Britney's Big Splash

Click image to see the full stage

Built around the concept of Cleopatra’s barge, Britney Spears’ extravagant show featured everything from a floating platform to a dramatic waterfall. (Photo by Steve Jennings)

All of the (very) young people who are now counting Britney Spears' tour last year as their first live show ever will no doubt be disappointed by every other concert that follows — at least when it comes to sheer spectacle. With 18 trucks of equipment, a full band, eight dancers, the requisite massive lighting and video system, myriad costume changes, and every major special effect under the sun, the reigning princess of pop gave all of her screaming young fans what was by far 2001's largest arena tour.

With the understanding that this tour was set up for HBO's Britney Spears Live From Las Vegas special, it was up to production designer Steve Cohen to create and production manager Rob Brenner to execute the spectacle that worked both on screen and in the arenas. In the end, nearly every type of rock-show magic was employed during the course of the show; the roster of vendors for this tour reads like an LDI exhibitor list.

Opening with “Oops, I Did It Again,” Britney made her entrance spinning 360° strapped to a wheel made by Branam Enterprises on a huge platform rising several feet above the ground, built, like everything onstage, by Tait Towers. Some 171 white light yag lasers, courtesy of Spectra, made the first of several appearances during “Overprotected,” and by song four, “Born to Make You Happy,” the post-pubescent princess had morphed into a toy ballerina — complete with white tutu — inside an enormous music box (designed by Michael Cotton) that rose from the stage. Losing the tutu, Britney donned a floor-length white satin coat over her leotard and segued into “Lucky,” which was accentuated with confetti from Pyrotek confetti machines.

For her cover of “I Love Rock 'N' Roll,” Britney and her four female dancers flew above the crowd on a platform (made to look as if it was rising on firepower via pyro effects from Gerb Fountains) before she bungee-jumped off. The power ballad, “Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know” featured Britney dressed in an evening gown with snow from Little Blizzard machines falling as dancers played out the song's angst-ridden message across the stage. Though the famous snake she draped across herself for her performance of “I'm a Slave 4U” at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards was nowhere to be seen, the designers recreated that performance's jungle vibe using liquid CO2 fog and more Spectra Physics yag laser effects. And then for the encore, “Baby, One More Time,” came the pièce de résistance: a 50-foot water screen. But more on that later.

Britney in the House

The realization of this complicated showcase came through the fairly rare collaboration between production designer (Cohen, of Billy Joel, Elton John, ‘NSync, and the Eagles fame) and production manager (Brenner). Both men had definite ideas about how to shape this show.

Click image to see the full stage

At one point, during the song, “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” Britney bungee-jumped off a floating platform that moved above the crowd. (Photo by Steve Jennings)

“We wanted to get Britney out into the house in a couple of different ways: a runway, a B-stage performance area, and on some kind of spectacular flying device that could be used to get her out over the crowd,” Cohen explains. “It all developed around this Cleopatra's barge concept I got into my head while designing when the movie Cleopatra was playing in the background. It needed to be elegant and stylized but also high-tech, because it was going to have to be traveling on conventional motors and transport mechanisms. Plus, it had to have a big enough performance area for her and the dancers.”

Brenner was also intent on creating a more interactive experience for the audience. “I wanted to try to give the kid in the back of the house the same experience as the one in the first 10 rows,” he says. “I also don't like symmetry, and Steve took that one step further by actually creating the squished oval shape. He started with the second stage being just a landing platform for our flying barge. The manager, Johnny Wright, said that if we were going to take up the space anyway, we may as well put a runway in and connect the two.”

Keeping the HBO special in mind, Cohen and set designer Jim Day designed a touring system that would look good from multiple camera angles. “We knew we had to create a 360° performance area so she could get all the way around the arena,” Cohen says.

Cohen and Day created several renderings that Brenner presented to Spears. “She loved pretty much everything they had designed,” Brenner says. “We also tried to incorporate a lot of the elevator moves and gags into the initial design. Nothing was an afterthought; we knew where we wanted to go from the start. Very little actually changed from the first set of drawings to what we have now.”

