We've all heard the tales of George Michael's antics over the past decade. Is he, or isn't he (fill in the blank: washed up, drug-addicted, drunk driving, etc.)? While some of those questions have been confirmed, when it comes to production value, this guy still has it. Washed up, he is most certainly not.

A testament to the fact that the artist is still going strong, Willie Williams, credited as video staging designer and director for the tour, was contacted a year ago by tour director Ken Watts to join the team for Michael's 25 Live Tour. “They were looking for an über-design-tzar to oversee the design of the whole show and wanted to know if I was willing to take it on,” says Williams. “I was very interested, but being in the same year as the current U2 tour, I didn't feel I had the energy to take on the entire design task. It's wonderful to be offered that level of overall control, but working in such close proximity with the performer eats your brain entirely, so I wasn't sure I could face directing two big technical shows in the same year.”

To meet Michael's team halfway, Williams took on the overall design concept and video content creation, and left lighting and set details to others. “I had my first meeting with George in March of 2006 after which I was given a thumbs up,” he says. “I felt he needed a show that would be visually sophisticated, glossy, and very stylish — quite grown up, I suppose. I was also sure that he needed something that seemed apparently effortless and not overly fussy, with video being the major feature.”

Video Immersion

Williams' first idea, which was enthusiastically supported by the artist, was to have the stage comprise one continuous roll of LED material consisting entirely of Barco MiStrips as a tall backdrop — complementing the tiered, “Jailhouse Rock”-inspired concept of the set — “curving to become the floor, reminiscent of a photographer's studio, then extending out into the audience before curving down to disappear into the barricade. Simply as a placeholder, I sketched a simple three-tier platform upstage of the screen to accommodate the large number of musicians, but in the event, this turned out to be pretty much the final design.”

Because Michael's music incorporates both slower ballads and dance music, one of the main design goals was to accommodate both styles and use what Williams describes as “bright high-gloss colors to accentuate the club-culture feel. Everything had to have shine, sparkle, a wet-look finish.” The LED screen adds to this effect and allows for variations in illustrating the artist's musical styles. “The wrap of the screen/stage meant I was able to create immersive environments that work particularly well for the ballads,” adds Williams. “Some are quite scenic, like ‘Praying for Time,’ where the floor of the stage becomes the ocean and the vertical section of the screen becomes a blood red sky with a giant fireball sun that sets over the duration of the song. We had fun with some ideas like having autumn leaves ‘fall' down the back screen, then ‘settle’ all over the floor before being blown away at the end of the song.”

Designing for the massive screen was both a blessing and a challenge, as the screen had to be a series of seamless curves that the performers could walk on, with large sections able to track left and right to create an upstage center door for Michael's entrance. But the advantages clearly outweigh any challenges. “We are able to use visual elements and devices, which, on a regular flat screen, would have not been terribly interesting,” says Williams. “Being able to slide images from vertical to horizontal and back opened up enormous potential for an entirely new approach. A good example is the film roll used in ‘Spinning the Wheel,’ which is made to look like a scrolling roll of film, each frame portraying a historical celebrity affair, mostly as stills, but occasionally of moving footage. In its essence, recreating a roll of film is potentially quite a clichéd idea, but to see the film frames appear from the barricade, make their way upstage under George's feet, and then climb the back wall turned it into something new entirely.”

Williams adds that one of the highest-impact numbers is “Outside,” for which the video flies through a 3D model of a cityscape, “using two view points to simultaneously look forward and downward.” Content is a mixture of pre-created material and interactive video elements that responded to the music, as well as elements triggered by Michael's onstage movement. A live camera setup is also present to incorporate I-Mag content.

Williams worked with Sam Pattinson, video producer, and video artists Luke Halls and Damian Hale, who he credits as his “regular video content team,” to create the visuals. “We work together in various combinations, sometimes expanding the team with additional editors and outside creatives, if required,” Williams says. To create a meaningful vision of the design during the planning stages for the artist to approve, Halls worked in Cinema 4D to build CAD models of the stage running the footage. Richard Cullen and Alex Rutterford joined the team to provide additional content.

