[Editor's note: This is the first in a two part series, the first of which discusses the Beastie Boys tour. Green Day follows on page 32.]
When two of the biggest tours of the year, to run at roughly the same time, were both put in the capable hands of design company aRtfag, partners Justin Collie and Doug “Spike” Brandt did what any team would do to stay sane: they divided and conquered. Amid their incredibly hectic schedules and a slew of other design projects, Brandt ran with the Beastie Boys, while Collie took on Green Day.
OFF TO THE 5 BOROUGHS
The Beastie Boys' energetic sound and performance style has touched three decades now. So, with their latest album and tour of the same name, To The 5 Boroughs, performance environment designer Brandt wanted to kick things up a notch by incorporating some new elements, concentrated heavily around video. He brought in a team he affectionately refers to as “the propeller heads” to help create solutions for his design ideas: Stuart White, as system engineer and for custom software for video; Benton C. Bainbridge, to collaborate on video content creation and act as visual performance artist (VJ); Breck Haggerty of Diagonal Research for the NEV8 system; and Mike “Chicken” Lamb for programming and lighting direction.
Brandt had recently designed shows for the Boys for the MTV 2$Bill Concert Series, as well as the band's spot on the MTV Movie Awards, so he had a working model of what the band wanted.
“The video DJ riser evolved in those two shows,” says Brandt, “and that became a sort of anchor for the rest of the design for the tour. The philosophy with these guys is all live, live, live. There's a DJ actually spinning the records, and he's going to play a different tempo every night, and we don't necessarily know what samples he's going to add in or the set list. So, we couldn't really pre-program too much.”
With video being a major part of the two MTV one-off shows, Brandt set out with Bainbridge, content developer Jenny Schulder, and editor/FX artist Jeremy “Nemo” Hoffman to start creating content for both. The three spent eight days shooting video content throughout the five boroughs of New York City in what Brandt referred to as a “do-it-yourself,” punk-rock mentality. Bainbridge was also brought in to be the live VJ to keep every night fresh and mix the live video feed, rather than going with a media server setup.
“The Beastie Boys are a visual band and very much a live act, so live video was key,” says Bainbridge. “They know video. They make their music videos through their own studio, Oscilloscope. Not surprisingly, they've done some work themselves with oscilloscopes, so when they were looking for a VJ with oscilloscope skills, Spike asked me to record a sample oscilloscope performance to the first single ‘Ch-Check It Out,’ which sent me on a half-year live video adventure.
“The show really evolved from early improvised TV appearances where I was VJing by myself, trying out clips to fit with the tunes while battle-testing a custom DV build of GRID by Vidvox and ScopeMate, a Mac OSX application that Stephan Moore wrote custom for the tour to control the old oscilloscopes with digital precision and preset storage/recall,” adds Bainbridge.
For the audience to see all this content, two Barco D-7 tracking LED screens were brought in so that they could be moved to a high or low position during the show, especially to accommodate a float with a full instrument set that comes out for the Boys to play live during an interlude. Another D-7 screen was split in thirds for use on the DJ riser.
“There was a lot of pure utilitarianism going on,” says Brandt. “The stage wasn't big enough to allow the float to come out, so we needed to be able to move the screens out of the way. I think the whole design is utilitarian, to a certain extent, and created to evolve during the tour. The lighting is about as minimal a system as I've ever designed. There's just a rear truss and two side trusses. I didn't want a front truss to break the lines of the video.”
With video as much more of a player than the lighting, Bainbridge's role as live VJ was crucial. “Early on, we chose some looks for the RGB LED screens' video, taking cues from Beastie Boys visual style, notably their trademark use of fisheye lenses and their interest in the way a VJ can ‘scrub’ a clip the way DJs scratch a record,” says Bainbridge.
Bainbridge took note of the band's preference for a raw and warm “analog” feel, deciding to use “rescanning” as a filter for much of the visuals. “Rescanning is the classic video art technique of re-photographing video off a monitor to give it a real time electronic finish similar to photocopying,” he says. “We tried out a dozen old TVs from my collection and favored an old Conrac hi-res black and white monitor for the many ways we could shape the re-scan in real time, like stretching/cropping/levels adjustments in [Apple] Final Cut Pro® but without the render!”
The tour was pre-programmed at Ed and Ted's Excellent Lighting using MA Lighting's grandMA 3D, but according to Brandt, most of that time was spent doing some grandMA training (he made everyone learn the grandMA consoles) and really tweaking the system, since the team only had a day each for both load-in and rehearsal. So, the evolution of the show continued, even once the tour started.
