The production design for the Super Bowl LV Halftime Show proved complicated and challenging due to the realities of the pandemic, as well as the artistic psyche of The Weeknd ( Abel Makkonen Tesfaye), star of the show. It not only took a village, it took an entire tribe to produce, starting with Bruce Rodgers, founder and president of Tribe Inc, who designed his 15th Halftime Show this year. He has outlined the entire process in this exclusive Q&A for Live Design.
Live Design: How did you get from start to finish? What was the design process like with The Weeknd and his team?
Bruce Rodgers: I was brought on board by Roc Nation, Jesse Collins, the new executive producer, and Dave Meyers, the new executive in charge of production in late September and we went about learning things about the project.
This would be my 15th Super Bowl Halftime Show, and compared to past years, we were a bit behind schedule. I chalk that up to this being the ‘covid year.’
As with everything in 2020, production teams and sports groups were "learning as we go,” and navigating thru an unknown covid war zone was a challenge. The pandemic was super confusing and highly political under the Trump administration who ignored science and dropped the ball resulting in multitudes of deaths and family struggles. The NFL did a great job keeping the football season afloat with safety in mind, and, as the season progressed, it became a reality that Super Bowl 55 was going to happen. Once it was established that there would be a Super Bowl and one that would include a Halftime show of some sort, we went into the early design phase before The Weeknd camp joined the conversation.
Dave’s team at Diversified Production Services (DPS) worked with the NFL and Populous, the Super Bowl architects, to survey the stadium and start planning. We met with the NFL to learn about the whole landscape of the big game. What would the capacity be? Can our halftime show be on the field? What are the health and safety protocols? And how might each of these things impact schedule and the final broadcast results?
We learned that there would be a limited audience, approximately 20% of the 66000 stadium seats. Populous had begun to map out seating scenarios that allowed groups of twos, threes, and fours to have seats that were spaced safe distances from each other. The empty seats as concepted would have cardboard cutouts of fans who would pay toward a charity to have their faces printed on cutouts to give them a way to attend the game virtually.
We learned that any field show elements (cast, crew, staging) would be limited to one tunnel and that the final count of elements would need to be approved by the NFL players association as they were under strict team protocols. Memories of the Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band HT show came to mind being that we were in the same stadium as that great performance. The ideal situation for the teams and NFL was one where the teams never shared space or tunnels with others and anything on the field during Halftime should be minimal. Our goal was to find a way to present an exciting show for the artist and to not necessarily bow down to the covid monster. Our target was a big Halftime show that used the protocols of spacing requirements and respect for the players to our advantage.
Ultimately, we wanted the live and TV audience to be entertained completely. It was suggested early on that we could locate the show off the field in the north concourse which seemed like a great opportunity to me and Dave Meyers. The hard part would be convincing The Weeknd that this location could be as compelling as a field show.
By now we were more aware of the challenges we were about to face, and then the design process with The Weeknd began. Jesse Collins was already in talks with The Weeknd and he was anxious to get the process started. He and I had many early morning conversations to get on a common ground with important goals heading into talks with The Weeknd.
My primary job as production designer is to design an epic spectacle that the NFL, show producers, and audiences expect from the Halftime Show. Part of my job is to provide a creative support system for the incoming artist and creative team (if an artist's creative team is part of the equation). Our Halftime Show creative team is made of world class designers, directors, producers and staging experts and each person has things to say about design. We wanted to create something that was iconic, but we knew we had a massive challenge due to the pandemic and the bar was high with the historic Halftime Shows that came before us. Being Jesse’s first Super Bowl, I wanted to find ways to make this show a big success for him.
Our first encounter with The Weeknd creative team was with La Mar Taylor, and Al x Lill and was via zoom. La Mar Taylor and Al x, the guys responsible for the high caliber ‘Las Vegas inspired’ album art, and visual performances on the MTV VMA’s, American music awards, and all the music videos supporting the ‘After Hours’ album campaign were keen to start the HT show design process. Al x had established a fun visual character in the Vegas setting showcased in the ‘Blinding Lights’ music video that first appeared in December 2019. Abel’s character was found in a trippy Sin City /Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-type after-hours setting where things were in and out of focus, disoriented, and mesmerizing with mirrored surfaces and Vegas lightbulb reflections. The character was both comical and mysterious but also super cool and iconic, inspired somewhat by Joaquin Phoenix’s character in The Joker.
