Willie Williams On U2’s Innocence + Experience, Part 4

Photo courtesy of Stufish

Read our final installment our discussion with Willie Williams, creative director for U2's iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour.  Start with part 1 here if you haven't read it already, and stay tuned for additional interviews with Es Devlin, Ric Lipson, and more.

Live Design: Getting to the specifics of your lighting rig, anything new you tried and really liked?

Willie Williams: I’ve enjoyed the PRG Bad Boy Spots, particularly that you get a proper zoom, rather than just irising down the size. It’s hard to comprehend that so much light can come out of such a small object.

I love the caged fluorescent tubes. They have their own narrative arc during the show, which is possibly a first for a lighting instrument. To begin with, they define the punk club - we just leave them on continuously for about the first half hour of the show.  Later, when the screen/bridge comes in very low, further caged tubes above and below become the intimidating ‘underpass’ after the bombing. Finally, at the end of the show they reappear, some horizontal, some vertical, stretching from stage to grid, forming a beautiful ‘city of light’ as we are all redeemed and go to heaven (or somewhere).

It’s rather nice that they’re manually operated. Tait were keen to have them stand up via hydraulic rams, or some such, but I just have Nick Barton and the lampies go round the edge of the stage and stand them up when we need them.

(Check out the full lighting and video gear lists here.)

Photo courtesy of Stufish

LD: How is video content created?

WW: The video content for this show is far from random and is extremely important to the narrative. Bono was very keen that we don’t have “too many flavors,”  not the usual diverse selection of disconnected content ideas from song to song.

We always knew that the show would be in two parts—Innocence and Experience—so Bono asked if we could have just one artist oversee each part. Very sadly, since the 360 tour, we have lost Run Wrake, the mainstay of our video content, to cancer, so found ourselves starting from scratch rather.

Sam Pattinson, my longtime video producer, looked at a lot of work and found some great talent, so we began to put a hit list together. It’s a tricky thing to bring in new artists to a rock show environment because it’s a bit of a mind-shift for them to be comfortable with us essentially messing with their work. Also, given the strength of the narrative in place, we weren’t really looking for content ideas so much as execution, which might also have been a little tricky. We weren’t looking for a whole new interpretation of the songs.

Photo courtesy of Stufish

Ultimately, the way it worked was that, with the in-house team at The Third Company, we began making the first versions of the content. These served as demos to show to the band and also as templates for later reworking when we had nailed the required style. Part one was to have a very handmade, cut-out, punk graphics feel, reflecting the influence of Linder Sterling and others from the punk period. Part two was to be a high-res vision of a day-glow future, presenting the opposite extreme. We worked with some great people along the way. The fantastically named Xaver Xylophon from Berlin did some early renderings, with contributions from video greats like Kevin Godley and even Damien Hirst.

Ultimately, the two artists who represent the two halves are Oliver Jeffers, an artist and children’s illustrator from Northern Ireland, and Jeff Frost, a young LA-based filmmaker. Oliver’s naive drawings have become the house style for the first act whilst Jeff’s extraordinary hi-res stop-motion, time-lapse city and nature-scapes become our destination in act two.

Photo courtesy of Stufish

LD: Are there any special effects?

WW: None, except for haze, of course. Oh, and eight confetti machines that shower the audience with pages from Ulysses, Lord of the Flies, The Psalms, and Alice in Wonderland. Bono said to me one day, “When they fire-bombed the library in Sarajevo, pages from books rained down on the city for days. Words, poems, sentences, all mixed up, fell into people’s hands. Do you think we could recreate that?”

LD: Were there technical issues that changed the design in the end?

WW: Weight was a massive issue. The screen/stage was initially going to be 24’ longer and fill the catwalk but, combined with the huge amount of PA and rigging, made it impossible to tour.

Photo courtesy of Stufish

LD: Any other challenges?

WW: The elephant in the room, of course, is that Mark Fisher isn’t here. Happily, he was well enough to attend the very first meeting we had about this show back in March 2013. It was the first time that the creative team came together with the band, so many of us hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years. It was also the first time that Ric Lipson and Es Devlin met the band, going on to become my primary collaborators in design.

Sadly, Mark was able to attend no more meetings in person, but he did appear on Skype once or twice. At his final meeting, he didn’t feel like putting his Skype camera on so spent the meeting as this disembodied voice coming out of Ric’s laptop. Mark hadn’t spoken for a while, and the conversation turned to how we like stages that “are” something—they’re an actual object or the abstraction thereof. Bono asked us all to think of an object that would sum up U2, as maybe this would be a clue to the stage design. We all chimed in with our various thoughts, and then Bono leans into the laptop and asked, “What about you Mark? What do you think?” There was a lengthy pause, and then we hear, “a fucking cross! Why don’t you just do it, and put a fucking cross in the middle of the stadium?!”

We all fell about laughing but took his words to heart. When the caged fluorescent tubes adopt their final configuration as the city of light, some are horizontal and some are vertical so, just here and there, from certain angles, you can see Mark’s fucking crosses. We think of him every time they appear.

Read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

Check out our full coverage, sponsored by SHS Global at our Project In Focus on U2's iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour here, and check back often for continuing updates.