Madonna's latest tour roared out of the gate Sunday, May 22, at Inglewood, CA's Forum, and she did everything from ride a pseudo-S&M merry-go-round to hang on a cross replete with her own crown of thorns. Controversial much? While the material girl strikes a pose here, there, and everywhere on the Confessions Tour, Roy Bennett took the reigns of the lighting design and confessed that the look of the tour was designed by committee with much of it dictated from the divine Miss M herself.

“As far as this tour, my job description is pretty much lighting,” Bennett says. “I am the lighting designer, but I do get involved with creative bits and pieces here and there. As far as the design of the show, it is done by committee. A lot of it emanates from her first and then filters down to director Jamie King.” Other members of the creative team are also veterans of the Madonna universe, with John McGraw once again serving as set designer on this tour and Christian Lamb serving as video director. Bennett, who designed all of the visual aspects on Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's Soul2Soul II tour, adds that he gets involved with video equipment, screens, soft goods, etc. in order to put his two cents in.

Drama Queen

As to be expected with Madonna, Bennett says that the Confessions Tour is extremely theatrical and very big. “The actual real estate of what the show covers — the footprint of the stage — is twice the size of what it was last time. It covers a lot of area, so I have to spread stuff out all over the place. I wanted to make it so that the show became like being in a nightclub or a disco, based on the nature of her new album and the feel she was going for.”

Since her new album is called Confessions on the Dance Floor, the disco era was ripe for the picking. And you know what feature has to be included? That's right, mirror balls and plenty of them! Madonna even makes her grand entrance from within a giant one. “I added disco balls that I designed with these chrome, polished aluminum 3' spheres with LEDs all around them,” Bennett explains. “[It's] a more modern take on the original 70s disco balls. I took that concept and made it a highly polished LED version of it.”

Five iconic disco balls, fabricated by Midland, TX-based Tomcat, hang from a central point so that they could go up and down several times during the show. There are 88 V9 LED panels (by Nocturne using Saco technology) mounted within the balls with a Vari-Lite VL500 spot fixture mounted in the bottom center to shine straight down. The outer sheath of each ball was fabricated out of 1/8" aluminum to create a hemisphere. Each ball is divided into four sections so that internal fixtures can be easily accessed for maintenance. The LED electronics were placed in the stem of each ball about 30" from the top of the ball to the bottom of the electrical enclosure box. The skin of each ball was polished to a bright finish while the stem and electrical enclosure were powder-coated black. Each ball also contains a small ventilation fan to keep the heat build up to a minimum.

According to Bennett, the vertical shape of the stage is in constant flux, and that, coupled with a trim height of 55' — instead of the typical 30' — provided some interesting challenges. Since the rig was 25' higher than he prefers, lamp brightness was a concern. To that end, he chose Vari-Lite VL3000s as his spot sources and Martin MAC 2000s as washes. “The VL3000s have the best colors and optics out there,” he says. “I use them as specials, aerials, audience lights, and special effects.” Bennett used to be partial to Icons, but since those are no longer produced, he has replaced them with Martin MAC 3000s. He also has some MAC 700s on the tour.

Part of the stage extends forward about 60' downstage center like a runway, or more appropriately, a catwalk for Madonna and her cadre of well-toned, acrobatic dancers. A turntable beneath the stage is a holdover from the previous tour. Madonna's grand entrance comes courtesy of a larger disco ball, which in reality is composed of over 250 V9 LED strips. Indeed, the V9s dominate the proceedings: three V9 LED screens approximately 16"×21" are strategically placed across the stage; the runway is implanted with V9s, as are satellite stages that extend left and right of the main stage. Two Barco R12plus projection screens are also part of the video package.

The V9s have been making a splash in the concert world recently, having been used on recent tours by Paul McCartney, Nine Inch Nails, and Bon Jovi. They're a proprietary product developed in a joint manufacturing effort by Saco and Vidicon, a sister company of Nocturne Productions, the company in charge of the video for the tour. According to Bob Brigham, CEO of Nocturne Productions, his business partner Ron Proesel developed the V9 with Saco for the 2005 McCartney tour to be used for outdoor purposes. Tait Towers, who built all the video decks stage left, right, and center for the tour, also built custom frames for the V9s.

“What's unique about the V9 is that we found with a 9mm pitch, it actually has 20% more LEDs than a 10mm pitch,” says Brigham. “The strips are designed to be 4.4"×17.62", so you can make them long, narrow, or sideways. The other thing is that they're light: four strips of V9 weigh 12lbs.”

Another hot design feature on this tour is Stealth, the spanking new 25mm mesh screen from Element Labs developed in conjunction with VER. For this tour, Stealth is curved and clocks in at 16'×60'; the unit drops down in front of the centerstage V9 screen during several segments of the show to add a 3D element to the proceedings. “It's beautiful, and the resolution is incredible,” says Bennett. It was a favorite of the crew, too. They watched Kill Bill on it while the show was being loaded in at the Forum.

