When Gretchen Wilson kicked off her first headlining tour, Redneck Revolution, in Dallas at the Nokia Theatre, it was about time. This artist didn't hit it big until she was over 30, but when she did, she came out blazing. Four Grammy nominations last year (one win), and another four this year are just some of the accolades heaped atop her grab of Female Vocalist of the Year at the 2005 Country Music Awards, as well as a couple of nominations for this year's CMT Music Awards.
The creative team behind Revolution includes Mike Swinford (lighting and production designer); Mark Butts (lighting programmer); Scott Scovill, president of Moo TV (video producer); Carter Fulghum of Morris Leasing (lighting director); Bailey Pryor (video director/crew chief); Tim Monnig (associate producer/Watchout programmer); and Joe Monahan (video playback).
Fulghum notes that the tour vibe is a high-energy combination of country and rock-n-roll. “Gretchen plays everything from bluegrass to classic country to southern rock, and so the lighting design needed to be able to capture all the genres she takes part in,” he says. “Gretchen sings about what she knows. She's not putting on an act. She is who she is, and that's the show.”
“Gretchen's road manager, David Haskell, had asked me to design something completely ‘out of the box’ for Gretchen's first headline tour,” says Swinford. “The art direction and lighting concepts were wide open for me to interpret ‘out of the box.’ They wanted a big rock show. We used no wash lights in order to create the sharp edgy feel…I was trying to achieve a show design that was unexpected for a female county artist — edgy, powerful, and a bit in your face — anything but soft and symmetrical.”
To accompany an asymmetrical production design, Swinford's choice of lighting gear, provided by Nashville-based Morris Leasing, includes 58 Vari-Lite VL3000™ spots, six VL2500™ spots, 23 Coemar ParLites, 24 Color Kinetics ColorBlast® 12, and four 8-lites, controlled by an MA Lighting grandMA, with a grandMA Light for backup.
Central to Swinford's design are 36 Sony RVP CRT monitors — controlled and programmed by Moo TV of Nashville via a Dataton Watchout 3.01 server system running on Microsoft Windows XP — which are used to display unified and individual video elements throughout the concert. These are used on the stage and as risers for the lap steel, drum kit, and keyboards. A Toshiba TMP 100U image processor breaks up and arranges images on the cubes.
“The Sony CRT projection cubes are like the old video walls before we had LEDs,” states Swinford. “I used them before on an Alan Jackson tour. They are self-supporting, tall, vertical columns of high-res video without the pixelation or cost of LED. They were perfect for this tour.”
With only five days of live rehearsals, Swinford had to build some previsualization time into the schedule. He approached Dale Morris of Morris Leasing and Haskell about designing a previz studio at one of Morris' properties. “I do all of my designs using 3D Studio Max and have for the last 12 years, so I am very comfortable with 3D virtual space,” says Swinford. “Mark Butts told me about a new visualizer that worked inside of Max, and I was interested in learning more. I downloaded the trial version of ESP Vision and showed the possibilities to Dale. He wondered why we had not gone down this route before and gave the green light to build a state-of-the-art studio with the best hardware available. I am currently using the studio to program Kenny Chesney's tour using 210 Vari-Lites.”
“The ESP Vision studio was an invaluable resource for this project,” adds Butts. “We did some very complex and precise cueing that would have simply not been possible within the original five-day rehearsal period.”
Butts says the consoles operate in a full tracking/backup configuration, outputting seven universes of DMX via ArtNet EtherLynx boxes by Artistic Licence located at FOH. “We are using a grandMA as the primary console and a grandMA Light as the backup,” he says. “Some people prefer two full-sized consoles, but this show runs almost exclusively off cue lists with very little on-the-fly operation. The Light provides us with all the features and connectivity in a smaller, less expensive package.”
Swinford and Butts spent about 10 days in the studio and had 90% of the show finished the day of load in. “We program the lighting to marry with the video content,” Swinford says. “Mark has a long history of programming with the VL3000 spots. In this show, he makes extensive use of the color and position effects, which he customized himself. He is the king of visual effects. This show isn't what people will expect. All the elements have worked very well together.”
