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Lighting up Halftime

Believe it or not, there was a lot more going on during halftime of the 2004 Super Bowl than Janet Jackson's controversial moment of exposure. In fact, this year's halftime show was among the most sophisticated live presentations at a major sporting event ever seen, and by millions of viewers, in addition to the thousands of fans at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

Indeed, the halftime's sophistication, technical wizardry, and use of some of the live event industry's highest-profile designers — all for a 12-minute mini-concert — illustrates how advanced such events-within-an-event have become in recent years.

Setting the Stage

B & R Scenery, Camarillo, Calif., once again played a key role in the halftime show. That company first became involved with the Super Bowl at the 1993 game, which took place at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif., when it was hired by then-producer Select Productions to work the event. (This year's show was produced by MTV.)

“The vast majority of our work is in live entertainment, and our expertise is the quick and rapid deployment of large stages,” says Brian Sullivan, president of B & R Scenery, adding that his company's proficiency was needed since Super Bowl stages were growing larger while the time to deploy them was shrinking.

Before 1993, stages used for halftime entertainment at the big game were anything but sophisticated. Casters were normally used, and when Sullivan and his team joined the team, they found that problematic immediately. “Within a day, it was apparent that the casters were causing damage to the field, and not only that, the alignment of the staging carts was almost impossible using standard casters,” Sullivan says.

Therefore, when B & R became involved in 1993, the company literally re-invented the wheel — constructing wheel-shaped staging carts and shipping them in less than 19 days.

“We designed a wheel with some fairly complicated linear bearing and sliding axles,” Sullivan explains. The company's steel Super Bowl Steerable Sliding Axle Assembly was thus born. The staging carts — literally jigsaw pieces of the stage that are pre-assembled and wheeled out onto the turf — were now able to quickly maneuver into place and attach together without destroying the field.

“We use a strapping device that we designed specifically for this application,” he adds. “We call them our Super Bowl Strap, and they allow us to attach two carts together in less than five seconds.”

For Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, the B & R team worked closely with set designer Mark Fisher of Stufish, London. “We're continually challenged by his designs,” says Sullivan. Fisher was set designer for the Super Bowl halftime shows in Tampa and New Orleans in recent years, and has worked on a number of high-profile events, including several Rolling Stones and U2 tours.

One of the first steps for Fisher and the MTV production team was a site survey at Reliant Stadium. “After looking at the building in March of last year, we developed a number of ideas,” says Fisher. “The big issue that remained uncertain for the longest time was whether or not the roof would be open or closed, and for quite a while, it was believed that it would be possible to have it closed.”

Design Approach

Design ideas were considered, most notably a skyhook-based design, which would only be feasible if the roof was closed. “Finally, the NFL made it clear that if the weather permitted, they would want the roof open, and so we, in turn, had to change our plans and go back to a ground-supported system,” notes Fisher “But of course, it was closed on the day [of the game].”

While Fisher, design associate Ray Winkler, and producers continued to work on their approach, there remained a bit of uncertainty because it was not known for some time who would be performing at the show. Many artists considered for the halftime show are quite involved with their own live productions and have various design requirements of their own.

Last November, Janet Jackson signed on as the featured talent for the show, and Fisher and MTV producers went to Los Angeles to meet with her.

“Before the meeting, I told producers that we would have to put a very open plate in front of Janet because she'd want to want to have her own input,” says Fisher. “She has her own identity as an artist, she's going to be working on new material, and she's going to know what feels right and what feels wrong.”

Fisher was right — Jackson did have her own ideas, and so the team went back to work in order to get a new design done by Christmas.

The ground-based design featured six 30ft. towers — four for acrobats and two for lighting.

“The towers were one of the generic ideas that we introduced when we found we couldn't hang things on the roof, so we went with towers in a number of different configurations,” says Fisher. “In conversation with Janet, we moved toward using curving tusks. The idea was that they would be clad so that they didn't just look like pieces of truss.”

