Earth Tones: Ethereal Meets Pop For Rihanna's Last Girl On Earth Tour

While 2009 was perhaps a year not-to-be fondly remembered for pop star Rihanna—having pressed charges against then boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, for (allegedly) abusing her—2010 saw her set out on her Last Girl On Earth tour in support of Rated R and under the watchful creative eye of show director and choreographer Jamie King.

The tour’s lighting designer, Jonathan Goldstein, has designed some unique projects over the last few years, from an art installation for contemporary artist Vanessa Beecroft featuring the music of Kanye West, to a small theatre tour for hip-hop performer Kid Cudi, sometimes lit with just two fluorescent fixtures or a single strobe.

Hired three months before the tour began its first leg in Europe earlier this year, Goldstein worked with creative director Simon Henwood, the two having collaborated previously on Kanye West’s Glow In the Dark tour in 2007. “Simon is an amazing film director as well as artist and writer,” says Goldstein. “He and Rihanna had the vision for the entire album from start to finish, from the concept of the artwork to the stage show, including some of her music videos.” He adds that King brings to the mix “what I would call a balance between the dark ethereal concept that Simon had and what you would say a large pop/rock show would normally feel like.”

Goldstein notes that Henwood and he have similar ideas when approaching a production like this, which is basically to work against the grain. “Anything I see being normal or how a show should be lit is usually when I do the opposite or make up my own way of doing it—moody, driven, not a pop show. I do something more along the lines of Pink Floyd meets Van Halen, and when I say Pink Floyd, I mean if you close your eyes and imagine visual elements, not their stage show or how lights are placed. I mean emotionally.”

The goal of the tour was to bring out both themes of a pop/rock-driven vibe with big looks, as well as that ethereal sensibility—at times, opposing concepts. The upshot of all this is what Goldstein calls “an edgy show that has movement—ups and downs as well as interesting moments where the visual elements can send out messages to be interpreted by the audience.” Initial drafts of the design were done in Cast Software wysiwyg R25 and transferred to Nemetschek Vectorworks for use by rigging and lighting vendors.

The video equipment setup—chosen by King and Henwood and already in place when Goldstein joined the creative team—comprises three central 6'x17'8" columns of LSI-Saco V9 9mm LED screens, flanked by two 17'8"-square walls of V-Lite 28mm tiles, all from Nocturne Productions. Two more 21'x12' rear-projection screens for I-Mag sit on the perimeter of all that, using two Sanyo PLC XF1000 projectors. The video department also makes use of two Barco FLM R20+ projectors at FOH for a finale screen. In addition, 48 variously stacked custom television set pieces house 17.63"-squares of V9 tiles.

The custom content, created and directed by Henwood and his team of animators and producers from HSI London, is played back via a PRG Mbox Extreme® v3 using two outputs, programmed by Marcus Krömer, who was brought in to do the final content programming in Belgium just before the tour kicked off. A Pinnacle 9000 camera system setup includes two handhelds and one long-lens. Christian Lamb is the camera director.

Since the video system was in place when Goldstein joined the team, his lighting design necessarily took it all into account. “The more that these high-powered LED walls are used, the more depth can actually be lost on stage,” says Goldstein. “Your black box concept of a theatre is lost, as you now have a solid wall of light at the edge of your stage. So what do you do? You control the intensity of the LED wall and content playing on the wall.” This involved quite a bit of tweaking to the extremely bright custom content that made lots of use of whites, according to Goldstein, “in order to help regain depth and mystery of the remainder of the stage and still be able to push the artist out of the wall visually. Darkness is mystery, so there is definitely a challenge when it comes to a 60'x30' string of video surfaces. We also had issues with the lasers, having them cut out through the video.” Lasers were designed and supplied by Lightwave International.

Two MA Lighting grandMA consoles control video and lighting, and while video and lighting are not networked, lighting and lasers are. Video and lighting are both synchronized via SMPTE time-coded for playback via Digidesign Pro Tools.

Continuing to go against the grain, Goldstein’s lighting plot is not the norm. “The entire show is blue—no I’m kidding,” he laughs. “I just thought that would be fun, though, only to use one color but different shades and angles of it throughout the show, and then—boom—at the end of the show, it turns red or something.” He actually quite sensibly chose colors based on what works with the mood and action on stage. “Video content lighting the dancers became very important to the show director, so once again, the battle existed between too much light and keeping the concept alive,” he says.