Other design elements include six wire-mesh towers with tea-stained netting material hung in between and various horizontal and vertical truss pieces — custom built by All Access of Torrance, CA — flown in for overhead truss lighting.
The truss configuration posed a bit of a challenge during programming. “Asymmetry can be a double-edged sword,” says Butts. “If you pull it off, it offers some of the most powerful looks around, but if you can't, it creates muddy, cluttered looks with no impact or meaning whatsoever.” He notes that he struggled early on in the process, particularly with two downstage arches. “I found that I was fighting the truss configuration, trying to make it work like a symmetrical hang. I quickly realized my normal bag of tricks wouldn't work with this rig, so I created a bunch of pretty simple, yet bold, positions with the entire rig working together.”
Swinford incorporates the Coemar ParLite LEDs as truss toners. There is a single unit mounted in each section of custom curved truss, opposite a Plexiglas® mirror panel to block light from the next section. “These units proved to be a perfect truss toner — small, light, and low power needs,” he says.
Careful choice of color was also crucial. “We needed to control the colors to keep things from getting too sloppy,” adds Butts. “We rarely have more than two colors onstage at once. The combination of strong positions and a controlled color palette creates a streamlined look and helps to highlight the unusual truss configuration and scenic elements.”
To start the show, a black Kabuki masks the stage. Two large video screens, one house right and the other house left, begin to play a pre-shot scene of Wilson playing her rendition of “A Country Girl Can Survive.” As the video ends, the Kabuki drops and an audio montage of Kid Rock, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith, and Queen begins to play. Silhouettes of Wilson are displayed one at a time on the Sony cubes. In the end, a final silhouette of Wilson appears on the center-stage video monitor. And as the audio ends, Wilson emerges from the silhouette and begins to play her hit single “I'm Here For The Party.”
While there is technically no integration of video and lighting elements — Fulghum runs lighting, and Monahan handles video — artistically, the lighting team matched color palettes to the footage that Wilson and video producer Scovill created. Scovill and his team at Moo TV handled video production, programming, and gear, including a Grass Valley 110 Video Switcher, a Grass Valley DVE for special effects, the Watchout system, a Doremi V1m backup server for side screens, Sony BVP 500 and 550 cameras, and Eiki LC XT3 projectors for 12×16 side screens.
“We wanted to come up with something that was edgier and different than other country concerts — something that would surprise and excite the audience,” says Scovill. “David Haskell was certainly the driving force for me. He kept pushing and prodding saying things like, ‘I want it to be really out there,’ and ‘It has to rock.’”
According to Scovill, the lighting and video together make up the set, with each piece designed to either catch light or project it. “I've been doing this for a few decades, and in my opinion, this tour does the best job of any I've seen at meshing video, lighting, and pyro together,” he says. “At times, they take turns grabbing your attention; at other times, they all hit together and knock your socks off. Equally important, when appropriate, they pull back and let Gretchen and her band carry the show.” Strictly FX of Elk Grove Village, IL, handles pyrotechnics for the tour.
Most content was created in Adobe® After Effects® and Photoshop® and assembled in Apple's Final Cut® Pro, some of it original and some used from stock media. Live video to complement the prefab content is also run through Watchout. Monnig, who also helped produce the media, programmed the Watchout system, which was used for most of the playback. “A firm understanding of the program's capabilities and limitations guided the development of show media, or content, and minimized the need for formal previsualization,” says Monnig. “In other words, we didn't need to bend over backwards to make changes to the way the media hit the video wall or the screens, so we were free to explore new looks to find what felt right or at least figure out what the right direction was.”
For some songs, live video is seamlessly combined with prerecorded media by embedding alpha channels. “In ‘Barracuda,’ Gretchen's live performance cuts between a Heart performance of the same song,” says Monnig. “It's a really great effect. Gretchen shares the frame with two of her rock idols.” This song also proves a challenge in playback, hitting the cues on both the Watchout system and the dedicated cube computer, as the lip sync has to be perfect.
The Watchout system works alongside No X-Cues™ by Innovative Design Technologies, video wall software that “offered a virtually limitless number of looks,” according to Monnig. “We simply needed to weed out what worked and what didn't. Ultimately, getting these two systems to communicate aesthetically was our main priority.”
