We Will Rock You is a boisterous ode to the music of Queen and has been a hit in London for the past two years. Despite the success of Mamma Mia! on Broadway — an ode to the music of ABBA — the show is skipping the Great White Way to make its American debut on the Las Vegas strip at the Paris Hotel. Perhaps the glitz and excess of Vegas will be better suited for such a spectacle than the padded theatres of New York, especially since there is no way in heaven or hell that Broadway critics would be anything but reviled and repulsed by such a show.
Who needs critics anyway? Willie Williams certainly doesn't. And if We Will Rock You is good enough for the rock LD cum legend to mark his theatrical lighting debut, then you can rest assured that — storyline complaints aside — the show will be exciting, loud, and a feast for the eyes. But Williams wasn't happy to just do the lighting; along with scenic designer Mark Fisher, he also designed the video. “We've worked together so much, we finish each other's sentences,” Williams says of collaborating with Fisher. “It's a huge luxury to be able to second guess what your creative partner will or won't feel will work.”
The show is truly a marriage of rock and roll and theatre, and it proved to be quite an educational experience for all involved, according to Williams. “For those of us on the rock side, just the way musicals are produced is so entirely different from what we're used to,” he says, “and, of course, for theatre people, the very notion of having rock stars involved who somehow have power of veto was completely mind blowing. Needless to say, we did manage to make it work.” Said rock stars are Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who are deeply involved with the show's progress.
Williams reveled at the chance to bring in technology that is not traditionally used in the theatre, most notably video and large-scale automation. “From a rock point of view, this is absolutely no problem at all,” he says, “but, then again, some of the things associated with theatre are a huge luxury and are not available on huge rock tours, like scenery that can fly in and out! It was these two very different worlds that came together to produce the flavor of We Will Rock You.”
After a career on the rock tour circuit, Williams found that designing for the theatre was a welcome, albeit off-putting, change. “To work in a space that is actually designed for performance is an incredible luxury after spending 20 years working in spaces designed for sports or parking cars in Germany!” he says. “Having a proscenium to work with is comical, because so many theatre designers spend their whole lives trying to break through the proscenium and break down that fourth wall, while we spend all our time concerned with working on 360° sight lines or temporary stages. To work within a proscenium is a fantastic luxury because you can really do a lot with side lighting, and the variety of lighting positions you have is dramatically increased when you're not concerned with having an audience around the back and sides.”
The very nature of a musical that just “sits still” was also a welcome surprise to Williams, whose rig did not have to be broken down and packed into a truck. “Because the show doesn't have to move every day, the installation is a lot more thorough, but you don't spend nearly as much on making things flexible or mobile as you have to with a rock show, so that was a huge luxury,” he explains. “At least 50% of the design challenge of a rock show is making it able to move every day. In the theatre, there are more resources at hand if things need to change. To be fair, as a musical develops through the tech period, a lot of things do change, but it's more necessary to have flexibility on a rock tour. If you add lamps here or there, it's not a big deal.”
As mentioned, video is a big component of the look of We Will Rock You, and it is another of Williams' many tasks and talents. “Over the past few years, making video content has been a parallel career for me,” he says. “I've actually done quite a few shows where I haven't been involved in lighting and staging but did just video content.” The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith tours are probably the most notable tours where his video designs were featured.
As Williams has said in these very pages (LD, July 2004, p. 64), video can often become a bit of a distraction when used in concert settings. Sometimes, it is used so people in the cheap seats can get a glimpse of the act they paid $50 to see. Other times, it features graphics or images that accompany and complement the musical performance. In the theatre, however, video can be vital to advance the story on stage. “To say that it is ‘virtual scenery’ is a bit of an overstatement,” Williams says, “but it helps provide the environment and sometimes becomes part of the storytelling if you have a character on the stage speaking to a character on the screen. Then again, sometimes it's just gratuitous eye candy.”
The original West End production of the show featured eight 8' square Lighthouse LVP1050 10mm LED screens, while the Las Vegas production uses six. The smaller versions of the show have four of the video screens. The variation depends mostly on each production's particular budget. The screens fly in independently and are stationed on the stage in venues where there is enough onstage space. Williams uses the Lighthouse screens partly due to budgetary constraints but also to keep a certain amount of consistency among the different productions.
“It's nice the way we've managed to use the screens in different ways,” Williams says. “There are moments where the screens just enlarge the actor or singer, but you can always see actors in a theatre because the space is never too big within a proscenium space. By rock show standards, the screens are not excessively large, but in a theatre, they have a lot of power because it's so dark.”
With the Vegas production, both the video and the lighting are being controlled through a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® III lighting console programmed by Bruce Ramus. “This time, we finally managed to make the video cues run from the lighting console,” Williams says. “We're actually on a Catalyst [media server for the video]. We started on a different media server, which didn't work out so, very much at the 11th hour, we switched to Catalyst.
“All the video is done in Quicktime, which the Catalyst handles with ease,” Williams explains. “Being that the screens are only 8' square and being 10mm LED pitch, it's fairly low res, which is acceptable. Because of that, we haven't had to get into HD.” He added that he is so pleased with how the video and lighting are working together that this will be the setup for upcoming versions of the show which are scheduled in Russia, Cologne, Toronto, as well as both a US and UK tour. Doubling up on the lighting console also eliminates the need for a video operator, which the other versions had. Since the show has less than 50 video cues, those cues could become very expensive in a locale with higher labor costs, i.e., Broadway.