In that first zoom, I presented a visual report on the Raymond James Stadium and some past show design successes and less than successes. I wanted them to think about past ‘great ideas’ that didn’t actually work out in reality, past happy accidents that went viral, a handful of ideas to get them thinking. I wasn’t ever trying to dictate a design that early in the process but wanted them to use me as a guide to get the best stadium show possible out of them. We talked about my first Halftime show with Prince and others in my 15 years. They also went as far back before me to give a shout out to Michael Jackson and Diana Ross and her famous helicopter exit. It was clear in that first zoom that La Mar and Al x were unafraid and ready to do something new and fun. La Mar, Abel’s oldest friend and the lead creative guide, Al x, a young super creative film maker who lives his life thru a lens. Once you get to know them better you learn why they go for high art in everything they do, and with great passion. I could tell this was going to be the biggest design adventure in my career as we were already out of time and had an artist with the highest expectations with many things to prove.
Our next meeting was in person at the stadium. La Mar and Al x sent us a creative deck the night before the survey that had a wild set of ideas that involved building a massive movie set on the field with moving walls and flying backdrops, an invisible car made of glass that would make donuts on the field, a desert scene, a Vegas city with lots of mirrored surfaces and ceilings filled with lightbulbs, a field cast of 1000, 1000 Abel look-alike's, and a helicopter arrival for Abel. They were envisioning a major film in the middle of a major football game with every expectation of success. They were excited and were buoyed by their own creative successes and the feeling that anything is possible at the Super Bowl. In music performance design the artist and the music set the tone and guide us toward the design. Form does need to follow function to a degree, but the look must match The Weeknd’s persona and music first. While standing on the field that day I told them to consider their first ideas as a concept sketch and to hold onto the essence of their ideas because we were about to spend the next four months in a creative whirlwind. Our problem was Mother Nature and the lack of overhead structures to rig from, as well as having only one tunnel and an NFL entity that didn’t want us on the field.
Our job, once we met in person, was to marry reality to the ‘movie set’ concept, find ways to achieve their goals and respect the football game needs and requirements. My personal goal was to present a show that rivaled any of the past iconic HT performances and leave the world with something that could raise the positive level of consciousness across the globe, especially during this covid era. The north concourse seemed to offer the best chance at success! The hard part would be convincing Abel to perform off the field.
Following this survey, we went about the next eight weeks zooming, talking, sparring, sketching, arguing, and ideating on what could be the best show. Director Hamish Hamilton and lighting designer Al Gurdon jumped into the creative discussions. Es Devlin and Jack Headford from the Es Devlin design studio, and longtime designers for The Weeknd also joined the fray which was great as it had been a full 10 years since I worked with Es, co-designing the Watch the Throne tour for Kanye and Jay Z. After a few zooms with Es and Jack added in, I knew we were in for a great result. They were able to dive in with La Mar, Al x, and Abel to refine the ideas and support with visuals. It was eventually agreed the show would be off the field with a finale of “several hundred look alike dancers” on the field for the last two minutes.
My main concern was about the format of the show. Their concepts remained embedded inside a 'movie set' for 90% of the 12-minute show, meaning the live audience would have to watch the performance on the stadium Jumbotrons. The ideas were great but I was against a show design that primarily ignored the live audience. As a combined team we tested various visionary concepts with ideas coming in from everyone on the team. The final conceptual straw that broke us into what you saw on Sunday, February 7, was an attempt by me to take their ideas and turn the focus to a live show performance layout. It wasn’t a ground-breaking layout, but it changed the line of thinking. From there The Weeknd team changed focus and came back with a very refined concept that held onto the vibe but functioned as a live show viewable by everyone which addressed my concerns. We battled on to keep the essence of what Al x had first prescribed in this new scenario. The ‘After Hours’ campaign showcased in award show performances and music videos was an ongoing story and the Halftime Show would be the finale of that same story. The next hard part would be how to present Abel's cinematic expression perfectly in our live stadium setting.
To do this everyone jumped in to support the cause. Hamish, Jesse, supervising producer Aaron Cooke, and Al Gurdon specified new cameras and extra lighting and FX to make the shots more cinematic. Additional money was found to support the massive scale. And the NFL embraced the ideas and worked with the players association to find common ground.
The result is what was presented on Super Bowl Sunday.
An amazing spectacle in my opinion and Abel’s performance was epic and connecting. The real stories behind these successful performances are often equally epic and not well understood. In a nut shell we couldn’t land on a direction that clicked all the boxes for everyone until we did. It just took time. About 8 weeks. Budgets were impacted and then solved which allowed for the scale that you saw the night of SB55. I’m happy about the process and that everyone on the creative team were vocal and passionate. I’m glad that truth finding is a struggle. Our entire team and The Weeknd team never flinched as we moved forward.
