The Band Rides High with a Scaled-Back Production

"U2 walks onto the stage with all of the house lights on--with every light in the building on--and plays the first song," explains the band's longtime show designer Willie Williams. "And it absolutely brings the house down." But this is not the U2 from the mid-to-late 90s. Gone are the set pieces the size of a small house. Gone is the video wall that used enough electricity to power southern California. Gone are the stadiums.

What's left? A design that proves the old adage: Less is more.

The design team behind U2's current Elevation tour is the same that amazed audiences in 1992 with Zoo TV and in 1997 with POPMart--Williams, lighting director Bruce Ramus, curator of visual imagery Catherine Owens, and architect Mark Fisher. "This time, the band wanted to strip down a bit, make it smaller, and go indoors," Ramus explains. "I was really interested in trying to do something small and simple with such a huge band, and that's how it's turned out."

Creating something innovative, however, was definitely a production goal. Says Williams, "We have the luxury of all this fabulous equipment and every year there's something new. That ultimately makes the job harder because the equipment is available to everybody. So you tend to see the evolution of rock shows as based around whatever piece of equipment was perfected that year."

Instead of following the trends, Williams looked at the project in a different light. "I believe the ideas should come first, then you find the equipment to put them into play, rather than seeing what's out there and building a show around it." The philosophy behind Elevation is the same as the last two tours: "It's about doing something that genuinely pushes the boundaries and maybe points, in some small way, toward something new." Everything in Elevation is new, from the heart-shaped stage that has an open pit filled with fans in the center, to the 13-piece video wall that appears from inside the stage, to the stunning projections that engulf the arena.

FOR SIMPLICITY'S SAKE

Williams and Ramus began work on the lighting rig in the virtual realm. "Before production, Willie and I did about four days at Prelite Studios in San Francisco, a WYSIWYG studio," Ramus explains. "In pre-programming, we set up the rig in a CAD situation, and we essentially drew it. The set and the lights were animated through WYSIWYG." The Cast Lighting program "is especially useful for getting to see the rig in advance of rehearsals and for making decisions about looks and songs and what might or might not work," Ramus comments. "We get the basic structure of the show into the consoles and then when it comes time to program it in real time you already have something there that you can work with." Williams and Ramus were at Prelite in February and, a few scant weeks later, in rehearsals.

For Ramus, the challenge wasn't what to do, but what not to do. "A lot of production rehearsals are about trying to figure out what not to use--a show like this is about restraint," he notes. "The bulk of the rig is very simple, and my truss configuration is very dull."

Ramus has a different view of the truss configuration. "We wanted to get away from trying to be clever with the truss configurations and the actual design of the rig," he notes. "We wanted it to be really un-designed, so it's just straight trusses and it works great."

The rig consists of a 20'-diameter (6m) circle truss above the pit of the stage and four straight trusses (two measuring in at 48' [15m], the other two at 54' [16m]) over the stage, which are used with ChainMaster's Vario-Lift motors (supplied by Show Distribution of Quebec) to change the trim height from an average of 50' (15m) down to 12' (4m). "The Vario-Lifts allow the system to be out of the way when you need it to be and perfectly in place and in your face when you need it to be," Ramus says.

Williams and Ramus, searching for the perfect automated fixture, went shopping. "The Vari*Lite® VL2416™ [commonly known as the VL8] won," Williams says. The wash light is precisely what he needed for U2. "The really dangerous moving lights are the sharp-edge beams. They can do so much, and because they're available to everybody, you see the same effect in every show, particularly the revolving gobos. As much as you promise yourself you won't do it, if it's five in the morning and you have four songs left to program, you will put in revolving gobos," he chuckles.

There are 54 VL8s out on Elevation, the only automated fixture in the rig. "They're not necessarily ideal, but there are certain things that they do really well, the things I need," Williams adds.

