Madonna is supposed to be the genius of re-invention but the title should really go to David Bowie. From year to year, one never knows who Bowie will appear to be onstage, and what he'll use to display his music.
Bowie's Reality tour, which opened in Europe last fall, is, as expected, a visual extravaganza, mixing a variety of diverse elements, from eclectic set design to big rock lighting to colorized spy cams. “I spent part of the year looking at new technology which, I reported on to David almost every week,” comments lighting designer/director Tom Kenny. Although Bowie was obviously interested in the latest trends, it was not to the exclusion of the overall aesthetics of the show, however. “What I appreciate most about the look of the show is the choreography of the design elements — the lighting, the stage, and the projection,” says set designer Therese DePrez.
DePrez (a film production designer whose credits include American Splendor, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch) began talks with Bowie, who is involved in every aspect of the production, while they were in rehearsals in New York. “These initial discussion revolved around the need for the set to fit into a variety of venue sizes,” she explains. The tour, scheduled to run for seven months, goes from theatres to small stadiums, and flexibility was the key. However, Bowie and DePrez didn't want to compromise on aesthetics, and decided on a design that echoed the beauty, form, and function of a Japanese garden. “The stage set entails simple elevations connected with ‘floating’ wood stairs and two long wood plank walkways stage left and right,” notes DePrez. The color palette features wood tones with accents of red lacquer, and is devoid of the usual metallic tones seen in concert tours. “There's purposely no chrome or silver in the stage design, and Tom also made sure all of his truss was black,” she adds. DePrez also used masking for the risers that were silk-screened with imagery of leaves and their skeletons. The amp racks were given the same treatment.
While DePrez was working out the details of the scenic design, visual director Laura Frank, who spent most of last summer working on the tour, kept in touch with London-based Blink TV. “I was in constant communication with Blink,” Frank notes. “I'd send them drawings or QuickTime files; we brainstormed by phone, through email, and in meetings to create the 12 video segments.” The pre-produced video content, which is interspersed throughout the show, was conceived after months of talks with Bowie. “Some of the major themes in the show are nature, earth, fire, and water, and they repeat throughout the show,” notes Frank.
Working alongside the video were cameras, and lots of them, an idea that had been on Bowie's mind for a while. “David wanted to do the security camera look in ‘75, but the technology just wasn't around,” says Kenny. The tour uses seven low-end security cameras, three Toshiba bullet cameras, one dome camera and one broadcast-quality FOH camera, which is trained on Bowie throughout the show.
After determining camera placement, Frank devised a way to keep the shots, and the production's look, consistent. “We used one-size-fits-all camera shots when possible,” she says. Consequently, when the song list changes, the visual flow of the show will stay essentially the same: “The cues for the song ‘Looking for Water,’ also can be cues for ‘She'll Drive the Big Car.’ We can apply the camera looks we use for ‘Rebel, Rebel,’ to David's other, older rock pieces, as they started appearing in the set list.”
The LED screens, provided by XL Video, are a strong visual presence both upstage on the deck and hanging in downstage positions. Upstage is a 50' × 12' Barco D-Lite LED screen; downstage are five 9' × 12' flown LED screens. Moreover, the security-cam look is not used for straight IMAG. “You'll never see a clean shot of David in natural colors — the cameras are always treated,” Frank notes.
Kenny and Frank, longtime associates, worked together to keep a good visual balance between the imagery on stage and the lighting. “In many shows, video and lighting work against each other,” Kenny says. Not so in the Reality tour: “On any of the main, very strong, video packages, I took a color from the video and complemented it in the lighting, which worked very well. Laura used video that complemented the lighting as well.”
Kenny's rig is very simple: five 60' trusses that contain a surprisingly small number of automated fixtures: 48 Martin Mac 2000 Profiles and 50 Martin Mac 600s. “I could have had 300 moving lights up there; there were no constraints on the budget,” Kenny remarks. “It's just that I don't like going over 100 moving lights on anything. On a tour, I think that if you can't do something with that number of lights, you shouldn't be a lighting designer,” he adds. Kenny's design also includes about 20 floor units. “I normally have about eight downstage, off the stage [in the wings],” he adds. The result is a trademark Tom Kenny big-rock show that, if needed, can engulf the audience in a rock anthem, or pull back and be dramatic and understated. “When there's no video being used, it's just black and it's just a light show. It's very trick of the eye,” the designer comments.
The look of the rig is very clean as well, and that's not a coincidence. “People are paying a lot of money to come see a show, and there's nothing worse than seeing a lot of cables hanging all over the place,” Kenny notes. For the Reality tour, all of the cables are run offstage right and left, and are essentially out of sight. “At the end of the day, it is about the music, but the public is used to a high-quality show and having your cables run cleanly is important for a professional look,” he adds.
One challenge for Kenny, who is out with the show, is that every night is different. “The set list changes every day, and we've done two to three hour shows,” he notes. There are over 70 songs to choose from, and the set list is in flux during the actual show. “We'll find out from the monitor engineer in our in-ear monitor what song we're going to be doing.” Because the song list can change instantly, Kenny also has some one-size-fits-all lighting looks. “When you have no time and the song has started, you use something close to it, as long as it has certain chases and certain cues,” he says. “‘Modern Love,’ which we've been doing on this tour, can use the same cueing as ‘Let's Dance.’”
At press, Bowie's Reality tour is scheduled to conclude on the East Coast in late May; he's also playing festivals in Europe in June and July.
Nigel “Skippy” Monk
LSD Fourth Phase
Stef van Biesen
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