Dixie Chicks Tour Offers Sophisticated LED High and Low

As the peppy strains of the song “Goodbye Earl” fill Madison Square Garden, the trio known as the Dixie Chicks hit the stage on their current world tour, “Top of the World.” Simultaneously, animated frying pans, hams, and skulls-and-crossbones fly across LED video screens. Four such screens hang in the air, while a river of video winds around the stage and two clusters of fans who stand between the stage and a center circle where the group's 12-piece band sits. Lead vocalist Natalie Maines, fiddler Martie Maguire, and dobro/banjo/guitarist Emily Robison may have made more headlines for their controversial political comments earlier this year, but the stage show's spectacular presentation certainly deserves some attention as well.

Production/lighting designer LeRoy Bennett explains that the Dixie Chicks themselves came up with the notion of staging the tour in the round. “The idea was to create interaction,” he says. “The video on the floor is a horizontal world and the screens that are flown to bring in a horizon type of feel, so it all kind of interacts.”

The hanging LED screens combined with the river-shaped video floor create a bright and interactive video display.

The enormous video floor, which is shaped to recall a winding river rather than a perfect oval, is certainly anything but typical. “It's more about the control technology versus physically placing the video where it's supposed to be, although putting in the floor was quite a big feat,” Bennett says. “Michael Tait of Tait Towers [located in Lititz, Penn.] really stuck his neck out; he was the only one who could have pulled it off. Getting the air circulation around the video was a big part of it — there has to be a gap between the acrylic flooring and the video panels because the panels generate a lot of heat. If there is too much space, the acrylic will distort the image, but it has to be far enough away to allow the heat to disperse. So it took some time to work that out.”

Indeed, Tait says the floor job was an educational venture for all parties involved. “We learned a lot about the video and how the plastic expands around the video during the show,” says Tait. “It was pretty tricky. We made special decks for all of the video panels to slide into — up to four and five in some sections — and they house the video at all times. The video rides in the deck and the deck is coveredin 3/4in.-thick acrylic. We also did our best to eliminate the video panels where only a corner was pointing out because that's just a waste of money. It took a little tweaking, but we kept the flavor of Roy's [LeRoy Bennett's] shape.”

Host of Challenges

For the video content, Bennett worked with Andee Kuroda of Los Angeles-based Kanpai Pictures. Kuroda created content to directly complement some of Bennett's set gags, which included a telescoping windmill, a fabric tree that appears from the lighting rig, and flowers that pop up around the stage.

“For ‘Goodbye Earl,’ I worked with a company in Los Angeles called Gunslinger Digital,” Kuroda explains. “I designed all the individual elements [frying pans, hams, strawberry jams, peas, and, of course, skull and crossbones] and they animated them using [3D computer software] Maya. The song is really silly and campy, so I felt the video should reflect that, and it really exhibited their style. They're self-deprecating, but smart and funny, so it really worked for them and got the crowd going.”

Kuroda worked out technical challenges with Bennett and video director Dave Neugebauer, who rose to the challenge of ensuring the sophisticated video system would work.

“We looked at existing high-end technology and got the biggest and brightest LED units [a combination of ILite and DLite panels] that Barco makes right now,” Neugebauer says. “There were lots of emails back-and-forth, and a lot of number crunching was involved. Now we've got it going, and it's really pretty cut-and-dry. We're using an all-digital SDI video system with a Pinnacle Systems PDS 9000i switcher, which is the heart of the whole thing. It's a lot more than just a switcher because it also has DVE capability, which is a manipulator you usually need an external box for. But here, it's contained in the switcher. We like that.”

The system's playbacks come off six hard drives — Doremi Labs V1×2 units, which are dual-channel, non-linear playbacks that use 36 drives. The imagery used for the shows is a combination of original content mixed with plenty of IMAG. Each unit gives two channels of playback with about two hours per channel.

“On this show, we have 10 active playback channels of video, and I've got three live switches: for the hanging screens, for the plasma monitors that surround the stage, and for tape,” Neugebauer explains. “So there are times I'm cutting three different things at the same time, and it gets a little nutty. But that just keeps it interesting.”

Video Floor

The video crew's most obvious challenge revolves around how to handle the size and scope of the river/video walkway.

“It's too big to handle with one processor and just call it one big screen,” Neugebauer explains. “The processors are just Barco's way of getting our video signal into their wall, so they do the math, figuring out that the wall is so many tiles by so many tiles. You see the walkway, but because it works in squares, you have to address each section like it's a square. Even though we're only using parts of some tiles — we're actually using a little curve on some effects — the processors still have to do the math for all the other imagery that's not there.”

Kuroda therefore gave her content to Neugebauer's team as a collage of materials.

“That was the only way to put it all together,” she explains. “We're using these weird areas of the frame, so it was an interesting process. The programmers were literally programming new software and putting in codes song-by-song as we put each one up in rehearsals.”

Neugebauer split the video river up among eight processors. “We've got eight outputs going to the wall, but how do you take eight signals and make sure they fade up and fade out all at the same time? When they initially conceived it, they said it would be easy — just take a playback channel and wrap it to each processor. But I didn't want to be limited to having the video always pop on and pop off. Also, if things go a little long or a little short, you want to have control of that.”

For that control, Neugebauer turned to Electrosonic's Vector. “It's a video wall processor that is meant to deal with walls where you have stacks of cues,” he says. “It's a pretty high-end piece of equipment, but when you have multi-channels on a wall, you need that. We also have a routing matrix with 32 inputs to 32 outputs, and we have good system distribution — analog to digital and digital to analog conversions. All the equipment has been pretty reliable, but most of that credit goes to our lead LED video technician Dave Panscik, who runs the river, and our crew who keeps everything running smoothly.”

For IMAG, camera operators use Ikegami HL-45 SDI cameras. There are two stabilized 86:1 long lenses and two 55:1 long lenses for cameras that are distributed north, south, east, and west around the ring. “There are also two handheld cameras on the north and south sides of the stage. They run all over the place and get images for us,” Panscik explains. “The river is made up of 808 Barco ILite 10 LED panels. For the four hanging walls, we have 192 panels of Barco DLite 7 LED screens.”

By Panscik's calculations, there are 1.5 million LEDs in the video floor alone. So even without the accompanying lighting system, the show is one of the brightest on the road. And judging by its success — at press time, it was the third highest grossing American tour of 2003 — The Dixie Chicks won't be coming down from the “Top of the World” anytime soon.

For more on the Dixie Chicks tour, see the September issue of SRO's sister publication, Entertainment Design.

Catherine McHugh is a regular contributor to SRO and to Entertainment Design magazine. She has been covering live event design for over a decade. You can contact her at cmbmc@earthlink.net