MSE: What were your thoughts about an electronics package for dimming and control?
TV: For the LED drivers, I had it in mind to use off-the-shelf products. These days a lot of manufacturers make standard drivers to just drive LEDs with or without DMX. I couldn’t find the right driver that could handle the power but also have a smooth dimming curve and understand DMX. There are a few products out there, but in my opinion, they still have a way to go to get to a smooth dimming curve. Plus, nothing was available in that short of lead time. I ran into James Powell at Lightfair; he was one of the founders of PixelRange and has now moved on from there to his company JAP Optoelectronic, based in Manchester, England. I knew he could deal with the whole electronics and software side of an LED product. James and I discussed this project, and I asked if he was interested, did he have the capacity and more importantly, did he have components in stock, which he did. He decided that it would be best to design a custom driver board for this fixture. It makes more sense to have a board that does exactly what’s needed, that’s not over-specified, and that is reliable. We always had to remember these units were going on tour and are hard to access, so you don’t want to have problems on the road. Once James came onboard in the first week of May, he designed a custom board and laid out all of the electronics and control system, basically with DMX input. He is known for his fantastic dimmer curves and reliable electronics; in my opinion, he has the best dimming in the whole field of LED products. I have known James since I started Xilver back in 2002. It was very exciting to work with him and his well organized professional team.
MSE: Tell me about the reflector?
TV: For the reflector design, I wanted to have close supervision over it, so I needed to work with a supplier in close proximity to my office in New York City. I worked with Litelab Corporation, which is headquartered in Buffalo, NY, but they have a facility here in New York City where they are able to make custom products or adaptations to their standard product line. I gave them the order to manufacturer the reflector. It was very valuable to have somebody in close by to test things out and measure it and be able to redo it as adjustments were needed. Rafael Ramirez with Litelab really helped me with that and to make sure that everything would be manufactured in time. They built all of the custom reflectors for this project. We then used FedEx to get the reflectors to Belgium. Unfortunately, the carrier failed with the delivery of the last batch of reflectors, and at the very last minute, I had to personally fly to Belgium and hand-deliver them to Frederic.
MSE: Did you use a diffuser to help mix the colors of the LEDs?
TV: I used a special diffuser to help mix the light output. I already was using a special reflector material to blend as much light as possible so you don’t see the multicolored dots. The light comes out of the fixture in a homogenous mix of color. The special diffuser material has a 90% transmission, but does the trick of blending all of the artifacts that are created by the light. If you didn’t use a diffuser, you would get a hard-edged projection of the LEDs on the surface material.
MSE: Once you had all the components, how did you get it all together?
TV: We still had the challenge of making the actual fixtures. That is where Frederic [Opsomer] comes in. His company, Innovative Designs [a division of Barco], made the video screen for U2, so he has excellent relationships with suppliers in Belgium who can do metalwork with very short notice and very quick turnaround. Our understanding from the beginning of the project was that Innovative Designs would do all of the metalwork and final assembly of the LED fixtures. After verifying the prototype and showing it to everyone at our meeting, everything was approved. Frederic started to order all of the parts for the mechanical side. His project manager in Belgium is Marc Fichefet, who basically took it under his supervision that all of the parts would be ordered at the right companies, in the right quantities and would all be delivered in Belgium.
The idea was to assemble all of the fixtures in Frederic’s facility. Halfway through May, I went to Belgium and Manchester to supervise and see how everybody was doing on the project. At that time, the first series of parts came in and we started to assemble the fixtures. The other thing that we had to do in Belgium was to mount the fixture inside of the polyps. Besides the fixture itself, we had to make the system work. At Innovative Designs, we assembled each fixture and then assembled them all into the polyps supplied to us by Steel Monkey from Britain. We tested everything and then they shipped out for rehearsal set up in Barcelona. I then went to Manchester to see how the controllers were coming along. They were shipping directly from Manchester to Barcelona. Finally a few days later, I went to Barcelona to see how everything was coming together.
MSE: You must have racked up a lot of frequent-flyer miles.
TV: There was a lot of coordination to make all of this happen in such a tight timeframe. So we were working with all different companies, in different time zones, and with different languages, and remember, it all had to be done in three weeks.
MSE: I understand that you then got a second order for U2BE fixtures.
TV: We originally had an order to manufacture enough units for two complete sets, but there are actually three sets that are touring. Because the polyps are in an awkward position, it was difficult for production to take them off and tour them with the production. In terms of logistics, it made sense to build a third set. In the end, we built around 1,000 fixtures total. The first batch was completed in four weeks, and we had an additional four weeks for the second batch. I think that everyone involved did a pretty amazing job in a very short amount of time.
MSE: What do you think of the lights now that you have seen them in use during the tour?
TV: I was very happy with how everything came out—working with Litelab, JAP—but also, I was very impressed with Innovative Designs and how they were able to assemble all of these products in a very short time. In the end, you have to have two things: You have to have a good team for putting everything together, but you also have to have a good design to work from so it all goes together and fits. I was very happy with the assembly team in Belgium; they really did an awesome job.
Out of the 300 fixtures that we assembled—in one day—we only had two failures. It was almost flawless. Sometimes you are a little bit nervous about it, like it is going too smoothly. I was happy that they all went together quickly and precisely. The lights have been doing well on the tour, and we are proud that we had no failures, especially with the heavy rains the tour had to endure in Milan.
MSE: So this is a good example of the kind of work that 1212-Studio handles?
TV: This project is exactly what we focus on with our company, a quick turnaround, custom-designed project. The U2 360˚ Tour is a perfect example of that. 1212-Studio is about custom solutions and true innovation in LED technology. It was great being part of the U2 project because there are real technology advances in all areas of this production. Innovative Designs’ work on the video screen is incredible; PRG with the Bad Boy; and Barco with the FLX-24 pixel LED module. At the initial setup in Barcelona, I realized while working with all of these people, it was the best of the best working on this project. I am proud to be working with them.