LITITZ, Pa. – John Legend and The Roots needed a set for their “Unstaged” live-stream performance this fall and production time, performance space, and venue versatility were of the essence. The music sensations turned to Performance Environment Design Group (www.pedg.tv) for a hard-working design that would energize the webcast and also promote their new album, “Wake Up.” PEDG, in turn, enlisted Atomic scenic and lighting units (www.atomicdesign.tv) to build and light a set versatile enough for both the one-off event and a subsequent concert tour – all within a single project budget.
The set had to fit in a miniscule 42 x 36-foot staging area for the webcast sponsored by American Express in partnership with VEVO and YouTube. In addition, “Unstaged” director Spike Lee was adamant that the set authentically represent a Brooklyn bodega. Oh, and everything had to be completed – concept to installation – within two weeks!
“No sweat,” grins Atomic Scenic project manager Steve Kaelin who oversaw construction and later on-site changes only 24-hours before air time. “Everyone from the director to the artists to the sponsors had special last minute needs. The key to making it work was tight pre-planning with everything mapped out as much as possible in advance.”
He credits PEDG's design as the impetus for the set's versatility, functionality, and impact. Recreating the “Wake Up” album cover, they designed a forced perspective of a Brooklyn neighborhood complete with bodega, basketball hoop, working doors and windows.
“We straddled the world of illustration and theatre to create a cartoonish interpretation of the album's 1960's and 70's musical genre in a socially engaging manner,” explains Spike Brant of PEDG. “We needed to make the doors working height in a space that was too small to maintain the original scale of the artwork. So we had to tweak the heights and widths of buildings, doorways, and windows. This was very much a scenic design and we used the expertise of Atomic to make it a reality.”
The challenge gauntlet then was thrown to Atomic Scenic to build Brant's one-off set design within a one-off budget but in a manner that also could withstand the rigors of an international touring schedule. “The forced perspective was a huge consideration in everything we did,” says Kaelin. “We learned only two weeks ahead of time that this one-off set also would go on tour in Europe so we had to adapt construction to withstand the rigors of multiple set ups and tear downs. And, we had to make a 16-foot tall street lamp that looked like it had been hit buy a car.”
With only 24 hours to show time, Kaelin and team found themselves scrambling around Manhattan looking for string lights, flags, a pay phone, and an ATM sign. “Spike Lee was very specific about the bodega. He wanted it to look as real as possible. The stage looked like a movie set when we were finished.
“As is typical in most situations like this, the majority of our last minute work on the bodega was somewhat obscured by the back up singers standing on pallet decks in front."
The rigging and ceiling height posed additional challenges for the lighting side of things. The house lighting system had to be completely removed and everything flown to maximum trim. PEDG rigger Carsten Wiess created missing rigging points with a very creative truss configuration for the upstage backdrop.
Limited space and time also posed challenges for Atomic Lighting. “Everything had to be dead hung and we did not have the luxury of extra time to do that,” explains Atomic Lighting vice president Brad Hafer. “We had to be totally organized and keep multiple teams working simultaneously to complete the install in two days.”
He adds, “This type of project could fail quickly if you're not on top of everything.”
Fortunately, the Atomic and PEDG teams were on top of everything and the performance went off without a hitch. Everyone seems happy, especially Spike Brant who says he loves collaborating with Atomic
“We're so symbiotic. Our teams and skills feed off each other. We share a common passion for the project which makes the design and construction process seamless. It doesn't get any better than that!”