Click image to see the full stage

The most dramatic effect in the show was a 50-foot waterfall upon which video images were projected and through which Britney and her dancers emerged onto the stage. (Photo by Steve Jennings)

Cohen then relayed all of this to the show's director and choreographer, Wade Robson. “I handed him this basket of special effects and lighting and set and architecture and all of this area for him to play with, and he put it together in a style that fit into his context of the show, which made every gag we had pay off that much more,” Cohen says. “The fun part about doing a show this big is that if the production design is accepted by the director, it gives him what he needs in order to implement his vision.”

To make the set work on a practical level, the designers enlisted Michael Tait and his team at Tait Towers. “We took a more expanded role in preparing the drawings for Michael,” Cohen says. “We wanted to retain the essence of the look of the show, both in its overall footprint and in the execution of these various pieces. In order to do that, we had to give him line drawings and not just suggestive renderings. Michael did a great job on executing the fine details like the hand railings and the floor lights and the MR-16 covers. When you're doing something for TV, all of those pieces are foreground pieces. The mirrors on the platforms and the floor painting made the show look better on TV.”

Double Duty

Cohen also designed the show's lighting with his partner in Steve Cohen Productions, Joel Young, who serves as the tour's lighting director. “Joel and I approach lighting all of our shows by being heavily color-based — everything is rich in color,” Cohen says. “There is a lot of layering that is not confusing so the purity comes through. Everything was in the right place for TV, so the lighting didn't have to be modified much. We only had to touch up some focuses — we didn't rewrite a single cue. While we were programming we kept that in mind, so it was very gratifying to have it work out.”

Click image to see the full stage

Working with BCC Video, production designer Steve Cohen created a unique video experience by hanging more than a dozen double-sided LED video cubes stage right and three larger video screens above the stage area. (Photo by Steve Jennings)

Young programmed the show on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console, which he ran while simultaneously calling the 13 followspots for each show. “We have eight truss spots and five house spots: four Lycian 2.5ks on the back, four Robert Juliats on the front truss, four FOH spots and one all the way in the back,” Young says. “I really like the Juliats — their color temperature on people is nice. They're not as punchy as the Lycians, which are great as back spots — they cut through everything because they're so bright and crisp. So it's a good combination.”

Steve Cohen Productions served as the tour's lighting vendor and sublet the gear they required from Westsun and Fourth Phase/LSD. Syncrolite provided its own 3k lights. “We have good support from Robert Roth at Fourth Phase and Dick Wright at Westsun,” Cohen says. “Plus, our crew chief, Pat Brannon, is the best there is. We hand-picked this crew, and with Joel out there as the lighting director, the execution of the vision is more in our control.”

Apart from the Syncrolites, the rest of the lighting is a combination of Coemar and High End Systems automated fixtures and conventional luminaries. “We have about 215 active lights, so it's a big show, but it goes up really well,” Young says.

Both Sides Now

Cohen wanted to reinvent the idea of a video background for this project — the screens show both live shots and recorded footage by Wade Robson — so he worked with Danny O'Bryen at BCC Video to create double-sided custom video LED cubes that hang above stage right. There were also three larger-sized video screens above the stage area. “I had to adjust the separation between the boxes a couple of different times to make sure that the images read, but I wanted to try creating deconstructed video imagery,” Cohen explains.

“You don't need to see Britney all the time because we weren't playing stadiums,” he says. “Slapping up a big video screen upstage center was not what I wanted to do because your eye just goes there and you never watch the artist. Here the focus is decidedly on Britney. The fact that they are two-sided is a pain for the riggers and the weight puts added stress on the building, but everybody in the cheap seats off to the side of the stage has a great big wall of eye candy to look at while they're looking through to see the action.”

