AN ESTIMATED 86 MILLION TV viewers watched Paul McCartney slam through the standards “Drive My Car,” “Get Back,” “Live and Let Die,” and “Hey Jude” at Super Bowl XXXIX, held February 6 at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, FL. McCartney wrapped up his performance, an antidote to the “wardrobe malfunction” antics of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake last year, in about 20 minutes. What viewers did not see was a spectacle all its own, almost entirely obscured by commercials: The setup, and removal, of McCartney's video-driven set, which was twice as big as any previous Super Bowl stage, in 12 minutes.
Make that nine minutes and 12 seconds: Four minutes and 32 seconds on, and four minutes and 40 seconds off. Exactly. Cap Spence, who runs Winter Park, FL-based Nightwatch Management, was keeping score, supervising the 600 volunteers, 31 stagehands, and 10 Nightwatch staffers who erected and dismantled the 56-piece production put together by designer LeRoy Bennett, who was making his Super Bowl debut. This was Spence's fifth consecutive Super Bowl. “I began the first time the Super Bowl raised the bar for the Halftime Show, with Aerosmith and Britney Spears in Tampa, in 2001. Super Bowl XXXV was the game where vertical structures and a crowd on the field were introduced. And that's the way it had been till this year.”
With the blessing of the National Football League, which for the first time was producing the Halftime Show on its own after the Federal Communications Commission fiasco brought on by MTV's 2004 eyebrow-raiser, Bennett brought the program (sponsored by the Ameriquest Mortgage Company) back to basics. “Paul rocks,” says Bennett, who has designed McCartney's tours for the last three years. “He's never had any extra stuff around him.” What Bennett called “the razzmatazz” of marching bands and multiple acts was out.
It was an in-the-round show, a first for McCartney, defined by powerful Barco LED video floor units. These were supplied by San Francisco-based Nocturne Productions, which took Upstaging five trucks to ship to Florida. McCartney, who for the first time actually stood atop the 14' square center unit and also played piano there, was surrounded by some 2,500 cheering fans, wrangled too by Spence. In-field lighting towers, and areas in the stadium that could support them, were fitted with some 600 fixtures, from companies including Martin Professional, Vari-Lite, Syncrolite, and Strong, that were supplied by PRG. Four miles of cabling held the illumination package together. Pyrotek pyrotechnics exploded into action when McCartney tore into “Live and Let Die.”
Bennett's team had plenty of Super Bowl experience. Lititz, PA-based Tait Towers created the set elements, which Camarillo, CA-based B&R Scenery put on customized rolling carts with aircraft wheels to facilitate movement on and off the field. The entertainment division of West Nyack, NY-based McLaren Engineering Group helped put the pieces together, with Simi Valley, CA-based Kish Rigging entrusted with that task.
“There was 30-40% more equipment than a Super Bowl had ever had on a field before,” Bennett says. “And they were heavier, larger pieces, nine in all, with just two small entryways, no wider than 15' across, we could get them through.” Load-in began the week before the game, with a full rehearsal (in the rain, unlike game time) the Thursday before.
Everything about the show riveted the viewer's attention to its center, Bennett says. “We ran the centerpiece LED unit, where Paul stood, in first, then fit everything else around it. [This centerpiece had a lift and sliding cover manually operated to reveal McCartney's piano and bench.] The four ramps (24' long) and the four sections of the ‘pie,’ where the band members stood in what we called their ‘salad bowls,’ came next. Outside of that were four curved arced towers (30' tall) then directly in line of the center hub were the four circular LED screens. There were also another eight straight-trussed towers (32' tall) that went around the perimeter and fit between all the circular screens.”
Via 3D CAD and e-mail exchanges, and then onto Florida, Tait Towers and B&R Scenery worked on the staging. Brian Sullivan at B&R says its usual staging carts for the Super Bowl went unused this year, given Bennett's communal, concert setting. Explains Adam Davis, project manager of Tait Towers, “There was 75,000lbs. of equipment rolling out onto that field. The grass guys at the stadium rule the world down there; they spend $6 million on the grass and don't care about the Halftime Show. If we disturb the grass, they'll cancel the show.” Sullivan elaborates, “That much weight had never been put on a football field before. We give the field a lot of respect; if something we do trips a player, it can end his career. We take that very seriously.”