Williams said that the three lighting elements around which the show revolves are the DLC Light Curtains, which provide a lot of the basic, bulk washes; MAC 2000 — both Profiles and Performances; and ETC Source Four® Profiles with scrollers, which provide “the details.” The futuristic set — the show takes place in a time where music is outlawed — also contains a fair share of lighting instruments, especially MR16s and Duralight Rope Light “because it's cheap and convenient. The way it's worked out is there is a lot of pantomime in the show with a decidedly ‘community theatre’ feel,” he says. “It's low budget and high tech. It's 300 years in the future, and we still have Rope Light!”
The MAC 2000s have been an undeniable workhorse for each of the show's incarnations, and one of the reasons is likely due to Williams' ability to update the gobos as various effects are needed. Since the show is set in a post-apocalyptic world, there was a need for gobos to simulate water and different atmospheric effects like background radiation (the future does not appear to be a bed of roses). “These are what are perceived as rock looks [to theatre people],” Williams says of the gobos. “With each production, I've been able to update the gobos as various effects become required, and I'm really quite pleased with them, actually.”
Another bump in the road that Williams pretty much ignored in the rock world was fixture noise. “Between the MACs, scrollers, and video screens, the volume of background noise is really extraordinary,” he says. “So, an awful lot of time and effort has gone into noise baffles and general damping down of background noise, but we've reached a compromise with the sound department.” Also, Martin Chisnel, an electrician from the first production, devised a sound baffle for the MAC 2000, which has proven to be most effective at keeping them quiet.
Since theatres are traditionally designed to project sound out from the stage, the sound from the lights is intensified. “In the original London production, there would be moving lights within two weeks of the actors' heads, and that proximity also exacerbated the noise problem,” Williams explains. “It hurt us to begin with, but we managed to fix it, to say nothing of the fact that each tile of the Lighthouse screens has two fans, and, when that thing came on, it was like a jet engine taking off! It was all fixable, but it was just another hurdle to leap over.”
When Williams first embarked on designing both video and lighting, he underestimated how much time both tasks would take in a theatrical setting. “To conceive both video and lighting and keep all that moving and make sure it's all on target and be hands on is not possible,” he admits. “From the lighting point of view, you really need to know what the action is and what the cast is doing. If you're also editing videos and required elsewhere, it's not just a conflict of interest. There are not enough hours in the day.”
To help him get through the workdays (and nights), Williams brought in two veterans of his work on U2 tours, light director Bruce Ramus and lead video technician Stefaan “Smasher” Desmedt. “They have taken the ball and run with it, which has allowed me to keep my eye on the bigger picture,” Williams says. “The point of delegating is to let them do it, even if it's not exactly what you've done, but you know that they will come up with something great. It can be hard to let go, but it is simply not possible when you put together a theatre production of this size to be so hands on in every way in more than one department. When you know somebody well enough, you trust their aesthetic. Similarly, with Bruce and Smasher, we really have a great understanding of what it is we're trying to do.”
So with his London and American theatre debuts under his belt — not to mention his Austrian debut; he designed the lighting for a musical version of the Jane Fonda sci-fi classic Barbarella — does Williams prefer the world of rock n' roll or the theatre? “Rock was easier in the sense that I know exactly what I'm doing. I can design rock shows in my sleep, but therein lies the problem: a majority of rock shows cease to be a real challenge,” he says. “Creatively, I've thoroughly enjoyed thinking about things in a new way. A lot of the time, you don't have instant answers to the problems that are ahead of you because you haven't had to deal with them before…like a noisy video screen! I've thoroughly enjoyed being stretched like that.”
Williams also enjoys the careful planning of a musical, as opposed to the haphazard set list so prevalent on many rock tours. “One of the things I enjoy about theatre production is that there is a plan, i.e., a script. It might be incredibly dumb, but at least there's a plan. You sit down in the beginning and decide what you're going to do, and that's what you do. The attention to detail that you get is greater than in a typical rock show, where you don't know what songs are going to be played until an hour before the show.
“In a rock show, it's much more about designing an environment which you feel will work for the material the artist plays, rather than being particularly specific on a moment by moment basis,” he continues.
Williams adds that the energy of a rock show is unparalleled because the stadium or arena or wherever is filled with thousands and thousands of fans there to see their favorite act. “The amount of production value in a famous face cannot be underestimated,” he says. “The music is the star in We Will Rock You.”
Willie Williams: Lighting and Video Designer
Mark Fisher: Set/Video Designer
Bruce Ramus: Associate LD/Programmer
Stefaan “Smasher” Desmedt: Lead Video Technician
Rick Baxter: Production Electrician
Is We Will Rock You a musical or a rock concert? Judging from the scenes on these pages, it's a little of both. The trussing and rock-and-roll lighting (above and below) as well as the video screens (right and previous pages) bring a decidedly rock concert feel into a theatrical setting. However, in merging these two worlds, Willie Williams faced new challenges that he had never dealt with in an arena (Loud lights? Are you kidding me?). But he welcomed the new luxuries that he encountered, such as designing for a space made specifically for music and production, and the chance to try new lighting positions (sidelight anyone?).