When Icelandic band Sigur Rós’ frontman Jónsi started to plan the tour to promote his first solo album, GO,he hired a group of theatrical and opera designers to do what they had never done before: design more of a rock ‘n’ roll-type tour. The international tour began a North American leg in Vancouver in April and is now touring Europe with plans to return to North America in fall 2011.
Jónsi hired his team of designers via the UK-based firm 59 Productions, designers of live performance, film, and visual art galleries and, according to its website, “at the leading edge in exploring the application of new technologies and techniques in order to make new ideas possible.”
Production designer and 59 Productions director Leo Warner is the lead designer on Jónsi’s tour and was instrumental in bringing the other designers on board. Lighting designer Bruno Poet had worked with the 59 Productions team on Al Gran Sole Carico D’Amore at the Salzburg Festival in 2009. There, Poet says, they began to create a shared vision that made each new collaboration easier and more fulfilling. Animation designer Peter Stenhouse, who has some background in the music industry, had worked with 59 Productions on the 125th Metropolitan Opera Gala and was also in Salzburg, he says, “because Warner had lured me there with the promise of a bed, blonde beer, and an exciting project.” With these three designers onboard for Jónsi’s tour, the initial goal became reexamining the process of designing rock ‘n’ roll through the lens of theatre or opera design.
The process started with the music, much like it might start with the libretto and score of an opera or the text of a play. Across the board and regardless of whether they had heard his music before, the designers were inspired by Jónsi. Stenhouse, a longtime fan, notes that he had a euphoric initial response. “It had been weeks since I had been able to listen to music, since my iPod had died in Andalusia, so it was especially thrilling to hear,” he says. “Particularly listening to the first tracks, which are so joyous and jubilant, as I cycled beside the Salzach River, dappled light coming through the trees, on a perfect summer’s day in the Alps, was a sublime experience.”
Jónsi invited Warner and the team to Iceland to listen to rough mixes of the album. “We spent a couple of days getting to know Jónsi and establishing we had an aesthetic taste in common,” says Warner. Immediately after the trip to Iceland, Warner and his team started modeling, sketching storyboards, and brainstorming, trying to find a way to turn the songs’ self-contained stories into an overall concept for the design. Warner had recently been given two books of images for his birthday, and one of them, Martin d’Orgeval: Touched by Fire, really guided the design process. The book features a series of photographs of a Paris taxidermy shop that had been partially destroyed by a fire—“amazing pictures of half-destroyed things” that Warner says really spoke to something in the music and the style of what the team was interested in producing.
Out of this initial investigation, the theatrical version of the taxidermy store-as-set began to take shape. “We would all sit around the set models, which provided a framework for what would be shown, but also represented the overarching concept of the burnt-down taxidermy store, and come up with ideas for what might happen during particular songs and where,” says Stenhouse. The set evolved from these images into a large wall of windows that, it quickly became apparent, makes the whole stage into a palette for light and projection.
Using video would allow the designers to play with perspective and depth. “We were able to create both the physical structures and the ephemeral structures,” says Warner, who adds that it was also “evident from the beginning that Jónsi had been inspired by animals.” Looking at artwork in which an artist had scratched images on top of photographs led to a vocabulary through which the animation could integrate these inspirations. The animation has a ghostlike quality that enhances the mystery of the partially destroyed space, as if the spirits of the animals had somehow been released by the fire.
The team worked together to create a loose framework for the show’s narrative. Rather than letting the concert’s set-list be completely improvisational, a system of touch points was created. “Jónsi was keen to allow us to use our experience, which was very different than his own, to help construct the set-list,” says Warner. Because of the denseness and complexity of material, Warner and Stenhouse chose key songs to fully render in video, transforming individual stories into complete songs and progressions.
Translating Stenhouse’s vision was primarily the concern of Jonathon Lyle, who programmed the video and now tours with the show. Lyle has freelanced with 59 Productions for nearly two years. “They aren’t precious about other people suggesting ideas, which is an incredibly rewarding environment to work within,” he says. From the beginning of the project, Lyle helped develop the system to run the extensive animations.
