Illuminating U2 From All Sides In Largest Tour Design Ever

“The goal always for me is when the fans come into the stadium they see something the like of which they have never seen before,” explains U2’s show designer & director Willie Williams. The design of the U2 360° Tour certainly fulfills the objective of Williams, who, working closely with architect Mark Fisher and production director Jake Berry, has created a scenic and lighting structure that is the largest ever designed for a concert tour. “The design is exactly as I imagined it two years ago,” notes Williams. “It is a contradiction of simplicity and complexity.”

When Williams and Fisher first started to work on concepts for the in-the-round stadium design, they realized that they would have to break many conventions in order to make it work. “We had talked about doing 360° outdoors, and, starting two years ago, I started seriously considering it for this tour. I looked at all kinds of ideas to minimize the impact of the structure needed just to hang equipment when you move to the center of the field,” describes Williams. “Then there was a moment when I realized that, instead of trying to make things smaller, why not make it so big that the structure becomes invisible.” In fact, the final structure is so large that Williams created a lighting challenge with long throws of enormous distances requiring him to find a luminaire that could be bright, carry that intensity some distance, and still be able to zoom, focus, and project gobos clearly.

“The throw distances that we are dealing with are much longer than you would normally ever deal with for all the lighting positions, never mind the lights around the stadium,” says Williams. “Even the closest lights to the stage are an 80’ throw, and the ones on the legs are nearer a 100’ throw. There is no way you could use old school moving lights, plus I needed a light that would not just reach and wash but would be able to have texture.” PRG arranged a fixture demonstration at Wembley Stadium so that Williams could evaluate the Bad Boy and other lights in a real world environment where he found, “The interest thing about the light is that PRG started with the application in their fixture design, which was to create a light for large scale shows, arenas and stadiums. That has been their master stroke—to start with what the light is intended to do and really work towards that particular goal. When you are at the back of Wembley Stadium, you need a light with the gas to get to the stage.”

Williams decided to use the Bad Boy as his only automated light for illumination, with his final design calling for 196 fixtures. The Bad Boy handles the distances from the 80’ “close” location to the 400’ stadium ring position on seven of the followspot platforms. It was a bold choice to base an entire design around only one fixture, and Williams had to wait until the lighting system was powered up for the first time at Camp Nou Stadium, the Barcelona rehearsal venue, to know for certain that his idea would work. “Even when I got here, we still had a few days before the system was turned on where I was biding my time. I was a little antsy, waiting to see what these things would do under show conditions. I think it is fair to say they are absolutely remarkable.”

Lighting director Ethan Weber understood Williams’ initial concern. “There is nothing else—spot, wash lights. Everything you do is with the Bad Boy, and coming into rehearsals, it was a light none of us had ever used before,” says Weber. “When we turned them on, it was pretty obvious it was the right way to go. We have all been very impressed. Many of the fixtures are a few hundred feet from the stage, and not only are they very bright, but their zoom allow us to go from pin-spotting the band to lighting a stadium audience with relatively few fixtures. I don’t know of any other light that can do this. So far, they’ve been very reliable—impressive—considering we’ve had them on for long hours in the Barcelona sun.”

“The actual lighting design,” points out Williams, “is very straightforward.” The effect is powerful and layered in visual appeal. The tour trusted PRG’s Concert Touring Group to supply the entire lighting package. In addition to the 196 Bad Boys, Williams is using 25 followspots—a mix of Strong Gladiators and Lycian M2 long throw units, as well as 156 Martin Professional Atomic Strobes with Atomic Color Changers. In the pylon, there are five custom Xenon ripple projectors, 42 sodium vapor floodlights, and 498 DWE PAR lamps ringing the pylon. On the roof of the structure, there are eight Zap Technology BigLite 4.5kW fixtures that act as searchlights and spot the mirrorball at the very top of the pylon. The mirrorball is believed to be the first lightning-arresting mirrorball on a concert tour. (The whole structure is well-grounded.) Also on the outside of the structure’s skin are 36 orange disks also known as polyps. Underneath each polyp/disk are eight custom LED fixtures, each containing 60W RGBW LEDs. These were designed by Tommy Voeten of 1212-Studio, Inc. in New York City and were manufactured in Belgium in just four weeks. They are called U2BE, which is pronounced you-tube. They provide another lighting effect that adds a glow to the fabric skin of the structure.

Seven lighting platforms that are arrayed around the top of the stadium each have three Bad Boys, a followspot and a Novalight Nova-Flower effect light. While Weber handles all the automated fixtures, lighting associate Alex Murphy calls all the followspot cues and controls the LEDs in the set and on the roof with the PRG Mbox™ Extreme Media Server. They split responsibilities of handling the 47 haze and smoke machines on the show. PRG also provided the Series 400™ Power and Data Distribution system and the PRG BAT Low Profile lighting truss.

The power and data system was designed by systems crew chief Craig Hancock along with PRG’s Chris Conti. Hancock, who has worked on U2 tours since the 2001 Elevation tour spent time with Jeremy Lloyd and Nick Evans of Fisher’s Stufish integrating the lighting system into the structural system. All together, there are a total of 24 universes of DMX. With S400 racks at the bottom of each leg of the structure, which are in custom dimmer carts that Hancock designed. They also contain S400 main breaker racks, dimmer and relay racks, strobe distribution racks, communications, etc. There are also two carts of S400 and two dimmer carts up on catwalks in the roof structure that handles the power and data for the 167-foot center pylon. There is an S400 trunk cable run to the FOH control position, providing the power for the consoles as well as running the DMX from the consoles to the S400 system. Then they went with fiber optic cable to distribute the data around the system. There are a total of eight 350’ runs of PRG Virtuoso fiber optic cable for the data.

Hancock and Conti then tied into the SHoW DMX™ wireless DMX system from City Theatrical to get DMX out to the seven lighting platforms that ring the stadium. The wireless DMX transmitters are in the pylon above the structure with directional antennas to stay out of the way of other wireless transmissions of audio, video and scenic—all of whom have wireless systems. Getting physical height paired with directional antennas improved the signal significantly.

Supporting the Bad Boys and the followspot chairs on the legs of the structure is the new PRG BAT Low Profile truss. The Bad Boys are actually able to travel inside of truss. There are eight sticks on each leg as well as mounted under the octagon and inside of the video screen for a total of 444 total feet on the show. The BAT truss also supports twelve Thomas 360° rotatable followspot chairs, three on each leg.

The designers knew it was an ambitious undertaking and were pleased with the team effort of all involved. Everyone needed to be on the same page, working toward the same result. Tim Murch, PRG account executive, notes, “They really have brought together wonderfully qualified people, starting with the incredible Jake Berry and, of course, Willie and Mark. It is incredibly well organized, thanks in large part to them. It is a very heads up situation with coordination between every single department.”

Williams is pleased with PRGs efforts on behalf of the tour. “At the end of the day, it is about people, and if you don’t have the right people, it is just not going to happen,” he says. “I am absolutely delighted. They have been really good. You can’t do this by second-guessing; I just have to have complete faith that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing. You really have to trust.”

Williams and Fisher also had to trust that they wouldn’t see their design complete until the final piece was added. “The audience is the final element,” explains Williams. “They are part of the overall look to the design working.” On opening night in Barcelona, Spain, their design's success was brilliantly completed.

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