"Outside of the Vari*Lites, the bulk of the rig is either architectural or for specific effects," Williams explains. "Everything is built into the stage--on either side of the runway is a 6" gutter which has 300 T3 quartz lights built into it, which gives us a wonderful, even footlight, and there's about 400 Egg Strobes and Star Strobes built in there as well."

MYSTERIOUS WAYS

There's also a large quantity of unconventional fixtures, including 30 modified police beacons that stun the audience with their intensity in "Where the Streets Have No Name." Their secret lies in their positioning. "They're placed sideways in groups, so you get kind of a rain effect, because they're all going the same way, but they're out of sync with each other," Williams explains. The rig also contains some DWEs for audience lights, a smattering of ETC Source Fours, and some Lowel-Light Omni and Tota lights, as well as a few surprises, like huge black custom fixtures created by Light & Sound Design/Fourth Phase in Los Angeles.

"My favorite thing in the show is something that [LSD vice president] John Lobel made for me, which we've been talking about for several years," Williams explains. "I wanted to do an REM show where we had all handmade fixtures, but they didn't do the tour in the end, so the idea was still floating around." This time, it came to fruition. "John made what I call the 'ripple drums'--a naked 5kW fixture which is essentially inside a trash can with holes in it. The fixture's painted black and the trash can revolves slowly and just puts out this extraordinary beamage." There are four of Lobel's ripple drums, placed in each corner of the stage, which transform the room during the song "Bad." "It's a beautiful, simple effect that carries the entire song."

The final key was the addition of 24 fresnels. "I liked their look at the time--they have a visual language of their own that makes a statement that they're not a high-tech instrument," Williams comments. "Also, we customized them to some degree by painting the barndoors gold, which gave them a pleasantly stylish, Gucci feel." During the early dates of the tour, the fresnels dominated the first part of the show. "Most of the time they were on at approximately 50%, creating a wonderful brown, low color temperature light which the band loved. It's very flattering," he notes.

But the fresnels also had a downside that Williams discovered once the show got out on the road. "We liked the fresnels very much, but Bono wondered, since everything else in the show had a very contemporary feel, if the fresnels introduced an element of nostalgia--in the mind of the public, they're usually related to another era," Williams comments. Looking objectively at the show, he also noticed that he was underusing the instruments. "They're a great look, but this is the wrong show," he concluded.

So Williams made the proverbial sketch on a napkin and went back to Lobel, custom instrument fabricator extraordinaire. The new fixture, dubbed the "fornow," is a four-DWE Mole striplight, housed in a very squat and deep wedge-shaped box. "The new instrument gives the stage a much more contemporary feel and I'm quite sure a good section of the audience doesn't even realize that these are lights at all until we turn them on. Most importantly, the light they put out is much more appropriate for the show, being less friendly and more aggressive."

PREEMINENT PROJECTIONS

As the show progresses, the color temperature changes, and the many hues of white are replaced by arena-encompassing E\T\C Audiovisuel PIGI projectors, supplied by Fourth Phase New Jersey. "They've been very interesting," notes Williams, who had been eyeing the units for several years. "They work as texture, and they work as audience lighting as well." Much to Williams' surprise, the PIGIs have become an integral part of the production as well as the lighting system. "After years of always trying to fill up the space between the stage and the roof with beams of light, video screens, scenery, or other visual effects, the PIGI projectors allow me to do quite the opposite. By using the entire room as a projection surface, it's possible to leave the air space above the musicians entirely empty. The stage becomes a delicate, static bubble within this gigantic universe of visual movement. It all looks very fragile, which has great power when coupled with the enormous noise the band is making."

Before exposing the PIGIs to the rigors of the road, Williams had some modifications done. "I had them made similar to the way I've had film projectors made in the past, so that the projector sits on its back, and the light comes out of the top--the lens is pointing upwards. Then there's a mirror on the top that's operated by a crew person, so you can point the beam where you need it." This makes the modified PIGI rather like an automated mirror fixture that's manually adjusted by an operator.

