Their sound is undeniably unique and, at the moment, they're so hot that U2's famed frontman Bono, has publicly praised their artistic efforts. The band is Radiohead, and its live show is a true original. The current tour takes the LED one step further, melding technology and art in a way that's never been done before. It will ultimately change the way everyone looks at LEDs.
Radiohead's LD, Andi Watson, who's been with the band for the past ten years, had an entirely different approach to his design for the current tour, Hail to the Thief. “I started off wanting to do something with video, but not in the same sort of way that everyone else was doing it,” he says. So he turned to LEDs. “I decided that by using a defined array of LED fixtures, I'd be able to create the dynamic and textures I wanted from a video wall and, at the same time, free myself from the limitations of having a solid screen behind the band. In order to construct the array, I looked at almost every LED fixture available as a linear strip and chose the [James Thomas Engineering] Pixelline battens, because of their brightness and for their controllability.”
Controllability was the key for Watson. “Some LED fixtures are fine,” he says, “but you can only control 1' sections, or, in some cases, 4' sections. I wanted something I could control down to a very small scale, because that would give me the ability to have the dynamic and the movement on the stage.”
The James Thomas Engineering Pixelline battens are not a simple LED wall; in fact, they're the antithesis. “It is, effectively, a very low-resolution video system,” Watson says, and he's not understating the case. “Usually, when're you're looking at a standard LED wall, you're looking at about 1/3" to 1" between pixels; horizontally, I've got 2" between pixels.” Altogether, the Pixelline batten wall consists of 72 units configured in 24 vertical strips that are three units, or 12', high, held together by frames.
Finding the Pixelline battens was one thing; getting them to work in the way the LD envisioned was quite another. Watson's friend, software designer Richard Bleasdale, had a simple answer: “Richard suggested running it from [High End Systems'] Catalyst, and I was quite surprised, because I really hadn't thought of it at all — nobody had thought of it,” the designer says. Watson explained what he wanted, and, three weeks later, Bleasdale appeared with a custom version of Catalyst (see sidebar).
Bleasdale's new Catalyst program enabled Watson to begin creating his vision almost immediately. “Programming, as I anticipated programming, probably would have been a nightmare,” he admits. “Using the version of Catalyst that Richard created allowed me to achieve something very, very quickly.” Refining the looks, of course, took a bit longer.
In the end, what Watson created is quite different from what one sees a most concerts — he uses the Pixelline wall in an artistic, organic manner. “Some of the PhotoShop files I'm using are actually images,” he says, “but there's no way you'd ever realize what the images are, since we're zoomed in to such a high level.” Instead of literal imagery, he makes use of geometric shapes and lines created on his Apple Powerbook. “I actually created all of the images myself,” he says, adding, “some are from the Catalyst library.” The images run from his Powerbook to Catalyst, where color is added, and end up, via an Artistice Licence Artnet Ethernet-to-DMX interface, on the Pixelline battens.
The Pixelline battens are just one part of Watson's visual strategy, however. “In the past,” he says, “I've been very frustrated because the video and the lighting weren't in harmony and didn't sync together properly. So I wanted to be able to have some element of control over it.” With the Pixelline/Catalyst combination, he has that control. “The Pixelline battens work with the lighting system completely. The battens can be incredibly dynamic and completely dominant, yet if you kick the colors back, it becomes very beautiful, almost a piece of art sitting at the back of the stage.” An upstage cyc adds to the illusion that the wall is indeed a set piece, and there are two vertical video screens with a 1:3 aspect ratio used other either side of the stage as well. “Live video outputs from remote pan/tilt cameras are sent through a Zandar DX16 and an Apple G4 PowerBook running ‘Jitter’ which combine to produce a variety of multi-image layouts, video treatments and also visual sound representations from real-time audio and MIDI signals coming directly from the band,” Watson says. “I wanted to create something which would be in complete visual and dynamic harmony with the band's performance but which would still fulfill the desire for IMAG for those further from the stage.”
