I Can See Clearly Now

Broadcast in HD from the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 10, the 50th annual Grammy Awards looked very sharp — literally as well as figuratively. “I feel sorry for anyone not looking at it in HD now,” says lighting designer Bob Dickinson, noting that there are two lines on the monitor that indicate the limitations of standard definition TV. “You see a lot more scenically, as well,” he notes. “Those watching in HD can see the seams in the set and the cables on the floor, so we have to be very clean.”

As for the relationship between lighting and HD, there is no big change in the sensitivity of the cameras in terms of light levels. “There are no real differences in terms of intensity or color choices, although everything is sharper and clearer in HD,” says Dickinson. However, he does find there is a major consideration when it comes to lighting faces. “You really have to be careful in terms of angle and texture; every little wrinkle shows now. I work with the directors to make sure the angles are correct, and we put filters into the cameras,” he explains. “The scrutiny of the cameras is intense, and all of the imperfections get highlighted.”

For a complicated broadcast like the Grammys, Dickinson begins the design process about nine months out. “For about the past 10 years, there has been a double-stage system, so while an act is performing on one stage, they can switch the band on the other one. They get more music in this way,” he explains, adding that there were a total of 24 musical numbers this year, with just one to one-and-a-half hours to rehearse each one.

“You ask a lot of ‘what-ifs?' when designing something like this. We even explored the idea of doing it in the round, but in truth, for the Grammys, you want to be able to morph into the world of each production number. But in the round, you never morph away from the audience,” Dickinson says. The final scenic scenario is a flexible theatrical environment designed by Steve Bass and Brian Stonestreet. “But we are designing in a vacuum,” he adds. “We don't even know the names of the nominees. At the last second, we are retrofitting a look for a specific act into the overall look for the show.” Dickinson points out that the design team met regularly over the summer and then accelerated the schedule to once a week in November, December, and January. “We hone down the concepts to find the winning solution, which this year was hyper-flexible to accommodate any act,” he says.

In fact, Dickinson finds that the performers are more pro-active these days than in the past. “They used to show up on rehearsal day. Now they want renderings and enter into the discussion about their songs. This forces the designers to think out of the box. The performers ask questions, and we find a better solution. All this happens during a three-week period once the nominations are announced.” Although the nominees are announced a scant three weeks before the broadcast, Dickinson's rig was laid out by mid-October 2007 and ready to be put out for bids. The majority of the gear (see list on p. 27) came from PRG, with the exception of the 3kW Xenon Falcon Beams from Alpha One Technology — used as large wash lights as well as for powerful beams from the floor — and the 1,000 Element Lab Versa®Tubes, provided by ShowPro.

The VersaTubes played an integral part in the lighting. Or is it the scenery? Or projection? Or maybe a good example of convergence? “I find myself at war with screens,” says Dickinson. “We fall victim to our own best tools. Screens and media gave us a lot of flexibility without physically changing the environment, like lighting does by its very nature. But screens are so pervasive and so overused. I live in fear of mindless content playing in the background now that everyone has a screen.”

Instead, Dickinson set out to capture the energy and flexibility of a screen in the format of a round tube. “They can be butted up against each other without looking like a screen,” he says, referring to the VersaTubes, which he has added to his rig for several recent productions. “I like the energy of media not in a format that is so predictable,” he adds. That said, the set did include a variety of screens, including two large Da-Lite RP screens, each measuring 12'×72' for a 144'-wide image. These screens hung above the VersaTube panels, and Dickinson referred to their shape as “an interesting format.”

There was also a large LED screen placed center stage, referred to as the “monolith.” This was created using 240 Barco ILite 6mm LED modules and used for video sequences such as Beyoncé's roll call of great black female singers. An additional 79 Barco ILite modules were used to create an LED screen stage left in the center of the VersaTube array. When Alicia Keys performed a duet with Frank Sinatra, “Old Blue Eyes” appeared on a 103'-wide Panasonic plasma screen placed center stage, adding a layer of black and white video.