Water Babies

Let us now return to the water effect, perhaps one of the most eye-catching moments of any recent tour. As the encore, “Baby, One More Time” began, a towering image of the singer was projected onto the water, only to gradually shrink until the lights were on Britney as she rose from the stage in the middle of the torrential downpour. Wearing a plastic cowboy hat, blue hip-huggers and a matching bra top, she and her dancers burst through the water, singing and dancing their way to the very front of the stage.

As flames and pyro shot up, they all made their way back to the barge. With the water still pouring down, the damp troupe was lifted up to make a final wave at the crowd. Attached to her bungee cord, Britney again jumped off the platform and made her way back through the water to be swallowed up by the stage. During this five-and-a-half-minute sequence, nearly two tons of water were pumped through the screen at 360 gallons a minute.

“The water screen is the keystone of the entire design because it impacts every system — electrics, staging, dancing,” Cohen says. “Rob discovered the company (Chameleon Productions of Orlando, FL) that makes the screen, and I immediately looked at what they had in stock, which was a straight line. And I knew we didn't want a straight line,” Cohen says. “We wanted a circular water screen so we could physically build a shower for her to stand in the middle of and not get wet and then walk through when she wanted to.

“Of course, everyone thought I was crazy, so I suggested a six-sided shape. Everyone was concerned that the gaps between the sections might cause gaps in the actual sheets of water,” Cohen continues. “But I kept saying that if you put them 40' to 50' up in the air, gravity will cause the water to attach to itself, so you end up getting a solid sheet. That in fact works. Everyone was talking about using it for projection, but I knew the one thing this water would look best at was under lighting. To me, the best look of the show is when Joel has all those hard edges playing on the water.”

“We had no idea the potential of the water screen, until we set it up in Lakeland, FL [the site of the tour's rehearsals], six or seven months after we decided to put it in,” Brenner admits. “There had been a lot of design and technical engineering put into it before they got back to us and said they could do it.”

Brenner worked with Tait Towers to incorporate a drain and pump system into the stage to catch the water and recycle it into the pumps that fed the screen. “It's actually a two-part system,” Brenner explains. “The water screen, which is up in the air, has pumps that feed the water screen that drops down. But we needed to be able to catch the water and pump it to the other set of pumps. So that was a unique challenge for us because it had never been done before. It took us about two months to see if we could get it to work. As much experience as Steve and I both have, this was an unknown entity and we weren't quite sure what we would have to deal with.”

John Markham, president of Chameleon Productions, agrees that at first his company didn't know if a circular water screen would work. “We hadn't done a circular screen, so we had to go back to the drawing board because it wasn't as simple as it may sound,” Markham explains. “The units are individually seamed at 10ft. and the idea is to have seamlessness. The engineering to make it seamless is very precise. The mechanisms to bolt it together can't take up space or you'll reduce the density of the water, therefore reducing the intensity of the video that you're producing.

Calling it “one of the signature items on this tour,” Brenner says, “The first time they turned it on, Steve and I looked at each other and smiled because in our wildest dreams we never imagined it would look as good as it does. When we turn on the water, there is a hush that goes through the arena. You can almost hear them whispering to each other, ‘Is that water?’ They've seen so much to this point, and a lot of the kids at these shows are at their first concert, so the pyro, the lasers, the flying barge, and the bungee — all of these effects are new to them. It's all something they've never seen before, and just when you think it can't be outdone, we turn on the water screen.”

Certainly it's saying something when an effect this fabulous is only one of many spectacular moments in a two-hour show. “When we all started in this business, it was Van Halen, Led Zeppelin — guys who went onstage with musical equipment and some lights, and made a lot of noise,” says Brenner. “Kids these days have MTV and are familiar with all the technological advancements we've made in touring, so they demand more from us. We needed to keep their attention — we always need to do better than that last tour.”

Looks like the bar has been raised once again.

Catherine McHugh, a regular contributor to Entertainment Design magazine, has been covering concert design for more than 10 years.