During the early rehearsals in Barcelona of the U2 360° Tour, show designer and director Willie Williams said, “The goal always for me is when the fans come into the stadium, they see something the like of which they have never seen before.” While the design of the 360° Tour certainly fulfills the objective of Williams from the audience point of view, for lighting director Ethan Weber, he wants to ensure Williams see a show each night that looks a lot like the one he saw before. With Europe behind them and the US leg just begun, it is important to continually maintain the design that Williams worked so long and hard to create with his team. I spoke with Weber about touring, programming and a memorable audience.
MSE: Describe your role as lighting director on the 360° Tour?
EW: As lighting director, I look after the integrity of the light show—focusing, running, etc.—as well as to help build it as the tour progresses. Willie has a pretty steep workload as designer and overall show director, so I try to take a little bit off his shoulders and, hopefully, give him less to worry about and deal with.
I spend load-ins up in the “octagon” with [systems crew chief] Craig Hancock, helping to get dimmers in place, cables run, and trusses trimmed. I enjoy it and feel it’s important to be involved in the whole process. It might sound a bit odd, but I feel kind of out-of-sorts when I sit down at the console and haven’t been involved in the set-up.
After load-in, I spend the evening/night focusing and doing any programming notes I have from the previous show. Because of the 360° setup, focus is a two person job and Alex Murphy [lighting associate] is nice enough to run around the stadium calling pan and tilts while I sit comfortably behind the console pushing buttons. On show days, I run the show while Alex controls smoke, LEDs, and calls all of the [Strong and Lycian] followspots. After the show, I’m back up in the octagon helping with the load-out.
MSE: You said you get into the actual load-in and out, so what is it like to get to climb around up in the rig?
EW: It’s pretty high up, but Stageco and Stufish made it as safe and easy to climb as possible. Each leg has custom ladder—2” steel pipe with rebar rungs—built into it; the upper octagon that houses the video winches, water dampers, and four dimmer dollies is a big catwalk with wood decking and handrails; the pylon’s outer ring is catwalked, and, though it’s a bit tight in places, the pylon has an internal ladder from top to bottom. There are some areas of the structure that require a bit of climbing, but most of our work is done safely inside the legs, on the octagon, or in the pylon.
MSE: Tell me about the process between you and Willie putting the show together as well as during the actual tour.
EW: Willie got in touch late last year to ask if I was interested in being involved with the show. Between then and our pre-viz sessions, my main involvement was suggesting crew members, selecting consoles and putting fixture numbers together.
I flew to London in mid-May to spend a few weeks at White Light Studios with Willie, Alex, and an ESP/grandMA 3D pre-viz set-up. I spent the first few days laying out the console—patch, groups, palettes, layout views, etc.—and the next two weeks building cues. I’ve never been a big fan of designing/programming via computer screen, but it was a big help for us on this. Even when reality was a bit far from the computer images, at least we had song structures in the console and weren’t starting from scratch in Barcelona. It also gave us a chance to get used to working together. I’ve known Willie for years but had never worked with him on this level, so the time at White Light gave me an opportunity to learn Willie’s style of lighting and cueing, and gave him an opportunity to experience my tortoise-like speed of programming. Barcelona gave us another almost three weeks of programming with the system, though, being outdoors, we were confined to whatever dark hours we could get.
Willie has been the band’s vision for 30 years or so and has a very clear idea about what he wants and how U2 should be lit. At the same time, he’s been very open to ideas and has given me reign to add/change as the tour has progressed. It has been a very enjoyable experience.
MSE: What has surprised you most about working on a tour of this scope?
EW: Willie and Mark Fisher’s design is innovative and exciting, but I don’t think I’ve been surprised by anything in particular on this tour. I’ve been working on stadium tours since 1994, and each one has been bigger than the one before. The first one was a bit of shock, but the changes in scale since then have felt like a natural progression. I’ve also worked with many of the people involved for a lot of years, which took much of the mystery out of it.
MSE: Was there a specific challenge whose solution you are particularly pleased with (I realize a show of this scope has plenty of challenges to choose from)?
EW: I think my biggest concern going into this was the programming. I always program my own shows but don’t generally program for others. It’s one thing to try to make the console and lights do what you want; it’s another to translate someone else’s ideas, put them into the console, and do it at a decent pace. Fortunately, Willie has a lot of patience, and MA Lighting sent Oliver Rump to Barcelona to sit with us and make sure everything went smoothly.
MSE: Talk to me a little bit about the lighting gear on the tour.
EW: It’s kind of an eclectic mix of instruments—196 PRG Bad Boys, 156 Martin Atomic Strobes with color changers, eight 4kW Zap Technology BigLites, 39 red bulkheads on the legs and in the pylon, 33 Tamlite 400W Sodiums in the pylon, seven Novalight Nova-Flowers, five custom made 6kW “Ripple Drums” (Xenon lamps with an outer, slotted, rotating shell), a few hundred DWE PAR lamps built into the pylon, and two mirror balls. The workhorses of the system are obviously the Bad Boys, but all lights, even if used economically, have a big role in the light show.
It is pretty labor-intensive to get lights in some positions, but it really opens things up and brings the whole stadium into the show. Much of the system lives in low-profile trussing or the pylon sections, but there are also 33 lights (21 Bad Boys, seven Nova-Flowers, and five 4kW Gladiators) that Russell “Bits” Lyons, Chris Davis, and 12 stagehands carry up however many flights of stadium stairs to hang on outer spotlight platforms. The eight Big Lights sit on top of the main structure and need a 40-50 meter crane to setup.
Control is all grandMA—two full-sized, main and back-up, that control the bulk of the system and two grandMA Lites that control the scenic LEDs and link to my console for joint control of the smoke machines.
MSE: What do you think of programming the Bad Boy?
EW: The color system took a bit of getting used to—takes a bit of thought to do certain crossfades, but it’s worth dealing with for the extra intensity and pure colors that the color wheels allow. It’s been fun playing with the zoom, seeing how much of a stadium we can light with a single light. Its intensity and zoom range made it the perfect light for this tour. We have lighting positions in the stands that have been up to 400’ away but still light up the stage and structure. We light 90,000 people in the biggest stadiums in Europe with 24 lights.
MSE: Are you looking forward to being home in the US with the tour?
EW: I’m interested to see how the US audiences react to the show and the enormity of the set, but I’m kind of fond of touring outside the US. The work days tend to be a bit easier in the US without the language barrier, but the audiences are often more reserved and days off are less interesting.
MSE: Was there a particular show on the European tour that stands out for you?
EW: Definitely the show in Katowice, Poland. I think it was during “New Year’s Day,” everyone on the floor held up red cloths and everyone in the seats held up white—turned the stadium into the Polish flag. One of those goose-bump moments.