Jim Lenahan Gives Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers a Psychedelic Spin

Typically, a band releases an album and then makes plans for a concert tour. Jim Lenahan, production/lighting designer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, doesn't live in a typical world, however. After a limited tour during the summer of '01, Petty and company decided to go out again this year, on their aptly titled Summer 2002 tour. The band went directly from the studio into rehearsals, and that's not usual, says Lenahan: “When Tom's in the studio, I don't even go near him, because he doesn't want to talk about playing live. This time, they finished mixing the record and, within two weeks, were in rehearsals for the tour.”

Along with Lenahan for the summer tour was programmer Stan Green, LD for Third Eye Blind and the Black Crowes. “Stan is lightning-fast on the Wholehog,” Lenahan says. “We spend a week and a few days on a soundstage programming — with Petty, for a 20-song show, you've got to program 30 to 40 songs because you don't know which ones are going to be in.”

According to Lenahan, “This isn't a big, elaborate show, scenically speaking.” In fact, the show is a psychedelic extravaganza from a lighting standpoint, thanks in part to High End Systems' Catalyst (see sidebar).

Lenahan's truss configuration is based on a design that he drew in MiniCAD 5. “Your tools, to a large extent, determine design,” he says. “I would never have drawn this shape freehand, but it was a natural, easy thing to do on a computer.” The shape has been called a clamshell, a peach, and even the Hollywood Bowl; it's a series of off-the-shelf curved trusses working with straight truss pieces, all of which are raked downstage at a 45° angle, with Lycra panels between them. “Basically, with this tour, I wanted to play with curved truss,” the designer says. “I took a half-circle and stood it up on edge. But then I realized that it wasn't going to give me enough distance — I knew I wanted to hang lights in the half-circle and face them upstage, and I knew I wouldn't have enough throw if it was just a half-circle.” So he broke the semicircle in the middle and added in a stick of straight truss to get the angle he needed for the upstage Lycra panels. “There's white Lycra fabric, silver truss, and this neat shape that we use as a blank canvas for the lighting effects,” he says.

After drawing the truss configuration in 3D on MiniCAD 5, Lenahan takes it into a program called Infini-D. “In Infini-D you can scan a gobo out of a catalog, apply it in a light as a virtual gobo, and it will throw accurately on the stage — you'll see it in the air, looking like it's going to look in reality,” Lenahan reveals. Lenahan uses Infini-D to do all his virtual lighting, as well as to create presentation programs for his clients. “Now, using Infini-D and my Apple G4, I can just burn a fly-through on a DVD, rather than put it on a videotape and have a drop in quality,” he notes.

Along with the half-circle trusses, Lenahan has up- and downstage trusses housing equipment provided by VLPS of Los Angeles. “The upstage truss hangs a black and has eight Vari*Lite® VL7Bs on it, so we can backlight the Lycra panels.” Downstage, Lenahan has more VL7Bs, Coemar 1200 HEs, and a number of ETC Source Fours. “I really like leko light on faces — other kinds of light on faces look cold and make people look too THX 1138,” Lenahan, says, alluding to the early George Lucas film about a dehumanized future. “Leko light is very flattering, and I use a straight bastard amber [R02] in them.”

With most bands, there's a singer who's illuminated all the time; other musicians get highlighted only in solos. This is not Lenahan's way. “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers always considered themselves a band rather than a frontman and his side men,” he says. “Tom specifically wants everybody to be seen.” Consequently, the Source Fours are used consistently through the show, augmented by spotlights. “My idea is that the spotlight is a special effect, which is a pretty alien concept for rock and roll,” he admits. “Basically, I use [Strong] Super Troupers to pick up people when they're running around playing guitars.” The LD uses six spots: “Out of those six, I can pretty much guarantee that two will be in the right place at the right time,” he says. The spots carry three colors: bastard amber, surprise pink, and amber.

Besides the VL7B and Coemar 1200 HE units, the rig also features Vari*Lite VL6Cs and VL4s. “The VL6C is my workhorse hard-edged light — it does a lot of beamage in the air, as well as gobo-rotating and so on,” the designer says. Working alongside the VL6C is the VL4, which he saw LD Seth Jackson use on a Don Henley tour (for which Lenahan designed the scenery). “Seth is a big fan of them, and I liked the way they looked on that show,” he says. “You can get three different shades of the color if you knock the level down and kind of whang it out of focus and partially put in some frost,” he explains. “It's totally the wrong way to use it, but you can get this real neat, kind of streaky light out of it,” he comments.

