Programs at rock concerts tend to feature stars in various poses wearing various designer costumes. While it's hardly surprising that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Echo program features black-and-white candid shots of the band members actually performing, it also devotes a full page to production and lighting designer Jim Lenahan's explanation for the show's design. Certainly it should be no surprise, because the show has a singularly sumptuous look.
"The basis for this particular set came from an article I saw in Architectural Digest on a place that was built for diplomats' offices in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia," Lenahan explains. "Outside they built a conversation pit, which was dug down about 3' into the sand. There was a circle of concrete benches and steps going down in the center where there was a little pool of water. Over the top of everything was this incredible stained glass tent. It was made up of squares of stained glass, probably about a foot square, held together with steel wings. I've always been fascinated by the quality of light through colored glass. And to have something which had the apparent fragility and brittleness of stained glass, and at the same time could drape like fabric--the combination really knocked me out.
"So, as I am wont to do, I ripped the page out of the magazine, put it in my files, and carried it around for about four years," he continues. "Whenever I see something like that, I think it could make a good set. Then you just try to find the client that it might work for."
In the 24 years Lenahan has worked with Tom Petty, the designer has created some very elaborate sets. Petty's 1995 tour didn't have a set at all. "The last tour was strictly lights, although we made the lights do some fun tricks," says the LD. "When I went to talk to him about this tour, he invited me over to the house he had just bought in Malibu. He was refurbishing in Moroccan style with lots of lanterns and red materials around, but there was one room that was completely unfinished. He said, 'This will be the opium den.' And I said, 'Well, that sounds like a set to me!' "
After doing research into what real opium dens look like, Lenahan found them to be very boring. "They consist of a bunch of wooden cribs for you to lie in," explains the designer. "I still liked the idea of basing a rock and roll set on Middle East art, and I connected that to the article from Architectural Digest. That's not Moroccan; it was Saudi. But still, the Middle Eastern theme became a springboard for the design."
What does all of this have to do with Petty's new Echo album? "It has nothing to do with it any more than a great big tree had to do with Into the Great Wide Open or the bring-him-back-alive touring fantasy had to do with Full Moon Fever," Lenahan admits. "The sets for Petty's tours almost never have anything to do with the albums."
The designer's two main goals are to make the band comfortable onstage while making the show look interesting for the audience. "With every set I design, I'm always thinking of how it's going to interact with light," Lenahan says. "Also, at this same time I had discovered Dale Chihuly, who is a brilliant glass sculptor. He did fabulous chandelier installations in Venice, the glass ceiling at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and an installation in LA that I went to. The quality of the light coming through his sculptures is just amazing."
Tying all of these elements together, Lenahan then created three different scenic concepts to show Petty. "I did complete renderings and three-dimensional models in the computer of all three of them--but I was fairly sure which one he'd like best and he did. All the risers have benches around them with cushions on top, and cut Islamic work in the front, which was something that I really wanted to get in there. As I researched the Moroccan theme, the homes have low ceilings with lots of cushions and rugs, and it looks really comfortable, informal, and warm. We already had the Oriental rugs from the tour before. Not only does the band love how they feel, they also think that it helps the sound."
With the concept approved, the designer then faced the challenge of how to construct it. "Of course, I wanted light to play a big part in it, but stained glass doesn't troupe very well," Lenahan says. "We needed to make the three triangular scenic panels out of Lexan, because it's tough. At the same time, I had discovered a new process for digitally printing directly onto Lexan. Lexjet is a 10-mil-thick Lexan that can go through an inkjet printer and take the ink. So I was able to do my design, then blow it up and digitally print it directly onto the Lexan without having to go through scenic artists. So we printed onto the Lexjet material, then bonded that directly to 1/4"-thick clear Lexan. But that would have turned into a mirror, so we had to bond another material onto the front of it that killed glare. We ended up with this kind of sandwich that really took light well."
The Lexan squares are 18" long with 11/2" gaps between them. "You get the light going through the colors and the Lexan, but then you get clear light going through the gaps as well," Lenahan explains. "As it turns out, this Lexjet material is almost a perfect diffusion filter. It takes the light and scatters it everywhere except where you're pointing it," he continues. "It's great for having a really even backlight, but it's terrible for trying to throw colors from the material onto a surface. It just doesn't work."
