Taylor Swift has had her head in the bright lights of stardom since her eponymous debut album store shelves in 2006 and went on to sell three million copies. She returned earlier this year with Fearless, which went triple-platinum. The 19-year-old is adding to her string of top-charting singles, yet it doesn't seem she's interested in resting on her live-show laurels. Indeed, before the Fearless tour kicked off, she told her fans that she wanted her show designed to be "as multi-dimensional as possible," featuring "an incredibly theatrical presentation of graphics, sets and visual elements."
Bringing Swift's dreams to the stage fell to renowned production designer Jonathan Smeeton, who has worked with talents that include Keith Urban, Peter Gabriel, Marilyn Manson, and Yoko Ono. "Taylor told me right away that she wanted a theatrical setting for the show," Smeeton says. "It made perfect sense, because she's a songwriter that tells stories that have a place and a setting."
Smeeton says he was "freed up in that I didn't have to create a set that had to convey a message," he says. "The message is in the song and the kids all know the songs. It was all about presenting the people on the stage in a place."
As the ideas went from concept to execution, the production turned to CT Touring's Barry Otto to ensure technology would keep pace with Smeeton's vision. The creative team met at the design studio over the course of several weeks. "Jonathan would say things like, ‘I really want to do this, this, and this,' and I would explain how we could get it done. I don't think most designers are completely versed in the actual operations and limitations of the equipment, so by sitting together, I was able to steer the design in the right direction to take full advantage of the technology as well as deliver the best value. It was really a collaborative process."
Ultimately, the finished set included a 60'x20' LED back wall built from 56 Martin Professional LC 40mm LED panels, a middle ground with five towers and two flying screens made of Transformit fabric, and a foreground with a 10'-square drum riser at stage left and a 20' diameter circular riser at stage right. Both risers are 8' tall, giving another projection surface right off the stage itself.
Every piece of the set was manufactured in white to maximize the impact of the images projected from Barco FLM HD projectors. "Our idea was to paint the stage by multiple points of projection with masking and pixel mapping," Smeeton says. "The real trick was giving the stage depth and always making it three layers."
In the high school-themed "You Belong with Me," Swift, the band, and six dancers come on stage in high school band uniforms. The front of the foreground risers are projected with blue lockers, and the LED wall shows close ups of Swift until the song's chorus, when footage of the cheerleader dance squad from the singer's school in Nashville takes over the wall, and the lockers morph into cheerleaders.
Two other songs, "Love Story" and "Fearless," exhibit the detail of the design and the power of the system that Otto and CT Touring put together. "Love Story" features a castle backdrop that's projected onto five towers, three 6' tall and two 8' tall over the set, covered with Transformit. Rather than physically paint or print the look for the set, the CT Touring equipment uses the white surfaces as projection areas in order to get movement into the set. "As the song progresses, we've painted some ivy that climbs the walls," says Otto. "That really brings it to life and makes it like a little movie rather than just a set piece."
To make the piece seem realistic, the team had to come up with a way to hit it with projection from more than one position. "It had to come at it from left and right," Smeeton says, "so that we could paint the sides as well as the front. We bent the very flat images in Catalyst with pixel mapping as well as with software included in the Barco FLM projectors, and then masked them to fit, so there's no spill on the foreground or background. In the foreground, we projected castle walls. The LED screens enable us to add a twinkling night sky and, toward the end of the song, an image of the classic Bavarian castle. Then a mist comes and goes. It's quite lovely."
The design for "Fearless" came while Smeeton and content creator Johnny Martinez were discussing what the word meant to them. "I had an idea of an old technique where a cut out image moves around a sky background, usually, that's framed with a lot of Victorian ivy," he says. "We got the vine growth going quickly, and we had some nice skies and storms. Then, I thought, fearless would be a butterfly trying to fly into the storm. Johnny said, ‘Oh, I just happen to have this nice yellow butterfly!' And there it is. Very simply done, but it's very beautiful."
The technology used to make it look like the butterfly flies across all three zones is intricate. "We are using a lot of video servers to playback multiple layers of video that are all being projected from individual projectors to land on different parts of the set, so it appears that the butterfly moves around the stage as well as upstage and down," Otto says.
After Smeeton, production manager Bobby Savage, and Swift—who offered input during the rehearsals that took place at an old steel factory in Nashville—nailed down the look of the show, Otto came back in to discuss gear. During the final design stages, CT Touring brought in Martinez as video content creator. "He was there for the whole month of rehearsals and for the first week of the tour," Otto says. "It really helped that we had the right person there to create and edit the content. It also helped that Taylor's management was dedicated to providing the tour with an equipment package that was able to get the job done right. Our company was such a large inventory of top quality equipment that finding the right gear was easy; we brought in 12 HD 18K projectors of our own, instead of trying to do the show with smaller projectors."
The package ultimately provided to this tour includes 12 Barco FLM HD projectors, 56 panels of Martin Professional 40mm Creative LED, four Sony HDC 1500 HD cameras, and a Grass Valley Kayak 200 HD flypack system. CT Touring also brought on a touring crew, including director Gary Odom, projectionist/crew chief Steve Berkholder, lead camera operator Pat Gibbs, media playback programmer Todd Scrutchfield, LED screen technician Kevin "French Fry" Stoeckle, systems engineer Scott Coraci, and camera-op/assistant projectionist Todd Kramer.
"CT Touring put a really brilliant package together, not just of equipment," Smeeton says. "We've had nothing but absolutely amazing support from them. I got a lot of great information from everyone there who educated me on techniques that I thought existed but hadn't seen yet. It's been a great experience."
A couple of months and dozens of shows in, Otto is impressed with how it all came together. "This is very theatrical for a concert, especially for a core audience that's more accustomed to pyrotechnics and being slammed by media," he says.
Looks like Taylor Swift is going to have to get used to living in those bright lights for a lot bit longer.