There's a song on The Complex, Blue Man Group's second studio effort, called “Time to Start,” in which a professional voiceover delineates the various rock concert clichés: “Rock Concert Movement Number One: The Basic Head Bob,” “Rock Concert Movement Number Two: The One-Armed Fist Pump,” “Rock Concert Movement Number Three: The Up-and-Down Jumping Motion.” It's a classic Blue Man Group conceit: embracing the rituals of a certain discipline while at the same time poking a big, fat stick at the inherent clichés. It's a formula that's worked very well for this ever-expanding collective of artists in its various theatrical incarnations for over 15 years. Now, to help support its new album, Blue Man Group has employed the same structure for its first major concert tour.
But if the basic head bob is the first step for any self-respecting rock audience, rock concert movement number one for any band hoping to aspire to the heights of rock concert nirvana is to hire designer Marc Brickman, he of Pink Floyd and Nine Inch Nails fame. And that's just who the three original Blue Men — Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink — called when planning the tour. “They said I was the only one who called back,” laughs Brickman.
The concert world may have been new to the Blue Men, but the close-knit collaborative nature of their work ethic was new to Brickman, a freelancer by trade and by disposition. All of the various departments within the Blue Man organization — the three founders, the in-house design team, which includes lighting designer Marc Janowitz, video director Caryl Glaab, technical crew, scene and prop shop personnel, etc. — meet every Friday for what they call pre-pro meetings, to bounce off ideas; Brickman found himself in many of those meetings over the course of more than six months of involvement with the tour. “There's that old saying, out of chaos comes order,” he notes. “And they prove that theory correct. It's a very fluid process, and a very collaborative process, which I really enjoyed. Some people may have had a hard time with it, but I just hung my ego at the door and sat down. It was almost like therapy.”
Janowitz notes that the Blue Man team also benefited from bringing someone of Brickman's caliber into its close-knit group. “He was the perfect match to take our ideas and our direction to a whole new level of creativity,” says Janowitz. “He brings with him a tremendous design vocabulary and a worldly experience of the rock genre. Personally, one of my greatest challenges was overcoming my own preconceived notions of what a Blue Man show should look like. Brickman helped us all to step outside of the box to see the possibilities that existed for this new material.”
Brickman acknowledges that Blue Man Group took a risk bringing someone with his credentials onboard for this project. “I think their Vegas show is a masterpiece, and I suppose in their minds they were thinking, ‘We do pretty damn good by ourselves,’ so it was kind of risky for them to bring on someone like myself. Sometimes you don't fix what's not broken. But I think they really wanted to have a rock-and-roll feel to it. They wanted to feature the band and the music as much as the Blue Men. I think they also wanted to fill a niche that I personally feel is missing from the touring world these days, which is that great rock-and-roll experience.”
To achieve that, the veteran designer brought three major elements to the table. The first was a three-tiered set that could hold all the band members: the usual assortment of guitars, bass, keyboards, and occasional guest vocalists (no, Blue Man Group still do not speak) plus three percussionists, not to mention a variety of Blue Man's patented homemade percussive instruments, including tubulums and something called a piano smasher. Video is an important component of the tour — Caryl Glaab has created an array of stunning visuals designed to underscore the themes of the group's new album — so Brickman has added blocks of LED screens strategically placed on all three levels of the set, as well as a 40'-long, 9"-wide strip along the lip of the stage. The final touch, appropriately enough, is a lighting system with enormous horsepower, heavy on moving lights (a first for Blue Man Group), plus some new tricks with Live Wire, one of the high points of their Vegas show. All of this adds up to a show that loads into seven trucks, a rather large caravan considering the size of the venues, which, for the first leg of the tour, consisted of medium-sized theatres (it was to move into sheds later in the summer).
There are over 20 of the LED strips onstage, which come in two sizes — 4' and 5'6" — and are modified versions of the discontinued 15mm Sony LEDs. They're placed at various spots between the band members on each tier. These strips can either run their own video images or correspond to what's happening on the full screen. Brickman reckons that if put together, the strips, along with the 40' strip across the stage, would equal the full 11'×20' Lighthouse screen above the band. “The way the video is constructed, it looks as though the band is literally inside the video,” Brickman explains. “That way, your eye isn't going up to the big screen all the time. You're looking right at the band, and they're part of the information.”
Blue Light Special
As for the lighting, Brickman held the toplight and frontlight to a minimum, with a lot of the lighting coming from the sides and the floor. “I wanted to keep all the attention riveted right in the picture,” he explains. The rig includes Vari*Lite® VL1000™ Arcs and Altman UV 703 fresnels with Wybron Eclipse I dousers up top, High End Systems Studio Beams™ hung on three towers of Tomcat box truss on either side of the stage, Vari*Lite VL2402s™ on the deck, 8-lights with Morpheus M Fader™ color changers underneath the stage, and a massive amount of the new Martin Atomic strobes located on the deck and risers. “I love those strobes,” says Brickman. “The control you can get out of them is just fantastic.” The show is run on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II. The lighting was provided by VLPS Los Angeles; the set and rigging were provided by SGPS/Show Rig.
