Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor, who added 2011 Oscar-winner for scoring The Social Network to his list of accomplishments, could be considered one who dabbles in production design. Well, let’s say he closely collaborates with his longtime production/lighting designer LeRoy Bennett.

“The gears in his head are constantly turning,” says Bennett of Reznor’s creative process. “He thinks so deeply and so thoroughly. He is a musician and songwriter/composer, but he also has a very visual mindset. He needs to understand it all, so he knows how everything works.”

When preparing for the Tension Tour in support of Hesitation Marks, Bennett describes the design period as “a start-and-stop process because Trent was still working with How To Destroy Angels, and he wanted to get that done before he moved on to Nine Inch Nails.”

Bennett also designed the How To Destroy Angels tour, following it with a festival design for Nine Inch Nails, and finally the current arena iteration of Tension. “I’ll come up with the concept, talk Trent through it, and then he and [art director] Rob Sheridan start to wrap their heads around it, and they decide where the video is going to go, which screens it will play on, and those details,” says Bennett.  

The summer festival run involved a rather elaborate design compared to what bands usually bring to a stage shared with many other artists, but Bennett notes the team didn’t want to create anything that would be highly intrusive to the festival crew and other acts. “We were entirely self-contained and ground-supported,” says Bennett. “We basically worked that whole thing around the concept of [Talking Heads’] Stop Making Sense, where it started with a bare stage and then transformed during the show. It was quite a complicated setup with cable management and shadows—like choreography—and timing the movement of the screens as they’re pushing downstage and also the timing on the shuttering of the lamp to make sure it fit the screens.”

Moving on to a standalone design for Tension, Bennett says that, after toying with one design that ended up far too ambitious, he revisited the concepts explored in Nails’ last tour, Lights In The Sky, with two transparent screens and an upstage high-res screen. “The idea back on Lights In The Sky was to have a foreground, mid-ground, and background—screens that the band could play with and interact with—so it was really a 2D and 3D world,” says Bennett. To that end, PRG Nocturne custom-built two curved 28mm screens, dubbed V-Thru, and also provided the 70' upstage high-res 9mm V-9 screen, creating the basis for the stage design. Moment Factory and Sheridan created the content.

“The stage starts off feeling very compressed, like a letterbox screen-type configuration, and then grows from there to a larger configuration,” says Bennett, who designed 14 pods, one over each band member and then additional pods in between. Each pod comprises nine Ayrton MagicPanel™ 602 units in a 3x3 matrix. “Morpheus sent me a demo of the panel, and I was pretty impressed with the brightness and features,” the designer adds. “Originally, the whole design had a feeling of boxes that had panels of LED strobes inside of them and would basically make different configurations to project onto, but that went away. We still wanted the ceiling of strobes, but then I found the panels. They’re very versatile, can act as a strobe, plus I can run video through them.”

Jason Baeri, who programmed the lighting, says of the letterbox feel, “We start out low. The pods above the stage can do these amazing things—these extravagant shapes—and you don’t see any of that. The first 20 or 30 minutes of the show, what you see is a box—a confined area like you were playing in a really large jazz club. There’s enough movement to keep it interesting, but we’re not giving away the gags. As we get more into the show, we open up a little more and a little bit more, until we get about three-quarters of the way through the show, and the wall just comes down. We burst open the scenes, and we burst open the pods, so that all the stuff that was contained in this jar is pulled out.”

The pods and screens—19 total objects—often move at the same time. Automation is controlled via an XLNT Advanced Technologies’ CyberMotion system. The system has 68 active CyberHoists and two InMotion3D control systems (one for backup). Ampco Flashlight Rental supplied the motion system, supported by CyberMotion North America.

Baeri adds that, because the MagicPanels are 6x6 grids of RGBW LEDs, they are “controllable as individual cells, or sometimes we use them as big bricks of light that are shooting large shafts of square light throughout the stage.” The panels are also pixel-mapped via 42 universes of Art-Net from a Green Hippo HippoCritter unit that is merged back into the MA Lighting grandMA2 console, and then out through MA-Net to the system. “We have an option to run [the panel] as a light, as a pixel-map, or a pixel-map that we push light through,” adds Baeri. The screens take content from a Hippotizer HD. The tour also carries an additional HippoCritter and Hippotizer HD for backup. Loren Barton programmed the video, and Morgan Brown handles video direction duties on the road.

Read part 2.