The outcome married the need to place the bulk of the set on the north end-zone concourse of the stadium and the quest to give Abel his best platform. This location addressed the earlier need to keep the performance on the field to a minimum but it opened up many challenges we’ve never been faced with. Firstly, our massive set had to fit in and on top of three existing audience fire aisles. Our set had to have two configurations: Game Time and Half Time. During Game Time the set was covered with game graphics provided by Blue Media, had open aisles that allowed guests to flow thru from concession stands and restrooms back to their seats below the concourse. Sightlines to the north end play clocks, stats boards, scoreboards, and video boards had to be preserved, an important sideline CBS camera for the game had to be imbedded into our set, and hidden. HT show rail cams and tower cams were designed into one of the seating sections near our stage, three cables cams were incorporated into Hamish’s camera arsenal and were critical to his story telling shots. In order to put on the HT performance, we had to ‘change-over’ the set to turn it into a stage by stripping away the color graphics, positioning lighting and audio, filling the fire aisles with decks, locking in several upstage decks and lighting carts. Wardrobe supervisors and field cast movement supervision shepherded masked dancers to their pre-show positions. On game day this stress was compounded by the overnight rain and lightning storm that hit Tampa and the stadium leaving 3” ponds of water under the stage. Memories of the Prince rainstorm bubbled up in my mind that morning. Luckily our DPS team and local hands repaired and dried everything in time for doors on Super Bowl Sunday. The weather was perfect the entire rest of the evening.
My goal was that the production design feed the live audience as it’s always been my gut feeling that a live performance for a stadium audience such as that with Prince, translates perfectly to a TV audience, especially when your team includes talents such as Hamish Hamilton, Al Gurdon, associate director Hayley Collett, and stage manager Gary Natoli, to name a few. I wanted the set to be big and have several hidden uses and identities within one set design and Es, La Mar, Al x, and Jack helped us do this with style and with an eye on preserving Abel’s true identity.
Es, Jack, and their studio took everyone’s input, concerns, and interests and in a weekend turned around a concept deck that was approved by Abel, La Mar and Al x, and our team that by now included content producer Drew Findley, Pyrotecnico FX designer Bob Ross, and Rocco and Stephen Vitale, choreographer Charm La’Donna, wardrobe stylist Lila Nicole Rivera-Poteet, associate producer Dionne Harmon, field cast creative producer KP Terry and her field cast team, and Chris Covin and Jana Fleishman from Roc Nation.
One mountain out of the way and more mountains to climb.
By now it was mid-December and with the concept design basically approved it became my job to translate the concept into a machine that would fit within the special covid spacing and architectural requirements of being on the north concourse. It also needed to incorporate all the other elements such as lighting, FX, audio and video, and motion control. The concept was 40’ too wide and 40’ too tall, so my team took the concept and revised it to fit and sent it back to The Weeknd team for approval. I was able to say the concept is preserved but the mechanics need to play a part of the design. And all agreed.
We had never gotten so deep into December with set shops not engaged, cast members not yet organized, costumes and FX, travel, etc.… needed to get rolling. This is the point when all team members rushed to action. The momentum was intense. Lots of guidance and support came from Dave Meyers and team, and Jesse Collins to keep the bullet train on the tracks.
For my part, the next step was how and who to build what was concepted. I pushed for veteran Halftime Show fabricator All Access to handle the overall infrastructure which included the main decking and mobilating split reveal tiered structure, and the upstage LED and lighting superstructure. This infrastructure system was the largest part of the build and had to incorporate the finish scenic elements, lighting, FX, 80 dance and performance artists, plus a band, cameras, camera people, and Abel.
For scenic I chose TAIT and Atomic Design. I've worked with these three amazing shops for years and I knew they would jump in together for the common good and their collaboration was epic and true. Having TAITand Atomic together in Lititz. PA, helped us combine materials and notes and share cads across the country with Erik and team at All Access in Torrance, CA.
Most important to me was providing a direct line of communications with Es’s studio, led by Jack Headford. Jack was able to keep up with the design development needs and he and Es’ team turned around amazing drawings, color renderings, and input as we powered thru about four weeks of fabrication. It was sort of a small miracle but everyone delivered. Staging supervisor Tony Hauser, executive in charge of production Dave Meyers, supervising producer Aaron Cooke, and Chris Covin, Roc Nation’s director of finance worked with all the vendors and the NFL to establish a load in that worked like clockwork. All Access had a week to install the infrastructure followed by the TAIT, Atomic, PRG lighting, Pyrotecnico, ATK, and PixMob installations. With CBS cameras and Hamish’s cameras falling in place at strategic points of the install.
