Short-Term Effect: The Cure's once-in-a-lifetime Trilogy concerts in Berlin

Only the most obsessed fan would cross an ocean to see a rock concert, right? Well, call me "incurable." Last November I spent a week in Berlin, Germany, solely to attend the Cure's Trilogy concerts at the Tempodrom. The band performed three of its darkest albums, Pornography (1982), Disintegration (1989), and Bloodflowers (2000), in order, in their entirety, plus encores. This three-hour-plus show was performed on two consecutive nights, and shot with 12 high-definition video cameras. (The week prior, the band also played the Trilogy show in Brussels and a non-Trilogy concert to inaugurate a new arena in Hamburg, neither of which was taped.)

Helping to capture the live experience for the cameras was LD Abigail Rosen Holmes, who also lit the Cure's last world tour, for Bloodflowers, in 2000. The three Trilogy albums encompass every emotion, from the depths of existential despair to cruel rage and bitter jealousy to dreamy romance, and Rosen Holmes' lighting looks range from harsh, angular minimalism to ethereal, rippling pastels. The concert was a memorable, immersive experience, and the DVD faithfully recreates it. (A must for any Cure fan, even those slightly less obsessed than yours truly.) During intermissions at the show, I jotted down some questions and e-mailed them to Rosen Holmes when I recovered from jet lag.

Click here to view a clip from the DVD.

ALS: The rig was similar to that for the Bloodflowers tour. Was that to make it easier to write cues since you already knew the various looks and combinations you could get?

ARH: The idea was that cues would already exist for a fair amount of the material, although there was still a tremendous amount to be constructed. I think the original idea from the band was that it would be easy to put this show back up because we had done it before, but that turned out to be a tremendous amount of work. Rock concerts are not documented with the idea that the production might ever be mounted again, and figuring out what we had done two and a half years before was actually quite difficult. Also, collecting or reconstructing all the old materials, such as computer files, custom gobos, projection materials, staging elements, and so on.

ALS: Is it easier to light the Cure since you can do whatever crazy angles and colors you feel like? You don't really need to worry about making the frontman look pretty.

ARH: I don't think it is easier, but it is one of the things which makes it an interesting job. The idea that they do not need to look pretty was interesting in the context of making a video, where there is a much stronger prejudice in favor of making performers attractive. Even in the case of an act who do not require that they look conventionally attractive, there are instances in video where some looks which might be an interesting choice for the eye are truly unattractive in a video closeup; and in some cases, because of how the show had been constructed for live performance, it was quite tricky to correct.

ALS: Were you a fan of the band before? If so, for how long? If you are a fan, how does that affect how you light the band? For example, do you already have ideas about how to light certain songs, or do you feel a certain amount of responsibility to the fans who are paying to come see the show?

ARH: I listened to the Cure before touring with them in 1985. Did not keep up so much after that, probably more from being busy with work than from not liking it. But these are general thoughts:

It is hard to light music where you can't find anything at all to relate to--you need to be able to identify with it to some extent. This is not to say it needs to be your total personal favorite for a designer to be able to do a good job. And it is a bonus if it is music you love.

Yes, you would have ideas about how to light songs, but basically that is what we do on any job.

And, yes, you should feel a responsibility to the fans of any act--they are indirectly paying us and keeping all of us working. I have no time for those who have no respect for audiences, as I say they are the reason we are able to do this work. With respect to the Cure, I will say that their fans notice the lighting and presentation more than any other group I have worked with, which can be quite nice.

ALS: How well did you know these three albums? How many of these songs had you lit before? How many looks/cues carried over from the Bloodflowers tour? Was there an overarching concept to make this show a three-hour-long story, like a rock opera?

ARH: We had done all of the Bloodflowers material and some of the numbers from the other two albums at various points on the 2002 tour. While we started with the cues from 2000, some numbers were partially or substantially reworked for these shows. We did take some steps to make the middle album (Disintegration) numbers feel different--there are scenic silk pieces which fly upstage for only this act and some of the looks are in some ways prettier and softer.

ALS: How do you collaborate on the design when the band is in another country?

ARH: E-mail. OK, sorry, a bit obvious, but really the same as if they were in L.A., or Seattle, or even downtown. You look at the same things--drawings, videotapes--talk about them, exchange ideas. Having people spread out is absolutely normal for almost all entertainment design process. Helpful in this case that Robert [Smith, band founder and frontman] and I have worked together before, but that's how we did it the first time, anyway.

ALS: The Cure's lyrics are so visually descriptive. Do you take a lot of cues from that? (For example, in "A Short-Term Effect" the lyrics say "colours that flicker," and the lights pulse in multicolored gobos.) Does that make your job easier?

ARH: Yes, I do this in certain specific places, mostly where Robert has indicated that those lyrics are important to him in that way. This ends up requiring a ton of very specific cues which are often used only once. I would say it may make it more interesting but I certainly would not say easier.

