Rock veteran Rod Stewart spent the first half of 2004 traveling the U.S. for his “From Maggie May to the Great American Songbook” tour. Stewart divides his show into two parts. Part one features Stewart and a backup band playing vintage Stewart rock songs, with lots of bright lights and raunchy video content. After a 20-minute intermission, Stewart returns in a white tuxedo to sing a selection of classic pop songs. This time, he's backed by a three-section, tiered orchestra (all dressed in black tie) with plush gold drapes surrounding video screens.
What doesn't change is the background video setup. Although the Stewart has incorporated video in his shows for many years, this tour marks one of the first times a live concert tour has used the Watchout Show System, a widescreen, multi-display video playback system manufactured by Dataton UK normally used more for corporate display applications.
Production manager/FOH audio engineer Lars Brogaard explains that Stewart wanted to have a New York City skyline backdrop for this tour, and a widescreen video presentation of that skyline simply made sense.
“For the money it would have cost to have that kind of backdrop painted up, I had this idea that we could do it with a projector,” he says. “So we went from using LED to projection because the resolution is so much better, and also the projectors are that much more powerful.”
Brogaard contacted Dave Crump, business development director at UK-based A/V provider Avesco, and explained what he wanted to do. Crump took charge of devising the tour's display solution.
“He came up with the Watchout video system and told me how the technology works,” Brogaard says. “And then [freelance video producer] Dick Carruthers in London put together all the imaging that we used on the screens.”
The center screen measures 25ft. wide by 20ft. high, and the two outer screens are 15ft. wide by 20ft. high.
“They almost join together; they're only about a foot apart,” says Crump. “The center one is straight across the stage, and the two outer ones are cranked in at a 45-degree angle, so they're sort of wrapped around the performing area. In the first half of the show, there are quite a lot of live images of the band, but in the second half, the screens are primarily used to show scenic content — lots of old film clips and black-and-white New York skyline shots. A lot of it was created specifically to work across the three screens.”
These effects were achieved through the Watchout playback system. “One of the advantages of Watchout and the system that we're using is that we're keeping the whole video signal path in a high-resolution, computer graphics domain, rather than downgrading to normal video signals,” Crump says. “That way, we're getting a resolution of 1024×768, rather than normal 525-line video — effectively over twice the normal resolution. So we're also getting twice the image quality, which enables us to blow the pictures up to a much larger size. Watchout is, essentially, a network of PCs — usually one per display device — that contain recorded information and permit very powerful movement, overlay, and blending possibilities. Each element of the clip is stored separately and played back simultaneously, so that images can be built in layers using photos, moving images, text, and other graphics. The layers can be independently manipulated at any time, as they are never stored as a combined file.”
Watchout output feeds the three video screens via a Folsom 1603 ScreenPro Plus, multi-screen switching system.
“The Folsom [1603 system] is a very clever three-channel vision mixer that has one switch on its control panel that allows you to control all three screens,” Crump adds. “And you can run different video formats into it and stream them out as one particular standard. In addition to the three channels of Watchout, it also takes in the main transmission output and independent camera outputs from the camera system, which provides the live imagery.”
Los Angeles-based Creative Technology, a subsidiary of Avesco, provided the Watchout system and the rest of the video presentation equipment under Crump's direction. Video cameras (Sony DXC-D35s) were supplied by Video Pax Systems (Los Angeles), while freelance video director and longtime Stewart collaborator John Basil operated the Watchout system.
“Effectively, [Basil] produces a live cut of the show and feeds that into our system, and we're taking segments of that when it's appropriate and running it through to the screens,” Crump explains. “Or he takes individual feeds from certain cameras at times and puts them up on certain screens and then supplements it with all of the pre-recorded material from Watchout.”
Camera director Gerry Platt directs the camera feeds, while Simon Greaves serves as the Watchout/Folsom video director for the tour.
“Simon makes all the cutting decisions for the screens,” Crump says. “They put a lot of multiple images up, so at times, we've got three screens, and we're cutting with three different cameras, which gets fairly hairy sometimes.”