My team this year, led by Maria Garcia, included Shelley Rodgers, Lindsey Breslauer, and Lily Rodgers who worked to ensure that the basics were being watched over as well as the needs of the performance cast and crew. When you have an 80-person cast built into a set they have needs such as quick change space, equipment storage, rain protection. At one late point of the show developed we added 14 violins and cellos into the mix and our team took on the prop coordination to help with that. Small things combined with a multitude of other details equals an epic result and I’m proud of all involved. I’m mostly proud of the way everyone collaborated, hard fought at the beginning but with all kinds of love eventually. A great team and team effort to be rivaled forever.
LD: Can you describe the various set pieces and configurations? Use of color? Automation?
BR: You could describe the set in many ways. We shared the north concourse space with the giant Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ pirate ship on our stage left side.
Our Half Time set zone was approximately 190’ wide x 65’ deep x 48’ high. The north concourse deck surface was + 27’ above football field level. Working from downstage to upstage we had the following:
1. The field where our last two minutes of performance was located.
2. Front of stage Railcam/Tower Cam and lighting zone.
3. Mainstage: +4 x 120’wide x 16’deep with upstage grated deck for lighting.
4. Grand Tiered Structure: built on a split reveal mechanical system and structure. This split action opened fully loaded with cast and all gear weighing almost 100,000 Lbs. Show control programing was by Zack Eastland whose control tent was located in the Pirate ship. His nickname became Zack Sparrow.
5. Abel’s high platform which was shared with his three-piece band.
6. Infinity Room, and stage-right fire stairs located under Abel’s high platform.
7. LED and Lighting SuperStructure. The legendary William Spoon was our superstructure build supervisor.
8. And the final surface was the stadium’s north Jumbotron, approximately 100’ w x 75’h. And the field-surrounding LED seat covers.
The NFL required that the first eight rows of stadium seating must not be used for the game due to covid spacing requirements. They were going to cover these un-used seats with vinyl graphics but adopted a great idea by Dave Meyers to lay LED surfaces over the seats which resulted in an amazing video surface for content, not only for the pregame ceremonies and game but our Halftime Show as well. Drew Findley, and his team that included Jason Rudolph, Dan Efros, Kevan Loney, and Tim Nauss, did a great job blending our HERO Led screen with the stadium screens and LED seat covers to extend the overall look.
9. All the surround lighting and video surfaces. Carsten Weiss, head rigger and team installed a 360 lighting and pyro rig built off the stadium lighting structures around the stadium.
10. And one more item was the Flying By Foy rig that was added in the last week to make the opening scene’s flying choir boy land strategically on the stage igniting the start of the live performance.
Color was led by The Weeknd’s team and lighting designer Al Gurdon. Al has such a great understanding of light and what the cameras see and how light translates from certain temperatures and lenses and flair effects. That knowledge and the assistance of Hamish and his amazing camera crew led by Kevin French, tech director Tim Kubit, Aaron Cooke, and the rest of this world class team amounted to a beautiful performance that looked great on all platforms—TV, online, and live photography. We worked with Al and his team of Ben Greene, Jeff Nellis, and Alen Sisul to specify structure surfaces that would allow lighting to blow thru for backlight effects. The tiered structure, super structure, and stage front housed over 200 lights and multiple FX positions.
LD: how did the fixed stage positioning change the dynamics for the Halftime Show? What did it allow you do this year that you wouldn't have been able to do in the past?
BR: One thing the Halftime Show has become famous for is the seven-minute timeframe to put something massive on the field. That effort has traditionally been one of the exciting things to view for the live audience and our teams in the past perfected this aspect year in and out allowing for some huge spectacles. This year, due to covid reasons we prebuilt everything in the days leading up the big game. But the resulting creative meant we would have a set that was three times as big as a field design with more requirements and effects. We didn't want the north concourse location to feel like an afterthought. We wanted it to be equally as epic as anything done before but this location opened up more and more challenges for everyone. Populous and the NFL played a great part in the design of this year’s show. In the end we got what we wanted and with Abel completing his performance on the field with 250 dancers. I think we achieved a nice hybrid of a Halftime Show that won’t be matched for years.
LD: Do you have a preference for fixed stage or the build in on the field in seven minutes?
BR: I love all the Halftime Shows I’ve been lucky to work on. I really am happy with The Weeknd design and what we pulled off on the north concourse. BUT I want back on the field next time. Getting back on the field means more of the field experts that have been with us can be back to do their thing. They had to sit this one out this time which was a sad reality brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
LD: What software does your team at Tribe use in the design process.
