BON JOVI: The Circle 2008 tour / TPi Magazine

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NEWS FOCUS: Bon Jovi’s RoboScreens

ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS! Growing up as a child sci-fi fan, the fear that robots might eventually take over the world often kept me awake at night. It may still be a whimsical notion in the grand scheme, but in the world of rock’n’roll, that day is drawing closer. Just ask Jon Bon Jovi. Playing to a 360° audience on most dates, one of the major production ‘gags’ on Bon Jovi’s current The Circle world tour involves the onstage use of five powerful industrial robots that use inverse kinematics to create six axes of unique, choreographed motion. A marriage of skills from the robotics and entertainment production worlds sees patented RoboScreen technology deliver a previously unseen effect as LED video panels are moved with precision timing by the ABB IRB 7600 robots’ articulated arms. Originally designed for around-the-clock operation on assembly lines, 365 days a year, Tait Towers customised the robots for road-worthiness, making 15 special dollies to enable easy set-up and transportation between shows. The robots weigh 06 • TPi AUGUST 2010


6,800lbs and are currently lifting 60% of their maximum 500kg payload. The man charged with operating Bon Jovi’s RoboScreens is Gordon ‘Gordo’ Hyndford, whose previous experience has included piloting automation for the Rolling Stones (and other Jake Berry projects), as well as working as Bon Jovi’s lighting crew chief. Returning to the freelance crew world after a break from touring, Hyndford decided to take an online university robotics course to add to his servo motor training. “Within weeks I was talking to Bugzee [production director John Hougdahl] who was putting together the Bon Jovi tour and asked him about automation,” said Hyndford. “He’d already filled one crew shot but there was potential for another, and after I explained about my robotics studies, he called me to offer this job.” Whilst industrial manufacturing-style robots have appeared at automotive trade shows as well as TV commercials and the 2009 movie, Terminator Salvation, this is the first time that any band has ever taken this technology out on the road.

Bon Jovi’s robot operator Gordon ‘Gordo’ Hyndford

NEWS FOCUS: Bon Jovi’s RoboScreens

Below: Jon Bon Jovi performs ‘We Got It Going On’ atop Nocturne’s V9 Lite screens. Bottom: Further screen configurations.

Tait Towers leased the ABB equipment to Bon Jovi, said Hyndford. “They know how to move equipment around the world in a precise format, so who better? “Doug ‘Spike’ Brant from ArtFag designed the show and for some time, both he and Adam Davis at Tait Towers have intended to incorporate robots into Bon Jovi productions. In fact, it’s been Adam’s vision for the last five or so years, but it’s only now on The Circle tour that it has been logistically possible.” Hyndford continued: “Simplicity is paramount and Tait have prioritised it. The system comprises an articulated swing arm at the top that grabs each screen panel with a chain mechanism below that pulls it together under compression. “We have to keep the tolerances so tight that the screens join up to give the impression of one large surface across the rear of the stage. We

keep a 1/4” space in between them and when two pass by each other it looks as if there’s only a hair between them. “At each venue we’re putting the system together on different types of surface and the detail of the base has to be absolutely precise to make this work. The robots are 100% accurate but it’s how we assemble everything around them that’s crucial.” MOVING VIDEO The video screens and control for The Circle tour are supplied by Nocturne. The company’s proprietary V9 Lite LED displays are used for the five video tiles, each of them measuring approximately 6’ x 9’ and weighing 725lbs. Tait built the substructure frames before adding the V9 tiles and a 3/4” layer of perspex on top to enable Jon Bon Jovi to walk on top of

them during the song ‘We Got It Going On’. Immediately before this number, these screens make their initial entrance as the robots position them to form a uniform ‘wraparound’ surface. After ‘We Got It Going On’, the screens return to their home position before re-configuring for ‘Bad Medicine’. This features the screens spinning around and playing to the audience behind, and to the sides of, the stage. “There’s also some interesting moves in the choruses of ‘Working Man’,” said Hyndford, “and on ‘Have A Nice Day’ we program the screens into ‘smile’ and ‘frown’ shapes.” Control Freak Systems deal with all the media servers and write the applications used to send the video content to the screens. One of the team’s challenges was how to control the direction of the video. Hyndford: “The problem came when the

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NEWS FOCUS: Bon Jovi’s RoboScreens

robots spun 180°. Instead of the image flipping over itself, it remained in place but that’s not what we wanted. So a program was specially written to track the robot movement and determine the direction in which the image should be.”

“The robots are 100% accurate but it’s how we assemble everything around them that’s crucial...”