Using one production computer as the programming and playback interface, the system is set up “like a non-linear editing platform,” adds Monnig. It controls several display computers, which are linked back to the production computer via a standard Ethernet router. Three display computers are used on this tour — one for the side screens, one for the center cube wall, and one for the remaining cubes, plus a spare.
Implementing the video portion of Swinford's production design was no small feat, either, considering the unusual use of the Sony monitors at varying heights and built into the risers. “[Swinford's] vision had such an unorthodox use for the video cubes, which was entirely possible but had never really been explored before,” says Monnig. “Given this, programming was a challenge, but it was also a fantastic opportunity to do something new, to really push Mike's design. So when we sat down to design looks for the show, Joe Monahan, the cube programmer, and I would weigh the possibilities. Again, the primary goal was to ease the communication between Watchout and the considerably older cube software, No X-Cues.”
Monnig and Monahan played with ideas such as stretching images across all of the cubes, but they had to take into consideration introducing new media during certain parts of the show. Some solutions involved going back to the video editor or the graphic designer, while other fixes were possible in Watchout or in the dedicated cube computer. “The challenge was to minimize the number of cues Joe, the final operator of both machines, needed to run during a song,” says Monnig. “If there was ever a problem during the show, and he and I had not been conscientious by layering four cues between two computers within the space of one verse, he could miss all of those cues, and a bad situation would only get worse. To minimize this, we developed a ‘piece mag’ for some songs. With this, we created a grid that arranged all the elements of the cube wall into a 6×6 square. We then laid the video we created over the grid and said this section of video should correspond with this portion of the wall. The final composite of the video looks like a jigsaw puzzle, but it ultimately means that Joe only has to push one button instead of six.”
Monnig's favorite example of these two systems working together is in “Politically Uncorrect.” “As the song begins, an enormous flag appears stretched across all the cubes, which is being sent from one Watchout display computer and processed as one input by the cube computer,” he says. “When the verse begins, the side screens show a montage of blue collar workers and iconic American imagery. This is also being sent to the cube computer as a separate input. No X-Cues boasts the ability to grab freeze frames from its input, and slowly the flag, still waving, is replaced by individual still images from the montage. The end result is a mosaic of images of America, which dissolves to the initial giant stretch of Old Glory. It is a fantastic metaphor and one that adheres closely to Gretchen's beliefs.”
Video director Pryor adds that the show always keeps things interesting for playback. “We hang on for the ride,” he says. “That being said, we utilize three cameras, and I cut for the screens and cubes and add in some B-roll as well. Chasing Dean Hall on guitar and Dan Hochholter on fiddle all over the stage can prove to be tricky, but it keeps us on our toes and keeps each show fresh and fun!”
Wilson's tour runs through the fall, with several festival appearances planned for the summer.
Lighting and production design: Mike Swinford
Video producer: Scott Scovill, president of MooTV
Lighting programmer: Mark Butts
Lighting director: Carter Fulghum, Morris Leasing
Video director/crew chief: Bailey Pryor
Associate video producer/Watchout programmer: Tim Monnig
Video playback: Joe Monahan
Video graphics designer: Stu Robinson
Video editor: Shawn Hancock
Lighting crew chief: Ryder Deas
Vari-lite tech: Joel Harrison
Dimmer tech: Alex Richards
Deck hand: Bo Fryman
Deck hand: Jon Earp
All lighting gear provided by Dale Morris Leasing of Nashville.
All video gear, design, content, and personnel provided by Moo TV of Nashville.
All truss custom built by All Access of Torrance, CA.
All Access: www.allaccessinc.com
Artistic Licence: www.artisticlicence.com
Doremi Labs: www.doremilabs.com
Color Kinetics: www.colorkinetics.com
ESP Vision: www.esp-vision.com
Grass Valley: www.thomsongrassvalley.com
Innovative Design Technologies: www.noxcues.com
MA Lighting: www.malighting.de
Moo TV: www.mootv.com
Strictly FX: www.strictlyfx.com