The LED and RP screens, along with two 23.5'×24' Da-Lite RP screens used for audience screens (not seen by television viewers), were provided by American Hi Definition Inc. The company also provided eight Christie HD18 DLP Projectors used as rear projectors for the large RP screens and four Christie S+20 DLP Projectors — two in executive boxes and the other two near the camera platform in the front — for the audience screens.

The 1,000 VersaTubes were placed on moving set pieces to create a kinetic chevron pattern, adding a strong design element with digital light. “They are really bright and powerful as well as responsive to the music, yet there is no flare with the cameras,” Dickinson points out. In terms of the color palette, he notes, “When we lay out a show, we look at the nature and tempo of each song to select the colors, but we don't want four songs in a row to be the same color, so we decide which look goes with which song without being redundant.”

Lighting director Noah Mitz elaborates: “Each stage had three scenic elements with VersaTubes. Two were rolling curved walls mounted facing each other so the camera and the viewers could see the tubes. The third section rolled away for band access and getting gear on and off each stage.” The upstage tubes were mounted on light boxes with Color Kinetics LED ColorBlast® fixtures behind them for another layer and another look, adding a solid color behind the VersaTubes. The light boxes were made of mirrored Plexiglas®.

The set and lighting interplayed nicely, with a row of truss between the VersaTubes and below the RP screens and a second row of truss above the screens. “There was also a scenic header and the overhead rig,” notes Mitz, who points out that the first level of truss has a combination of VL5s, VL6s, MAC 2000 Washes, and Atomic Strobes tucked in behind the fixtures, while the upper row of truss had MAC 2000s, VL5s and VL3500s.

Some of the numbers this year were out of the ordinary, including Cirque du Soleil's “A Day In The Life” tribute to The Beatles. “This was a very atypical performance for the Grammys,” says Dickinson. “In rehearsal, I tried to use crosslight, but for television, that isn't very practical. So I turned everything off and started over with just backlight. That's all I wanted — a bare minimum. The bold theatrical makeup was too much with too many lights. It turned out to be very visual with just the powerful backlight from the Xenons and MAC 2Ks.”

The Foo Fighters performed on a stage outside, using the façade of the Staples Center as a backdrop. “They brought in their tour rig, and then Ted Wells from our staff worked with the band's LD, Nathan Wilson, to modify the cues for TV,” Dickinson notes. “It was an interesting way to incorporate a different environment.” To complete the look, Mitz adds, “We lit the Staples Center and the audience and provided extra followspots balanced for the cameras.”

Perhaps the most interesting act — from a visual point of view — was rapper Kanye West, who performed with the French electronic duo Daft Punk. “Kanye was very proactive and involved in the decisions,” says Dickinson, who spoke frequently to West's LD, Jonathan Goldstein of Starlight Visual. “His look was very surreal and ‘Tron-like.' There was extreme color and contrast, with very little frontlight. He was silhouetted against the color.” The palette started out as red and white, with strong red backlight in the Falcons, VL3000s, and MAC 2000s, but Dickinson notes, “We needed more dynamics and contrast, so we added blue in the VersaTubes for a shift in look during the song. The use of color is more effective when you use it sparingly but dramatically. It can really make an impact. In fact, the lack of color can be powerful, as well. You have to be disciplined in its use to make it powerful and not overuse it.”

“There was nothing generic about Kanye's lighting,” explains Mitz. “It was all tailored to his needs and the camera.” Adding to Dickinson's lighting was a pyramid set piece for Daft Punk, outlined in red NeoFlex from Rose Brand, while their costumes were outlined in red electroluminescent tape. To add to the visual barrage, West wore electroluminescent goggles and had electroluminescent tape on his custom-designed jacket, which also sported a flexible LED screen for scrolling text and images. The icing on the cake was a series of special effects by Pyrotek Special Effects, including 18 cryo jet heads with high-pressure CO2 cylinders and LEDs for color — in this case, red. The song opened with the singer silhouetted behind a bank of six red flame effects shooting over 15' into the air. Doug Adams, president, and Lorenzo Cornacchia, vice-president of Pyrotek, created the effects for West as well as a waterfall effect for Rihanna and accents for the Cirque du Soleil number.

