Alex Murphy serves as lighting associate on the U2 360˚ tour and has the rather daunting challenge of calling the tour’s 25 followspots—a mix of Strong Gladiators and Lycian M2 Long throw units—among other duties. He has worked previously with show director/designer Willie Williams on lighting the exterior of the Southbank Centre in London as well as on such theatre projects as French & Saunders: Still Alive and Steve Coogan is Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters. Murphy recently answered a few questions for us between stops in Europe.
1. The largest concert tour ever, a total of 25 spot positions, some of the longest throws imaginable, operators who not only don’t have a whole lot of experience but who sometimes don’t even speak English—you may have the trickiest job on this tour.
I'm used to being in total control of a lighting system, with button pushes carrying out complex sequences. Add 25 "Biologic" processors into the mix, and keep the same attitude, and you’re in for a bumpy ride. Here in Spain the major problem is timing, not timing as you would expect such as fade times, but timing as in the length of time its taking me to rattle through the spot calls for individual songs—some of them are quite long—then double that length as it all goes through a translator! And then triple that as there are then questions back from the spot operators and before you know it, it’s the next song.
Luckily for these first few days, we have rehearsals with the band every evening; it gives me a fantastic chance to get to know the songs without 90,000 people looking on. At the moment, I'm concentrating on the spots being in the right color on the right person. Iris and fade times will come later down the line.
2. In addition to the followspots, what else falls under your purview?
I also look after the media servers, which run the floor LEDs, the LEDs covering the roof, and the army of smoke machines. It’s a very organic show for me, as there are lots of things that can change. The smoke is making me into a casebook OCD sufferer; Bono has not yet been able to command the wind—yet—so we’re stuck with what it gives us sometimes. It’s a huge open space, and although we have machines in every possible position—36 in all—some nights stage left is as clinical as McDonald’s, while stage right looks like the battle of the Somme. It’s going to be different in every venue, and as I have control over all of it individually, it keeps me busy during the show. We are trying different techniques every day. There are more Jem Roadies on the way, so we will see what they bring to the party. Just to try and give you some scale: we go through about 50 liters of fluid a night.
3. You have a theatre background, but Willie has brought you into this concert world before. What are some of the differences between the two?
I suppose I have a foot in both camps, and both worlds can learn from each other. I'm really happy that I get to work in all the different worlds of lighting. People seem to think that you must only really work in one field, but I really disagree with this. Yes, there are different processes, but in the end, the result is the same. For concert touring, it is so not about the show itself; that is just a two-hour thing which happens before the load out begins. It took me a while to get used to this, 90% of the effort goes into loading the system in and getting it working.
For me, the show is a nice chance to have a sit down. I do sit here and smile to myself sometimes when comparing. If you look at a high-end Broadway show, you will have maybe two programmers, an associate, maybe two assistants, and then someone to look after the spots. On this, we have [lighting director] Ethan [Weber] and myself, and one lighting plot. In fact, the plot got wet in Milan, and it fell apart, so we don’t even have that anymore. Luckily, our system tech has a fantastic memory. I think some of the American associates would have a paperwork field day with this: all sorts of spread sheets would be created. We would lose a small forest somewhere in the world.
4. From what we’ve seen, you’ve been able to get some great looks from the followspots. Are you conscious of that during a show, or is it usually more a matter of just getting coverage? Is there an “art” to followspots?
The key to this show is light from one side and shoot the cameras for the screen from the other. It’s a look which U2 have always had, but it becomes a little more difficult doing it in the round, as a quick movement by one of the band turns nice sidelight into full backlight.
Another dangerous aspect is having the light source behind them, because if they move out of shot the followspot shines directly into the lens, and then we have the world’s largest light source in the form of the massive LED screen suddenly going to full white, somewhat distracting during slow songs when the stadium is low in intensity. However, the video department seems to be massing an army of camera operators to try and rival the number of spot operators; more cameras are appearing every day, hopefully making getting the shots easier as they travel around this huge stage. I think we may have to quash the camera uprising now, before their numbers become too large.
At the moment it as all about the coverage, getting on the right person in the right color, maybe next week, boys and girls, we will worry about fade times and iris size. The show is just far too hectic at the moment for finesse; that will come when we get an audience in.
5. What’s been your biggest challenge on these first few dates?
It is very funny when one of the band members decides to go for a run around the B stage during a song. No one spot can get coverage all the way around. I almost have to hand the band member around four different spots, all through a translator. It starts with an access bridge trucking around; this put me on alert, and they are off. Willie can see this is happening, and out of the corner of his eye is checking that I have also. Edge is running, I'm still calling, then it needs to be translated; I have found that spinning around and staring at my translator makes the poor guy call it at triple speed. There is talk of Edge riding a bike around the B stage, so hold onto your hats.