Wild Blue Yonder How do they light Blue Man Group Live at Luxor? The answer is simple: volume, volume, volume. In the Group's other productions (in Boston, Chicago, and New York), the stage space is best described as intimate. Put that same show on the Luxor stage (which is 60' wide and 30' high) and you have a challenge: how to light three men, each approximately 6' tall, with blue skin and black clothing, against a massive, black set.
Just to make it interesting, lighting designer Matthew McCarthy says that the Blue Man aesthetic prohibits overly decorative lighting: "There's no eye candy," he adds. Nevertheless, for the Las Vegas show, he worked with a hugely expanded lighting rig to create stage pictures that kept the three performers from being lost in the vast blackness of the Luxor stage. The result is like concert lighting, with beams of white light crossing in the air, creating architectural patterns; to this end, this is the first Blue Man show with fog machines (six Reel EFX DF-50s and one MDG Atmosphere), to create a haze that allows McCarthy to light the air. The substantial use of backlighting and shadow effects also work to make the Blue Men seem larger than life.
But Live at Luxor also features large-scale effects not seen in any other Blue Man Group production, at least not on this scale; some of these use existing technology in highly original ways. For example, Marc Janowitz, Blue Man Group's associate lighting designer, recalls a trip he made to LDI96 in Orlando, with McCarthy, a company electrician named Juniper Shuey, and Blue Man Chris Wink. "At one point, we lost Chris on the trade show floor," recalls Janowitz. "Then we found him at the LiveWire booth; he was swinging a piece of LiveWire around, saying, `We can do something with this.' "
LiveWire is an unusual type of illumination using semiconductors on thin, flexible cable that is 11/416" in diameter; think of it as a really, really thin type of fiber optic whereby each strand is the source of light. As a result of that chance encounter at LDI, Live at Luxor features one of the most astonishing effects to be seen on a Las Vegas stage - a light animation sequence, which, when viewed, resembles a laser light display. It begins, in darkness, with the appearance of a desert landscape, on which cacti appear, a bird flies overhead, and a tumbleweed passes by. Then a trio of cowboy stick-figures appear and work their lassos as they dance.
According to Janowitz, "We did small versions of this effect once for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. But it was never this elaborate." The Blue Men, he adds, worked with the group's artistic coordinator, Aaron Tappan, creating the sequence in a computer, using Adobe Illustrator. Then, says Janowitz, "We set up a piece of fabric that's 30' tall and 60' wide. The fabric, which is flameproof, accepts male Velcro." The drop was built by four people, working at Entolo in Vegas, 12 hours a day for six weeks. Every step of the animation sequence was drawn on the fabric, then outlined in Live Wire; on the back of the fabric, each piece of LiveWire was hardwired to a series of custom interface boxes. From the interface boxes, the circuits of LiveWire were then patched to the DMX control systems, which mount on the batten and fly with the drop. The effect is that of hundreds of animation cels, each of which is illuminated in sequence, used to create the effect of movement.
The animation effect returns for the show's climax, in which blacklight also plays a considerable part. Giant rolls of tissue paper are unrolled at the rear of the auditorium and passed over the heads of the audience. The 5" PVC tubing suspended from the ceiling glows eerily under the effects of Altman UV 705 blacklight. The tubes spin slowly, while the Blue Men play a song on backpack tubulums (which are lit by Altman 703 blacklight). Meanwhile, coils of LiveWire attached to ceiling fans are slowly unloosed, and descend, spinning, like the overhead PVC tubes. Then side panels on the auditorium walls come to life with 14 LiveWire dancing stick figures; it's one of the most hallucinatory moments to be found on a stage anywhere today, a barrage of effects that has the audience screaming with delight.
The control system for the LiveWire sequence was created by Production Solutions, Inc., a company founded by Janowitz and Brian Fehd, a former Blue Man Group staff member, with Raymond C. Wszolek, EL Systems engineer for Live at Luxor. (Production Solutions licenses the technology to Blue Man Group.) To run the effect, "there are two types of controllers," says Janowitz. "There's an Animator 256, just for the animation sequence, which can control up to 256 animation cels with eight DMX channels. The other device is an EL-12, which is a 12-channel electroluminescent dimmer pack. All the background stuff, the cacti, the road, the dancing figures in the audience, and the spinning wire overhead, are controlled by EL-12 units." On the operations side, the LiveWire is controlled by a Compulite Spark 4D console, chosen because it is compatible with the Luxor's house board, the Compulite Sabre. The Spark is connected to Sabre via MIDI for the animation piece and directly to the sound board via SMPTE for the closing number (the paper roll sequence).