The color scheme for the show begins with a simple white and progresses from there. “It starts in a less-saturated mode,” says Janowitz, who served as lighting director and associate production designer for the tour, “and then it gets more saturated as it goes. It grows from a non-directional white strobe on the floor, then we add some light emanating from under the band, and then we bring in some more pastel colors when we introduce the vocalists. It slowly gets more saturated and builds up from the sides and we start to add light from the top, until it all kind of breaks through in every direction. In the middle of all this we introduce ultraviolet, which Brickman calls invisible light, which pulls out colors that aren't even part of the spectrum, per se.”
The Live Wire aspects of The Complex tour were overseen by Janowitz, who's fast becoming the industry expert on this fiber-optic tool. He recently formed a company with two partners called Production Solutions Inc., which provides DMX control for large-scale animation sequences. This technology makes two appearances in the show. During the song “White Rabbit,” animated jellyfish and dragonflies, dubbed fauna, descend from the rig on VarioLift high-speed chain hoists from Show Distribution. “It's sort of through the rabbit hole of the information age,” Janowitz says of the effect. “We have these solid-state animating creatures cutting through the primordial ooze. It's a transition point, where we delve into what Chris Wink calls the shamanistic part of the show.” The creatures tour in one piece; they travel in road boxes roughly the size of a washer/dryer, come out right of the box, get attached to hooks, and fly.
Live Wire is also employed in a number called “The Current,” in which each of the three Blue Men is represented by a Live Wire outline of what the group calls Icon Man. “The Icon Man is one of the throughlines of the show,” explains Janowitz. “He's the Everyman.” The effect is similar to that used in the Vegas show, with animated men walking, looking much like stop-frame animation, on either side of the screen. They're housed on four animation panels, two upstage left and two upstage right.
According to Janowitz, the unique aspect of Live Wire on this project was making it all safe for touring. “Figuring out how to make the animation panels roadworthy, so that they can go in and out every day and not break or deform — that took a while,” he says. “And then building them took about two months, from applying all the wire routing on the back, to figuring out a distribution system based on the premise that every theatre and lighting technician could understand the multis, breakouts, and that type of thing.”
For Janowitz, making the transition from the theatrical world to the touring world took a little getting used to, an experience aided immeasurably by the presence of Brickman. “Without drawing too much attention to the distinction, in the theatre world we do things a little bit differently,” he says. “But I feel like we were able to complement each other in that he brought this tremendous amount of world experience and rock experience, and I was able to navigate him through the Blue Man world experience. And where we met in the middle is the production that's onstage.” And Brickman's biggest challenge on this project? “Going to an office everyday,” he jokes.
Unlike most touring shows, the video used on The Complex tour was developed very early in the process — even while the album was being recorded. “We realized we needed to begin developing the stage show at the same time,” explains Glaab, “so we began exploring and creating the visuals that were going to be accompanying various songs in graphic form.” For years Glaab, who has been with the Blue Man organization since the very early days and is sometimes dubbed the fourth Blue Man, had long been using straight video but was never pleased with the way it looked. Tinkering in the Blue Man offices for nearly a year and a half, he and the video crew came up with a process of shooting live-action video on greenscreen and then putting the people in the shot through a vectorization process using Flash, changing the speed to 15 frames per second, and then laying back into a CGI environment. The result is similar to that employed by director Richard Linklater in the film Waking Life, the difference being that film processed the entire frame and not just the people in the frame.
“The thing that became very appealing to us was that it aligned emotionally with some of the concepts of the songs on the album,” Glaab explains. “The vectorization gave the people this quivering, bubbly look to them, which was set off against this gray-toned reality of the environment and sat well conceptually with the work.” Other imagery created for the tour include the Icon Man character walking through mazes, office cubicles, and, appropriately enough, a complex of buildings.
Glaab's gear on the tour includes a Grass Valley 200 switcher, a Dataton show control system (courtesy of Scharff Weisberg), two DoReMi Duel Drive hard drives, a Sony 2800 Beta player/recorder, four Sony XC555 cameras (cigar cameras), a Sony DXC 990 remote, a Pinnacle DVE processor with two-channel output, and a Dancer DNA sound responsive computer. The gear was provided by BCC/Screenworks; the LED screen and tiles were made by Lighthouse. Scharff Weisberg's Jon Kephart served as Dataton programmer for the tour. “Jon brought to the table a very high level of knowledge and created an extremely user-friendly interface for the video operator,” says Glaab.
Video is an especially important component of a show like this, since the Blue Men don't speak and there are guest vocalists on less than half the song list; it helps establish a connection to the audience. “The video and the guest vocalists are both there to reinforce the Blue Man and his observations,” says Glaab, “It's all about illustrating a lot of the themes and concepts that have been in all of the shows: urban isolation, cultural masks, and all that. This just makes it more explicit.”