Working with these effects is Watson's lighting package, which includes a new favorite: the Martin Mac 2000 Wash unit. “I love the Mac 2kW Wash,” the designer says. “It's very bright, it's got a very nice beam and it's got great colors.” He's been working with the Mac 2000 Wash for some time, having Beta-tested it last year. The Mac 2000 Wash units can be found on his front truss, on each of his five custom curved finger trusses, and on the floor, too. “There are eight Mac 2K Washes upstage, which light the cyc and do some aerial work as well,” he adds
The Macs aren't the only units on the floor. Downstage, Watson has ten Vari-Lite VL2402s for front and sidelighting the band. “I adore the 2402s,” he says. “I think it's a beautiful wash lamp. The beam and colors are very good and I really like the fact that you can treat it as an incandescent lamp.” (Unlike many automated fixtures, the VL2402 does indeed respond like an incandescent lamp on a dimmer.) “You can take a fader and bump and the light output in will correspond to what you do with the fader. Most lights just won't do that,” he adds.
Filling out the rig are Mac 2000 Performance units, Molefays, store-bought halogen work lamps, and numerous egg strobes. “Some of the egg strobes hang on the Pixelline frames,” says Watson. “They break up the wall, and aren't used at the same time as the Pixelline battens.” There are also egg strobes below the finger trusses, acting rather like twinkling truss toners. To add further visual interest to the rig, Watson chose gunmetal-colored crushed velvet as fabric for truss borders, backdrop; he also covered three sides of the finger truss in the same material. “It's not a traditional entertainment industry fabric — it's more for wedding dresses really, but it's beautiful and takes light incredibly well,” Watson reports.
One of Watson's more interesting instrument choices is the 1kW Rank Strand Beamlite. “I really don't like the effect of a followspot,” he admits “I love the Beamlites, and I use them as followspots. I control the intensity and the color from the lighting desk.” As a result, you don't see a jarring spotlight circle defining a person in a beam. Instead, Watson's use of the Beamlites results in a much more subtle, theatrical spotlight.
The final ingredient in Watson's picture is color. “It's a very pure color show, whether it be pastels or saturates,” the designer notes. When asked about a color palette, most designers will concede a predominance of saturates or pastels, or even note if they tried to create unique colors. Due to the nature of the tour — the songlist varies wildly from night to night — Watson has over 70 songs programmed into his desk. “Within those 70-plus songs, pretty much every color is in there,” he says “You can come out and see Radiohead and say ‘Well, there's quite a lot of green in the show,’ or you can come out and say ‘There wasn't any green at all in the show.’ It all depends on the night you see them.”
Of course, with that many songs in the repertoire, making the production work as a cohesive entity can be difficult. “When we were doing festivals in Europe,” says Watson, “we were doing much more of a standard set, and I could build more of a long-term, global show into that.” Since that time it has changed dramatically: the opening song became the closing song and a late-in-the-evening song became the new opener. Thankfully, Watson does have a solution of sorts: “There are a couple of songs that I have color options for, because you'll look at the set list and realize that there are four long numbers in a row with all have the same kind of colors. So it's handy to be able to change one of them, just to break it up visually,” he concludes.
Watson's coup de grace comes at the end of the show. After the band has left the stage, the Pixelline wall has one last assignment. “I have a twinkling lavender effect up, and I fade words into that — it's very subliminal to start with,” Watson explains. “Then, at the end of the show, when the band has left the stage, I fade out the colored version and I just put one word across the Pixelline units,” he reports. It's an unexpected, powerful conclusion to a groundbreaking production.
The word? It's best viewed in person. Radiohead's Hail to the Thief tour concludes in Ireland in early December.
