Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails were back on the road this summer, bringing their moody, intense and highly visual show to venues across the country. The current show, which was originally designed by lighting designer Marc Brickman and later augmented and programmed by longtime NIN lighting designer Roy Bennett, takes the bands world tour one step farther for the American audiences, using light and imagery to engulf audiences in a multilevel sensory experience.

The NIN Fragility tour, which played in Europe, Japan, and Australia, featured a number of familiar NIN visual elements, including gauze, front projection, and abstract imagery. "I’ve always been a firm believer in being a little more abstract and leaving the doors open for imagination," says Bennett. "Trent’s lyrics are about deep emotional feelings and those are abstract issues to begin with." At the end of the world tour, there were no definite plans for an American leg, and Bennett went on to work on the current Tina Turner tour [See ED July 2000].

When NIN did firm up their American dates, Brickman became involved in the project, which took the NIN stage show to the next level–using LED sign panels for video support, as well as for a source of illumination. While in preproduction, Brickman turned to Lee Gutenberg at Associates in Media Engineering (AME) for design documentation support, only to find out that the firm also specialized in providing hard-disk-based storage and automated playback of video content using MPEG encoding and storage. "We do this kind of work all the time," says AME President Benjamin Lein. "But doing it in a concert setting for NIN was certainly a unique application."

The video support of the American leg of the Fragility tour consisted of three separate LED panels loaded with Sony 611 series LED units mounted in modules provided by BCC/Screenworks of Corona, CA. Two of the three panels measured approximately 17’ high by 3 —1/2’ wide, while the third measured 17’ high and 7’ wide. Each LED panel can be moved in a variety of positions, from completely horizontal to completely vertical, due to the rigging of the unit and a carriage system provided by George and Goldberg Motion Control Systems of Paramount, CA. The LED panels were used as both a source of preproduced video images, as well as a source of infinitely variable color, pattern, and illumination. "I think that was a really ingenious usage for these tools," Lein says. The video content was provided by world-renowned video artist Bill Viola, whose images are featured in the middle of the show during the song "La Mer," as well as abstract computer-generated images from The Notting Hill Company of London. "Both video artists were given timecode DATs of music mixes with timecode so they would be able to build their components in synch to the live audio in the show," explains Lein.

Using video as a tool was nothing new to NIN; using synchronization for video, lighting, and rigging was definitely a foray into the unknown. Using a Tascam DA-88 digital multitrack tape machine enabled the band to provide a show that was consistently cued, night after night. "The DA-88 provides SMPTE source timecode as synch for the show," explains Lein. "There’s a click track for the drummer, as well as SMPTE for show control, so that the lighting, the video, and the rigging, as well as any other synch-required components, can synch up and provide repeatable performances," he adds. "Basically, it’s a way for the band to unite all of the multimedia elements of the show and provide for consistent playback."

For the primary components of the video source system, Lein used an Alcorn McBride SMPTE timecode reader in conjunction with an Alcorn McBride V-2 Plus Show Controller, as well as two redundant Alcorn McBride DVM 2s for MPEG video storage and playback. "In the end, we put together an elegant and ultimately reliable playback system," he adds.

While Lein and his team were working on the synchronization aspects of the project, Bennett became involved in the project, a full three days before the project was scheduled to open, after Brickman had designed the lighting rig and selected the instruments. "Marc basically designed the two side trusses used in the show, all of the floor lights, and put a number of automated fixtures around the sides of the LED panels," Bennett reports. "I augmented the show with additional fixtures and programmed the show the way I would interpret it."

Bennett had an incredibly short time to put together a workable show with Brickman’s plot and instrument choices, which was one of the biggest challenges of the project. "I didn’t have time to change the truss configuration, which actually worked out fine," he says.

For the nuts and bolts of the show, Brickman chose a number of extremely bright luminaires, notably Coemar HEs and Spots and the Morpheus Brite Bursts. "I’d never used either of them before," Bennett admits. "The instruments weren’t anything that I would have chosen, but it was interesting to work with new equipment."

Before Bennett (along with programmer Rob Smith and Jason Bullock) even began working on the details of the show, he decided to get to know his new instruments. "Any time I use new instruments, I have to find out their parameters," he says. "I put them through their paces, and I see what you’re not supposed to do with them, which is usually what I think looks the most interesting." While Bennett learned his new instruments, he discovered their idiosyncrasies, and developed an affinity for the Brite Bursts. "They move quite quickly–I was really surprised at how quickly– and I actually enjoyed working with them," the LD adds.