To make up for that, the LD had a custom gobo made by Rosco that was a colored glass version of the same pattern on the Lexan. "We put those in some of our moving lights, and at some point in the show we'd project them onto the Austrian drape in the back," Lenahan says. "It's not the same, but it's close."
The LD then attached chain motors to the triangles. "This is rock and roll, so you've got to change it up," he says. "I really was happy with the way they moved into different configurations. Not only does it take light as well as stained glass does, it also moved like draped fabric. I really like the quality of the soft, graceful shapes that it assumed going from one position to the other. That was a happy discovery."
The designer also had lighting built into the faces of the stage risers. "The facings of the risers are all intricate Islamic cutwork," he says. "We were able to use a computer-controlled router connected to the CAD file to cut them out. Again, we used the Lexjet to back it, and that was straight out of my Photoshop file. By placing a couple of nook lights behind the risers, we have this glowing, multicolored look that is visible through these complex patterns."
Next on the design list were the 6'-tall Moroccan lanterns, with big rope tassels hanging from them. "Those were all made out of vacuformed Lexan, and inside is a little aluminum armature that holds a Le Maitre smoke machine and some lights," Lenahan explains. "We put colored vinyl in certain places on the surface of the Lexan body, then poked holes in other places that pure light would come out. We then painted the surface to look like hammered tin, and we painted on top of that to look like painted work on the exterior of the lantern. So you've got pure white light coming out in some places, and colored light in others.
"Also, around two parts of the lanterns that hung out in the house, we put rope light, and a lip going around to hide the source of the rope light itself, so that it could illuminate the exterior of these pieces," he continues. "I wanted to make sure the audience could see the painted bits on the outside. You could see it lit only externally, only internally, or all of the above. The smoke just comes out of the holes. Really every piece of scenery either had lights built into it or was designed specifically to interact with light. We also had a fiber-optic star drop from George & Goldberg."
The designer's next concern was how to integrate the rest of the rig's lighting into the set. "We had this kind of Ali Baba fantasy going on, so we didn't want to stick a bunch of Robocop technology in the middle of it. I wanted the benefit of that technology, but I needed to hide the moving lights."
So the LD came up with two diagonal trusses that go from the grid down to the ground and fit right in between the three panels, and follow the same angle as the panels. "Each one of those has Coemar TM Powers in it," he says. "There were big legs and borders sewn to take on a very theatrical swag. It's not symmetrical. The way I tried to describe it to the shop when they were going to sew it up was that back in the 1930s photographers would take these great pictures of movie stars with a mink coat that would look like it had just been tossed onto a chair--but really they had spent all day getting that mink coat just straight, just perfectly. That's what I wanted."
Lenahan chose the Coemar TMs because their tiny mirror heads have total movement without taking up a lot of space. "That's the only part you really need to get the light where you need it. Everything else is just hardware that can live in the scenery. So that solved the problem of lighting the band--we always had something that could reach them no matter what configuration the panels were in."
For this tour the LD also tried out some new luminaires, including Coemar's CF 1200s. "They are so bright, and the washlights are just bulletproof," he says. "They are really strong and give some rich colors. We also had the Coemar Powers which have rotating gobos. Plus we had the Coemar CF 1200 HEs, the hard edge, which is one of my all-time favorite lights. It just kicks butt. I could do my entire backdrop with three floor instruments. And their colored gobos are just gorgeous."
The LD also tried out the new Vari*Lite(R) VL7B(TM) automated luminaire. "It's the coolest thing since sliced bread," he says. "I love them. They are somewhat less bright than the HEs, although they're still really bright. They have that wonderful Vari-Lite color system, which is my favorite. Besides being able to adjust the hue, you can adjust the saturation, and that makes all the difference in the world. Because I'm so often trying to mix just the right red that I want, and I get something that's kind of washed-out and pink and not really rich, deep red. Some of my favorite colors are the Vari-Lite colors that I can get.