BR: Tribe Inc uses Auto Cad, Cectorworks, Cinema 4D, Photoshop, and Sketchup, and I sketch by hand. The shops and technical teams use similar and we were able to trade files fairly easily. We had a good time working together from different points around the world.
LD: How did you collaborate with All Access, Tait and Atomic, Lighting, FX, and Fuse video technology?
BR: One of the horrible things about the pandemic is the way we’ve all been impacted. Lives have been lost or affected, jobs have gone away, and work has all but stopped for the live show industry. When jobs are few and far between shops lose momentum, crews separate and find other work. Our amazing industry was impacted FIRST and as we are all aware will be the LAST to come back. Thankfully this halftime show was big enough to require three set shops, meaning a lot of great people got to do what they love in the shops they call home to build our sets. And I feel good about that…. However, as we discussed on our three-shop zooms, the reality of being blessed with precious work was not lost on anyone involved. We set out at the beginning to dedicate our efforts in honor of the out of work live show workers and hope and pray we’ll all be back in full force someday soon.
Our shop coordination zooms were led by Erik Eastland of ALL Access, Atomic’s Joe McMonagle Jr. and James Rogers, and Tait’s Brian Levine. Every person involved took on great responsibility to deliver this set in record time. And it fit together which was applauded by Jesse Collins, The Weeknd, and the NFL alike.
Also in the mix of coordination between shops and other departments were lighting directors Ben Green, Jeff Nellis, lead gaffer Alen Sisul, and programmers Mark Humphrey and Eric Marchwinski, as well as Bob Ross, Rocco and Stephen Vitale and team from pyrotecnico and FUSE video supervisors Graham Buttrey, Mike Spencer, Rod Silhanek, Deroy Trace, and Luke Pilato meshed perfectly into the work system.
All Access veteran supervisors and fabricators Tim Fallon, Tommy Rose, along with Fidel Garza, Julio Rocha, Roger Cabot, Jesus Ventura, Christian Davis, Dale Jewett, William Jarvis, Nicholas Berg, and Zack Eastland supported all the Atomic and Tait associates to make something great during install.
Atomic’s team led by Joseph McMonagle Jr., Doug Frawley, and James Rogers, included Matt Anastasio, Adam Curry, Andrew Good, Brendan Leahy, and Jeremy Yunkin.
Tait’s team was led by Brian Levine and Shannon Nickerson and included Shane Ekis, Josh Levin, Logan Lower, and Emma Reichard.
And I want to shout out our install staging coordinators Hans Wert, Scotty Chase, Glenn Ingram, Tony Menditto, Matt Gorenc, Shalah Cave, and Dylan Hauser.
Teamwork making the dream work! It was fun seeing it all work together.
LD: Any additional specific challenges this year? And how do you feel about the end result?
BR: After returning home the day after the Super Bowl I’ve been in a blur that was more intense than previous after show blurs.
Extreme production design has become my sport. I’m not an athlete but I imagine extreme athletes are exhausted after they achieve a dream and experience an after affect as the adrenaline drops. I’m experiencing this more than normal this time around due I think to the ups and downs of the last year with the impacts of covid, minimized work, a new election, and a new hopeful future with a new caring president. All the emotions that carried this great production team and Abel to present something new, different and iconic make the challenges hard to remember now that we’re on the other side of Super Bowl Sunday.
Challenges that come to mind that now seem like precious memories revolve around zoom conference calls. and a lot of them! I had three scheduled zooms a week for 10 weeks. I know other team members had at least six zooms a week. Even though our zoom calls were sometimes stressful it was great to see friends working on the project together.
Engineering was a major challenge and wind loads were a major factor to design around given the vortex of wind toward the north end of the stadium. Erik Eastland from All Access, Todd Barnes, and Jenn Hill from Populous, and Kevin Kaplan with VLMK engineering worked tirelessly to be sure our enormous set could be supported on top of the concourse floor deck and allow for people friendly access.
For me, I’m thrilled with the end result and plan to celebrate soon when the blur turns to vivid memories of the last six months return. I hope everyone involved gets credit for a great team effort. For every person mentioned above there are 20 others who deserve a shout out. All the behind-the-scenes production assistants, producers, covid-testing teams, documentary teams, stage managers, wardrobe, hair, and stylist supporters, camera people, catering, travel and housing logistics, music and audio, security and so many others. Their experiences are the better stories to hear someday somehow.