For at least a year, lighting designer Bob Dickinson has been experimenting with low resolution LED technology, upping his inventory of Element Labs Versa® Tubes to create a less technical, more architectural look than he says most LED technology affords.

In the last six months, he has used Versa Tubes for TV shows that include The American Music Awards, The Golden Globes, The Academy Awards, and the Halftime Show at the Super Bowl with Prince (covered in the April issue of Live Design). “Slowly, I've been installing this technology more and more,” he says. When he recently redid the Today Show lighting, he used some 700 Versa Tubes instead of regular incandescent or fluorescent instrumentation to provide light behind the crystal-like walls in the interview area.

Problem

Although the technology is straightforward and he has been getting the results he wants with it, Dickinson says installation is problematic when deadlines are tight. “I ran into a problem on the Country Music Awards,” he reports. “We delayed the installation of scenery because I scheduled for them to be loaded onto the scenery on site. Mounting and wiring Versa Tubes is very labor-intensive compared to the rest of lighting,” adding to the usual stress of load-ins. Dickinson was sure there had to be a better way.

What if he pre-mounted them on racks? He did that with about 1,000 Versa Tubes for his next project, Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, a CBS special that required an entire wall of Versa Tubes, but he still ran into problems on site. The idea was to line up the Versa Tubes so they would appear as a single line, and if one rack were even an eighth of an inch off, it would show. “Versa Tubes are really very rigid,” Dickinson explains. “Part of it is that so many connections have to be made to line them up perfectly.”

The Grammy Awards were fast approaching, with union crews slated to work 24 hours a day for five days to get the rig up and running. There would be no room for error. “Everything had to be precise and fit in time constraints. If one element were to stop the process, a tidal wave would build up behind it,” says Dickinson.

“Finally, we got smart.”

Solution

This time, Dickinson worked with the production designers. The LD planned to create a large, single array of 792 1m Versa Tubes to suspend above the entire width of the stage, using 22 rows, each 36 Versa Tubes in length. He ordered them from Element Labs and sent these to Scenic Express to be mounted. The production team (Brian Stonestreet, art director; Dave Simpson, Scenic Express) built the scenery with the clips for the Versa Tubes already in it. “We built a steel structure in our facility, and the technicians installed and wired the tubes,” says Simpson, explaining that they made a wood template with a CNC router, creating notches that they could set brackets into at specific locations. “We mounted them on a roll cage type of structure to line them up exactly.”

After Scenic Express attached the Versa Tubes to custom curved frames fabricated by Production Resources Group (PRG), they sent five separate sections to the venue to be connected there. Live feeds from the video truck — Element Labs D2 processors, fed from a Pandoras Box Media System with a DVI over a fiber optic connection — drove the system.

“This doesn't seem like brain surgery,” Dickinson adds, noting that people ask why he didn't do that earlier. “Every day you have the Versa Tubes, you're paying rental, but from an overall budget reality, you spend far less in labor by installing them in an offsite location and getting the precision necessary done in a less critical circumstance. It took a couple of lessons to learn what should have been obvious.”