Ahead of the Curve


Designer Jon Pollak has been working with Lenny Kravitz for enough years now that they have developed a strong working rapport. “Lenny will say, ‘I have this idea in my mind's eye’ and I'll go do a drawing and come back with it,” says Pollak.” He'll look at it and say, ‘Yeah that's it, but more like this or that.’”

Such was the case with Kravitz's current tour. “He gestured with his hand over his head in an arc and he said he wanted something like that,” explains Pollak. “So I said, ‘You want a big cave?’ We went through a lot of revisions back and forth.” Once Pollak finished building Kravitz's cave, he and video director Kevin Campbell drew all over the walls, not with primitive etchings but rather with video imagery using cutting-edge technology.

Over the years, Pollak has morphed from Kravitz's LD into a role close to that of scenographer. His plate is full for this latest tour; he's designing not only the lighting but also sets and video projection. Pollak has created a seamless integration of the various design elements, with the video projection making an especially strong impact, complementing the lighting and providing strong support for the songs. Pollak and Campbell's video selections are wildly imaginative, mixing strong images and collage-like elements with distortion-free realistic imagery and video clips. They also use the projection system to color the RP screen as a cyc for the transitions between songs. All this projection is on a severely curved surface that creates the scooping backdrop to Kravitz's performance, which provided Pollak and his team with their greatest creative challenge.

Kravitz was keen to use video as a part of the tour. Pollak's original idea was to have videowalls between the trusses, but the price well exceeded the budget. “We went to plan B, which is rear projection and that is what we ended up with,” says Pollak. He and Campbell opted for two Barco ELM 12kW projectors to cover the screen area, which are made up of Rosco white RP Screen in eight 8'-wide × 42'-tall panels, each hung between custom-curved Tomcat black truss spines that rise up and over the stage. “Originally we had two 36'-wide × 40'-tall panels, but now we have the panels overlap behind the truss spines,” says Pollak. The screens were fabricated by Rose Brand; the custom truss and set was fabricated by Tait Towers. The seven truss spines also are lined with automated lights.

Pollak, who operates the show off a Flying Pig Wholehog II, has designed a simple yet effective lighting plot. His theatrical design background as well as his diverse lighting career is evident. Martin MAC2000 luminaires hanging from the curved truss that supports the video screens are used to highlight and focus on Kravitz. Pollak also uses, to good effect, Coemar Panorama SuperCycs for downlighting and audience washes. High End Cyberlights® at the bottom rear of the truss are used for uplighting and pattern washes. The lighting package for the US leg of the tour was supplied by Upstaging, Inc. Upstaging is also providing the trucking for the tour.

When asked which came first, the screen bend or the image, Pollak comments that “the screen bend was first, and it was always there. We made the images fit the screen.” The truss spines were custom bent at a 27° angle. There were, however, a few tweaks at Tait Towers. “Originally we thought we should suspend the spines individually, but I knew that would be over-engineering, so we decided to rig the point to a subgrid and then just lift the rig as one unit,” Pollak continues.

The key to making the curved projection work was to make sure there was enough throw. Campbell found a unique device to get the throws they needed. “The video is the predominant focal point of the rig, so it was important to Lenny that all the bits and pieces be right,” says Pollak. “The lifesaver on this rig is a digital image correction device that is normally used in flight simulators.”

Early in the process, Campbell had conducted a test to see if the bend could work. “The test was basically a scale version of the set and I determined how much keystoning and flanging of the image was needed, due to the curved surface,” he explains. “If you are using two projectors, they have to overlap. You are going to get a triangle of really bright light. DLP projectors really don't have any of the keystone correction like the old projectors; they can be mounted anywhere and don't need to be centered. So I knew we needed a digital geometry correction device.”

Surfing the Internet, Campbell came across a device called the CompactU, a digital geometry and soft edge correction machine from a company called 3D Perceptions based in Norway. “It is used for flight simulators,” he explains. “It does geometry correction and edge blending. We don't have to do edge blending here because of the truss between the panels.” Normally, the unit is used to stitch three projectors together to provide the peripheral panoramic images for the flight simulator.

Campbell knew that he would be using rear projections and that it would most likely require two projectors, but the scale test would give him more necessary information. “We always knew it was going to be rear projection, I knew the media was going to have to be cut in half so when we did the Tait test, we found we needed to put the projectors on their sides so it would have to be portrait style, two vertical letterboxes,” says Campbell. “You can only do that with the Barco ELM or the Christie Digital 12k, both of which have airflow to allow you to hang them sideways. When I made the video image I would make the initial clip and then import it back into after effects, magnify it, split it in half, rotate it 90°, and then re-render it for stage left, stage right. They would have to be frame accurate, the same length, and then I would convert it to MPEG2 to burn onto DVD, which is the media we have chosen to use.”

Pollak and Campbell chose to go with the media on DVD rather than a hard drive for instant access to the imagery, a decision that has proven itself night after night with the ever-changing set list. “We are all on Lenny's freedom train, and because he has that freedom it is no big deal,” chuckles Pollak. “If I had the media on hard drives it would be a big deal,” laughs Campbell. “I have six decks that provide three banks of images, stage left and stage right A, B, and C, and I have two laptops that are my still stores.” With this arrangement, Campbell can access any image or video within four seconds. Kravitz had many discussions about the images and their use in support of the songs. “Lenny always has a lot of input, especially on imagery,” says Pollak. “Once we got out on the road, Lenny started feeding more ideas and we have honed it down to a really good show.”

Kravitz's special request images were compiled and edited by veteran video director/designer Carol Dodd. “She compiled the really intensive images we needed,” notes the designer. Campbell worked closely with Dodd on creation of the imagery. “Carol did the full motion video,” comments Campbell. “We would go to the editing suites, and we would go through the stock footage and talk about what she and Lenny had discussed and what I had discussed at rehearsals. We would make a VHS tape that she would take to Lenny for final approval. I then would format it and burn it to DVD,” says Campbell. “We had three weeks and that was a push. Plus, I had images of my own I had to work on.”

After the images were created and the set was nearing completion, Campbell performed a second test at Tait Towers. “That was right before we finalized the gear and hired the vendor,” says Campbell. The video vendor is Performance Video from Columbia, MD; Brad Reiman from Performance is on the tour as the video technician. Performance provided all of the video equipment for the tour, which in addition to the Barco projectors includes six Pioneer Pro DVD players, a pair of Panasonic MX 50 switchers, the hardware and software from 3D Perceptions, and the laptop computers. Reiman notes that Performance was interested in how well the projectors performed mounted on their sides. “They think it's cool. They are using the projectors on their sides for another show, now that they realized how it works. You use the wide lenses and you hang sideways and save a lot of space.”

Even though Pollak is hugging the curve of technology with his high-octane design, he can't control everything. “Actually, the funniest thing is happening at our outdoor venues,” says Pollak. “We have a lot of light coming out of the projectors and what loves light in the summertime — flies! We have flies sitting on the lenses. We tried to hang flypaper from the projectors but it didn't work, so every now and then there is a giant fly walking across the image.”