The images used are the work of Irish artist Catherine Owens, and a team of fellow artists in England, who mixed hand-drawn linear images with more organic looks, giving the show a unique visual direction. The final visual element in Elevation is the video wall (supplied by XL Video/Nocturne Europe) that rises up out of the stage for use throughout the show. "Everything works hand-in-hand with the lighting rig," Owens explains. Working in partnership with the video wall are the Vari*Lites. "When we add the video wall, that's when the Vari*Lites come into their own," Ramus says. The video wall, which stands 8' high, is also used as a stunning source of dominant color. "If you run the video wall with pure color on it, which we do a couple of times, the light that comes off it is amazing," says Williams.

Overall, the color palette of the show is simple. "A lot of the color comes from the PIGI or from the video wall," Williams notes. There are also numerous color washes provided by the VL8s. "The VL8s don't do a huge range of colors, but the ones they do are really beautiful," adds Ramus. While white light is a dominant presence in the show, limited colors do show up in songs like the blue washes in "Mysterious Ways," the congo in "Gone" and "In a Little While," or the intense red that appears in "Bullet the Blue Sky."

For lighting control, Williams and Ramus are each on tour with their console of choice. Williams is on an Avolites Pearl, while Ramus uses a Jands console. "The Hog 1000 is a Hog™ operating system with a simple, intelligent Aussie layout," explains Ramus. "It has buttons rather than touch-sensitive screens, which I much prefer. It has a less powerful effects engine, and only two DMX lines, and it isn't particularly attractive, but I love it."

After an extensive tour of North America that ended in July, the band moved on to Europe, where they will be out until late this month. With Elevation, U2 has come full circle and returned to something akin to its roots, presenting fans with a smaller, but still memorable, production. "Certainly, the first 10 years of U2's career were entirely based on the relationship between the band and the audience," Williams explains. "To see that it's still there to such a great degree, when we now live in a world that's much more cynical, really surprised me."

Contact the author at sstancavage@primediabusiness.com. Search lightingdimensions.com and shop POPMart.

U2 ELEVATION TOUR 2001

Show Director
Willie Williams

Lighting Director
Bruce Ramus

Architect
Mark Fisher

Curator of Visual Imagery
Catherine Owens

Lighting Crew Chief
Garry Chamberlain

Lighting Technicians
Raffaele Buono, Adam Finer, Craig Hancock, Mark Hitchcock, Russell Lyons

PIGI Projection
Brian Beasley

Digital Media Delivery Systems
Media 100

WYSIWYG Programming
Prelite Studios

PIGI Effects Projection
Fourth Phase NY and London

Video Supplier
XL Video/Nocturne Europe

Lighting Supplier
Light & Sound Design UK & US/Fourth Phase

Vari*Lite Supplier
VLPS

Lighting Equipment

54

Vari*Lite VL2416s

4

LSD/Fourth Phase custom ripple drum machines

24

ETC Source Fours 19º with iris

8

LSD custom DWE units

48

LSD 4-way DWE Mole striplights

70

Lowel-Light Totas

12

Lowel-Light Omnis

28

Diversitronics D3000 strobes

33

LSD Turbo Beacons

10

sodium 400W fixtures

14

Hubbell Sportsliters

9

Lycian Starklite spots and seats

1

Jands Hog 1000 control console

1

Avolites Pearl control console

1

Clear-Com intercom system

4

ETC 72x2kW dimmers

7

ChainMaster Vario-Lift 1-ton hoists

48

Columbus McKinnon hoists

4

Reel EFX DF-50 hazers

8

High End Systems F-100 fog machines

4

E\T\C Audiovisuel PIGI projectors with rotating scrollers, 18cm lenses, and custom mirror setups

16

sections Tomcat UK stacking truss

LSD trussing
Brilliant Stages motorized screen lifting system, blackout tunnels, and 35'x12' opera gauze roll drops