For Willie Williams, paying attention has paid off. The award-winning lighting and production designer says, “The most consistent source of inspiration is observation.” Sometimes the process can take years: “I'll see something that has an atmosphere that I like and it will sit in the memory banks until it cross-pollinates with something with a similar resonance.”
One such inspiration came from childhood visits to Blackpool Illuminations.
For those readers who grew up without the advantages of a British upbringing, Blackpool Illuminations is an annual light show at a seaside resort known more for donkey rides than beach bunnies: Atlantic City without the casinos. If you are thinking lasers and moving lights, think again; with few exceptions, the illuminations feature light bulbs inside molded plastic covers shaped like stars, flowers and cartoon characters, and strung on ropes across the street. Williams calls it, “a most magical place,” and used it as inspiration for the 1999 REM Up tour, stringing rope lights of Western clip art symbols as interpreted by a Chinese production company.
Less cheesy sources of inspiration for the designer are contemporary art galleries, particularly the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank. The impact of other artists' work is very oblique, he says, “I don't see a sculpture and think ‘ooh that would look nice on a stage,’” but in some instances it has given him courage to follow his own convictions. While working on a 1995 REM tour he used a simple system of two banks of PAR cans with color changers to create a big wash effect. Inspired by a show of Yves Klein's blue works, instead of having a red wash for one song and a blue one for another, Williams thought, “Let's be brave and just pick one color and go with it.” Starting with Lee 116 the tour featured the slowest color change in the history of rock. “We changed the color every two weeks instead of every two numbers,” he says, “You can work with an extremely minimal palette, as long as the ideas are strong it will stand up.”
A less esoteric influence on the design for U2's ZooTV tour came from the randomly blinking red light at the top of the Sutro Tower, visible from the designer's San Francisco apartment. Lighting fixtures in public places produce a particular kind of atmosphere that the designer likes to reinvent. The lighting fixtures Williams are most famous for were also created for U2's Achtung Baby tour. At the time, little East German cars called Trabants were showing up all over Europe as the Berlin Wall came down, and symbolized the new freedom to travel that East Germans enjoyed. Made of fiberglass, and usually with a trunk full of containers of cheap communist gasoline, Williams likens Trabants to mobile Molotov cocktails. He appropriated the symbols of freedom into lighting instruments overhanging the stage. He also created a mirror ball Trabant, updating a lighting staple that he has never abandoned, even using a tiny mirror ball 6” in diameter lowered next to Michael Stipe's head during REM's 1999 tour. “You have to have a mirror ball or you wouldn't know you were at a show!” he says.
Another recent video project has just moved to Las Vegas from London. Williams designed the lighting and video for the Queen musical We Will Rock You, collaborating with Mark Fisher, who designed the sets. Williams claims they soon realized that, “Any attempt to create logical consistency was absolutely surplus to requirements,” but he did want to recreate the iconic handclapping image from the Radio Ga Ga video and Queen's live shows. To supplement the 24 cast members, he used a computer-generated field of crash test dummy-like figures clapping in time. Other images are scenic to evoke the journey across the Rockies, and some show characters appearing as if by telecast and interacting with an onstage actor. The rest is what Williams calls “eye candy,” transferring hyperactive rock show visuals to a West End musical.
Although the inspiration Williams draws from other artists is so oblique it is unlikely they would recognize their own work, he mentions one book that he is fond of. Performance: Live Art Since 1960 is a pictorial history of performance art from Fluxus to Laurie Anderson. Williams cites one memorable photograph, of a man surrounded by a hundred turntables, as the result of the freedom to imagine.
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