors, so that, once they get on site, they can build the screen content’s colors however they feel looks best with the venue’s lighting. They like having the flexibility of being able to swap out or mix and match colors, as opposed to just having a sequence we’ve strung together for them.

More often than not, we work hand-in-hand with the companies that handle the screen infrastructure for a given performance. For the CMA Festival, we did this with Glow Design, with whom we’ve collaborated many times in the past. As we began getting into the final rendering, we passed content to the Glow team, who were able to do test renders of how it would actually look once it was displayed on full-size screens at the show. It was a really critical step for us, because the last thing you want is to have it end up looking bad on the actual screen.

Robillard has an excellent eye for how the content will look on screen. He’ll tell us if something is going to end up looking mushy or blown out or if a color seems off. He’ll also be the first one to note that things look just right. Lodge, as well, is an amazing person to work with, reminding you, for example, that very few people look good against a giant green background or that a design with too much black will lose detail. It’s easy for us to get too enmeshed in the mindset of what needs to be done and miss the finishing details. Lodge helped us to keep seeing the forest through the trees.
At this point, we had really arrived at the end of the process, which is of course, the most charming time of the whole cycle. We sat back and looked at everything, made a few fine-tuning adjustments here and there, and then sent the final renders on to the client. It was a good feeling. On to the next project!

Anna Toonk is senior producer for Mantra Design, where she oversees the creation of high-end motion graphics packages. Coming from a fine arts background, she developed a passion for experimental design work when she handled her first performance screen project, the 2006 VH1 Video Music Awards.