Tribe Sets Itself Up at the Forefront of Modern Set Design From an airy studio located on lyrical Electric Avenue in Venice, CA, a group of designers who work under the moniker of Tribe are busy producing stage sets that are impressive not only for their sheer beauty but also for their extraordinary diversity. Fueled by their considerable and highly concentrated talents - not to mention a steady diet of Red Vines licorice and Peet's coffee - the four designers comprising Tribe have produced hundreds of sets for everything from the most high-profile concert tours to television shows and corporate theatre events. Their credits include: Sting's recent concert in Central Park, the Dixie Chicks' appearance on the 2000 Country Music Awards show, Marc Anthony's world tour, Gloria Estefan's Caribbean Soul show on CBS, An All-Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell, Ricky Martin's Livin' La Vida Loca world tour, Microsoft Windows 2000 Launch, the Buick Rendezvous Reveal, the Billboard Music Awards, and the ABC news special Brave New World, which garnered them their first Emmy nod. And that's just what they've done this year.
The main man behind this prolific firm is production designer Bruce Rodgers, who founded Tribe in 1996. He arrived in Hollywood back in the 80s after graduating from Texas Tech University with a degree in architecture and a minor in theatre set design. A friend had suggested he seek out set designer Jeremy Railton. So that's where he started - and ended up for the next decade.
"My resume was a brown paper bag with sketches in it when I met Jeremy," Rodgers says. "I had been in town for less than 24 hours when he hired me."
The two designers enjoyed incredible success in the industry. By 1996, they had named their partnership The Last Design Company, and they had a staff of more than 40 people - plus a contract to design AT&T's Global Olympic Village for the summer games in Atlanta. The 90,000-sq.-ft. transportable tensile structure that served as a meeting and entertainment area for the athletes and their families as well as a live music venue and media center was the largest - and most expensive - project Rodgers had worked on. Then, the much-publicized bomb explosion at the Olympic Pavilion prompted Rodgers to take a hard look at his life and his career.
Upon returning to LA, Rodgers decided he wanted to focus his talents on the kind of project he really wanted to do, instead of overseeing a large staff. "It was the right time to leave, so I did," he says. "Then I spent the next six months hanging out at coffee shops and contemplating my future."
The idea for Tribe germinated during this period. Rodgers' friend, Venice-based artist Anton Goss, designed the Tribe logo. Working closely with his wife and fellow designer Shelley Warner, Rodgers then decided on the philosophy of his new venture. "We came up with the name first," Rodgers says. "The essence of it is that the core group and the logo is based on the way we wanted to set up our company. It's an open circle with a source in the middle. The opening is just big enough for the source to exit and enter at any time. The points at the opening are very sharp, so you are as careful leaving as you are entering. That's the essence of a tribal situation. You can be a part of any tribe - all people who love music or football or politics or whatever are part of a tribe. You can reduce anything to a tribal situation.
"Because of the music shows we do, it's easy to see the bigger picture of a tribal situation," he continues. "Any band that has a gathering of 2,000, 20,000, or even millions through satellite hookup, operates under a tribal scenario. Throughout history music has united, healed, motivated, and spoken for groups of people in the purest tribal sense. A live music happening has all the earmarks of a full-blown religious experience. My goal is to do my part to help guide this true tribal essence through live music into the collective consciousness."
The first project that Rodgers feels put him on the map as a solo designer was Fleetwood Mac's reunion special. "I got a call from Carol Donovan [from MTV] to put my name in the hat for it," he explains. "But they were very clear about not coming in with preconceived ideas or sketches, because the band wanted to talk to us first. I did a couple of nights' worth of sketches while listening to their music. Of course, I grew up with Fleetwood Mac, too, so I came up with an idea of a Mobius curve. It made sense to me because of the complete circle they were making through their hell."
When Rodgers went to meet with the band, they immediately asked him if he had sketches to show them. "I said, `No, I wanted to get your ideas first.' They told me they didn't really have any ideas, so I sketched the Mobius curve right in front of them and explained how it represented them and the times they had lived through and the time continuum and all that. I truly felt all that, and they could tell. So they went for it."
Next, Rodgers did Hanson's first world tour. "It's just been building from there," he says. "Now we're doing a lot more television. We've been so busy, so I don't really know where we are in the whole cosmos. We've had times when we've had 10 people in the office. When we were working on Ricky Martin's tour last year, we were there 24/7. I'm pretty happy with where we are now."
The "we" Rodgers refers to is his design staff, most notably the triumvirate of full-time Tribe dwellers: Mike Rhodes, Joe Kale, and Jamie Carr.
Rhodes had been Rodgers' assistant at The Last Design Company since 1994. "Then he asked me to join him (at Tribe) and we started out in the back of his house in a little room," Rhodes says. "Taking one gig at a time, we slowly built it up." A writer and journalist by trade, Rhodes does creative writing and concept work. "I'm also the CFO of the company, so I do everything that has to do with contracts. I handle client meetings, relations, and negotiations. Every now and then we get a gig that actually calls for me to write, but mostly I do project management."
Senior designer Kale had also worked with Rodgers and Rhodes since 1995. "I studied at San Diego State, doing furniture and environmental design. It was an amalgamation - I kind of created my own major," he says. "After graduation, I came back to LA and first worked with Bruce on the Olympics project. When Bruce started Tribe, he asked me to join him, so I've been here since its inception.
"I'm amazed at what we've managed to complete in the last two years," he continues. "You get so immersed in the jobs here that your productivity level just skyrockets. That's out of necessity, but it's also a better design process. You're more focused."
