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"So one of the reasons we invented this entity Passengers, is to allow U2 to be somebody else besides U2, I suppose."

-- Brian Eno

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Production Profile: U2's Vertigo

Pro Lights and Staging News, May 27, 2005
By: Steve Jennings

 

Willie Williams rarely takes the "ordinary" route in any production; you can usually find him moving on to new technologies and new approaches before the rest of the industry has figured out what he is leaving behind. "What I wanted to do with this production," Williams says of U2's Vertigo tour, "was continue to blur the distinction between lighting and video."

Given how utterly ubiquitous LEDs are now, it's hard to comprehend that the very first large-scale LED screen was produced as recently as 1997 for U2's PopMart tour. So did the "been there, done that" reality mean that Williams would abandon LED technology this time around?

"I had pretty much assumed that I would," the designer says. "However, when I started to research the latest developments, I could see that we were approaching the next watershed for LEDs and that there was still a lot that could be done that was original and interesting.

"What we ended up with is a spectrum; at one end there are Barco projectors, which are 100% video, at the other we have the Molefays, which are 100% lighting. But in between it gets harder to draw the line. The LED Pixel Panels are a kind of video screen, but they read much more like an environmental lighting effect. The LEDs in the stage work as floor lighting, but they're run by video signal. The 'factory lights' have a pile of RGB LEDs built in, but also a tungsten bulb."

The LEDs in the stage are 3,500 RGB pixels supplied by Saco Technologies, and the "factory lights," as the crew calls them, are custom-built spotlights built by Saco (www.smartvision.com). But the coupe de gras are the seven custom Pixel Panels that were conceived by Williams and Mark Fisher, built by Barco and Innovative Designs, and supplied by XL Video. The 40- by 13-foot panels resemble beaded curtains, except the "beads" are actually tiny, plastic-encased LED spherical modules called MiSphere (similar to MiPix), which act as individual pixels. Multiple strings of MiSpheres form a 3-D "visualization curtain" on which graphics can be displayed. The beauty of the Pixel Panels is that they provide 360-degree viewing angles and can display full-motion video or still graphics. The control software for the Pixel Panels was custom designed and written from code by UVA in London.

"Originally, they were going to be laid out in a three-dimensional grid, like a 'video cloud' above the stage," Williams says, "but ultimately I felt this would only be able to reach its full potential for visual impact if the observer was moving around the room, which would clearly not be the case for 99% of the audience."

The Pixel Panels are also unique in another way; they have the ability to roll up and out of the way. Automation specialists Kinesys fabricated seven custom engineered trusses, each measuring a meter square and five meters long, into which the strings of MiSpheres can be rolled up. The rolling mechanisms are driven by a 4kW servo motor powered by a Kinesys Velocity variable-speed drive. The drives can travel between one and 1,000 millimeters per second, allowing the screens to run out to their full length in less than 15 seconds. The Velocity drives are linked via Ethernet with Kinesys' Vector control software, running on dual rack-mounted PCs.

"The LED balls answer a couple of issues specific to our situation. As we are selling 360, we can't use anything that blocks sightlines, so the screens had to be see-through and had to be able to go away. Now we can completely fill the space above the stage, wall to wall, with a giant image, then roll it up and make it disappear. Also, most video screens only work from one side -- the experience of watching TV from the back has never been particularly satisfying -- but these produce images from any angle.

When it comes to the design of the show, it's a collaborative effort. "Bono will usually have a concept or two in mind, which is always helpful," he says. "In addition, I arrive with my own agenda, things I'd like to do, ideas which may now be possible, new directions, reactions to the state of the rest of the industry and so on. The final part of the equation is Mark Fisher, with whom I work semi-regularly on other projects and share an aesthetic language. He, too, will have ideas and concepts that he's dreamed up. Thereafter, Mark begins to rationalize them and turn them into something that stands a chance of being built. We will usually follow up two or three ideas in some detail before making the final choice."

As in tours past, Vertigo is in the round. "The decision to repeat the circular ramp idea wasn't reached lightly, but in the end we all acknowledged that it was the perfect playing environment for U2 in an arena," says Williams. "To go with something less successful just so we could say it was different, ultimately seemed self-defeating. What it did do though, was give us the opportunity to refine what we learned last time."