Pattinson knew that an accurate and flexible pixel-mapping system would be required for the massive visual undertaking. He enlisted Quintin Willison of Digital Antics to design the video playback and control software, while Jason Bruges designed a custom system for the interactive video elements. “Video content for the main MiStrip screen is stored and run from three playback computers — live, hot backup, and cold backup,” says Pattinson. “All have identical media files on them. Each machine is a dual Xeon PC with 1GB of RAM, Windows XP Professional OS, and a pair of striped SATA drives to cater for the high bandwidth requirements of the lossless QuickTime animation codec compression.”

Responding to timecode from the sound department, the software developed by Digital Antics provides pixel mapping and layered compositing in real time for multiple sources, including QuickTime movie files from local hard disk, SDI video input and DVI graphics input, as well as command and control over several external devices, including a Barco Folsom DVI Matrix and a Doremi Labs V1 DDR. “The media servers are controlled using a custom UDP/IP network protocol developed by Digital Antics for the tour,” says Pattinson. “The 25 Live Video Control application — written in Visual Basic .NET — sends commands to the multiple 25 Live Video Player servers — written in C++ using Direct-Show and DirectX.”

A comprehensive show-editing environment includes extensive event and cue management, as well as facilities tailored to the needs of the environment, including song playlists. For the video operations team, a touchscreen interface was designed with information and controls clearly laid out for immediate access.

“From my point of view, the bespoke systems gave us the flexibility to build the show as Willie wanted it,” says Pattinson. “This, in turn, gave a good degree of creative freedom to the creative team as a whole. It gave the animators a broader canvas than they normally get. The amount of pre-production time given to us by Ken Watts was invaluable. It meant we were weeding out the weaker material before we got to rehearsals, which made a nice change.”

And the biggest challenge for Williams in this design scenario? “A new challenge came from the vast increase in our ability to create new video sequences quickly,” he says. “In the past, it would have been impossible to create entirely new sequences in a short space of time, let alone overnight, while rehearsing in an arena in Spain. However, my team now has essentially an online suite set up in the venue, plus we have an ongoing relationship in place with Getty Images so it becomes possible for George Michael to put a new song into the rehearsal run-through, then ask me if I can make a video piece of, say, New York in the 30s, a giant fish, or a moon landing, and as long as no one gets any sleep, we can have it in the show the following day. Much as it is a huge relief to see video becoming more spontaneous, it can become self-defeating, if ill-advised, last-minute decisions allow inferior visuals to be made. At this point, diplomacy becomes a crucial part of the process!”

Light It Up

Lighting design was taken on by Vince Foster and eventually supplemented by lighting director and co-designer Benoit Richard. Foster's original design includes a lighting effects package with a variety of Martin Professional MAC 2000 wash and profile units and Atomic strobes, Big Lites 4.5kW units, and James Thomas Engineering PixelLines run through High End Systems Catalyst V.4 Media Server with SAMSC Designs Ltd PixelMad software. Robert Juliat Ivanhoe and Strong Super Trouper followspots and Kinesys Variable Speed Hoists round out the lighting package, provided by Neg Earth in the UK.

At its inception, to light the jailhouse set, Foster's design called for more light coming through the gaps of the screen, but those gaps ended up quite a bit smaller when the screen was finished. “The idea was to light through the screen, but when the screen was manufactured, we couldn't do that,” says Foster. “Structurally, for them to be able to stand on it, the holes ended up too small to light through.” Michael himself wanted to eliminate much of the lighting and any trusses that obstructed the video screen in any way. This included Foster's concept of trusses covered with 450 Element Labs Versa Tubes, which never made it to final production.

“With the wonderful video centerpiece, it was obvious from the start that the video content would lead the way in the general look of the show,” adds Richard. “The custom video content dictates the color palette of some songs, while special interactive video content — responding to live audio tracks in the show — gives us a little more room to pick our own color palettes in other songs.”

