The Stones' Cool Video 'Licks'
A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Designing, Staging U.S. Concerts
Eight LED screens, each consisting of a grid of Barco D7 units, dominated by a 15’x18' center screen, provided the video foundation during Paul McCartney’s recent tour (above Milwaukee show, below Hartford). Photo © MPL Tours Inc. All photos by Bill Bernstein.
As a dozen pre-show dancers and mimes make their way throughthe Anaheim Pond arena in Southern California, a power chord suddenly rocks the sold-out audience out of their seats. Paul McCartney is about take the stage.
A still silhouette of the former Beatle holding his Hofner bass appears on a large LED screen front and center, prompting a tremendous roar. The screen lifts to reveal the real deal, holding the same pose as his LED counterpart — the silhouette having been manufactured from a rehearsal photo of McCartney, fooling many in the audience into believing the LED screen was actually a transparent screen in front of McCartney.
The singer promptly launches into the Beatles' 1967 classic “Hello Goodbye,” surrounded by a dazzling display of light and video.
The Anaheim show came at the end of McCartney's Back in the U.S. tour, which wrapped up at the end of October. The tour was originally called Driving USA when it traveled around the nation last spring. After additional Driving Japan and Driving Mexico tours, the show returned to the United States, re-named Back in the U.S., with McCartney planning to “drive” through other parts of the world early this year.
The shows featured innovative combinations of light and video, surrounding McCartney with a skillfully designed visual program. Tour director Barrie Marshall and production director Gerry Stickells worked with veteran art director Roy Bennett to create an entertaining but not distracting combination of light and image for the tour.
“On past tours, Paul had a lot of different props and gags,” Bennett told SRO. “For this tour, they just wanted it to be purely video and lights — kind of all about Paul, with the visuals focusing just on the music and his history.”
Bennett designed an interesting LED screen package for the tour using eight LED screens, each made up of a grid of Barco D7 units. Several were used to create a single, large 15'×18' screen, which was hung overhead at the front of the stage. Also above the stage, to the left and right, were two more screens, each made up of a 4'×3' grid of D7s.
On stage behind the drummer there was another screen, made up of three columns of three D7 screens. On either side were smaller screens made up of two columns of three D7s. In addition, two more side screens created with D7s were visible for audience members unable to see the front-facing screens (the system was designed for a 270-degree field of view).
The three front-facing screens were cable mounted, permitting vertical tracking. In addition, the left and right front screens were mounted to allow each column of the screen grid to be raised and lowered independently. That effect allowed an artistic breakup of solid photo images or, when desired, individual images to appear on each screen within the grid. Those screens, though grouped together to act as a single screen, were arranged with gaps — both horizontally and vertically — between the individual screen units. This allowed light from behind, both from stage lighting and from the stage-mounted LED screens, to be visible through the gaps.
“Video is a rectangular format, so I tried to break it down as much as I could to break outside of that,” Bennett says. “By splitting the screens and allowing gaps, I could actually shine my lighting system through the screens. It gives off a hard light, in addition to the soft light that the LEDs emit.”
Bennett, who first worked in video and lighting design in 1980 for Prince, brought designer Andee Kuroda on board to create the imagery displayed on the screens. The two have collaborated on numerous concerts over the years, including last year's Tim McGraw tour, which also featured configured LED screens, and television projects like the VH1 Fashion Awards. Kuroda and her company, Kanpai Pictures, co-founded with partner Jay Karas, have also produced imagery for MTV, VH1, the WB, and others.
The video displays were designed by Bennett and Kuroda, and created by Kuroda and three staff designers. The material consisted of a combination of entertaining graphics, archive photographs, film footage, and stock footage. Material was provided by The Beatles' Apple Corps Limited, McCartney's MPL Communications archive, and the Linda McCartney Archive.
“I had access to whatever I wanted, but I had to find it first,” Kuroda says.
The process of bringing the displays to life began approximately six weeks before the start of the tour, when McCartney presented the team with an initial set list of 50 songs, 36 of which would eventually be chosen for the show.
“Paul didn't know which ones he wanted to do, or in which order at that point,” Kuroda explains. “But he knew it would definitely come out of that 50.”
Kuroda and Bennett then met with McCartney, who gave specific directions about what he wanted to see for each song. “For ‘Can't Buy Me Love,’ for example, he wanted footage from A Hard Day's Night,” Kuroda says. “I then went through the set list and put a creative concept to each song.”
Kuroda says her greatest challenge was subjugating her own vision as a Beatles fan to her client's desires. She adds with a chuckle, “It was hard because I've been thinking about this for 15 years! I was my own biggest critic.”