PROGRAMMING For industrial applications, robots are typically programmed in a linear fashion, said Hyndford. “For instance, when you want to weld something or retrieve an item, you’ll program it with software called Rapid to go from point A to point B and then C, in the most efficient way possible.” For entertainment uses, however, Andy Flessas, the founder and president of Las Vegas company Robotic Arts, came up with proprietary software, Robot Animator, that is not governed by the same efficiencies. Instead, the

program takes note of objects in its vicinity to avoid collisions and ensure smooth motion, as well as observing speed and time values. It’s these values, enabled by Robot Animator’s 3D visualisation software, that allow the robots to effectively ‘dance’ to the music. As soon as the required movement is designed, the program sends a code to ABB’s IRC controller and this movement is recalled by the robots at the touch of a button. Hyndford commented: “Andy has essentially written an application that transposes from Maya [the AutoDesk animation program] and adopts more of a rubber band technique rather than point-to-point. “We worked together a little in February during the three weeks of production rehearsals at Key Arena in Seattle, but the creative direction was definitely


In May, Pyrotek Special Effects added 1,400 effects to each of Bon Jovi‘s three consecutive shows as the band kicked off the inaugural concert series to sold-out crowds at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey — the shared home of NFL teams the New York Giants and New York Jets. Special effects designers Doug Adams and Lorenzo Cornacchia were approached by production director John Hougdahl and production designer Doug ‘Spike’ Brant to implement a large-scale showcase of pyro for the three shows. Adams and Cornacchia collaborated to create a stadium pyrotechnics display that would resemble that of a Super Bowl Half-Time show. Pyrotek’s production manager, Fiona Thain directed the logistical and permitting operations to ensure that the massive pyro display was approved and in line with all jurisdictional requirements. Dealing with New Jersey’s Department of Public Affairs, the New Jersey Division of Fire & Safety and the FAA, she co-ordinated all permitting, testing, demos and onsite inspections for the event.

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The pyro was laid out across 52 individual positions throughout the stadium. Twelve positions were placed backstage along the 200-level, which started detonating to Bon Jovi’s last song before the encore, ‘Keep The Faith’. Forty additional rack positions containing 300 comets, mines and multi-shot boards were situated around the rooftop covering a distance of one linear mile. Pyro crew chief Bob Ross worked with stage manager Mike Devlin, operations manager/head rigger Mike Farese and Gordon Hyndford along with a team of 10 pyrotechnicians to complete the set-up and assembly of this massive display. The initial set-up took two and a half days to load in, set-up, demo and rehearse with all the product. Additionally after each show, it would take 12 hours to set up which included an eight-hour time frame for the pyro team to strictly reload all the product. “The last chorus of ‘Keep The Faith’ started the barrage of pyro cues from the backstage area. The cool and dynamic elements to this display were the series of chases and scenes fired around the circumference of the entire stadium,” commented Cornacchia. Adams shot the show from a series of Pyrodigital controllers with a right and left handed control pickle. He had a direct in-ear mix to Bon Jovi when he cued the effects to ensure there would be no delay. Neil Ryan, director of production with AEG Live Northeast, commented: “Working with the entire Pyrotek team to open the New Meadowlands Stadium was an absolute pleasure. There were plans to present the pyro on the Grand Opening only, but after such a spectacular and impressive display it seemed impossible to not have the display for the remaining two shows. “Opening a new venue can be difficult but the attention to detail that Pyrotek provided us made what could have been a very difficult task seem effortless. The Fire Marshall and venue were thrilled with the professionalism that Pyrotek offered.”

NEWS FOCUS: Bon Jovi’s RoboScreens

coming more from Spike who was asking us to try out different kinds of movement for certain songs. Once those things were decided, we then added to Tait Towers’ GUI, the interface driving the robots.” Another key character in the story is Duane Matheson from Michigan-based Paslin, a manufacturer of turnkey automation systems. “Duane played a crucial role in making it all work. He understood what Tait wanted to accomplish, and helped to get different aspects of the system communicating.” SAFETY Set carpenter Daniel Witmyer assists Hyndford with the assembly of the robotics system. “Our set-up usually takes two hours. We go in at about 11am and we’re up and running by around 1pm, so that we carry out testing and safety checks before soundcheck.” If, heaven forbid, an operator error was to creep into the mix, what safety measures are in place? “Well, firstly this isn’t like controlling lights — you can’t make an on-the-spot creative decision and decide to ad lib. Everything is rigidly pre-determined and programmed, so there are no surprises for anyone working on the show. But there are a lot of ‘just in case’ safeguards. “We have spotters and warning lights, and we’re able to pause or stop any cue from the control position. There’s also a series of eight different Emergency Stop controls placed around the stage and security is briefed to prevent anyone from passing through the area during operation. “The one part in the show where we take extra special care is when Jon Bon Jovi stands on the screens — the power is locked to ensure there’s no accidental movement.” Given one can never be too prepared for life on the road, a spare robot is carried for back-up. “Fortunately,” said Hyndford, “ABB has offices all over the world, including one here in Milton Keynes, and their technical service people appear to work the same hours as we do. But these robots already have a formidable track record.” TOMORROW’S WORLD With all the preparatory work completed, ‘Gordo’ assumes position behind the controls at shoe time; he hits the dead man switch, then the ‘Go’ button, and starts firing off cues. Is this the shape of things to come? “We’re only starting to touch the surface of what robotics can bring to rock’n’roll tours, and in fact any form of touring live entertainment. You know you’ve got something very impressive when you have riggers stopping in their tracks and saying, ‘wow, that’s cool’, because most of them have seen it all. “I’d love to see more of the robots whenever the next tour or project happens, but if the ‘wow’ factor is as great on The Circle tour as I think it’s been, then that just might be the case. Certainly there are some interesting things to come in the future and I’m sure that robots are here to stay.” Other suppliers on The Circle tour include Clair (sound), Epic Production Technologies (lighting), EST & Upstaging (trucking), Senators (buses) and Eat Your Hearts Out who looked after catering at the O2. TPi Photography by Richard Skins

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