Goldstein jokes that, if his colleagues saw his plot, they might think that either he can’t draw or his CAD program choked and spit out nonsensical randomness. “This is what I like,” he reassures. “I’m not into the wash-spot alternating theory or the theory of threes, as I call it—spot-wash-spot. It’s way more interesting to group things oddly and try to figure it out when you get there, time allowing. When I see a designer put a stagehand in a pit with a PAR following his lead singer, that’s something that makes me feel different inside; it’s bold, beautiful, and different.”

Goldstein’s lighting had to find its place in the vast sea of projection screens while maintaining the aesthetic balance between dark and pop, so he went for a few moments of big concert lighting, used when appropriate. In “Rockstar,” for example, he uses “a lot of white light, very strong, in-your-face moments provided by LEDs of different sorts, [Zap Technology] BigLites, and other elements that are punchy.”

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A lot of the lighting rig comprises Vari-Lite VL3000 Spots and VL3500 Washes, the latter with narrow lenses used more for beams than actual wash looks, what Goldstein calls “a very ACL-type of look to give it that rock feel. At times, I love to put them in the audience’s eyes full flood, and they would just become a glare—kind of different. There’s actually one moment in the song ‘Take A Bow,’ where literally every single light in the design is in the audience members’ faces in only the colors of daylight and CTO or 3,200K, slowly twinkling. It’s breathtaking because the previous cue has just two lights side-lighting Rihanna, and that’s it. I tried as much as possible to have moments where you come from nothing to something big. The audience feels it more, and Rihanna can feel it, which gives her more drive and energy.”

Goldstein also uses PRG Bad Boys® for lighting specials, key lighting, and effects, “really every time I need some kick to an area on stage,” he says, adding that this is his first experience with the fixtures. “I’m not an equipment nerd or geek, but these fixtures worked well, and I wish there were more of them in the design. There is a ton of movement throughout this show, and Rihanna is always moving all over the stage, including on a conveyor belt and to a B stage. The Bad Boys were scattered throughout the design asymmetrically, which helped me in the end, being able to grab a light here or there to throw in with the VLs.”

Goldstein makes heavy use of i-Pix BB7s, noting that the director and the artist herself really like the fixtures. These are bitmapped to achieve various effects that appear to move throughout the design from left to right and up to down. “They added something not-so-symmetrical just as the remainder of the design. Our lighting programmer, Cameron Yeary, actually went and created some custom bitmap images for us to use—shapes that make sense to our design.”

Goldstein notes that, in reality, no single piece of gear inspires his work or makes the show, calling upon his study of architecture and art as what really informs his designs. “That’s my trick,” he says. “Watching how Andre Balazs builds his structures or how Frank Gehry shapes his buildings is amazing to me—or how Rembrandt painted light and used light to play with your mind, which is actually way harder than physically lighting something. I try to use these arts and make them somehow translate to the stage. Sometimes I do right, and other times it’s not quite there—trial and error.”

On this tour, time of building was a tremendous concern for the production. “The distances between venues were limiting us to less than an eight-hour work day on most of the stops,” says Goldstein. “This forced me into a straightforward rigging package and pre-rigged truss, so I had to use other outlets to try and make things interesting—trims, light placement, and so on.”

The show is called by stage manager Mike Morabito, who deftly organizes all of the cues that include a complex inventory of lifts, turntables, skateboards for the artist to get under stage, mobilators for moving the band, and, of course the moving video walls, set pieces, and a host of other gags. PRG provided the massive rigging for all the moving parts, including a CyberHoist motion control system. All Access Staging and Productions provided the staging, hydraulics, and mobilators, and John McGraw built the set elements.

“I don’t think everyone knows the actual affect we can have on people by changes in light, playing with human nature and the senses,” concludes Goldstein. “I know that if I use one light on stage, the human eye will dilate its pupil very wide to allow more in. If I have a huge hit or blast of light, I know the effect is greater than if I had a very bright stage—just weird things like that.”

And the designer’s advice for a performance well done? “Have a great dinner before starting each night,” he says.

The next leg of Rihanna’s tour hits Australia after the holidays with the same design.

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