Actually, "colours that flicker in water" is the line, so the gobos were a bit watery looking. In that particular song there are also lyric-driven cues for "static white sound," "derange and disengage everything," and "draped in black." Most have an effect and are used once. And are triggered manually in the show.

I have sometimes found these lyric-based cues very difficult to do, as they don't tie to anything in the music and it can be quite hard to find when and how to execute them so they don't feel arbitrary and wrong. The ones in "Short-Term Effect" actually worked well with the music.

ALS: On the other hand, their music has so many layers of beats, guitars, and keyboards that it's easy to put a cue on everything. How do you decide what to accent and when to pull back and just hold a stage picture?

ARH: I suppose this is a basic part of lighting design for music: There are always a different set of choices from the ones you make, which might have also worked out well.

ALS: Their music is an interesting mix of dark, angry, dreamy, romantic, happy, and pop. How does that help your work as an LD? How is it a challenge?

ARH: More dynamics and variety in the music can help make a show more interesting, as it is easier to use widely differing looks.

ALS: What do you have to take into consideration for videotaping?

ARH: Because we based the design for the videotaping on the touring show from 2000 did not make all of the choices about the show with videotaping in mind. If the show had been designed from the point of view of thinking about what would work best on video, some things would have been done differently. That said, all the preparation done for these shows was done with the videotaping in mind.

ALS: Does it affect color choice? angles? intensity? placement?

ARH: Yes. Robert did not want certain things changed for the video which I would have done for any other videotaped show. For example, the musicians were not relit in order to have a natural skin tone: Some adjustments were not made which might have reduced shadows on their faces or other things which would have made them appear more conventionally attractive on tape. Some looks were left with contrast differences which would make some lights blow out on camera and so on.

ALS: Were there budget concerns for this mini-tour? What did you have to do to work with it? Was it easier or harder than a full tour? How much time did you have to put this together?

ARH: To mount a complicated show which is not performed very many times is always difficult for budgeting--there are not enough opportunities to make back the money it costs to mount the show. This did make it harder in many ways--we had a crew which was smaller than the one on tour, which put a lot of pressure on the crew we did have. Also, ideally we would have had more programming and rehearsal time. But those constraints are not unusual.

ALS: Tell me about the challenges of long-distance overseas preparation for only a couple of shows. What preparations were you able to do from the US for a show in Germany? When you actually got there, how smoothly did it go? How about when they announced an earlier show in Belgium on the spur of the moment?

ARH: Again, this is not in any way unusual. Touring shows routinely play in a wide variety of venues, and those involved in mounting a show would normally work from wherever they happen to be. In this case, our production manager did visit the Berlin venue and sent a range of photographs so we could discuss locations for cameras and other technical matters.

ALS: What do you think about these one-offs and mini-tours? Are they fun and interesting for you? This band seems to do it quite a lot. Is that something you had to take into consideration when you were offered the job?

ARH: One difficulty with short performance periods is that there will not be a long period generating income to cover the costs of mounting a show, so one of the challenges is managing to do the best you can within the limitations. Since I don't generally stay with shows once they are up and running, the work period tends to be pretty much the same for me regardless of how long the show will run.

ALS: Re: instrument choices, I think I saw Vari*Lites for washes and LSD Icons for spots and an Icon Console. I also noticed two kinds of strobe--big ones across the top and little ones down the truss columns. What other equipment was there? Did you design the center circle truss or was that house equipment?

ARH: Yes, Icon spots and VL5 wash lights. The different lighting fixtures have different features and qualities; I try to choose what seems appropriate for each show. The circle truss existed in the house; we brought in the audience lighting fixtures which were hung on it from a company in Germany.

ALS: How much was preprogrammed and how much did you run live?

ARH: Lots of both.

ALS: Who onstage do you take cues from to start or end a song? I believe they try to do most things differently from show to show as much as possible. For example, how do you know when Robert's guitar solo is ending and it's time to change cues?

ARH: I listen to different things to take my cues; it depends on the song. The song versions are pretty consistent from night to night. Knowing when to change cues is learning the music--basic part of the job.

ALS: Who is their video designer? How do you collaborate with them?

ARH: Robert provides fairly specific direction for a lot of the video material, and some of the artwork. Much of the communication between him and the video passes through me. I provided some artwork and we used material created by two people from the 2000 tour and our video person for the Berlin shows, so there were many contributors.

ALS: What are some of the differences and similarities of working with Cher and the Cure? They're such different performers with such different aesthetics. Are there any similarities that readers might find surprising?

ARH: They really are pretty different. Cher is a much bigger show with a very different production. And, as you note, it is a very different aesthetic.

ALS: Did you or the band or anyone else look at the first night's footage and change anything for the second show?

ARH: I looked at the footage together with the video director [Nick Wickham] on the afternoon of the second show and we did make some adjustments, such as adjustments to some floor light levels. Robert did not want to look until after the filming was completed.