HAIL TO THE THIEF TOUR 2003 CREW AND SUPPLIERS
Lighting & Set Design
Lighting Crew Chief
Sam Douglas Harden
Pixelline Wall Software
Live Video Director
Live Video FX
Video Screen Tech
FOH Sound Engineer
Mark Powell and Michael Strickland @ Bandit Lites , London and Nashville
Jenny Clarke @ Blackout Ltd, London
Des Fallon @ XL Video
Tour Equipment List
|31||Martin Mac 2000 Wash units125|
|21||Martin Mac 2000 Performance spot units125|
|10||Vari-Lite VL2402 wash luminaires c/w custom color choice126|
|11||James Thomas 8-Light units w/DWE bulbs127|
|6||James Thomas 8-Light units w/ACL bulbs127|
|17||Wybron 8-Light Coloram II Scrollers112|
|5||1kW Rank Strand Beamlights128|
|5||Wybron large-format scrollers112|
|6||1kW custom Halogen floods|
|15||Custom high-power police beacons|
|3||Triple Martin Atomic Strobe125|
|3||Custom Wybron 8-light scrollers for triple strobes112|
|4||Single Martin Atomic Strobes125|
|6||2.4kW White Light Tubular Ripple Tanks130|
|4||18" Variable Speed and Direction DMX- controlled mirror balls|
|2||Cirro Strata CS6 Water Crackers131|
|2||Cirro Strata Mk3 Water Crackers131|
|2||High End Systems F100 Smoke Machines100|
|6||Vari Speed Pedestal Fans|
|1||High End Systems Wholehog II Console100|
|1||High End Systems Wholehog II Wing100|
|1||High End Systems Wholehog II Riggers Remote100|
|2||Hi Resolution 17” LCD Flat Monitors|
|1||Clear-Com Intercom System 10 station132|
|1||Custom Pixelline wall comprising 72 James Thomas Engineering Pixelline 1044 units 56 eggstrobes, frames, cable, etc|
|1||High End Systems Catalyst Media Server100|
|2||Fast Ethernet Switches|
|3||Artistic Licence Lynx Ethernet/DMX Rack Mount Units133|
|1||Apple G4 PowerBook Running Custom Richard Bleasdale Pixelline Wall Control Software|
|Circle Number On Reader Sevice Card|
Controlling the LEDs
Necessity is the mother of invention, and necessity is what created the add-on software that enabled Andi Watson to fulfill his vision for the current Radiohead tour. “Using the Pixelline and Catalyst is a world's first,” Watson announces.
Watson, who was Beta-testing Catalyst Version 3 (which became available to the general public last month) needed a way to control the pixels of his Pixelline wall. “I initially was expecting to program thousands of groups and thousands of chases,” Watson admits. Uttering the phrase ‘thousands and thousands’ isn't ever good for a programmer, and, thankfully, Watson was able to consult with a friend, software designer and programmer Richard Bleasdale, who first collaborated with Watson in 1994 during a tour with Chris deBurgh. Bleasdale's suggestion: High End's Catalyst Media Server.
The key to the project was finding a way to control the Thomas Pixelline battens. They're comprised of pixels — in this case, a single pixel is an array of red, blue and green LEDs that is 3 “square. Watson's battens are 4' long; there are 18 pixels in that 4' strip. According to Bleasdale, “The program enables the designer to control an individual pixel, or a group of pixels, through four interacting layers via Catalyst.” Consequently, the software does much of the work and the designer is freed from having to program thousands of anything. “The software takes a small area of the computer screen in the center and outputs that over DMX, via an Artistic License Artnet Ethernet-to-DMX interface, as red/blue/green values. Then the Pixelline units are mapped in such a way that they mimic the Catalyst output,” Bleasdale explains. Simplified, the image goes from Watson's Apple G4PowerBook to Catalyst and then, using Bleasdale's add-on software, to the Pixelline wall, where it is reproduced.
One of the fascinating aspects of the program is its versatility. “JPEG's, Photoshop files, even QuickTime movies can be played back in real time over the Pixellines-they're as fast as a TV screen, and can update at 25hz,” Bleasdale notes. Watson has even tried using it with other sources as well. “I have fed camera through it,” Watson admits, “but you don't get an image that's truly recognizable.” This isn't surprising, since the Pixelline battens are the ultimate in low resolution.
For more information on the program, which Bleasdale has dubbed ‘Pixelmad’ (pixel with massive addressable DMX), check out Bleasdale's website, www.pixelmad.com. More information on the Catalyst Media Server can be found at www.highend.com.