From there, Fisher's studio coordinated with several firms, including engineering companies M.G. McLaren, P.C., New York; Tait Towers of Lititz, Penn., which ended up doing the bulk of the custom fabrication; and B & R, which assembled the rolling stage. “We shipped out of Tait on Jan. 16,” he recalls.

While Tait worked on the details of the towers, B & R concentrated on the stage itself. This year, there were 40 staging carts that were used to construct Fisher's main stage, two satellite stages, and the tunnel stage. At the end of the day, approximately 80 staging pieces were brought out onto the field for the halftime show.

The set arrived on-site several weeks before the game, and three weeks of rehearsals began, with 300 to 400 volunteers, as well as approximately 20 staging cart captains, to choreograph their movements.

“I can't say enough about the local volunteers,” Sullivan notes. “They really rose to the occasion.” This year, the Houston-based volunteers, directed by staging supervisor Cap Spence, came from all walks of life — senior citizens to firefighters.

Each staging cart was numbered, and during the second quarter, they began forming a queue, directed by Spence, to get through the tunnel onto the field. “We can't sit in the tunnel for the entire game,” Sullivan points out. At the beginning of the event, the tunnel is used to remove the pre-show, and of course, for the players. “The tunnel is normally kept vacant during the game, as well, for emergency evacuations or paramedics,” Sullivan adds.

When Fisher arrived in Houston for rehearsals, he was pleased with the look of the set.

“I stood back when the set was finished in the stadium for the first time when they were doing the camera blocking, and I thought, ‘Well, this time we've actually nailed it,’” he recalls. “The set framed itself really well in the cameras, and it allowed us to go back and do medium-wide shots, which normally you can't do in that kind of event because there's so much black sky around.”

Towers and Satellites

The proportion of the towers really added to the scenic look of the show. “By getting the towers to be the size they were, with the amount of reflective surfaces they had, they were able to fill up the picture around the performers, and that meant that they could pull back and actually show the whole stage, which they did quite a bit,” says Fisher.

The towers weren't simply a scenic element — dancers actually climbed them during the show. Any stunt that flies actors or dancers, of course, carries the risk of accident, and Fisher and the MTV production team made sure that they had ample safety measures in place. The riggers did their job perfectly, as did the dancers, and everything went off as planned.

“When we finally got to Houston with it, I climbed up one of the towers with Rocky Paulson, the head rigger, and showed him how I envisaged the performers getting out onto the towers to hang there,” Fisher reports. “The riggers climbed up the masts with the dancers and made sure that they were clipped on securely before they swung out. We just wanted to make damn sure that the artists were not responsible for their own safety. With the adrenaline rush in that kind of situation, there are always accidents waiting to happen — artists get so wound up with what they're doing that they don't notice that their carabiner isn't closed and things like that.”

The main stage was 60ft. wide, and there were two satellite stages that were connected to the main stage via two 60ft. runways.

“The satellite stages had very much to do with the actual flow of the show,” Fisher says. Janet Jackson came on first, then Nelly, P. Diddy, and Kid Rock. “In the time that the cameras were on Nelly and P. Diddy, then on Kid Rock, we were doing a major reset of the performers [putting the dancers on the towers], and there were costume changes as well,” he explains.

This year, halftime was 24 minutes, but that includes a six-minute setup and a six-minute tear-down. The show itself lasted 12 minutes.

Thankfully, the production team had time to spare. “This year, 4,500 square feet of staging and towers were set up in five minutes flat, with a minute left for technical checks,” Sullivan notes. The set also made it off the stage in the allotted six minutes, and from that standpoint, everyone was happy. “Technically, the show was brilliant,” Sullivan concludes.

Work for B & R's rapid deployment stage, however, was hardly done when halftime ended. The stage is actually a year-round rental product, and the company used it several weeks later at the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It's also been used for the MLS Cup Finals, the Canadian Grey Cup, and the Fiesta Bowl. Fisher, meanwhile, is currently involved in a number of high-profile projects, including the new Cirque du Soleil show premiering at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas this fall.