Tait Towers, in its third Super Bowl appearance, and B&R, a 12-year veteran of the game, tackled the challenge of weight distribution. “Everything was engineered so that every wheel took an equal amount of weight,” says Davis of the pieces. “Some had 18 wheels on them, but every one took an equal weight, making less than 500lbs. per wheel. We came up with the concept of using triple-swivel casters to move them on. The video ramps, which weighed 7,000lbs. apiece, had six of them. And they were not the little tiny ones that you see on a stage; they're made from big 20' tires. The weight going to each triple swivel was bogeyed, so that no matter what, every triple swivel sat on the ground with a ball joint on top of them. This way, all three wheels were guaranteed to hit the ground.”
The big squeeze came in getting the pieces through the small vomitories. While Alltel is classified as a “new” stadium, Spence says the space has been renovated twice, with tight entryways that Davis reports are 15' wide and maybe 15' tall. “The 30' lighting towers unfolded and had to collapse, roll out onto the field, and then erect quickly,” Davis says. “We did it with garage-door springs. The lighting towers were counter-balanced, with the largest garage-door springs ever made, which we had custom-coiled and baked. To erect one of those lighting towers took 3,000lbs. of pull force. The spring provided 2,500lbs., so that one person could make it go up and down if they wanted to, because it was counter-balanced. Same thing with the 800lb. Yamaha piano; it could be operated by one person, but we had four do it, and it was counter-balanced with garage door springs as well. The springs removed the need for a traditional, and heavy, lead counterbalance, additional weight we didn't want to roll out onto the field.”
Tait Towers has collaborated with McLaren for engineering support on all its Super Bowl appearances. “For the first time, we were involved in more than the field staging,” says vice president William B. Gorlin. “The production supervisor, Tony Hauser, asked McLaren to provide engineering services for the production rigging throughout the stadium. Whereas most stadiums have features to accommodate event lighting and rigging, Alltel Stadium has very little. Besides Hauser we worked with Michael Wiesman of Kish Rigging and Robert Cooper of PRG. We jointly investigated the existing conditions to determine how we would support the specified lighting.” The solutions included rigging lighting trusses to the stadium lighting towers, braced with cables; the design of temporary scaffolding; and the design of brackets and lighting pipes temporarily bolted to the concrete knee walls of the west tier and south terrace of the stadium.
As the game entered halftime, the field swarmed with volunteers, their activities choreographed by Spence. “It looked like Egyptians building pyramids,” says Paul Becher, co-CEO of Nocturne. “Cap's brilliance is coordinating and inspiring that many people to make it happen,” marvels Davis. Spence's method of crowd control is this: “I talk to the volunteers a little bit about what we'll be doing. I promise them the first night that they'll never hear me talk about speed or the use words ‘quick’ and ‘faster.’ It's a function of precision, as opposed to speed. And if one is precise, one gets faster. You can get actually get slower, and get someone hurt, if you do it the other way.”
For the Super Bowl specifically, “I started two weeks out, and we had five four-hour rehearsals. I told the volunteers that if we were going to do a typical TV show with Paul McCartney in concert, we would take three or four days to build the stage and rehearse it. My epiphany the third year I did this was that it's not about the stage, it's about the people; I don't allow them to work with anything electrical or hydraulic. The stage is merely a vehicle by which these people form a relationship in a minimum amount of time, to make the staging something really special. And I never tell them how fast they're doing, either, till the show ends.”
At Alltel, Spence, assisted by Tait, first considered how best the stage and equipment could “fit through the restrictive entry points of the stadium, and also be raised or deployed in a safe, time-friendly fashion. Tait is the master at this,” he says. “This year was particularly challenging due to the numbers of pieces. [Elements like the “salad bowls” had to split in half and be reassembled on the field, given their size.] Thirty-four was the most I had ever put out on the field, with a typical four to six connections made. Just on the lighting towers this year, each of them uniquely positioned, there were 48 separate connections to make. The stagehands practiced with the pieces, then became cart leaders for their particular piece as we brought in the volunteers for their rehearsals. We had a staging rehearsal on the field, which had been tarped, so the volunteers could get a better sense of the tunnels and the stadium before we had a full dress rehearsal.”
In less than half an hour, it was all over. Tait Towers and B&R left the field to mount a new tour for Destiny's Child, which was scheduled to begin in Hiroshima, Japan, on April 9. Bennett decamped to work on Nine Inch Nails and will resume touring with McCartney in September. And Spence went onto another sporting-related event, the Grand Marshal Celebration at the Daytona 500, held February 20. “That was a 40'×32' stage and two sticks of lighting truss that I had three days to put in. Going from the Super Bowl, where you have 10 to 15 times that amount of equipment and five minutes to do it in, to a show like that almost hurts your head,” he laughs. “At Daytona, I was like, ‘Why am I even here? Can I come day of show at about noon and take just the five hours I'll need?’”
Robert Cashill is based in New York City and writes on arts and entertainment.