The design has led to some unique lighting approaches and unique looks. Take the color wash, for example. "The huge volume of LED fixtures built into the stage means that most of the color washes are done from the floor up, rather than from the rig down. A little fog in the air and we can fill the entire room with color. The video panels also provide many of the lighting effects, so all the various elements have had to be tightly coordinated."

The rest of the lighting consists mainly of automated lighting. "The Martin MAC 2000 Wash Light is the workhorse of the rig," says Williams. "I've been using them a good deal over the past couple of years. I don't ask much of a moving light: reliability, a semi-decent color palette and extreme brightness are about all that really counts. That allows you to trim the rig at a greater height and to use fewer instruments."

On the control end, there is an amalgam of Flying Pig Systems, Folsom, UVA and Sony PlayStation (yes, the game console!). "My control setup comprises a Hog 3 wing, a MIDI keyboard to trigger video, a mouse and QWERTY keyboard to edit video and a Sony PlayStation handset to control the surveillance cameras. The show is run by myself, using the above equipment and calling the cameras, and lighting director Bruce Ramus is running a Hog 3, along with Stefaan Desmedt, AKA 'Smasher,' who has the UVA control system, various Doremis, a Folsom Encore and a pile of other computers. Much of the show is still being developed and reaching its full potential. We had so many ideas to cram into two hours that many of them are still waiting."

So how does one get to become the lighting director on a U2 tour? "Willie Williams and I have worked together for 15 years," says LD Ramus, "and this is our fourth U2 tour. We've done all sorts of projects together. Normally, he gets the gig, designs it, we build the show together, and then we sort of co-direct it. On this tour, Willie is currently directing video and automation, and I'm directing lights.

While many tours complain of lack of programming time, Ramus and company had the luxury of a pre-production budget, which they used wisely. But their headaches are of a different variety than most. "I pre-programmed the rig in Vegas at PRG's shop using Prelite and their ESP vision setup," notes Ramus. "Then we had a month of rehearsals in Vancouver, where we started putting it all together. I became involved in October of last year, and as always, the main obstacle was keeping all the prototypes in the rig and the beta software in the control gear working.

"As Willie said, my console is the WholeHog 3 with a beta version of the new 1.3.9 software. I'm also calling 18 follow spots. We have 30 moving points, and one medieval-looking lighthouse. I have about 30 songs programmed, and they are all stored on the console and on a backup CD. I am constantly tweaking the looks, but the timing is down to me mainly, not the console. The set list changes every night, so we are always working on different segues, sometimes during the day, but often during the show itself."

As for the other members of the crew? "The crew is great," Ramus says. "I love the positive, creative vibe with everyone."

The tour has barely left the starting gates, but Williams is upbeat and positive. "I'm pleased with where the show has gone so far. I suppose it's really an attempt to start moving towards a new way of presenting live visuals, to try to pull away from what have become standard tricks. Video is now where moving lights were at the end of the 1980s, all very impressive as long as you don't see more than one rock show a year."

As an artist, Williams is always pushing the envelope, looking for a creative edge. Sometimes it's decidedly low-tech and other times, as in the case of Vertigo, it's bleeding edge. But in the end it's all about the art.

"I understand completely how unnerving it is to let go of the familiar, but it has to be worth trying to create something original," he says. "We all put so much time and energy into the work we do that, aside from banking the check, isn't that the reason we're out here?"



Vendors Mine LED Vein for Vertigo

When production designer Willie Williams and collaborator Mark Fisher set the wheels in motion for the fabrication of the design elements in the current U2 Vertigo tour, several vendors were enlisted for the job, including manufacturers, software programmers, fabricators and tour vendors.

Barco, Innovative Designs and XL Video designed, manufactured, integrated and supplied most of the visualization aspects of the show, including the projection setups (Barco RLM G5s and ELM G10s) to the video-driven LED projection units, the image processing (Barco Folsom Encore) and the MiSphere curtains (AKA Pixel Panels) above the center stage. MiSphere is a tiny, plastic-encased LED spherical module used as an RGB video pixel for video and quasi-video display. Designed and developed by Barco at its R&D headquarters in Belgium especially for the Vertigo tour, the MiSphere curtain has a 360-degree viewing angle and can play both full video and data. Individual MiSpheres are daisy-chained into a string, with several strings in turn forming a 3-D visualization curtain. Each MiSphere acts as a pixel within the curtain, making it possible to display images and simulate lighting effects across the entire curtain, while also achieving a "Look-Trough" effect and "Multiple Angle" viewing effect for the audience all around the scene.