Sharon Stancavage is contributing editor for Lighting Dimensions magazine, and has penned articles on a variety of topics for numerous trade publications over the years. Email her at sharonxs2001@yahoo.com


Sidebar

Lighting Up Halftime

Staging was only part of the visual picture during the Super Bowl halftime show. The other part of the equation was, of course, the lighting. In a normal concert lighting situation, there's usually a truss over the stage, but this wasn't a normal concert lighting situation.

“We didn't hang anything over the field — it was open-air because they wanted to leave the roof open,” reports lighting designer Allen Branton.

Instead of a trussing system above the stage, Branton had to look elsewhere for overhead lighting positions. “We hung trusses along both sides of the perimeter roof structure,” the designer explains. “We had Martin Mac 2K wash lights on the structure, along with 7K Syncrolites. We also had some trusses in the corners, as well. They were very short, rather like corner accents.”

To fill out his rig, Branton looked at the concrete fascia around the perimeter of the stadium. These are usually ideal positions for lighting since there are generally railings located there, but at Reliant Stadium things weren't that simple.

“The concrete fascia didn't have a handrail embedded in the top the way they have in most stadiums. They had glass, so there was no way to hang anything,” Branton comments. However, he needed the lighting positions and came up with a solution.

“We created custom-made brackets to stick through the drain holes that they used when they hosed the seats down,” he explains. The drain holes were on the vertical surface of the concrete, and the custom brackets were used to place 100 Vari-Lite VL2415's on 15ft. centers.

On the stage itself were a variety of lights, including practicals, rope lights, and Vari-Lite VL5 arcs and Vari-Lite VL 2402s, which were provided by VLPS, Los Angeles.

“The 2402s lit the scenic towers on the stage from the floor, and there were some VL5 arcs that we used as toners from the inside of them,” reports lighting director/programmer Christian Choi. The towers were not only a scenic element, but were used as lighting positions, as well. “We were able to hang VL5 arcs off of two of the six towers,” Choi says.

Rounding out the visual picture on stage were 76 Versa TILE LED tile units from Element Labs, placed around the perimeter of the stage. The Versa TILEs were driven by a High End Systems Catalyst control system. “The Versa TILEs were the most visible part of the Catalyst elements and worked out brilliantly,” comments Choi. “The vivid colors and cool overall look of them, as well as the total lack of video noise that they produce is pretty impressive.”

Some of the imagery, which was created by Choi using Adobe After Effects software, was more textural, while other images were perhaps a bit more literal.

“There were a couple of times when Christian actually fed text to the Versa TILEs,” Branton explains. One of Choi's words was “Janet,” and it was created in an area that was a mere five pixels high, but was easily readable. (Each single Versa TILE represents one pixel on the screen of a PC or Mac.)

The color palette for the event ranged from white for the marching band segment, and for P. Diddy's performance as well, and then it moved into some saturates for Jackson's “All For You,” which featured magenta and amber for the scenic elements. “When Nelly came in singing ‘Hot In Herre’ on his little red golf cart, it all turned deep red,” Choi explains. Then, for Jackson's second appearance, the mood changed entirely.

“‘Rhythm Nation’ started as dark blue with white Syncrolites passing ethereally through the dancers on the tusks, and I kept this feel in the Catalyst imagery, as well,” Choi says. “When Janet broke into the rhythm, we broke into a full-on, white hot, high energy, strobing look.”

While weeks were spent rehearsing the movement of the staging carts, that wasn't the case for the entire halftime show. While the dancers and the artists rehearsed elsewhere, the entire production was set up just twice, and there was only one dress rehearsal.

“You get to see the show twice, once on the Sunday before the game, and once again on Thursday,” Branton says. The Sunday rehearsal, however, was primarily just to put all the pieces together — the real rehearsal took place on Thursday. “You actually only get to see it complete once, for just a few hours, and that's just not very much time,” he adds.

Still, even though the rehearsal was a bit short, it was time well spent. “We had a really great team, and everybody did a fantastic job,” Branton says.
S.S.