Art director Carr worked for almost a decade in traditional architecture before getting into theatre and scenic design in the Bay Area in 1994. After making the move to Los Angles, he starting working in movie set design. "I did some films and videos and commercials, including Michael and Janet Jackson's video, Scream," he says. "I met Bruce at Jeremy Railton's office, and I started working with him in on the AT&T project at the Olympics."
Carr joined Tribe about a year and a half ago. "We all work really hard, but we have a lot of fun together," he says. "It's a real teamwork kind of place. I've learned a lot about materials and lighting and the whole rock-and-roll approach to set design. Joe is more computer-skilled, while I'm more of a draftsman. Every design starts in the brain of Bruce Rodgers; the longer I'm here, the more I understand his vision. He gives us room to experiment so most projects reflect a combination of all of our efforts."
When a project is first offered to Tribe, Rodgers will begin the design process on his own. "It's hard enough to collaborate with yourself, knowing that you're trying to translate what Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Ricky Martin, or whoever it is, would like to convey," Rodgers says. "It's like birthing a baby. You go through a whole process and you learn things while you're sketching. Eventually, if you're lucky, you find the right idea. Then you have to make them believe that it's the right thing for them. In this business, you are basically auditioning every day for every gig. You're not only trying to make the artist happy, but there is also the manager, the record company, the lighting designer, the producer, etc., as well. There are some pretty bizarre people in the music business."
According to lighting designer Stan Crocker, who first worked with Rodgers on Hanson's Albertane world tour in 1998, the designer's greatest strength is his ability to communicate. "What first impressed me about Bruce was that he conveyed to me exactly how his set would look while we were on the phone - before I saw any models or sketches," Crocker says. "I'm continually amazed by his skill at pulling ideas from clients, and helping them articulate their vision. He does that with his knowledge of art and architecture and elements of nature. He's got such an extensive aesthetic vocabulary that it allows him to interact well with a lot of different people. That's really valuable, because one of the most disappointing things for a client is for them to think they know what they're going to see, only to show up and see something completely different."
After Rodgers comes up with a general concept, he usually turns it over to Kale. "Then we do a lot of model building to make sure we get the size and the scale right," Kale explains. "That's a real big help, and, at that point, it's more of a team process. We bounce ideas off of each other and he's very receptive to using ideas art directors come up with and developing those. My job is 60% drawing on the computer; the other 40% is organizing and getting it all built. We do such a variety of designs - for TV, touring, one-offs, and corporate shows - that it's been quite interesting because they cover so many different design disciplines and parameters.
"We take a different approach than most set designers," he continues. "Good or bad, we try to get everybody who's involved in the project on the same page. Audio, lighting, rigging, etc. We send everyone our drawings ahead of time, so they all know what to expect from us."
"We use more paper than any design company in the world," Rhodes adds. "We inundate people with information and that all comes back to Bruce. He's very into details and probably the smartest guy I've ever met in my life. He's curious about everything and he thinks about every angle. So the drawing packages we generate are huge."
While the paper trail may confound some of their associates, the attention to detail has endeared Rodgers to many others. "Bruce thinks like a lighting designer," Crocker says. "He's already worked out a lot of details in his head as far as being generous with his angles and placements. He doesn't put something into a set where it can't be lit; he really thinks about that beforehand. That makes the job of lighting his set so much easier because you don't have to waste so much time wrestling with logistics that you can't indulge yourself in the creative side of it. He gives lots of opportunity and lots of textures and surfaces to light and makes it logistically possible to get the light to them."
Rodgers is cognizant of the set designer's role in every production. "We are part of a team of unique and colorful crew and production people that know fully well why we all do what we do," he explains. "My job is the greatest gig of all. I get to build a sculpture that symbolizes the message the people have come to hear. If I have communicated this message, even to the people up high in the cheap seats, then I have done my job."
Director/producer Jeb Brien became a big fan of Rodgers' work immediately after Crocker introduced them in 1999. "We've been working together now for about two and a half years. The first project he did for me was an in-concert, Disney special back in January 1999, and I was really pleased with it," Brien says. "It was very forward thinking, and we got an amazing response on it for two virtually unknown acts at the time, B superscript *Witched and an English boy band called 5ive. Then we did the All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash. Again, another stellar performance from the Tribe boys. The directive for this was that the man we were dealing with is humble, but of great pride and of the earth. So I didn't want anything pretentious or any award-show glitz. Bruce did an amazing 40' icon of Johnny's face that came through a forest, if you will. It was sensational."
The Tribe members feel that their jobs are equally sensational. "The best part about working at Tribe has been to see it grow from such a small operation in a little studio in the back of the house with no air conditioning," Rhodes says. "We didn't take out a big loan or get investors to start out, we just built it organically from the beginning. All of us learned what we needed to do along the way. I learned about handling finances and contracts; Joe and Jamie learned about art direction; and Bruce learned about everything. It's been really fun because none of us came from these glamorous jobs and then laterally stepped into this gig; we all started from the ground up. It's been really gratifying to see it just getting bigger and more weird and crazy and fun. The weirder the better.
"We're excited about getting gigs and meeting new people and getting jobs," he continues. "We're new enough to this business that we're not jaded at all. We all have egos, but we're still excited about what we do. We also have people we can hire, gig to gig, and they do a great job for us. The posse we have keeps getting bigger and cooler. My part in this company is weird but it's great. I love coming to work every day."
Rodgers is still working out how Tribe's success will translate into the company's growth. "We've had a number of opportunities to do different kinds of gigs, but I want to make sure that we're doing the ones that are purely about what we want to take part in - and I like having a small core of people here," he says. "I wonder if I'll still be working with these guys when I'm 80 years old; I'm committed to these guys for life. I don't know if we'll still call ourselves Tribe then, but I do know that I want to be doing things that affect the masses. I want to do this - or at least some version of it - forever."