Once the materials were selected and located, Kuroda and her staff created the various video streams, using Adobe After Effects and 3D software Maya to create the graphic images. Kuroda herself then edited the images as uncompressed video using an Avid Meridien system with Avid Media Composer (version 11.0). Kuroda matched the images to a combination of original studio recordings, live recordings from previous tours, and eventually, early rehearsal recordings from the Driving USA tour.
Besides the archive footage, staff animators also created original animation, which blended well with the still photo and film images. In addition, for McCartney's newest singles, “Lonely Road” and “Your Loving Flame,” Kuroda made use of B-roll and background plate footage from the songs' music videos.
Designs for various songs changed slightly between the spring leg of the tour and when the tour entered its Back in the U.S. phase in the fall. Besides the addition of three new songs, Kuroda played around with a few others, making some creative changes. Later, displays for McCartney's patriotic anthem “Freedom” were also adjusted for international audiences, who may have considered the design seen by U.S. audiences as “too American.”
“We kind of re-did it to reflect various freedom fighters throughout time,” explains Kuroda, noting the addition of images ranging from Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama.
In particular, a specific innovation was added for Japanese audiences — the introduction of Japanese translation, displayed in Japanese characters at the bottom of the front video screens.
“During the show, Paul tells quite a few stories,” says video director Paul Becher. “We were providing realtime translations for the Japanese audiences of those stories.”
Before the Anaheim show, the translation team practiced long-distance with McCartney during soundcheck to prepare for an upcoming Japanese tour. “We've got eight translators working in unison,” Becher explained during the test. “We just put Paul on the phone to Tokyo. He was talking, they were listening and translating, sending it back here to Anaheim, all within a matter of a few seconds.”
Once the designs were completed, Kuroda and Bennett spent two weeks on the rehearsal stage at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif. There they entered the various video streams into the computer control system they chose to run the image displays, which would be operated by Paul Becher.
To control the video, Becher used the Vector image-control processing system from Electrosonic running on an IBM ThinkPad laptop. He also used a Sony Vaio laptop to operate an ARTI media controller, which queued up image files from a rack of dual-channel Doremi 36GB hard drives, and fed them to the Vector system.
Industry veteran Andee Kuroda designed the tour’s extensive video imagery to McCartney’s specifications.
Becher was also responsible for switching and directing eight IMAG cameras from his station behind the stage. Five manned, digital Ikegami HL-45 cameras were positioned around the arena — two front of house, by the mixing desk; one on a dolly track in front of the stage; one above stage left to capture McCartney at his piano; and one at a station in the midst of the audience. These were supplemented by three fixed Sony DXC-930 lipstick cameras for POV video. Two of the DXC-930 cameras were located on stands pointed toward the artists and their instruments, and a third camera was attached to McCartney's second keyboard.
Kuroda also designed various space-holders to be replaced by IMAG insertion. While most songs typically featured between two and eight different image streams, some portions of various screens were left black for particular songs by design, Bennett says.
“I'm not afraid of empty spaces,” Bennett says. “If you spread an image over multiple screens, even though there are gaps between them, your brain still processes that as a whole image.”
Bennett also explains why the tour used such a wide variety of images. “There are people who come to see Paul for repeat performances,” he says. “We like to give them enough so that maybe the next time they come back they'll see something they didn't notice before.”
“It's a different look for tours,” adds Kuroda. “You're used to going to a show and seeing video. It's not a new thing to have cool video up there. But I think using video as a set piece, and not just ‘showing’ video, but really designing it — that's what we've done that's different.”
As mentioned earlier, one of the most innovative elements of the design was the use of the moving LED screen elements, in combination with the image control that the Vector system provided. Screens were arranged in various shapes by raising and lowering different columns. For one section of the concert in which McCartney played solo, screens were sometimes arranged in an arch configuration over the singer.
“It's just to pull the focus down into him,” says Bennett. “I was trying to make it more intimate; to keep it a large vivid image without being too distracting.”
During rehearsals, which consisted of several 20-hour days until the tour was ready to roll, McCartney would approve the images and designs himself. He often sat at the control desk, watching his band play without him.
“He's very open-minded and easy to work for,” says Kuroda. “He's open to just an explanation of the reasoning behind something, and he understands the process.”
While the band generally plays each song to the same timing and tempo each night, there are, of course, slight variations with each performance. Thus, the video timing was also varied during the tour. For each song, Kuroda built between seven and 15 video cues to hit, tracked by video assistant director Marcia Kapustin, who operated the cues within the Vector program for each song.
One advantage to having Roy Bennett on the job was the fact that he doubled as the video and lighting designer.
“The reason I got into set design was, being a lighting designer, I used to get very frustrated with set designers that didn't understand lighting,” says Bennett. “They'd make sets you could never light. It's the same thing with video — it's one complete package, video and lighting.”
Bennett's approach for the tour was simply to light around the video.