Lenahan is also a big fan of the Coemar 1200 HE. “I've always liked the light I get out of the Coemars and I really like the gobos that Coemar makes,” Lenahan says. However, he adds, there is a downside to this gear. “Steve Cohen [Britney Spears' LD] and I both like the same gobos and every time I want them, I find out they're out with one of his tours. So I'd like to take this opportunity to say, ‘Cohen, give me some of those back, would you, please?’”

One of Lenahan's surprises is a unique mirror ball. While at VLPS in LA, Lenahan saw the VLMB, a variation on the standard Vari*Lite VLM, essentially a mirror in a moving yoke. For Roxy Music, VLPS replaced the mirror with a mirror ball. “You can pan them and spin them on a horizontal axis,” Lenahan notes. There's four of the hybrid mirror balls located upstage, behind the backline. “You never see the ball, you only see what they're doing,” he contends. “We got five or six really different looks out of these things, none of which you would know is being done by a mirror ball.” One of Lenahan's mirror ball looks includes, amazingly enough, an effect resembling falling snow.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' summer tour concluded in early September, but they're expected to be back on the road in the fall to promote their latest album.


Designer Jim Lenahan Gives a Guided Tour of the System

To create the psychedelic-cum-organic vibe of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' tour, Jim Lenahan turned to the newest offering from High End Systems, the Catalyst.

What is the Catalyst and what can it do? “The Catalyst erases the line between what's video and what's light,” Lenahan says. “It not only allows you to throw content on a surface, it allows you to have easy access to the content, and to do things like project QuickTime movies.”

Is the Catalyst a new automated luminaire? Far from it: “People think of it as an instrument, and it's not,” Lenahan says. “It really is some computer software — when you rent a Catalyst system, you rent an Apple G4 computer with a program in it and a black box that interfaces the G4 with a digital video system of some sort and a digital lighting console.” The key word is digital — the Catalyst can be used with digitally based LED walls and projectors.

The Catalyst blurs the line between video and lighting, giving the LD control over video content that, in the past, would be controlled by a video technician. “The real usefulness of it is that you don't need an engineer — your lighting console operator is your video engineer,” Lenahan says.

Another draw to the Catalyst system is its ease and immediacy. “I can be on my way to the gig, I can scan any picture I find and put it in the show that night,” Lenahan explains. “If we see a newspaper headline that we want in the show, it can go in almost instantly. We can manipulate the image, change color, spin it around — basically you have an endless supply of color gobos,” the designer remarks.

The system can be used with a digital LED wall or video projector. For the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers summer tour, Lenahan chose to use two 12,000-lumen DLP video projectors. Two mirror heads are attached to the front of the projectors. “If you use the Catalyst on a projected video system, there's a moving-mirror head which you can also hang on the front of your video projector which gives you the ability to fly the video imagery around the room, just like a moving light. You can see video in the air, as aerials, you can see it on a surface, as a projected image, or you can see it on people's faces, as a light,” Lenahan says; he used it in all of those modes for the Petty show.

Lenahan also modified the system a bit for the tour. “I know that with moving-mirror lights the best way to position them is pointing straight down, so we hung the video projector facing straight down,” he admits. “You're not supposed to point video projectors down.” After consulting with a variety of engineering types, it was determined that the DLP units could be placed in that position and perform consistently every night.

One of the strengths of the Catalyst is its versatility. “If I could, every song would look completely different than every other song,” the designer contends. “That starts to become possible with the Catalyst.”

Contact the author at sstancavage@primediabusiness.com.


Production/Lighting Designer
Jim Lenahan

Tour Manager
Richard Fernandez

Production Manager
Mark Engel

Lighting Crew Chief
Kevin Cassidy

Stan Green

Lighting Technicians
Gary Boldenweck, Adam Burton

Lighting Supplier
VLPS Los Angeles, Steve Roman

Lighting Equipment

20 Vari*Lite VL4s
25 Vari*Lite VL5s
20 Vari*Lite VL6Cs
21 Vari*Lite VL7Bs
4 Vari*Lite VLMBs
13 Coemar 1200 HEs
8 Diversitronics 3kW strobes
40 GAM Products Star Stobes
14 ETC Source Fours
2 Cirra Strata CS6 hazers
1 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console
200' 20.5" medium duty truss
20 sections 12.5'-radius 20.5" circle truss
8 Columbus McKinnon 1/2-ton motors
18 Columbus McKinnon 1-ton motors