"But the best feature is the remote shutter cuts, because I wanted to be able to backlight the big triangles and not spill past them," he continues. "I was able to cut that edge exactly following the triangle's shape, although it took me five luminaires to do each one of the panels. But they have a great zoom and they can get so big. It's a wonderful light to use on scenery."
Lenahan used only one conventional gel in the show--and it wasn't for the scenery. "The only frontlight we have in the whole show is a bunch of lekos, and they're all in pairs on everybody's different vocal and playing positions," he explains. "Those all had a bastard amber gel in them, and it's the only straight gel in the show. All the PARs are Source Fours, which are much cooler than the old PARs, and so are the lekos. I like the quality of leko light on people's faces better than PAR light anyway. We also put our front truss 18' out in front of the stage. If you can get it out to where you have a nice angle, everybody's got an attractive flesh-toned frontlight. Then I put the bulk of the heat that you're pumping out on the scenery. So it also pops them out from the background."
Lenahan also placed ellipsoidals with ColorFaders on them to light the proscenium, the legs, and the big border, and some ETC Source Four PARs on the floor with ColorFaders for the same purpose. Directly above the band, more ETC Source Fours with Wybron scrollers on them gave the band toplight.
"I specifically wanted to have both the Wybron Colorams and the Morpheus ColorFaders, because I wanted to be able to do any color to any color capability--sometimes it's exciting to see it scroll really fast through all the colors," he continues. "That's why I put the Wybrons in. On the last tour I used a bunch of Wybrons, and some of my favorite looks were when I could just zip from one end of the scroll to the other, and you'd just see the scenery change a million colors in two seconds."
To control the lighting, Lenahan chose a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II with an expansion wing. "This was my first time running one myself," he says. "Boy, that was a whole new world because I'm an old fader jockey."
To learn how to operate the console, Lenahan went to Los Angeles-based CW Productions. "They have a Hog School where they teach you to run the console and they also have WYSIWYG there--you can learn while you watch your WYSIWYG model on a big projection screen. It's really a neat way to do it."
The LD did use WYSIWYG to get the show's initial palettes and positions set. "After a week of Hog U, I took the Hog and the expansion wing and WYSIWYG into my studio for another week, and programmed about three songs. WYSIWYG is a handy tool, but I think you've still got to really see it and punch it up," Lenahan says. "It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty close. I was impressed."
Lenahan had a week to program the show. "We programmed 30 songs in advance, not knowing what show Petty was going to do. We also had a dozen generic looks for when he pulls out some obscure cover song and throws it at you. But this tour was really unusual--he stuck to the set list most of the time. It was nice because then you can get all the little nuances in. Every time there's a little guitar filler, a little background vocal or anything like that, it's given just the right amount of emphasis. If they were changing every night, that would have gotten lost in the shuffle. So that was fun. I was pleased with how it all turned out."
Production/lighting designer Jim Lenahan
Production manager Bill Rahmy
Tour manager Richard Fernandez
Stage manager Art Freund
Lighting crew chief Kevin Cassidy
Lighting technicians Gary Boldenweck, Adam Burton, Chris Toone
Carpenters Conrad Coriz, Phil Dannemann
Head rigger William "Tel" Agerter
Rigger Clark Scott
Set construction George & Goldberg
Main lighting contractor The Obie Company/Steve Roman
Lighting equipment (16) Coemar NAT 1200 TMs (46) Coemar CF 1200 washlights (5) Martin Roboscan Pro 400s (18) Coemar TM Powers (5) Terra strobes (11) Nook lights (16) Vari*Lite VL7Bs (12) PAR-64s (12) ETC Source Four PARs (48) ETC Source Four ellipsoidals (8) Thomas 8-lights (4) Thomas 9-lights (8) Wybron PAR Colorams (24) Morpheus PAR ColorFaders (1) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console (1) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog extension wing (7) Le Maitre smoke machines (19) Columbus McKinnon 1-ton chain hoist motors (9) Columbus McKinnon 1/2-ton chain hoist motors (2) Columbus McKinnon 2-ton chain hoist motors (2) Skjonberg 8-way motion controllers