“Roy and I work together while I'm creating all the video materials, as to color palette,” Kuroda explains. “He left it open to defer video to the colors he was using for lighting. But since we were pre-producing it, I would defer to him about what colors we should try to field for each song to go into the video images.”
“Paul wanted a show with edgy lighting, but which would still be complementary to the videos,” notes lighting director Wally Lees. Lees has worked with Bennett for years, on tours for Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Bryan Adams, and countless others. “[Bennett] designs the show, and I direct it and program it for him,” says Lees. “We bat ideas off each other while we're doing that.”
The main overhead stage lights for the tour were contained in five custom-made pods made by Light & Sound Design of Newbury Park, Calif. Each pod contained 10 Vari-Lite 2416 arc source wash lights.
“They are designed so that the lights don't have to go back in the boxes each day,” explains Lees. “They can travel in their pods on dollies, and go straight into the truck. This creates less man hours in the morning and at night. The pods just get bolted together, in sections.”
The 2416 units were complemented by 10 soft-edge Vari-Lite 2402 lights for cross-wash from the sides of the stage. The 50 2416 units were controlled by Lees using Light & Sound Design's proprietary Icon control console, with 10 soft faders. Each song had between 60 and 100 cues, which were programmed by Lees during those long rehearsal days and triggered on cue throughout each track.
In addition, Lees had 11 manually operated spotlights follow McCartney and his band. Lees also used up-lit face toners to light McCartney from below, to do away with shadows, and provide a softer look for shots of McCartney picked up by the video cameras.
Gaps between chunks of images on the LED screens were an intentional part of the video design.
Besides conventional lighting, the tour also used a series of 21 cubic light boxes containing Martin Mac 2000 fixtures, built by Perry Scenic Productions of the U.K. The 60ft.-tall boxes became the equivalent of a large back wall.
“Each box has a mirror in the middle of it, with a (Martin Mac 2000 light fixture) pointing down from the top and another up from the bottom, reflecting off the mirror,” explains Lees. Dichroic light sources (mirrors configured to reflect light selectively, according to its wavelength) then produced 21 columns of colored light in varying patterns, as required — such as red, white, and blue stripes for “Freedom.”
On the audio side, McCartney relied on front-of-house engineer Paul “PAB” Boothroyd. Boothroyd has been with McCartney since his massive 1989 Flowers in the Dirt world tour. He has worked on such shows as McCartney's return to Liverpool's Cavern Club in 1999 and his 2002 wedding to Heather Mills.
Boothroyd uses a pair of Midas XLIV consoles bussed together to provide 104 inputs, most of which were used during the tour. For effects, a pair of TC Electronic Digital Audio Mainframe M5000 digital effects devices were used, along with a D2 delay. Compression/limiting was handled by dbx 160SL Blue series compressor/limiters, with Drawmer DS201 noise gates. A generic media playback rack took care of any playback required, such as walk-in music, though Boothroyd is quick to point out that there were no pre-recorded tracks or click-tracks on this tour.
“There's no secret channels of anything stuck in there,” he says. “Everything you hear is played by a musician up there, manually.”
The system also used a Klark Teknik DN9340 Helix digital graphic equalizer for system EQ.
“It's a new product which we got to try out a while back, and I like it so much, I've been using it ever since,” says Boothroyd. “We used to use the standard Showco TEQ Graphics across the system, which are absolutely fine. But because of our setup and the use of radio stuff around the mix area, we just found that the shielding of the Klark gave us a little more protection.”
Another innovative device used was a system input/output setup.
“We have controllers for particular zones of the PA,” Boothroyd explains. “We can mute EQ bands, change level of bands, phase-adjust. It just gives us control over various sections.” All of those systems were linked to a wireless controller, which was managed by system engineer Randy Wille.
Boothroyd was also responsible for providing audio feeds for media and TV.
“We actually have two sets of stereo mic pairs out here by the desk to provide ambience, both for archiving purposes and for the media feeds,” Boothroyd explains. “We then send the signal to a buffet splitter, which feeds Video World (the media video feed location at each show), where visiting media can tap into their feed and get pictures and audio. It's simply a left and right mix, with some ambient mics, submixed in there on a separate audio bus, so it's discrete. And all that gets mastered through a dbx Quantum mastering device, to give the mix some depth to suit television and broadcast.”
A pair of Tascam 48-track MX24-24 hard disk recorders were always running at each show. “Everything Paul does is archived,” notes Boothroyd, “whether it's a soundcheck, a TV press conference, or a show.” The recordings made during the first tour provided the soundtrack for the Back in the U.S. DVD and CD releases.
Matt Hurwitz is a freelance writer who covers music, film, and television. He is the former Publisher of Beatles fanzine, Good Day Sunshine.Email at MattHurwitz@aol.com.
