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Visual Alchemy

152 Lighting&Sound - August-September 2010


ontour film, opera design and installation art, the Jónsi ‘Go’ live tour is an electrifying hybrid of artistic genres that excites every sense. Designed and co-produced by theatre video and animation specialists, Fifty Nine Productions, Jónsi’s solo tour is a strangely sublime, near spiritual, live music experience. Sarah Rushton-Read reports L&SI . . .

When theatre and opera, video and animation specialists Fifty Nine Productions were invited to work with innovative Icelandic musician Jónsi, on his solo tour, they understandably leapt at the chance. It proved to be an excellent call: never have I seen a rock show so transcendent, so imaginative and so cohesive in style and content. Promoting Jónsi’s solo album, the live tour seamlessly coalesces the immediacy and energy of rock and roll with the polished production and design values of theatre. It’s a symphonic blend of light, image, animation, physical architecture, sound and voice which has the audience mesmerised from the start. However, transposing the production values of theatre to a live music environment is a surprising minefield of unpredictable challenges. Fifty Nine directors Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer and Lysander Ashton, along with lighting designer Bruno Poet, animation director Peter Stenhouse and a carefully selected team of animators, film-makers, technicians and programmers, worked on pre-production from January to May this year. The result is that every creative element is as a musical note or phrase in the master score of the design. Fused with Jónsi’s evocative music, the effect is sometimes subtle and delicate and at others intoxicating and feverish. “We’ve been exploring ways in which we could bring the ideas and technology we’ve developed working in theatre and opera, into the music and rock world,” says Leo Warner. “Jónsi’s band, Sigur Rós, had always been at the top of our list of ideal collaborators, so when Jonsi approached us it was the perfect opportunity to explore exactly what’s creatively and logistically possible.”

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Co-director Mark Grimmer continues: “There’s a cinematic quality to Jónsi’s music, and something fantastical about his imagination. It made the idea of creating an epic visual stage show totally appropriate. Essentially, the feel is organic, natural. Jónsi took some of his

inspiration for ‘Go’ from the animal world; this is something Leo has picked up in the visual realm.” Veering considerably from the expectations of the average live music audience, there are no huge banks of moving lights or audience blinders, no video screens hanging in dead space, out of context with the rest of the stage. Instead there is a three dimensional, solid theatrical set sculpted by Poet’s subtle, dynamic, heavily keyed lighting mixed with a cinematic narrative of animation and film. The design concept came from Warner who worked with regular Fifty Nine collaborator and set designer Phil Eddolls. The main set-piece is an imposing glasshouse, which runs the width of the stage and towers above a number of seemingly broken glass display cases - the type you would expect to find in the Natural History Museum. The whole picture is given dimension and perspective by a stage-wide cyc. Ensuring the design concept translated into tourable, physical set presented a number of challenges, primarily in terms of transport, set up and break-down times. The show had to travel across a number of continents, to various sizes of venue and festival. The set is therefore modular in design so production manager Derek McVey can choose to install as much or as little as he likes, depending on the venue size. Budget demanded that staging, set, lighting and projection equipment fit into one truck and as the tour is chiefly a series of onenighters, it also has to be quick and easy to fit up and break down - and it has to be robust. Nonetheless, Jónsi was determined to have a distinctive and different kind of show for his latest musical departure. He explains: “I always wanted to take it out of the rock’n’roll genre the smoke machine and the Las Vegas lights. There’s so much magic in theatres, more so than bands. My idea was to bring some more magic and imagination into the concert experience.” Warner continues: “This was an opportunity to bring some of the best people in their fields into one creative arena and create something

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Somewhere between

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ontour Above, Fifty Nine Productions’ pre-visualisations of set and projection (left), with photography of the production (right).

unique. We were determined to do justice to the imagination Jónsi expresses through his music. Our aim was to weave lighting, physical set and animation together seamlessly. All too often video and lighting content in live music can seem like an addon, disconnected from the rest of the show.”

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Every flat surface acts both as a window to something else and/or a projection surface for Fifty Nine’s film and animation. Grimmer elaborates: “Essentially we didn’t want our projection surfaces to rely on constant activity to justify their existence. By having projection surfaces that exist as a physical set you can pull right back and there’s still an aesthetic world to inhabit. That’s another reason we chose to work with Bruno, who’s such a fantastic lighting designer. He really brings a strong sense of atmosphere, environment and depth to the look.” What’s remarkable about this show is that it’s delivered with a relatively modest amount of technical equipment. Fifty Nine Productions technical manager Jonathon Lyle - video programmer and video number one on the tour for the first five dates - says: “We have seven separate projection surfaces. Video is generated via six Catalyst media servers - three live and three backup. These in turn feed nine projectors.” Two Panasonic 12ks look after the glass wall and two Panasonic 10ks look after the Cyc. Five smaller Sanyo SL51 projectors originally designed to screw onto the wall over classroom white boards - are built into the display cabinets and feature an impressively wide throw.