Stage Sound Services provided the video equipment, including an MA Lighting grandMA console, six SAMSC Design Catalyst media servers (three for backup), and four Panasonic projectors (two PT-D12000s and two PT-D10000s, as well a touring a PT-D12000 as backup). The design team uses the Panasonic projectors for their web-based troubleshooting interface and video black. Onstage, four Sanyo XL51s were chosen for their short-throw distance, since they are really designed for classroom use, so they work well to fill a 60" (1.5m) screen, with a necessary throw distance of only 11.8" (30cm). “They are superb for hiding within the set and don’t create the normal issues of people walking through beams,” says Lyle, adding that the tour makes use of the internal shutters on the Panasonic projectors, and DMX shutters have also been added to the XL51s.
Lyle notes that the console has to control 96 layers of video, using 3,072 attributes, and 3,840 channels of DMX. These stats, combined with the fact that the team only had two weeks for tech and dress rehearsals, led to the choice of the grandMA, which Lyle says is “a console that I have used many times before and had confidence that it was up to the show, so became the obvious choice.” Likewise, they chose Catalyst media servers “because of the 32 layers per server, all of which we use simultaneously at the climax of the show, and because of the multiple keystone mixes,” adds Lyle. “Each machine then has a Matrox TripleHead2Go box, for a total of 18 outputs at 1,280x1,024.”
Integrating technology led to an old-world aesthetic in which the lighting appears solely conventional with a tungsten-based palette, partially in response to the dream-like and magical quality of the video. Poet notes that the “lighting can extend what the video is doing.” The video was never meant to be a background, and it provided Poet with something to work both with and against. In a way, the final product, according to Poet, “feels very small and contained from a lighting point of view, but the video feels enormous.”
Poet approached the project just as he would an opera, noting that Jónsi didn’t want a massive light show. Instead, the artist wanted something “stepped back, simple, and elegant,” says Poet. “Each track was a sort of scene from a show. I worked my way through thinking of what each scene might look like.” Poet and Jónsi chose a controlled and sophisticated color palette, not because of practical constraints, but to give the show an identity. “Jónsi was very keen for that,” says Poet, adding that the singer had input into the palette of mostly tungsten with a little bit of color correction.
The scale of the tour changed many times over the course of the process, forcing the designers to reevaluate priorities. For Poet, that meant keeping only what was necessary. “You keep the things that are really, really important, [and] you take away all the stuff that is ‘just in case,’” he says. It also meant deciding whether or not to be at the mercy of each venue’s inventory. Poet and production electrician Matt Daw chose to tour with a small but complete rig, rather than adapting to what was available at each stop. With only ten moving lights and a handful of conventional units, the rig might be considered small by some tour standards. It forced Poet to justify his choices and led, eventually, to a design that satisfies him. “Like theatre or opera, it is about cues and the timing—the way the whole thing flows,” he says.
The biggest challenge for the designers was readjusting their expectations to a rock ‘n’ roll world. According to Warner, there was a basic redefinition of roles between the artistic team and the tour managers. In the theatrical world, there is usually a long lead time with a production manager, but in this project, “as designers, we were kind of expected to take on a production manager role very early on,” he says. “There was also a sense that things had to be very flexible and that decisions would be made very late in the process. We sort of had to design it without knowing what scale and budget we were designing to.” Money and space in the trucks were significant factors in editing the design choices. There was also no way of knowing what scale of audiences a newly solo artist would bring or which venues the tour would fill.
Another challenge was creating a consistent, magical, theatrical environment that can travel and load in quickly in a variety of venues. Recently, says Lyle, “The show played a 5m [16.4'] triangular stage with a 3m [9.8'] trim height. Trying to work the set and projection into these spaces is the test we face most days. Now that the show is open, the challenge is trying to create a show in each venue that resembles the first night.”
Warner says that he is pleased with the combination of a touring rock show that has theatrical elements, as opposed to a full-scale theatrical production that could have taken as long as two weeks to load-in at each venue. “Jónsi is always pushing for the best possible show,” says Warner, adding that the artist is also understanding about practical concerns. Out of a collision of worlds and approaches came a successful vision.
Natalie Robin is a NYC-based LD, a founding and associate company member of Polybe + Seats, and an associate artist of Target Margin Theatre. She is also an adjunct at NYU’s Department of Undergraduate Drama. She has been a guest artist at Bard College and Muhlenberg College. (www.natalierobinlighting.com)