One of the more interesting challenges I have is writing for technical magazines, and creating content that breaks down the technical aspects for the readers in an engaging manner. I’ve learned over the years of writing for a variety of magazines and providing content for St. Louis websites that educates and informs does not have to be dry.
Another skill I’ve developed is researching and writing about a subject or event when you’re not able to be there in person. By a few short succulent interviews, and/or just good old fashion researching, I’m able to make the reader believe I’m right there at the event (and I take them with me).
This recent technical article on an Usher concert is a good example of both of these points. It was a fun piece to work on, and while a technical article, it tells a story, something I do for magazines and (increasingly) web content.
This ran in Projections Lights & Staging News recently, and you can see it here online. But I also include it in this post because … well it turned out fun. And that’s what I’m about: fun.
The “UR Experience” tour, originally scheduled to support the singer’s eighth album, UR, just finished its first run in the States. The sold-out high-energy tour had many highlights. One of the new songs off his yet to be released album, “Good Kisser,” had Usher behind the drums. Another was his ballad, “Climax,” which had him riding a hydraulic lift to animated video. Then there was the “unplugged” segment, which proved to be another visually stunning moment in the show. The New York Times called the show one of “superhuman precision, control and stamina,” and the same can be said of the behind the scenes design team that put together the lighting, staging, video and pyro. Usher’s music demands flexibility. “In terms of the variety of styles he’s covered, the whole production look couldn’t be specific to just one [genre],” Baz Halpin says. “You have these sexy ballads, you have these big James Brown-like numbers. The look of the show can never be mechanical — there has to be subtle moments.”
Built to Suit
Designer/show director Halpin supported a number of top-tier artists in 2014, including Katy Perry, Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Cher and, on the way to 2015, Usher. On working with Usher, Halpin says that the artist is “very structured — a workaholic — yet one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Prior to rehearsals, the decision was reached to not pre-plan what the show would look like. So the creative team simply brought a “box of paint” — gags, gizmos, video, special effects, etc. — and let the show evolve during rehearsal.” Baz admits that he’s never quite worked on a level that was so spontaneous. They created the show in about two and a half weeks.
The Set and Video Elements
“We first designed a stage that would give us enough flexibility to create beautiful scenes. With Chris Keating and I working on a 60-foot by 40-foot stage that we then cocked off center 40 degrees to give it a pointy look,” he laughs. “I dug it, but the crew didn’t care for it, because it was difficult to set up … but so be it!”
For flexibility with video, Halpin used 770 Video Blades distributed by VER and built them into the scenery all over the stage. Then there were two 16-by-24-foot LED walls. But the next phase was how to create all the content necessary while still being flexible. He brought in multi-media company Geodezik and Control Freak Systems. The video screen was Screenworks’ new X-7 HD 7mm LED product, which Halpin calls “stunning.” They split it in half and put it on two tracks. “The tricky part was, it wasn’t a straight truss, but a hinged truss, and it was almost a flat ‘Z.’ That was difficult to pull off, but Tait Towers created some widgets for it. In the end, the hinged screen itself is seamless and beautiful.”
Control Freak Systems controlled video with PRG MBox media servers, and Wade says the graphics were visually stunning. Their impact was amplified by being precisely linked to the music, with single sounds or a full audio mix triggering video imagery.
Among the special effects on stage, Halpin made room for some 8-by-8-foot hydraulic lifts, as well as another one that brings the drum kit up at one high point. Pyro included flame cannons built into the stage and a dragonhead prop that spews fireballs. Pyrotek looked after the pyro effects on tour. The video blades seem to move around the stage as the set evolves. At times, it seemed as though just some blades were illuminated, giving the stage a distinctively different shape.
For Halpin, a favorite part of the show is a bit of a camera trick: As Usher sings downstage, there’s an image on the screen behind of a scantily clad woman in a chair, and at a climatic moment in the song, he appears to lift her out of it. “That’s one of those ideas you come up with at 2 in the morning!” It was just one of the sleight-of-hand visual tricks used during the show.
New Gear, Trusted Sources
Texas-based lighting designer Eric Wade has built up an impressive resume in his 30-plus years in the business, supporting artists including Whitney Houston, Eric Clapton, Alicia Keys, Barbra Streisand, and many others. His visual work with Usher goes way back, spanning close to 14 years.
“Baz left some space for lights in the center, but for this part I wanted something unique, different from regular trussing.” Wade says. He would design a set of four square pods positioned in a way that makes them diamond-shaped. “I wanted something different but could still go up quick,” he says. He and the team designed a pod-like structure and had it built from scratch. In addition to looking cool and being capable of maneuvering on stage, the pods were designed so they could break down into sea containers efficiently. VER supplied the lighting gear for the tour.
Each pod has 16 MagicPanel R LED matrix fixtures from French lighting manufacturer Ayrton. These fixtures come fitted with 25 15W LED RGBW sources and toss out an overall brightness of 115,000 lumens and a center beam intensity of 1,350,000 candela. The unit can do continuous double rotation on pan and tilt axes, and each pod’s 5-by-5 matrix of these fixtures allows for a lot of possibilities. The brand-new unit had just become available in the U.S., Wade says, noting that he got the first batch that came over.