154 Lighting&Sound - August-September 2010

Lyle continues: “In theory, we could have hit all the surfaces from out front, but actually we get a more dynamic, 3D effect from the Sanyos, which back project onto the display cabinets’ front walls. The images are really strong and pass through the surfaces to create interesting shapes on the ceiling above the audience, which adds another layer of energy to the show.” Most of the projection surfaces are gauze or Perspex, but others comprise intelligent glass: this can be electronically controlled to be frosted or clear and adds further dimension to the show. Imagery is exceptionally seductive, the content rich and atmospheric. The environment seems to continuously morph between something physical and solid and something fluid and transparent. In total, Fifty Nine Productions worked with 96 layers of video, each Catalyst server running 32 layers. Lyle explains: “One single scene in a song on one single surface may comprise of a background layer, a layer for each animal or moving character, another for the foreground, another for the moon, another to add textures . . . and so it goes on. That will then be repeated on the other six surfaces and very quickly you’re racking up to 60 layers running at any one time.” In terms of programming and control, after some debate, Lyle decided to programme video on the GrandMA console: “We looked closely at the EOS but in the end I chose the MA because it’s a desk I’m comfortable with. MA is a well-supported platform worldwide, so back-up is good and the console’s handling of moving light fixtures is

second to none. Although I’m only programming three Catalyst servers, every layer is treated like a moving light by the board. There are 96 layers in the Jónsi video world, which translates into 96 moving light fixtures in the MA programming world; that’s a relatively hefty rig to manage. Speed in programming was essential, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to put the right people together with the right technology.” Much of the animated content of the show came from animation director Peter Stenhouse. He says: “The original concept came from Leo and the style of the animal illustrations are inspired by the work of an artist called Dryden Goodwin.” Warner and Stenhouse partnered up to develop four main animation sequences plus a number of smaller sequences that punctuate the rest of the show. Stenhouse elaborates: “Leo and I worked together on a loose narrative for each song and one for the show as a whole. From that I worked on the animatics and the storyboards to create look frames. These basically illustrate what can be achieved. Once they were approved I was able to animate the final pieces.” Until recently Stenhouse, who has a degree in design and fine arts majoring in animation, designed, produced and directed video animation and special effects for music videos and film. For the past 18 months he has been working with Fifty Nine. “It’s a completely different discipline,” he says. “What’s satisfying about working in theatre and now live music is the huge scale we’re working at.”


Designing for live sets demands a big jump in imagination and vision from Stenhouse. “It’s like a second stage. Increasingly with music video we’re designing work for smaller and smaller screens. In theatre, once you have something that looks good on a laptop you have to think about the type of surface it will end up on and how each sequence is scaled to work with others running concurrently on other surfaces. One of the beauties of working with Fifty Nine is that they are able to manipulate hand-drawn images and fix problems of scale, colour or projection angle through the media servers.”

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As well as creating its own animation content, Fifty Nine filmed a number of special effect components including live butterflies, fire and water. At one magical moment during the show the animated line-drawn butterflies transform into video of real-life butterflies. Filming them was a challenge: Fifty Nine built a light box in which both the butterflies and the camera

There’s also a moment when the whole set looks to be filling up with water, and that water effect had to be filmed. “We built a tank and filled it in a number of elaborate ways using a selection of pumps and water agitation methods to get the effect we wanted,” explains Grimmer. Lighting in many ways is what facilitates the successful blending of projection with the physical environment. Created by international theatre and opera lighting designer Bruno Poet, as with the projection, lighting is multi-layer, three-dimensional and dynamic. Poet’s design cleverly strengthens and emphasises the solidity or transparency of the set and picks up where video leaves off to create a sense of place, atmosphere and environment. Colour is beautifully blended, either picking up or contrasting with the colour in the imagery. Set elements and the band are given shape and dimension by clever use of light from a plethora of sharp angles and well-placed fixtures. Poet discusses: “Leo and I started the process by discussing what the set was about, what kind of environment Leo wanted it to be and how lighting could contribute to

that. The set is a gift to a lighting designer. There’s so much to work with - the differing levels of transparency of the glass in the back wall and cabinets, the contrasting scales of the cyc, the glass wall and the band make the empty spaces as important to light or not light as the filled ones.”

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were encased and then the film was shot at a very high frame rate. However, the team soon discovered that it’s not in a butterfly’s nature to behave predictably!

While the set is static, Poet and Warner constantly change its nature and texture by using combinations of back and front light, projection and back and front light, side lighting and up lighting: the possibilities are endless. Sometimes projection dominates the whole look and lighting is low-key, at other times lighting is the defining medium. About half the show is upbeat, however there are a few very relatively simple solo and acoustic guitar numbers. Some of those acoustic numbers don’t use video and Poet is brave enough to light them very simply, almost like an opera aria. He employs mesmerising transitions and creative cueing. “Leo specifically asked that the lighting be more like a theatre show as opposed to rock and roll. That brief was more challenging than you might first imagine. There are plenty of excellent LDs who have been lighting enormous rock and roll shows for years. I’m being asked to create something really different. That’s exciting but it’s also very difficult to know what constitutes ‘different’!”