“Probably the biggest thing to overcome on the tour for us propeller heads was to work within the lighting console paradigm to control video gear,” says Stuart White, who developed the software for running and capturing video in the show. “It's a bit like wearing mittens and trying to play piano. We had to use lighting consoles and build cues for everything that we would normally access from the front panel of a video mixer. We spent a lot of time in pre-production to accomplish this and then built a grandMA template to base our programming around. It was a real brain stretcher for us video/computer geeks to agree on the best way for it to be done, but I believe we came up with a good compromise.”
White developed most of the software for running the show, including the custom software for the Element Labs Versa™ TUBE wall, which acts as a backdrop showing video content for about half of the show. The tubes on the wall are based around LED technology inside plastic tubes with 16 pixels per meter. The system on the Boys' tour is three tubes high and 48 tubes wide, for an image of 48×48 pixels.
“The software I wrote can take in live video and scale it to the lower res size as well as play movies internally,” says White. “Some of the other requests were to have it generate colors and have it all controlled via DMX via the grandMA lighting consoles. The program also responds to audio as seen with the giant VU level meter and a 24-band spectrum analyzer. This has got to be the biggest spectrum analyzer in existence. The sound guys on the tour love it.”
Like everything else, the software for the Versa TUBE wall has evolved over the course of the tour. “I rewrote a bunch of it just the other night to improve speed and capabilities,” says White. “I don't expect I'll be truly finished with it until the end of the tour. I guess it's a lot like what it must be like for filmmakers. You never really finish a film; you just abandon its creation at some point and release what you have.”
In addition, White wrote audio-triggered software by which different frequencies moved the video into different frames. He also designed and built the time-slice camera rig (a.k.a. “the matrix rig”), a rig built with 16 cameras on a rail that can freeze a moment in time and play through all the cameras showing various angles of the action.
“This is a system I built several years ago and has been evolving ever since,” says White. “It's part hardware and part software. The hardware includes the camera rail, a rack of gear used to freeze and switch between the 16 cameras, and a few custom hardware boxes I had to build in order to trigger the freezing of the cameras. The software has the capabilities to freeze, capture, and export the frozen moment to the live output as well as to the hard drive.”
INTERGALACTIC CONTROL ISSUES
A NEV8 system is the universal controller that ties together the lighting and video for the tour. Driven by a network of three grandMA consoles in multi-user mode (two grandMAs and one grandMA Light), it allows the video cues to be synchronized with lighting cues and to match content, colors, and mood across four display channels — in this case, the three LED screens and the Versa TUBE wall.
“Complete NEV8 systems are similar to DMX video servers in function, but not in form,” says Breck Haggerty of Diagonal Research, manufacturer of the NEV8. “We start with complete video systems, made up of broadcast equipment you might find in a traditional IMAG system or a TV station, then we install the NEV8s to make a real-time DMX connection to each of the components.”
“The NEV system was powerful in tandem with our older video gear,” says Bainbridge, “because we could trigger our real-time video ‘filters’, clips, routing of about two dozen video signals, mixing, and layering in a tight sync with the music and lights. Doing everything live and in real time meant we could quickly change strategies, trying out sets of clips on different songs, as the band shuffled through set lists to come up with a show that best hit with the fans.”
With the combination of the NEV system, custom software, and a collection of some old video gear, the team came up with lots of ways to play with content for the screens. Jamie Billet, on camera, tapes audience members' song requests at each venue. He also tapes Mix Master Mike while walking from backstage to start the show and captures the three MCs with a wireless system in the audience for the first encore. Some of the pre-taped content includes anything from Will Farrell impersonating George W. Bush to a guy repeatedly trying to do a back flip. At other times, pure abstracts bring the focus back to the band.
Bainbridge also adds that, because everything was so improvised, it was both amusing and disconcerting to see band members watching the screens during the early shows between turns at the mike to see what was showing on the video screens.
And with so many pieces to the puzzle and so much being tweaked show after show, Brandt had to make a major decision after the first leg of the tour. He was short a technician, and he had to sacrifice Bainbridge's live VJing in order to add a tech for the remaining dates.
“We had a real interactive approach to this show,” says Brandt. “Some of it worked, and some of it didn't. I had to sacrifice part of the live VJ art of the show. Some of Benton's cues went to the FOH lighting console, some went over to Stuart White, and the rest went to Danny Whetstone, who joined the tour.”
