In the past year alone, you’ve most likely seen his name attached to high-profile gigs such as the Country Music Association Awards, Premier Boxing Champions, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, XVII Pan American Games Opening Ceremony, and of course, Super Bowl XLIX Halftime Show featuring Katy Perry. In fact, he’s been making a name for himself for years, designing all over the world for all kinds of cultural and global events. Some of his designs have made headlines for unexpected reasons, including a set built overnight in the heart of south central LA in the midst of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in the hopes of bringing people together. He’s also designed launches for Microsoft Windows 95 and 2000; a floating interview set in a flooded soundstage for Titanic’s director James Cameron; and the 1996 AT&T Global Olympic Pavilion, the site of the tragic explosion that inspired him to finally found his own design studio, Tribe, Inc. Clearly, the man behind the name has led a life as equally fascinating as the projects he’s designed, beginning with his early roots in Odessa, Texas.
Bruce Rodgers grew up on comic books, music, church, and late night television, a distraction from his chronic insomnia due to the nightmares that plagued him until age 18. Born from such cultural influences, Rodgers had a fascination with filmmaking that inspired him to make California his life’s destination. After enrolling in the architecture program at Texas Tech University, Rodgers soon discovered his true calling when he met the director of the Theatre Design School, Dr. Forrest Newlin. “Doc, as we called him,” says Rodgers, “opened my mind to many great things I still look back on today, such as theories of design, mechanicals and the language of stagecraft and theatre set design, mason lodge ceremonial scenic paintings, histories of ancient architecture and city planning, and exotic names such as Karl Eigsti, Santo Loquasto, Jules Fisher, Edward Gordon Craig, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Ming Cho Lee, and on, and on.”
Rodgers promptly fulfilled his lifelong dream and moved to California. His first year in Hollywood was, well, a year of firsts. Working at the Railton Design Studio, he had his first experience with a fax machine as well as his first communication with the late, great Mark Fisher, then of FisherPark and Associates, London. “Mark’s faxes were long-hand, almost quill-written, cursive, loopy letters with taped-on cutouts of Spiderman, Big Ben, and the like,” Rodgers recounts. “At the end of the fax letter came a series of CAD draftings that I’d never seen before.” The designers were collaborating on a concept for a space-age theme park that seemed an appropriate subject for his first glimpse of computer-aided design or CAD, which would change the standard technique of design development forever.
“CAD ties everything and everyone together, if it’s done correctly,” says Rodgers. “Today’s productions are so technically involved that it takes strong minds to control and utilize new technology to its furthest degree.” The designer believes that harnessing the technological prowess of computers to keep up with the evolving profession of show design is a double-edged sword. “On one hand, computers help with speed and visual communications,” he states. “On the other hand, a designer can lose the soul or essence of a concept when filtered through a computer-designed process.” Thus, Rodgers always includes hand-drawn sketches, collages, or references in design packages and employs “magnificent illustrators to assist in rendering presentations to hold onto the art of the idea.”
The Whole World In His Hand
Every design must have soul, and Rodgers has learned that it is not just the designers who make that happen or protect it. The 1996 Summer Olympics changed Rodgers when security guard Richard Jewell discovered a pipe bomb in Centennial Olympic Park, where “so many great people, including Candace Brightman, Justin Collie, audio genius Don Pearson, John Cossette, and many more,” says the designer, were front-of-house at the AT&T Global Olympic Pavilion, for which Rodgers was the creative director and designer, just before the bomb detonated. “If it wasn’t for Richard running up and down the five-story control tower and evacuating all the technicians and guests, we would have lost many people,” he asserts. “I learned that night that everyone matters in show business, even the security guards.”
After such a life-altering event, Rodgers founded his company, Tribe, Inc., with which he’d participate in more creatively and emotionally stirring projects, including designing a tribute at the Hammerstein ballroom within the Manhattan Center in 1999 for his musical hero, Johnny Cash, with lighting by Allen Branton, “one of my most favorite lighting designers in the world,” he says. For the set design, Rodgers melded Cash’s portrait into a scene of Arkansas Oak trees and then cut the mural into a series of broken strips so that his face appeared when the camera panned across the stage.
That same year, working on a Disney World theme park show, Fisher introduced Rodgers to director Jamie King, a connection that would lead him to Latin pop star sensation Ricky Martin and, eventually, the Queen of Pop herself, Madonna. For Martin’s 1999 Livin’ La Vida Loca Tour, Rodgers spent eight weeks going from a “rapid-paced sketch to fully built reality-race, resulting in a massive arena and a 24-truck tour design that incorporated 15 effects lifts, two conveyor belts, 14 dancers, 10 band members, tracking soft goods, flying machines, and symbolic totems that grew out of the stage,” he explains, adding that the design was built to the proportions of the Latin pop star’s handsomely chiseled face. With a design like that, it was hard for Madonna not to notice him.
For her 2001 Drowned World Tour, Madonna called upon Rodgers’ expert production design. “She gave me room to bring my own vision to her world,” the designer notes. “She was tough and pushed for the purity of the design, helping me hold onto the vibe that I sketched from the beginning to the end.” Named one of Live Design’s picks for Top Concert Tour Designs Of All Time, the set featured a dimensional, theatrical temple, complete with flying soft goods and set pieces infused with LEDs. Both tours were directed by King with lighting design by Peter Morse and staging by All Access Staging & Productions, Rodgers’ “favorite set shop for over 20 years.”
With such prominent names in his address book, it is little wonder that Rodgers has led the production design of the NFL Super Bowl Halftime Shows since 2007. Veteran lighting designer Bob Dickinson first introduced Rodgers to executive producers Don Mischer, Ricky Kirshner, and Glenn Weiss to discuss the Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show featuring Prince. Hailing from the very town depicted in Friday Night Lights, Rodgers grew up on the love and thrill of the game, a characteristic that helped to establish a long and successful relationship with the Super Bowl executive producers. That first Halftime Show set the bar for Rodgers, who claims it has yet to be beaten. “Prince brought a stunning and real performance to the stage in the midst of a driving rainstorm,” explains the designer, “and in doing so, he represented all the hard-working people in the crew for those 12 minutes.”
In the new year, you’ll see his name attached to the Cirque du Soleil Big Top tour—his first—Apple Music Festival—his fourth—Dierks Bentley’s 2016 world tour—his fourth—the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Convention, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony—his fifth—the 50th Anniversary CMA Awards, and, of course, the Super Bowl 50 Pregame Ceremonies and Halftime Show featuring Coldplay—his tenth. Despite it all, the man behind the name Bruce Rodgers maintains a modest attitude and always looks forward to whatever the future brings. “Every design project, big or small,” he asserts, “is an adventure.”
Register to attend the exclusive webcast "Exploring the Halftime Show with Bruce Rodgers," to air February 17 at 2pm EST.