There are, of course, many other aspects to the Blue Man lighting rig. Over 350 Altman Shakespeares and 150 Altman PAR-64s are used, many of them for house lighting, since so many sequences feature the Blue Men prowling the audience, interacting with various viewers. Six Altman ZipStrips are placed above in stage-right and stage-left positions, to silhouette the musicians who sit above the stage. A number of Altman fresnels are used as a colored backlight system, which helps to highlight the Blue Men at certain points.
One of the key Blue Man Group images is that of the trio, their faces uplit, standing over drums, on which pools of brightly-colored paint dance up and down. "The drums are double-headed," says Janowitz. "We had 1k PARs inside, but they melted the drums. Actually, I specify Source Fours because the increased speed of a Source Four HPL lamp going off as compared to a traditional PAR is more than twice as fast. So we used ETC Source Four MCM [metal cold-mirror] PARs, five of them, with five more in the deck as an uplight, which keeps the heat away.
"The challenge in lighting the Blue Men from within the drums was twofold," Janowitz continues. "We needed a light that had a rapid blackout as well as one that would not melt the drum heads from heat output. Traditional PAR-64 1ks do not `snap out,' and the heat out the front of the light would just melt through drum heads." Janowitz adds, "We elected to go with the Source Four PAR MCMs because the HPL lamp would snap out and the metal cold mirror dissipated the heat out the back of the unit, thereby preserving the drum heads."
The parade of gear continues. The proscenium is lined in PAR-48 ACL bars, placed behind scrim for moments that blast the audience with light. Thomas Far Cycs are used in the drum matrix sequence, in which a towering assemblage of musicians are revealed silhouetted in a two-story drum wall. Selecon Pacific lights have been retrofitted with Diversitronics sockets and lamps to make them intro strobes. Diversitronics strobes are also used to light the zoetrope effect of spinning statues, creating another astonishing animation effect. The water vortex at the center of the zoetrope is lit by another Source Four MCM PAR.
This is the first Blue Man Group production to utilize moving lights, all of them coming from High End Systems. Thirty-eight Cyberlights[R] are hung in the catwalks and box booms for audience lighting, sweeping the audience, picking up Blue Men in the aisles; they also help to sculpt certain onstage looks and, in the drum matrix sequence, create a radiant effect behind the musicians. A number of Studio Color 575 and Studio Spot 575s are hung in front-of-house positions, to fill in the audience from a high angle. "They're used to cut through the haze and paint the air with color," says McCarthy. Studio Spot 250s are hung around the perimeter of two projection screens located on the matrix, creating a set of eyes which follow the Blue Men around the stage using the Wybron AutoPilot system. Wybron wrote the software for the Studio Spot 250s specifically for the Blue Men.
With all the effects unleashed on the audience and stage, McCarthy points out that one of his biggest challenges remains in lighting the Blue Men. To begin with, he is limited in his color choices. "I seldom use amber," he says, adding, "It's not flattering on blue skin. Then again, "Blue frontlight makes the whites of their eyes turn blue," a definite no-no, since the performers rely on their eyes to communicate with the audience. Thus, most of the time, the designer relies on no-color followspots. Fortunately, Janowitz adds, the three Strong Super Trouper followspots aimed at the Blue Men are well placed. "The angle is perfect, about 22ø, which lights their eyes well." Overall, McCarthy says, the arc of the show follows three steps: 1) No color for the beginning, 2) The gradual addition of color for the paint/drum sequence, and, finally, 3) UV color for the final sequences. Of course, Blue Man Group's distinctive music gives the designer plenty to work with in cueing. "It's totally tied to the music," he says, adding, "almost half of them are time-zero bump cues."
There are, of course, many other aspects to the Blue Man lighting design. Additional color is provided by Wybron scrollers. Fifty Sunnywell Display Superbright zipper signs are used throughout, providing the show's sardonic running commentary. Tomcat trussing and CM Lodestar hoists are also used. The Luxor house dimming system consists of the Colortran I Series; this was augmented with ETC Sensor dimmers. For non-dim control, Doug Fleenor Design single-channel dry-contact relays and Gray Interface 12-channel relay driver cards are used. The Fleenor relays are used to control the DF-50s and some of the LED signs. The Gray Interface cards are designed into custom interfaces for control of the LED wall and of the Blue Man backpack lights and confetti effects. Lighting was supplied by Cinema Services, a PRG company.
As the accompanying credit box indicates, many, many hands were involved in the Blue Man Group Live at Luxor. Janowitz mentions Jeff Clark, head electrician at Luxor; Steven L. Shelley, lighting supervisor; Katherine L. Orr, assistant lighting designer; Robert Fehribach, production electrician; and Juniper Street Productions, which provided technical supervision, as well as David Rees of Cinema Services/PRG. Speaking of the highly collaborative nature of Blue Man Group, McCarthy simply says, "Many minds are better than one." At any rate, the collective result is, to any audience member, mind-blowing.