And that was exactly Williams' thought at the start of the process. “Any video-heavy show needs periods of time when the video goes away,” adds Williams. “My hope for this show was that, at such times, lighting alone would be able to create a variety of moods of a very different nature to what video brings. This could equally well apply to big dance numbers as to quiet, intimate ballads.”

While video does take a rest from time to time during the show, considering the impact of the video screens, the lighting could not overwhelm the set. “For me, the toughest challenge is to make the stage look like one playing area as opposed to two separate lighting rigs with a giant video monolith in the center,” says Richard.

Richard runs the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 3 and calls spots during the shows. He also programmed the lighting and added a few new elements in the system once he joined the tour, including audience Mole Richardson Eight-Light units with Wybron Coloram II scrollers, additional moving lights for sidelighting, and I-Pix Satellite fixtures as a color wash LED source to fill the dark spaces on all three floors of the jailhouse set. A particular challenge was frontlighting the set on the first and second floors “because of the floor above creating unfriendly shadows.” To eliminate this undesirable effect, the lighting director says that birdie PAR16s and I-Pix Satellite fixtures did the job nicely.

Richard also took particular advantage of the PixelLines for certain looks, his chosen workhorse of the lighting rig. “I am able to pick out keyboard sounds or percussive instruments for many songs and let the PixelLines do the talking,” he says. “This adds a visual counterpoint to the rest of the system, which is more beat-driven. Also, when I added the audience Moles, I was finally able to light the crowd more, especially when George asks them to sing with him, which happens throughout the whole show.”

The networked control system includes a Wholehog 3 serving as the playback spare, which Richard runs as a client of the main console, so both are live at all times. “This helped speed things up tremendously during my programming phase once I joined the tour,” says Richard. Five Wholehog DP-2000 DMX processors sit backstage connected via Cat-6 snake lines from front of house on a D-Link managed switch system.

“The show moves at a very fast pace, even though there are many ballads in the song list,” Richard adds. “But since I added a lot of spot cues to my call and many more BPM chases — to keep “driving the beat,” as George would say — the main challenge is to be on top of everything for two hours while constantly looking to see where George is at all times. It is a really fun show to play every night, but there's no way I would let automation, such as timecode, take over for me.''

The initial European leg of the 25 Live Tour has already wrapped, but Williams continues to push the limits of design, acting as the frontrunner of finding ways to have technology follow his creative goals: “I always strive to spacialize the video experience, and this seemed like another step toward completely integrating the video and the staging.”

The tour heads to Australia in early 2007 and then to North America before returning to European stadiums later in the year.

George Michael 25 Live European Tour Equipment List

Video

2 Control Computer:

SuperMicro Rackmount with 3GHz P4 Processor and 512MB RAM

Dual Gigabit Network Interfaces (Media and Control)

Adrienne Timecode Input Card

Windows XP Professional OS (customized for show use) running bespoke 25 Live Controller (VB.Net)

3 Playback Computer:

SuperMicro Rackmount with Dual 3GHz Xeon Processor and 1GB RAM

Dual Gigabit Network Interfaces (Media and Control)

nVidia GeForce 7900 GT GPU

Blackmagic Decklink Pro SDI Input Card

Unigraf UFG-03 SD DVI Input Card

Windows XP Professional OS (customized for show use) running bespoke 25 Live Player (C++)

Netgear FSM726 Gigabit network switch separated into media and control VLANs

Controlled over a flat Ethernet topology

Barco/Folsom DVI Matrix

Doremi V1 SD DDR

JBS/MESA interactive/reactive PCs

Screens

2,940 Barco MiStrips (45mm spacing)

140 Barco Controllers

3 Barco D320 Digitizers with 1 DVI input each

2 Barco I12 Screen

2 Lighthouse R16 I-Mag Screen

36 Large Rigging Panels of 33 Barco MiStrips each

12 Small Rigging Panels of 16 Barco MiStrips

24 Curved Panels (upstage curve) of 21 Barco MiStrips each

30 Floor Panels of 24 MiStrips each

6 Floor Panels of 14 MiStrips each

12 Curved Panels (downstage) of 21 MiStrips each

Cameras, Playback, and Control

Grass Valley Kayak SD PPU with:

4 Sony D50 Cameras

2 J70 Lenses, Standard and Wide Angle

4ch Magic Dave Digital DVE Unit

8 Minicamera Monitoring System

7" TFT Monitors for Band and Backing Singers

2 Dual Channel Doremi SD Hard Drives for Playback

Computer Based Interactive Content Playback System, Outputting DVI via Geffen DVI Detectives and a Folsom 8-way DVI matrix

2 150m Occfibre 4 Channel DVI Fiber Cables with Logical Solutions Transmitters and Receivers

Lighting

72 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash

32 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Profile

32 Martin Professional Atomic Strobes with Atomic Color Changers

14 Big Lites 4.5kW

16 James Thomas Engineering PixelLines

14 I-Pix Satellite LED Fixtures

30 PAR16 Birdies

9 Mole Richardson Eight-Lights with Wybron Coloram II Scrollers

6 Robert Juliat Ivanhoe 2kW Followspot

2 Strong Entertainment Lighting Super Trouper 2.5kW Followspot

2 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 3 Console

1 High End Systems Catalyst V.4 Media Server with SAMSC Designs Ltd PixelMad Software

17 Kinesys Variable Speed Hoists

Trusses and standard rigging provided by Neg Earth

George Michael's 25 Live Tour

Design and Crew:

Video staging design/direction: Willie Williams

Video producer, content, interactive systems: Sam Pattinson (Onedotzero)

Original lighting and set design: Vince Foster

Lighting director and codesigner: Benoit Richard

Stage manager: Scott Chase

Show manager: James “Frommy” Kelly

Video content creative: Luke Halls, Damian Hale

Additional video content: Richard Cullen, Alex Rutterford

Video director: Andy Bramley

Video engineer/crew chief: Ed Jarman

Video-LED technicians: Jean-Pierre VanLoo, Koen Lavens, Martin McAuley

Video-camera operators: Rob Wick, Roger Nelson

FOH assistant (co-designer): Dennis Gardner

Lighting crew chief: John Shelley Smith

Lighting technician: Paul “PK” Kell

Moving light technician: Alan McGregor

Dimmer technician: Jim Mills

Motion control: Eugene Benavidez

Lighting technicians: Tim Dallas, Stephane Hazebrouck

Dimmers: Jim Mills

Metal work: Dan Wiseman

Head rigger: Mike Farese

Riggers: Danny Machado, Bill Macklin

Electrician: Jamie Cutler

Head Carpenter: Gregory Gish

Carpenters: Daniel Witmyer, Gino Cardelli, Albert Thorig

Vendors and Construction:

Video vendor: XL Video UK Ltd

Lighting vendor: Neg Earth, UK

Interactive video design: Jason Bruges, Zena Bruges, Jon Hodges, Anna Graves (Jason Bruges Studios)

Video Archive Consultant: Nick Bradbury “Freedom 90” animation: Matt Pyke (Universal Everything), Luke Halls

“Outside” animation: Alex Rutterford (concept: Willie Williams)

“Different Corner,” “Careless Whisper” animation: Richard Cullen

“Shoot the Dog” animation: 2DTV, Damian Hale

Additional video animation: Shiv Pandya

Video screen technical design: Frederick Opsomer, Marc Fichefet, Olivier Clybouw (Innovative Design)

Video interactive programming: Sebastian Oschatz, David Dessens (MESO)

Video graphics playback system: Quintin Willison, Craig Edwards (Digital Antics)

Video archive footage: Jonathon Ryan (Getty Images Ltd)

Video production support: Sebastian Davey Rigging: Gavin Weatherall, Andy Bailey (The Rigging Partnership)

Set construction: Chris Cronin, Merv Thomas (Total Solutions Group)

Soft goods: Colin Hannah (Acre Jean Ltd)

Stage engineering: Neil Darrocott, (XOLVE Ltd)