The main projectors are Digital Projection 28sx units, while IMAG is projected using three Christie X10 projectors.
“We used digital projectors because they had less delay,” Crump says. “All of these modern day projectors and clever video toys have delay in them because they're all storing the video images and then playing them back again. But the delay can sometimes be a bit of an issue — you don't get perfect lip sync between the pictures and the sound. We have two [DP 27sx projectors] on the center screen and single projectors on the side screens.”
“The challenge with rear projection is that you only have to have a certain amount of space behind the stage,” Brogaard adds. “Avesco gave us some lenses, so we only needed 15ft. of space for a 25ft.-wide screen. We then flew the projectors behind the screens every day with rope and pulleys. We had to be spot-on; otherwise it would throw off the keystoning because it was such a short throw. So that was the biggest challenge, but once the guys got it sorted out, it wasn't really all that difficult to do.”
Light and Sound
Lighting designer Mark Payne's greatest challenge was making sure the video read properly on the high-gloss, all-white stage.
“Rod has always been a great fan of white,” says Payne. “And for me, lighting-wise, it's always been fantastic having a white set, because you can get an awful lot of effects from just a few lights. Unfortunately, when you're using projection screens it causes some problems with the bounce on them.”
After experimenting with different methods, Payne ended up using a lot of sidelight to solve his problem.
“I also used quite a lot of saturated colors and then picked everybody out with fairly tight followspots,” he adds. “Sometimes, we'd let the screens take precedence and keep the lighting levels low onstage to let the screens really pop out. Now and again, we'd let the action onstage take over and not worry quite so much about the screens going a little bit into the background. It was actually quite nice. With LEDs, they're very much in your face all the time because they so run so bright, which can be great. But with back projection, we found that the detail on it was just phenomenal.”
Payne's lighting rig (supplied by PRG, Las Vegas) includes a Wholehog II for control, as well as 12 Lyceum 1,200W short-throw followspots and 30 VL3000s, which he used for the first time on this tour.
“We really have a very simple lighting rig in that the show is mostly about the three screens,” Payne says. “We lit the scenic elements between the three screens very carefully, so we didn't spill direct light onto the screens. There was lots of gobo work — again, to keep the amount of light onstage down and simple colors.”
In addition to his production manager duties, Brogaard also serves as the tour's FOH audio engineer.
“Rod's very critical of his own sound, so he always wants to have the latest and the greatest equipment,” Brogaard says. “So we do a lot of beta-testing to be in front of everyone else. This time, we're using all-digital mixing consoles. We've got three DiGiCo D5 Live 56EX consoles — one for FOH and two for monitor mixers. We have one mix for Rod Stewart and another for the band. The reason for that is the two setups: the rock-and-roll show and the standard show with the jazz songs. It's the only way we could be sure to cover both equally well.”
Remaining audio equipment includes: 48 Meyer Milo, four Meyer Milo 120, 20 Meyer M3D Subs, 12 Meyer 700 Subs, and 11 Meyer UPA for house speakers. The personal monitor system uses AKG SST in-ear monitors. The hardwired microphones include AKG D 112s, 451s, and 414s, Sennheiser 421s, Shure SM 57s, SM 58s, SM 91s, Neuman 103s and 105s, Schoeps CMC6s, Avalon DIs, and BSS DIs. The wireless microphones are AKG PT 4000s with 5900 capsules. House equipment includes TC M6000, AMS RMX-16, Aphex Studio Exciter, TC EQStation, and Meyer SIM 3s. Monitor equipment includes a Lexicon PCM 90, a Yamaha SPX 990, and a Smart Research C2.
The tour's second U.S. leg began July 1, and because amphitheatres are the main venues, the three screens have been replaced with one Barco D7 LED wall, and the lighting has been scaled back a bit.
“It's a more of a conventional-looking show,” Brogaard says. “But as soon as we go back indoors again, we'll do the three screens again, because it looks really wonderful.”
Catherine McHugh is a regular contributor to SRO and Entertainment Design. She has covered live event design for more than a decade.