The show was programmed on two PRG Virtuoso® consoles by lighting directors Andy O'Reilly and Matt Firestone, and Dickinson refers to them as “the best television operators in the industry.” A third Virtuoso console ran the Coolux Pandoras Box media server, provided by IG Designs and programmed by the company's president, Eli McKinney. An ETC Obsession II was used for conventional and accent lighting, including ETC Source Fours for audience lighting (VL5 Arcs and MAC 2000s were also used to illuminate the audience).

“The Grammys had a mix of high-res and low-res elements,” says McKinney, who provided the Pandoras Box to feed content to the VersaTubes, while most of the content for the various screens was provided by UK-based Lee Lodge and played back via the Grass Valley Profile server/storage system. “We worked hand in hand with the set and lighting designers to find content that matched the video and lighting,” notes McKinney, who maintains a library of original content. “The goal is to give the VersaTubes the same energy you're getting from the higher-res projections. Pandoras Box allows for an unlimited amount of flexibility, and you can cue the show along with the lighting,” he says. “It helps create a really powerful look.”



2 PRG Virtuoso DX2 Consoles

1 ETC Obsession II console

1 Coolux Pandoras Box Media Server

250 Vari-Lite VL5

150 Vari-Lite VL5C

90 Vari-Lite VL300 Spot

80 PRG VL6C Plus

125 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash

12 Alpha One Technology 3kW Falcon

11 Alpha One Technology 6kW Falcon

68 Martin Professional Atomic Strobes

100 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidals

60 PAR Bars

5 Lycian 2.5kW Followspots

4 Strong 2kW Super Trouper Followspots

6 Lycian M2 Followspots

24 Strand Pallas Cyc Lights

36 MR11 Striplights

6 MR16 Striplights

1,000 Element Lab 1m Versa TUBES

300 12" Color Kinetics ColorBlasts

92 PixelRange PixelPar 90

ReelEFX DF-50 Diffusion Hazers

LeMaitre G300 Fogger/Hazers


8 Christie HD18 DLP Projectors

4 Christie S+20 DLP Projectors

319 panels Barco ILite 6mm LED Modules

2 12'×72' RP Da-Lite Screens

2 23.5'×24' RP Da-Lite Screens

1 103" Panasonic Plasma Screen


Kanye West/Daft Punk: “Stronger”
18 Cryo Jet Heads
18 50 lb High Pressure CO2 Gas Cylinders
6 Red Colored Flame Units

Rihanna: “Umbrella” Waterfall Effect
61 20×20 Silver Gerb Fountains
5 LeMaitre MKII Low Smoke Generator System

Cirque du Soleil: “A Day In The Life” tribute to
The Beatles
4 Turbo Blowers
8 50 lb High Pressure CO2 Gas Cylinders


Lighting Designer: Bob Dickinson

Production Designers: Steve Bass, Brian Stonestreet

Lighting Directors: Bob Barnhart, Jon Kusner, Noah Mitz

Lighting Directors/Moving Light Control: Andy O'Reilly, Matt Firestone

Media Server Operator: Eli McKinney

Associate Lighting Directors: Dan Reed, Travis Hagenbuch

Head Electrician: Dennis Rudge

Producers: Ken Ehrlich, Walter Miller, John Cossette

Suggested Articles:

Michael Strickland, chairman and founder of Bandit Lites, shares his insight, through his tireless efforts, on the state of PPP funding.

Cody James created a smoothly flowing show that balanced intricate stage lighting for Ayla Brown's livestream concert.

Enjoy some Balanchine, everything is beautiful at the ballet...