A longtime veteran of lighting major events for television, the Super Bowl Halftime Show is one of Bob Barnhart’s annual challenges. A principal at 22° in Los Angeles, Barnhart and his team did a spectacular job on this year’s show featuring Justin Timberlake with an unusual stage set up. Live Design chats with Barnhart about the lighting challenges for a show that is set up, performed, and struck in lightning speed.
Live Design: The "stage" set up looked different this year, plus having action coming onto the field and on the steps. How was the lighting set up to cover all that, as well as the entire field for the large cast of extras? Are the Philips Vari-Lite VL4000 wash beams your primary source for lighting the field? Are they hung on the balcony rails around the stadium?
Bob Barnhart: This year’s show featured eight different performance areas, which in turn had Justin Timberlake looking/walking in seven different directions. So the key lighting positions become a big challenge. As we have discussed on previous Super Bowls, the followspot positions must be picked months in advance, well before the show has been developed. This building is a little unique: It is somewhat asymmetrical with little to no balcony rail type positions. Each club level is covered with video boards which left us with only one area we could do a special pipe rig to get some visuals in the background. It was too low for anything more than beams to show scale and add to the tempo. The rest of the main rig was a large overhead truss system. This is where the majority of the VL4000s and the PRG Icon Edges lived. We used the VL4000s to primarily light the audience in the stands. The Icons were used to light the field cast as well as marching bands, dancing mirrors, and everything else that ran around on the field.
LD: The show seemed to use very bright colors, coordinated with the costumes.
BB: I think the show went through a large variety of colors, from costumes, video content, field cast, and of course, lighting. We started the show in a dark and mysterious lounge and ended the show in the stands with bright colors and the world lit up.
LD: How long was the load in and tech period, and how does the scenario differ from an indoor venue like this to former years in outdoor stadiums?
BB: The load-in starts in early January, with Stage Rigging installing all of our truss, and any rail position we could come up with. The lighting crew then starts about 16 days before the game. One of the biggest challenges was the extreme weather outside. The stages are built in a tent because there is no room in the stadium. There were more days below zero then above. Equipment, not to mention the crew, freezes in that type of weather. It was a challenge for everyone and every department. The production staff at RK Productions and Touchdown Entertainment did an amazing job making a very difficult situation manageable.
LD: And the lights on the mirrors?
BB: It is hard to think of another word that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up higher than “mirrors.” From a lighting standpoint, a mirror can be a nightmare. Since you can’t light mirrors, you can only light what it sees. If we were in an all white room, and didn’t mind seeing the room, it would be easy. Light the room and the mirrors have something to see. However, when you are in a large stadium, during a dark moment, the situation changes and the challenges begin. KP Terry, our field choreographer, and I found a solution, where I pointed light at the cast and the cast tried to blind the cameras. We went through many different approaches but this one seems to be the most effective. In an ideal world, I would not have had any light on the cast but the Super Bowl Halftime Show rarely falls under the title of an “ideal world.”
LD: How about lighting the star and the band to pop out from it all?
BB: There were many different key lighting moments for this show. First, we started off in what we nicknamed the Laser Lounge. This key lighting needed to be as minimal as possible. Just enough information on his face that you knew it was Justin Timberlake. The next challenge was the band stage where JT interacted with his band. There, we needed a base of light on the band and a followspot on JT to bring him out of the background—putting aside the moment when he walked 360° around the stage where five different spots had to fade in and out as he made his way around.
The next challenge was the dance number in front of the lighting wall. This had to be done with automated fixtures due to the timing of the on and off of the fixtures. JT then moved to the Diamond stage where we wanted the primary part of the lighting to come from the internally lit portion of the box itself. All Access built this amazing, evenly lit white box, based on Bruce Rodger’s design concept. We installed a custom back light using nice Icon Edges, just for this moment. Justin then moved his way to a white concert grand piano. Here, with the help of Tim Fallon, our head carpenter, we designed and installed a custom panel light that we built with 20 runs of LED tape. I wanted the piano moment to feel different. I did not want to see any “spot rings” on the field. The piano and JT needed to be floating in the moment. My biggest concern going into any show is key lighting the talent. This show certainly had its challenges. I liked the large variety of solutions and looks that we ended up with.
LD: What abut the coordination with video cubes or panels changing color on the set?
BB: LD Nick Whitehouse who works with Timberlake did a great job of getting all of us on the same path with color palettes and video content. Then once the video content gets approved and settles in, lighting makes the last minute adjustments to closer support the content on the video.
LD: What were the biggest challenges this year (other than getting from the car in freezing weather!)?
BB: This year had several challenges: one we knew up front, one developed with the creative, and the final one, we became aware of at the last minute. The first challenge we were already aware of was the extreme cold. In previous years, the field carts would be lined up from the edge of the field, back out the stadium tunnel, then outside for as far back as four blocks. We knew there was no way we could have lined up outside—the lighting equipment would literally be frozen. So the entire set and lighting carts had to fit in the building. That was no small task that Bruce Rodgers was able to accomplish: The staging must be really good at jigsaw puzzles.
The next challenge came with the creative having so many different performance areas and performing in so many different directions. As we have discussed, we have to pick our spot positions well in advance. It became a whole new challenge to keep JT key lit in so many different directions. We had an amazing spot crew, probably the best of any Super Bowl I have worked on.
The last challenge came at 11pm Saturday night. NBC had convinced the NFL to cut all of our pyro from the show. Regardless of what this means from a dynamic/Super Bowl Halftime moment, it also meant no smoke. No smoke = no beams of light. Our show is based on showing scale, then tempo. We are tasked with filling vast amounts of space, with something. We have hazers but they take time to build up and generally only give us an even base of atmosphere. Pyro instantly fills the stadium with something that can “slow down” light, so we see beams. We adjusted as best we could with such short notice. It’s always something on this show.
Check out the lighting plots, lighting network system, and more in our Super Bowl LII Halftime Show coverage, sponsored by All Access Staging and Productions.