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One of the main attractions for Stenhouse is knowing his work is going to be appreciated. “The guys at Fifty Nine really respect animation as an artistic form in a way that the music video industry doesn’t. It’s really refreshing and inspiring. It’s great to lend a hand to a project that you hope will profoundly affect how people view the show as a whole.”

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Left, Fifty Nine Productions directors Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer. Below, left: Jonsi (seated, left) discusses designs with Grimmer during rehearsals. Below, right: Technical manager Jonathon Lyle.

In the end, Poet approached the design in the way he would approach any opera or theatre piece. “I started by listening to the music and studying the set and asking myself, what look and therefore equipment is going to create the atmosphere that will fit with the style of the music, the video and the physical environment?” Jónsi didn’t want lots of moving gobos and saturated colour through smoke, but something considered and in tune with each song. Poet says: “Plotting the show in the rehearsal studio, Leo and I broke each song down into cue points and developed the looks and the transitions from there. The style of the design is quite old-fashioned; I didn’t want any LED and I didn’t want discharge fixtures. I wanted warm, tungsten sources and the ability to take them down to 30 or 40% and work with that tungsten glow.” Poet’s lighting is sculptural and defining: lighting comes from all angles and heights, from cans on the floor shooting from the front, sides and back to 500W fresnels on high stands, one each focused to back-light a member of the band. What was tricky for Poet and Warner was getting the balance between lighting and video absolutely right. Poet explains: “It is quite tempting to get carried away and make the lighting really big especially on the upbeat numbers. However, sometimes I found myself dwarfing the video by being too bright. So then I’d take it down a level or two, but end up feeling I’m not getting enough energy out of it. “ Initially, Poet found himself trying desperately not to plot anything that a normal rock and roll show would feature. “That was really frustrating because what do you do? Flashing lights and lights sweeping over the crowd give energy to the show and they give energy to the crowd. If you strip all that away, you really haven’t got much left. In the end, much of the show is like a normal rock and roll design, but it has perhaps been conceived in a slightly different way.”

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The show definitely has a theatre-style palette in terms of colour and colour temperature, in the angles used and the sophistication of the transitions from one look to another. There’s a sense of urban naturalism. Poet uses a lot of natural daylight colour correction filters - steel blues and ambers, but every now and again he employs huge splashes of colour - deep reds and acid yellows: it is a sharply plotted show.

156 Lighting&Sound - August-September 2010

The last song of the show perhaps illustrates the sophistication that runs through the whole show. Grow Till Tall is a narrative in imagery, words and light. It opens with the band evocatively lit by the eight stage fresnels on stands. As one by one the lights start to flicker and die they are replaced by weird random light coming in from low angles around the stage. The storm builds and rain is projected over the entire set. Gradually, a wind builds and in a remarkable use of video, light and sound the set convincingly appears to rip apart and fly away. The lighting storm builds to culminate in a massive strobe sequence, as the music gets louder and more distorted. “It was the best lightning storm I’ve ever designed, the kind of thing you would love to do in an opera but never can!” Poet enthused. Nonetheless, compared to your average rock and roll rig, Poet’s is substantially reduced. This has a lot to do with the fact that there are just two crew members, Matt Daw and Mick Stow, to get the lighting in, up and programmed each day. Programmer Daw uses the GrandMA console. He says: “The MA is definitely my console of choice, mainly because it’s incredibly flexible in set-up configuration. Things like multiple cue stacks are great; for Jonsi we work from a cue stack for each track. Also, once you’ve taken the time to create all your palettes and effects it’s very easy to construct your looks.” Poet’s lighting is sharp, precise and considered and yet it retains the immediacy and exhilaration of rock and roll lighting. Somehow he’s successfully caught the essence of Jónsi’s music and although the rig may be understated, the looks he’s generated are suggestive, flattering, dynamic and atmospheric. A scaled-down version of the show will tour the UK in September, in which the back wall of broken and burnt-out windows will be substituted by a gauze. Poet says: “There will be less set elements and a different lighting rig. Whilst all the floor kit will be toured as originally designed, the overheads will be picked up in each venue. I’m counting on Matt Daw to use his skill and ingenuity to keep it looking as close to the original as possible.” However, you will be delighted to hear that the all-singing, all-dancing version has not disappeared forever. It will return, complete with burnt-out windows and original Poet lighting, in New York in October, and in London at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo in November. Although live music was an artistic departure for Fifty Nine Productions and their associates, their knack for attracting talented and skilled collaborators, artistic and technical, has paid dividends. Fifty Nine’s unwavering ambition to push the boundaries of art and technology has inspired many an established design professional to join them on their creative adventure. Long may it continue. > www.fiftynineproductions.co.uk


Jonsi - Visual Alchemy