THE STONES' COOL VIDEO ‘LICKS’
The old Beatles versus Rolling Stones rivalry was alive and well late last year, at least where the innovative use of LED video is concerned. While Paul McCartney traveled the world with ambitious video dressing for his concert tour, the Stones were being equally aggressive.
The Rolling Stones, at Boston’s Gillette Stadium, with LED screens joined to create one large display. Photo by Rich Hogan.
The video design for their 40 Licks anniversary world tour was created by veteran Willie Williams, who has worked numerous tours over the years for R.E.M., U2, and others. For the 2002 Stones tour, lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe and set designer Mark Fisher asked Williams to come up with original screen content.
“Large-scale video screens are very much the tool of the moment,” Williams told SRO from his London office. “Concert video is now at the saturation point that moving lights hit in the mid-1980s. We're seeing a lot of visual overload, a lot of quick-and-easy screen-saver type computer-generated graphics, and relentless overuse of eye candy. None of this I felt would be appropriate for the Stones, so I began to look elsewhere for ideas.”
Williams developed several concepts for Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts to review — offering them folders of drawings and storyboards.
“I let them choose the ones they felt most comfortable with,” says Williams. “They were very good at saying what they liked and didn't like. Particularly, for the indoor show, they were keen to use the video screen to create a sense of place, virtual scenery almost, and of course, to enhance the view of the band members for the seats at the back.”
Williams designed the images with help from London's Punk Films. Working at Punk's London studios, as well as on-site at concert venues in Toronto and Boston, the design team used Mac G4 laptops running Final Cut Pro 3, Adobe After Effects 5, and Adobe Photoshop 7 to create the imagery.
The images they designed are hardly screen-savers. For one song, Williams created a nighttime freeway scene. While traffic moves in the background, live IMAG from the concert appears on a billboard in the foreground of the pre-built freeway video scene.
For another track, a Japanese anime image of a topless dominatrix battles with the famous Rolling Stones tongue. She pierces the tongue with a large spiked stud and rides it briefly, before the tongue swallows her and spits out her boots. “The crowd always loves that one,” Williams chuckles.
The tour also featured video showing a burning version of the tongue logo. To create that imagery, Williams used shapes up to 30ft. wide, made of pipes with gas jets. “The shapes were filmed from above, so it looks as if the flames are shooting directly at the audience,” he explains. “The tongue was very successful, and the audience loved it.”
There were also lots of pictures of the band in the video mix, but Williams tried to mix-and-match them in an interesting fashion. “There are live images used during almost 85% of the show, working in tandem with animation or prerecorded images,” he says. The live images were mixed in realtime by video director Christine Strand from a backstage control center.
The designs were also coordinated carefully with lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe.
“When it comes to programming, the two elements work very closely together, sometimes one taking the lead, sometimes the other,” explains Williams. “The stronger video pieces might make it obvious that lighting for that song be very simple, or the video might suggest a color palette that lighting should use. Other times, the lighting effects might be the central idea for a song, so the video would be very simple camera coverage. And then, occasionally, we'd both go in all guns blazing, and create something quite spectacular.”
Williams' task was complicated by the need to provide designs for two different types of venues. The tour actually plays in three different venues — stadiums, sports arenas, and small theaters, with the latter considered intimate enough to not require video. Instead, the theater shows were staged solely with light effects. But with stadiums and sports arenas requiring different sized stages, different video designs were needed for those portions of the tour, both in screen configuration and content.
The basic stadium screen design contained eight columns of computer-controlled, Barco LED units, which can move laterally for different configurations. “We can have one huge screen, eight thin ones, or any combination in between,” explains the designer. The screens were built and hung by Brilliant Stages of the U.K., while several scenic elements were added by Pennsylvania-based Tait Towers.
For the arena stage, a single, gigantic, static Barco LED video screen, weighing around 55,000lbs., stretched floor-to-ceiling the entire width of the stage (about 46'×52'), and remained in place throughout each concert. Set within the face of that screen were tracks holding lighting instruments, which could move up and down.
“The lights could be made to look like they were moving along girders, or video sparks can appear to come from the lighting fixtures,” says Williams. “It was really fun to play with.”
As mentioned, Williams made interesting use of IMAG. “We used a lot of different camera configurations and interesting video treatments,” he explains. “We often placed camera pictures over a background texture, which was itself an abstracted camera image. This way, the image and the background respond together to the live action.”
IMAG images were often treated to the same type of effect as the video images, and then blended together to make one complete scene. Other times, simple untreated camera images were used, often just four images — one of each band member.
“We felt that between big visual songs, it was important to have a ‘home state’ to return to, so the audience knew where they were, and could just see the band and forget about video effects for a song or two,” says Williams.
Michael Eddy and Ellen Lampert-Greaux contributed to this article. For their report on the Stones tour, see the December issue of SRO's sister magazine, Entertainment Design.