Brickman placed a number of PC Spots around the perimeter of the three LED panels, and also placed some downstage. "I kept the ones downstage of the band, but I had some problems with the ones around the LED panels," Bennett reports. "Because of how they were hung, as well as the movements of the LED panels, it was hard on the servos to pan and tilt, so I traded them out for seven Vari-Lite VL 6™ spot luminaires on each LED panel, which are good little lamps for that sort of application."

Bennett also added some conventional fixtures to the plot. "I added some Molefays upstage with color changers for texture; it’s always good to have at least some conventionals, especially things like moles, so that you have that underlying base of lighting. They establish more of the emotion of things, and add a little softness where you need it–basically they smooth out a little bit of the harshness of the moving lights."

To finalize the look of the show, Bennett added two High End Cyberlights® upstage to augment the look of the LED panels. "When you use backlight on the LED panels, you have these ominous, big black monolithic things moving through the lights, which was an element I thought was missing," he adds.

One of the most stunning aspects of the show is the use of the LED panels as lighting instruments which, at some points in the show, hang just above the band, evoking a feeling of claustrophobia. "When you keep the panels down nice and low, everything is very horizontal and compressed and really intense," Bennett explains. As the show progresses, the LED panels begin to flip up, and that’s when the LD uses them for lighting instruments, bathing the band in UV red and blue. "Shifting between these two colors with a blast of white once in a while is very disorienting, because they’re on the opposite end of the color spectrum. Your eyes are distorted, then suddenly the screens flip all the way up and you realize they’re vertical. At the very end of the show, the LED panels snap to a blue color, which then transitions into Bill Viola’s footage. It’s all about transitioning seamlessly from one thing to another and creating illusion. No one really knows what’s going to happen next," he notes.

For the show’s color palette, Bennett depended primarily on Reznor’s songs themselves. "There are multiple tones that happen in a song that create a certain color combination, or a certain color, and it’s just naturally that way," he explains. "There are so many layers in the song that are quite subtle. Sometimes it’s actually about what you don’t see or what you don’t hear," he says. "I try to get to those subtle elements within the music, and that takes time." At its inception, the show is bathed in monochromatic hues; later, Bennett uses some mustard yellows, red, and blue, as well as subtle accents of flesh pink.

Bennett was also quite conservative in his use of gobos on the show. "Most of the time I’ve used gobos with NIN, they been very organic," he explains. "In fact, the first time I worked with them, I hand-drilled out the Vari-Lite VL 2 gobo paddles and hand-glued red dichroics onto it, which created a very sharp, razor-like breakup pattern. The problem with a lot of the stock gobos is that they end up being too literal and it doesn’t quite work out, so you have to distort it"

But for Bennett, there is much more to the show than the actual technical aspects. "It's not just about lighting the band all of the time," he explains. "It's about audience participation, and getting them into the show." Judging from the current audience reactions, Bennett had reached his goal."

Production manager: Chris Kansy
Stage manager: Rocko Reedy
Lighting director: Jason Bullock
Lighting crew chief: Ron Schilling
Electrician: Mimi English
Intellligent light technician: Caleb Wickman
BCC video technician Michael Lane
G & G motion control operator: Peter Turchyn
G & G motion control technician: CC Cooperstock

Lighting suppliers
Morpheus
CWP (Chris Wickman Productions)
VLPLS Chicago

Lighting equipment (partial)
(36) Coemar CF 1200 washlights
(12) Coemar CF 1200 hard edge
(6) High End Systems Cyber Light® automated luminaires
(13) Vari*Lite VL 6™ spot luminaires
(8) Morpheus Brite Bursts w/XL color faders
(9) Morpheus 9 -light Moles w/XL color faders
(4) Morpheus PC Spots
(16) Diversitronic 3K strobe lights
(2) Lycian 1.2 truss spots
(2) Flying Pig Whole Hog II consoles
(3) High End F100 foggers
(4) High End DF50 foggers
(2) Alcorn McBride DVM/2V/10G MPEG video reproducers
(1) Alcorn McBride SMPTE machine--SMPTE timecode reader/generator
(1) Alcorn McBride V2+ system controller
(1) Brainstorm SR-26-timecode distribution amp
(1) AME timecode/ video/ AC breakout
(1) MPEG Encoder
(28) BCC Video Frames
(6) George & Goldberg motion control carriages
(1) George & Goldberg motion control system