While Bainbridge's role shifted, he remained involved, as the team refined looks so lighting programmer and director Mike “Chicken” Lamb's lighting cues would call up complementary video across the four channels. Lamb acts as the metronome of the show, according to Brandt. All the basic information rests in his cues at his console, and the final output from all three consoles goes through him.
During the first leg, when still VJing each show live, Bainbridge would manipulate the switchers by doing different effects manually without actually cueing anything. Backstage, White, still with the tour, does the camera switch on a different grandMA through the router in the NEV rack. Additionally, he monitors the cameras, their color balance, and the Versa TUBEs.
VIDEO KILLED THE LIGHTING STAR?
With so much video, and so little lighting, it seems appropriate that Brandt was considered the “performance environment designer,” rather than strictly the LD for the tour. While he oversaw the development of the video content and overall production design and was heavily involved in all aspects of the planning of the tour, he also saw an opportunity to bring in others with more of a video background to complement his artistic sensibilities.
“We have to educate people to what's out there,” says Brandt. “I think there are too many lighting people who just think they can do video because of media servers and all the technology. That's why we see the same stuff over and over again. This all started in a conservative IMAG world, but lighting designers began to want something more creative. There are video performance guys and VJs out there who add a real edgy element, and that's what I was going for.”
Meanwhile, in a decidedly low-tech move, the aforementioned interlude on the float features a simple set with little more than string lights around a rectangular riser on which the band performs. “It was never about the lights for this tour,” says Brandt. “Because of all the activity of the video, it would have been too much to make the lights over-busy. They were understated for that reason.”
And that's an understatement.
Beastie Boys Crew:
Performance environment designer:
Doug “Spike” Brandt
Lighting Director: Mike “Chicken” Lamb
Performance VJ: Benton C. Bainbridge
Video EIC: Stuart White
Video Content: Benton C. Bainbridge, Doug “Spike” Brandt, Jenny Schulder Video Editor/FX Artist: Jeremy “Nemo” Hoffman
Video Engineer: Danny Whetstone
Cameras: James “Jamie” Billet
Lighting Techs: Kenny Ackerman, Steve Schwind, John Nichols
LED Techs: Dane Mustola, Rodrigo Azuriz
Beastie Boys Gear:
Lighting Equipment: Ed and Teds, Oxnard, CA
Video Equipment: Nocturne, San Francisco, CA
Delicate Productions, Inc., Camarillo, CA
Element Labs Versa™ TUBE wall:
Element Labs, Austin, TX
Rigging and Motor Control:
SGPS, Inc. Los Angeles, CA
|52||Wybron PAR64 Scrollers|
|22||Wybron CXI Large 5K Scrollers|
|17||Martin Professional MAC 2000 Washes|
|10||Martin Professional MAC 2000 Profiles|
|7||Martin Professional MAC 250+ fixtures|
|1||Element Labs 48×48 Versa™ TUBE wall(48 tubes)|
|2||ETC 2.4K 48-channel rolling rack dimmers|
|12||ETC Source Four® PARs|
|10||James Thomas Engineering 9-Lights|
|3||Robert Juliat Ivanhoes|
|9||8' PRT Trusses|
|11||10' Sections of Tomcat Swing Wing|
|2||MA Lighting grandMAs|
|1||MA Lighting grandMA Light|
|2||12' × 9' Barco D-7 tracking LED screens|
|1||6' × 21' Barco D-7 LED screen split in thirds|
|16||The Imaging Source CCD board cameras in a matrix camera rig on a 90° arc (for frozen or live video)|
|2||Sony DXC -50WS cameras (16:9 capable) with CCUs and remote panels|
|1||Modulus wireless transmitter|
|1||Canon 55 × 9 zoom lens|
|1||Canon 9 × 5 wide angle lens|
|3||Sony XC-999 cigar cameras|
|1||Sony DXC-950 POV camera|
|1||Sony DV-Cam editors|
|1||Sony SVR-2000 as video digital delay|
|1||Sony DCR-PD150 (Raynox Pro Fisheye lens)|
|1||Panasonic WJ-MX30 video switcher (with extra inputs and proc-amp control knobs)|
|1||Conrac 12" B&W hi-res video monitor|
Heathkit 10-30 and 10-17 oscilloscopes (modified)
Software/Hardware for controlling sound-responsive patterns on the oscilloscope: ScopeMate, NuReality 3D stereo sound processor, MFJ-500 oscillators, EQs and delays, assorted Apple® laptops.
GRID2DV, a DV codec customized version of Vidvox's VJ software for clip-jockeying running on Apple® laptops