Other video gear includes a Grass Valley Kayak mixer, two Sony DRS1800 DVcams, five Ikegami HL45W cameras, two Pioneer DVD Recorders, Doremi hard disks, and an Adobe® Production Studio Edit System. In addition to Lamb, the video crew includes video assistant director/video engineer Jason Harvey, and video crew chief Stefaan Michels. [Look for a Q&A with video director Christian Lamb in a future issue of Live Design.]

Between mirror balls, LED screens, carousel horses, and a crucified Madonna, so much action is going on above the stage that an air traffic controller is needed. “Because there are so many set pieces up in the air, it becomes very challenging in being able to locate lamps in places where you really need them, but that space doesn't exist,” Bennett says. “We also have an incredible weight issue on this tour because we have so much stuff up there. It's limited to arenas; fortunately, Madonna doesn't play B markets, only major cities. She's Madonna.”

Getting With The Programming

The two programming mavens for the tour are Cory FitzGerald and Troy Eckerman with Mac Mosier serving as the on-the-road lighting director. For his part, FitzGerald was responsible for the front-of-house moving lights, LED fixtures, and strobes, while Eckerman tackled the kit over and around the stage. The dynamic duo did their duties on a two-console MA Lighting grandMA system without the help of any media servers. However, there are nine MA Lighting NSPs that serve 30 separate DMX universes.

About the twin-console system, FitzGerald says, “It worked great.” But there were some problems with building a system so large, he says, adding, “It's the only console that could do something of this scale with so many universes.” Bennett echoes FitzGerald's appraisal of the grandMA, which he is also using on the McGraw-Hill tour, calling it the tour's true workhorse.

Mosier was also pleased with the grandMAs, as well as with the work of Eckerman and FitzGerald. “Cory and Troy did a great job programming,” he says. “They had it set up the way I wanted to run the show, and it was really easy working with them. Some songs have nine cue lists running simultaneously — thank God for timecode. Using the console that way enables you to program this kind of show. Otherwise, there's no way two people can run this show as tight as the cues are. Timecode is a great a feature, but I miss the old days of actually running a console.”

The layout function for the LED fixtures was particularly helpful to FitzGerald, allowing him to build and see graphic representation of each pixel so he could pre-build all of his effects. This feature was especially handy since FitzGerald, Bennett, and Eckerman found themselves waiting for various set pieces to arrive. Those pieces were vital since they had lighting integrated inside them, specifically LED fixtures such as Color Kinetics ColorBlast® units. The other LED fixtures include Thomas PixelLines and white light ColorBlasts used to footlight the stage and the ramp area. Bennett says that the great thing about the LEDs is that they “enable you to light set pieces without having to deal with heat issues. And you can squeeze things into a smaller space,” something that was nearly impossible a few years ago with larger sources.

Mosier shares on-the-road board duties with Jeff Bertuch. “It's great having two grandMAs together online and active,” Mosier says. “If lights need to be reset or re-struck, he can do that easily on the console he's sitting behind, and it doesn't change the views on my console [running timecode and a clock]. He can do it much quicker on the backup console. That's a great feature with having them both online and being able to access lights from either console.” Mosier adds that over the past few years, he's seen a lot of tours switching to the grandMA due to its flexibility.

Waiting for the video content was also a bit of a nail biter for the programmers, according to Eckerman. “Because we don't have the content to program the lighting to try to enhance the video, we start up and just do blue and white songs, and then we go back and change the color when we get the content,” he says. “Then we have to start programming the songs out of order for whatever content we have, so it's quite a challenge to keep up with which color we used for which songs.”

“I've been able to cue the show and build the effects, so when we get the pieces in we plug them in, we bring them out, and then they work. Then it's just a matter of fine tuning the effect on the actual fixtures,” FitzGerald explains. “I've got full interaction with the fixtures just based on a graphical layout. Since we have about 1,500 LED fixtures in the show, it's really helpful to have all that stuff available.”

According to FitzGerald, the biggest challenge in programming the tour was simply having the fixtures on site so the team could actually see what they were working with. “We were building a lot of the LED effects offline,” he says. “It was a lot of very specific cueing for songs, and the system was so large and complicated that we lost a little bit of time in the beginning, and that put us behind schedule. Once all that was done, it was more of a timing issue.”

The five LED mirror balls, unfortunately for the design team, didn't show up until just a few days before the tour commenced on a Sunday. One showed up on Friday, and the other four showed up the next day. Although it was a close shave, the team got the chance to test the looks they had created beforehand once the fixtures arrived.

As far as networking the system is concerned, FitzGerald says the NSPs have been very stable, a huge bonus for a tour as big as this one. “There's not much else out there that can handle the reliability and speed we've been throwing at the system,” he says. “The whole show is timecoded. One of the challenges is dealing with a large-scale show moving at a constant clip with timecode and having the songs roll over into each other. We don't go to a base look between each song; each song flows seamlessly into the next and sometimes instantaneously.”