Playing the Blues
There is sound reinforcement for the theatre, there is sound reinforcement for rock and roll, and then there is sound reinforcement for Blue Man Group. Like all other artists involved in putting a new project together, Ross Humphrey, longtime Blue Man sound designer who comes from a rock background, collaborates with Goldman, Stanton, and Wink. “A lot of my friends in the rock world are kind of mystified by this,” Humphrey says. “‘How do you make that work? This would drive me crazy.’ It's something I've become accustomed to and don't even think about it anymore. It's opened my eyes and made me a better engineer, because in rock I would get to a place that I thought sounded good and I'd leave it at that.”
Another difference: Only in the Blue Man world is percussion miked like a lead vocal. That situation is obviously less so on the tour, since there are numerous guest vocalists. “The band in Tubes [the show playing in New York, Boston, and Chicago] is essentially a support for the Blue Men, and at times almost a background aural setting for the acting,” Humphrey explains. “Whereas this is more like a rock band with three funny blue guys playing in it. We have focused much more on the band and the music than the acting.
“But now I also have to EQ a PA while considering vocals,” he continues, “which means I have to take out some of what was before the vocality of the tubes. The stuff you typically want to get rid of for clarity and articulation in vocals, I would leave in so the tubes would be more full sounding. When the Blue Men are playing their instruments, they're still audible, particularly when there aren't vocals, but now they're more in the mix.”
Not only are there more percussionists on The Complex tour than in the Vegas show, but their playing is much more precise. “Historically in Blue Men, all the drummers are playing approximately the same thing,” explains Humphrey. “Now it's more like the percussionists playing parts that are in between the three of them to make one part, as opposed to it just being a big tribal thing. It's like they're playing part of a rhythmic melody that adds another layer to the song.”
The key to making it all sound more than just a muddle of pounding is to make sure all the drums are tuned well. “The choice of heads and the tuning has to be really spot-on so that you're not just amplifying a big drone of low, mid, and lows,” he says. The other challenge is figuring out who's playing what and which part is the lead in each instance, and then taking that to my engineer. You're constantly mixing this thing.”
The main PA system consists of JBL VerTec speakers and Line Array subwoofers, plus custom-made Audio Analyst center fills and Crown MA series amps; playback gear includes BSS Omnidrives, Klark Teknik DN3600 graphic equalizer, XTA Analyser, and SMAART software; the effects rack sports a Lexicon PCM-90 and 480-L; and a vast array of microphones, including Countryman Isomax, Sennheiser E602s, Shure SM91s, KSM32s, Beta 56As and 98s, Audio Technica 4041s, and numerous Audix mics. The Yamaha PM-1D serves as both the front of house and monitor console. The audio package was provided by Colorado-based Audio Analysts. One of their selling points for Humphrey was the PM-1D they had in stock, which is laid out with a triple-wide low rack, which he says works well in theatres with limited space. This was the first time Humphrey had used the PM-1D on a tour; he had never even had his hands on one until just prior to rehearsals. “I was firmly planted in analog land,” he says.
Though Humphrey designed and built the sound for The Complex tour, he left the actual mixing to FOH engineer Matt Koenig. For a veteran touring guy like Humphrey, that wasn't the easiest thing to do. “Taking it from the start of sound check to where you have all your scenes written and you do a run through and it's all there, and you're psyched about it, and then handing it over to somebody else — was a challenge, you know? The hardest part was not being able to have the fun after you built the show.”
Marc Brickman's contribution to Blue Man Group's The Complex tour included a three-tiered riser for the rather large band, blocks of LED screens on all three levels of the set, and a lighting system with enormous horsepower.
Caryl Glaab's video for The Complex tour, which draws on a wide variety of imagery, is projected onto not only the 11'×20' Lighthouse screen but also the various LED strips placed throughout the stage and on the 40'-wide strip along the lip of the stage.
BLUE MAN GROUP THE COMPLEX TOUR
Blue Man Group Founders
Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton
Marc Brickman & Blue Man Group
Lighting Director/Associate Production Designer
Lighting Crew Chief
Candida Boggs, Reid Anderson
Live Wire System Engineer
FOH Sound Engineer
LED Screen Technician
Gary Hernandez, Louis Jeroslow
BLUE MAN PRODUCTIONS STAFF
General Manager/Creative Development
Associate General Manager/Creative Development
Production Stage Manager
Scene Shop Manager
Caryl Glaab, Puck Quinn, Marcus Miller
Live Wire Contruction Crew
Raymond Wszolek, Richard Adams, Jace Van Auken, Anne Heed, Aaron Tappen
Geoffrey Quelle, Gary Hernandez
Costume Shop Supervisor
Live Wire Enterprises
EL Control Systems
Production Solutions, Inc.
On The Complex tour, Mark Janowitz expanded upon the Live Wire elements he used for BMG's Vegas show, specifically on a song called “The Current.” The big difference in using the Live Wire technology on the two projects was getting the tour gear roadworthy.