NASHVILLE – It is every designer’s dream: to overcome the limitations of time and space and allow the creative vision that originally sparked a project to be expressed to its fullest.
Steve Cohen and Bob Bonniol journeyed very far in the direction of this nirvanic state recently when they collaborated on the production and lighting design for Blake Shelton’s current “Back To The Honky Tonk” tour. In the process, they created something that is likely to influence and inspire other designers for some time to come.
The creative journey began when Shelton, the multi-award-winning country music superstar and coach on “The Voice,” said that he wanted to create the distinctive look and feel of a genuine honky tonk bar for his new 2023 tour. Co-scenic designers, Cohen and Bonniol set about creating an evocative old-school look that matched this vision. In contrast to the retro vibe they were seeking to replicate, the duo used 21st-century AI technology and the Unreal engine to achieve their vision.
Working with these tools was, in Bonniol’s view “a liberating experience” that freed them from many of the constraints that have historically impacted the design process. “Steve and I started by creating an architecture for the lighting positions that reinforced Blake’s vision,” he recalled. “We then extended this “back” into content, matching the real scenic structure in terms of perspective and detail to a virtual set that consisted of roughhewn wooden beams, old bar signs, and lighting. Using Unreal Engine allowed us to move incredibly fast. We could make decisions at the beginning of each rehearsal day about where we wanted to go for each song in terms of lighting and texture, and then have that scene in the server by lunch for cueing.”
The result of this process has been a set that doesn’t merely provide a setting for Shelton’s performance but creates an immersive environment that the show lives in. Contributing to the overall effect is a richly textured light show, designed by Cohen and programmed by Felix Peralta that utilizes a 4Wall Entertainment supplied rig anchored by 239 CHAUVET Professional fixtures, including the Color STRIKE M, Maverick MK3 Wash and Maverick MK3 Spot.
A key part of the design’s power to engage audiences is its 3D quality, which was created through the mix of lighting, video, and scenic elements. “The realistic honky tonk environment drives everything,” said Bonniol. “Steve had come up with a concept to put a giant VIP bar down the middle of the arena. This anchored the real architecture, and then we worked to create lighting positions that reflected this kind of architecture.
“We lined trusses up to form a peaked ‘roof’ over the bar thrust,” continued Bonniol. We also built a portal or proscenium using CHAUVET Color STRIKE M lighting positions to give the audience a sense that the honky tonk had a ‘stage’ that was framed. Other parts of the lighting positions were placed to blend into the virtual set extensions. We used a variety of AI tools and were able to feed our AI datasets of images from our own concepts for the honky tonk, which the code then used to produce more elements, signs, and textures.”
Epic’s Unreal Engine allowed the designers to create this environment with precision. “Because Unreal is built for real time rendering of games at extremely high fidelity, we were able to move through creating content incredibly rapidly,” explained Bonniol. “We sourced some elements from stock 3D sites, stuff like neon bar signs and old gas station signs. I built a good deal of the virtual honky tonk scenic model before rehearsals using Cinema 4D, and then brought that environment into Unreal so that we could very quickly adjust lighting, camera paths, and textures. We were quite particular in matching and extending the real lighting positions into virtual ones in Unreal as well, allowing us to extend the real lighting cues into the virtual world. It really fooled the eye, and it became difficult to determine where the borderline was between scenery and virtual.
Achieving a balance between light and video was critical in this effort. Cohen and Bonniol say they weren’t really making cinematic content that transported the audience to new imaginary worlds; instead, they were trying to play within the real/virtual architecture. As a result, the video uses a lot of lighting as well as negative spaces and shadows, to give the audience the impression that they aren’t seeing video imagery at all, but rather are viewing the back of a genuine honky tonk.
“Having the real lighting and the virtual set atmosphere blend without a boundary was absolutely critical to create the illusion,” said Bonniol, who praised the efforts of programmer Peralta. “Felix is master of matching and extending the palette with light to engender the feeling of the scenic moments,” he said. “We had made really conscious decisions about what fixtures would go where, and how they would frame, reinforce, and blend with the virtual sets. In cueing the content and the lighting always acted as one.
Included in this collection of fixtures were 108 Color STRIKE M motorized strobes which fill a variety of roles in the design. “We love the Color STRIKE’s versatility; it’s essential to our concept,” said Bonniol. “That fixture serves so many purposes. We use it as a footlight surrounding the edge of the huge thrust and B stage bar arrangement. We also use it in our architectural “roof” and “proscenium” to help define and anchor the architectural shape. Finally, we hang many of them upstage of the main video screen which is semi-translucent. This allows us to blend them into the virtual scenic content and really fool the eye. We’ve been blown away by how we can use them to do pixel sparkle one moment, and the next rely on them for a big fill light, and finally create big punctuation with them as strobes. Meanwhile, the MK3 Spots and Washes have been workhorses that give us everything from thick colored beams down to individual pixel-sparkle moments.”
Also coming in for praise from Bonniol and Cohen was the tour LD, Scott O’Connor “an absolute artist,” Hayden Katz the “code guru” server programmer, and the team at TAIT, which built the set and collaborated with 4Wall to engineer the final product to perfection.
“This was a very gratifying project,” said Bonniol. “We had a wonderful team and we got to explore new ways of working. Using Unreal and AI really allowed us to make moments on the spot, as opposed to boxing us into pre-authored content and looks that we then had to build around. The flexibility of those tools allowed us to entertain our imagination in a really improvisational way. It makes us feel good about where design is headed.”
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CHAUVET Professional offers innovative professional lighting fixtures for the production and touring market as well as permanent installation in theaters, hospitality venues, cruise ships, clubs, television and architainment applications. For more information, please visit www.chauvetprofessional.com