Eckerman says that putting the Confessions Tour in timecode was definitely a good thing. “The best part about the shows that have SMPTE timecode is that the look of the show is consistent night after night,” he says, “because on some songs, we're running eight or nine separate cue lists. It's very tight and gets quite tricky.”

Since the goal was to have the lighting match the music, i.e., a seamless transition, the programmers worked on various methods to achieve that. “We tried a couple of different ways and finally came up with one that worked and then went from there,” FitzGerald says. “As far as blending the looks into each other, those needed to be adjusted. So far, it's been pretty rock solid with the consoles.”

Eckerman adds that, normally, the programmers try to program the entire show in case the timecode goes awry. “Then the programmer can just hit the ‘go’ button,” he says. “But there are two or three songs that would be impossible to run manually because there's just too much going on, and there's not enough fingers and toes to be able to hit the right cues every time.” He goes on to recount the “good old days” when Bennett would routinely use foot pedals to cue fog and haze effects because his hands would be somewhat pre-occupied with the lighting board.

FitzGerald also credits PRG's Series 400 data and power distribution system, which converted all of the data coming in from the front-of-house into ArtNet, which would then ensure that the data would match any box on the system. “It was really helpful to send data anywhere we wanted it,” he adds.

Adventures In Babysitting

Just like on any other tour, lighting director Mac Mosier has the task of preserving — sometimes babysitting — Bennett's designs to make sure that every show looks the way it is supposed to. As time goes on, Mosier says, things do get better. For example, at first it took the crew 12 hours to load out the tour's 27 trucks; now it only takes five hours.

For his part, Bennett stayed with the beginning of the tour throughout the rehearsals and the first week of shows on the west coast. After that, the show was handed off to Mosier with Bennett checking in at key cities like New York, Miami, and likely London, Moscow, and Tokyo. “Ninety-five percent of the show is in SMPTE timecode, so there's only a handful of manual cues I'm actually executing on the console,” Mosier says. “So I'm just watching the stuff to make sure everything is working the way it should be and calling the spotlights.”

Typically, Mosier's adventures in a new venue deal with the building itself. He has to adjust the trim heights, usually due to a pesky scoreboard (he anticipates an issue with that low-hanging monster in Madison Square Garden). He's also the go-to guy for the house spots. “Spots are critical for the show as far as key light,” he says from Chicago's United Center, where the tour sat down for two shows in the middle of June. “Today, they've got spots up there, but they can't hit all of the stage. I have to make sure the spots hit everywhere, so I will have to bring in some rentals to get the spots the way I want them.” He added that he would focus for a couple of hours after everybody else is gone, and then on the day of the show, he'll balance the spots and then start with the sound check.

Mosier explains that a tour with this amount of staging, choreography, video, and hydraulics has to be consistent night after night, just like a Broadway show. “There is no leeway like, ‘We're gonna do this song tonight.’ It's pretty intricate as far all the stage moves we have; there's a million things going on during the show behind the scenes that nobody sees. Just keeping a handle on this monster is a job in itself to make sure everything is working properly in all departments. I've got a good lighting crew out here, and everyone's been doing a great job.” PRG's Jim Petrusson is the lighting crew chief, and he oversees a 10-person team.

Because of the scope of the Confessions Tour and the venues it's playing, the show had been very well thought out before a single mirror ball dangled over a sweaty, writhing dancer. “We have to be able to go into a building and hang everything exactly the way it should be,” Mosier says. “The only things that will be changed are the trim heights, but everything will be put up and will be used.” Once the tour crosses the pond and vogues through Europe, the show will be playing stadiums — shows Bennett has already designed. “Roy and I have been working together 22 years. I take it out on the road as lighting director, and if anything is added, I consult with him. I keep his design intact. It wouldn't be fair to Roy to have someone else go out and change his design. That's why we've been working together so long.”

So far, the only challenges Mosier has stumbled across were at San Jose's HP Pavilion where the color temperature on the spots ran the gamut. “I was going through [the spot] colors, and I used the same frames I've been using and they are looking horrible,” Mosier explains. A facility guy told Mosier that the spots all had brand new reflectors and were recently tuned up, so Mosier thought they would be fine. “Lo and behold, that night, they were looking pretty green, so the next day, I metered them out had one spot at [a color temperature of] 11,500°K, two at 10,500°K, and the rest at 9,000°K which worked out really well because I ended up buying a new meter so every day the spots are balanced the way we want. We're on a roll right now.”

After overseeing the entire scenic design on the Soul2Soul II tour, the Super Bowl Halftime shows, and dozens upon dozens of more live events, Bennett tends to be more comfortable in that capacity: “Personally, I would like to be more involved in the overall design in some cases,” he admits. “Sometimes, decisions get made that are not thought through by all departments. Knowing every dimension of how things have to be makes it much easier to deal with. But dealing with oversight is part of a challenge and keeps me on my toes.”

Additional reporting for this article was done by David Johnson.