High above the center stage hang the MiSphere strings, each containing 64 spheres and totaling nine meters long. A total of 189 strings (containing more than 12,000 spheres) together form seven 3-D curtains, which allow fans on all sides of the stage to have a perfect view of the images and content displayed on the curtain above the band. The digital curtain is retracted and lowered throughout the show as needed. Barco's Folsom Encore show control system provides the video processing and presentation control including source selection, switching, video effects and integrated control.

Automation specialists Kinesys designed the motion control system for the Pixel Panels. The seven custom engineered trusses, which were specially designed by Brilliant Stages, each weigh approximately 1,100 pounds and are a meter square by five meters long with an open bottom. Each screen, fully deployed, is approximately 40 feet high by 13 feet wide, and the screens travel rolled up inside the trusses.

Kinesys' Andy Cave and Dave Weatherhead were asked to join the team and sort out the automation by Brilliant. Here they worked closely with Jeremy Lloyd, who project managed the construction, and Kevin Edwards, who undertook the bulk of the mechanical design and drafting.

The rolling mechanism for each screen is driven by a 4kW servo motor powered by a Kinesys Velocity variable-speed drive, allowing precise movement between one and 1,000 millimeters per second. The screens can be run out to their full length in less than 15 seconds-although until the show started evolving during the production rehearsal period, no one was sure exactly how they would be utilized for the show. This was one of the major challenges, says Kinesys' Andy Cave, "We had to give Willie all the flexibility he might need without anyone really knowing what the parameters were."

The Velocity drives are Ethernet linked to Kinesys' proprietary Vector control software, running on dual rack-mounted PCs. Kinesys also supplied power and data distribution and a Category 4 emergency stop system.

The Velocity drives are incorporated into the trusses and can be powered and run from any normal power supply. Manual vari-speed "pickles" were supplied by Kinesys for ease of remote operation.

Kinesys designed the system in December 2004, and they were ready for prototype testing at Brilliant Stages and in Belgium in early 2005, followed by on-site rehearsals at GM Place in Vancouver from the end of February.

Another vendor, Saco Technologies, first worked with U2 on their PopMart tour in 1997. That tour was the first time LEDs were used to provide full motion video on a large format video display. For the Vertigo tour, Saco built custom spotlights designed in a unique and special shape containing thousands of high-brightness multi-colored LEDs. They are used throughout the concert venue casting beams of light down onto the stage. Saco also embedded the border of the stage with 3,500 high-brightness RGB pixels, providing more than 300 lumens per unit for a total of more than 1 million lumens. The border runs across the circumference of the stage, illuminating its entirety, and can be used simultaneously as video and lighting.



Crew

Lighting Company: PRG Video Supplier: XL Touring Video Automation: Brilliant Stages, Kinesys Production Designer: Willie Williams Set Design: Mark Fisher Lighting Director: Bruce Ramus Production Manager: Jake Berry Video Designer: Stefaan "Smasher" Desmet Crew Chief: Garry Chamberlain Lighting Techs: Russell "Bits" Lyons, Raff Buono, Craig Hancock, Matt Hamilton, Kes Thornley, Aaron Stephenson Friends of the Band: Bill Clinton, General Kofi Annan, Salman Rushdie, Sir Bob Geldof

Gear

54 Martin MAC 2000 Wash 15 Vari*Lite VL3000 37 Martin Atomic 3000 Strobe 66 2x2 DWE audience blinders 12 Lycian M2 Follow Spot 6 Strong 3K Gladiator Follow Spot 6 Saco Technologies LED Factory Light (custom) 24 ETC Source Four Leko 6 Lowell Tota light 6 1x4 DWE audience blinders 2 18K HMI Fresnel 1 Flying Pig Systems WholeHog 3 console 189 MiSphere string 4 Barco G10 projector 5 Barco G5 projector 5 Folsom Encore image processor



© PLSN, 2005.

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