Along with the MagicPanels, each pod is equipped with four Martin MAC Viper AirFX fixtures and four Solaris Flares. Wade says the combination allows him to do different things — and he takes full advantage of the setup with every song. “I can move the pods into position, and then out, for completely different looks,” he says. While playing with it during rehearsal, in one of the early songs, Wade wanted the pods directly over Usher’s head for the dance break, to great effect. Inspiration for that came from a rare couch-potato moment: “My sons and I like watching the television show ‘Falling Skies,’ and on it they have this spaceship called a ‘beamer.’ When I moved the pods into that position, I laughed, because it looked just like [the ship]!” Back on stage, during this bit Usher throws his hands in the air, and seems to push the pods, “forcing” the “ship” to leave.
Many of the 200+ GLP Impression X4S fixtures that were used on this tour, along with nearly 100 Solaris LED Mozart Pixels, were hung on a dozen vertical ladder trusses. “Baz had a twin wall acrylic that covered the fixtures,” Wade notes, “but it’s removable,” and halfway through the show, the covers come off. “Before they are removed, they create a nice flare for the beginning of the show and almost look like big windows upstage. Then, for the acoustic set, they are dropped and it’s a new visual component for the audience.” Tait’s Navigator system controlled movements for eight of the 12 ladders, which moved laterally as well as up and down. The Navigator also controlled movement for the lighting pods.
Other new fixtures joining Usher’s “UR Experience” tour included Solaris Flares, distributed by TMB, and Elation Professional’s Sniper 2R fixture. “Of course, the Flares are an exceptional fixture, but I’m glad [Elation’s] Eric Loader talked us into using the brand new Sniper for this tour too. The light beam has fast scanning abilities and acts as a laser instrument. It is absolutely fantastic,” Wade says.
While some have noted that, for such a high-stakes tour, the Creative team seem to have taken a chance with so many new fixtures filling out the rig. Wade agrees, but adds that all were from manufacturers known for making reliable products. “I’m very particular about whose new gear I use, and all these lighting components are from companies that are top notch,” says Wade. “Like the Mozart — I don’t think I’ve replaced one in the 12 weeks of touring.”
“Mark Ravenhill of GLP is the type of company rep that if I ever had a problem with a light, he’s all over it. His company has more than 200 fixtures out here. It’s the same thing with Eric [Loader] and the Snipers. At first, with the Sniper product, we had a problem, but [Elation’s] John Dunn came to a show with a software solution and got it where it needed to be.” Wade went on to praise Elation in general, particularly Loader. “Some companies are lacking that old-fashioned customer service and support, and if you can’t rely on that, you don’t take out one of their new fixtures.”
Keeping It Interesting
On the road, there were further tweaks, mostly artist-driven. “Usher is notorious for changing the show as it goes,” Wade says. He’ll change a song by cutting two verses and adding a hook, for example, and when there are 700 time code cues, that sends the crew scrambling to adjust and write new cues. It keeps it all interesting and makes for a show that is continually evolving. “That’s why it’s ‘UR Experience’ — because everything is a little different.” People will see the show in Dallas and then in L.A. and notice differences as Usher continually strives to make the show better. “It’s fun!” Wade says.
“My absolute favorite part is the acoustic section,” Wade continues. “For two songs, we change the entire look of the stage, including bringing the pods into a smaller area and bring it all down. It’s a nice change and something we’ve never done before, and it turned out beautifully.”
Production Designer: Baz Halpin
Lighting Designer: Eric Wade
Lighting Programmer: Eric Marchwinski
Production Manager: Harold Jones
Control Freak System Operator: Steve Foster
Content Creator: Olivier Goulet w/ Geodezik
Video Director: Chris Keating
Video Engineer: Rick Popham
LED Technician: Angelo Bartolome
LED Technician/Camera Operator: Tyler Hubbell
Projectionist/Camera Operator: Chris Small
Blade Specialist: Paul Bange
Blade/Camera Operator: Tom Evans
2 grandMA2 consoles
216 GLP X4S fixtures
90 TMB Solaris LED Mozarts
43 TMB Solaris LED Flares
64 Aryton MagicPanel-R LED matrix fixtures
25 Aryton Magic Blades
56 Martin MAC Viper AirFX fixtures
55 Martin MAC 2000 XB Wash fixtures
15 Martin Quantum Wash fixtures
7 Martin MAC 700’s
16 Clay Paky Sharpys
10 Clay Paky Sharpy Wash fixtures
12 Elation Sniper 2Rs
1 Xbox One gaming system with NHL 2015
1 LG 48-inch monitor to play Xbox on.
1 PRG MBox media server
1 Screenworks X-7HD 7mm LED 19’.8” high x 24’.5” wide that splits
770 Blades 1260s w/processing
4 Christie 18k HD Projectors, (w/ spare), Lenses TBD
2 18’x32’ RP Screens w/frames
Camera Setup: (using Sony HXC-100s) HD flight pack w/ multi-viewer
2 FOH Cameras w/ 72x Long Lens
1 Handheld camera
1 Handheld in the Pit with 40’ of Dolly track
2 BRC 700s Robo Cameras w/ controller
1 DVD Record or KiPros for record