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Nigel Powell: Attack the Blog!


Feed The Tree

Monday 12th May, 2014

Sorry it's been so long since the last time I blogged here. I have been busy, that much is true, but it would be a lie to pretend that was entirely the reason. Many days I wonder the worth of adding to the ever-growing mountain of unsolicited writing out there, of considering my thoughts valuable enough for dissemination. But hey - clearly my ego has won out, because here we are back again!

There's another chapter of Puritan to come, but I'm going to do something else this time, kind of like a DVD commentary. I got a couple of old Hi8 videos of lighting gigs I did digitised and have watched them back. I thought it might be interesting if I laid out my thoughts on one of the shows as I watch it back. Being a non-drinker I can remember pretty much every creative impulse, problem and issue I had, so it might be an insight into how a light show is put together, or at least how I do it. Here's the video:

YouTube link, if embed doesn't work for you



In the autumn of 1993 I had already been Radiohead's LD for over a year. With the success of Creep they were embarking on a tour of US theatres (or "theaters", for those with spelling trouble), but to ensure a good turn out they arranged it as a co-headline with Belly, who had also had a big 'ol early 90s indie MTV hit with Feed The Tree. Belly didn't have an LD at the time, so I was recommended, I think mostly as an economic thing - share the cost of one LD, rather than hire two.

There was only one band's worth of budget for the show, but I wanted to make sure there was a distinct visual difference between the two bands. I think the solution was quite elegant and simple. Broad strokes: Radiohead - black backdrop, upstage (at the back) lights rigged on a horizontal truss, downstage (take a wild guess) on vertical trusses, deeply saturated rich colours, PAR cans (the lights themselves) with narrow beams creating pools of darkness between focus points; Belly - white backdrop (called a cyc), upstage lights vertical, downstage horizontal, a more pastel colour palette, wide beam bulbs creating a fuller, friendlier, poppier visual. Shared between both were a smattering of moving lights which, while not in their infancy exactly, were still expensive enough to be much rarer on tours than their punishing ubiquity nowadays would suggest.

So, on to the show. I'll use the excellently old school time stamp I left on on the camera to reference things. I'm also going to use a bit of jargon here and there that you may have to google, and I'll reference lighting colours by number (old school, gels in front of PAR cans stuff) - you can find guides to what the numbers mean here
Lee Filters Catalogue
and here
Rosco Colours

Someone To Die For
22:03:42
Open with the cyc lit to immediately set it apart from Radiohead's show. I'm pretty sure I always had the show starting this way, but then I left the cyc for quite a few songs, so I could reintroduce it later, for dynamics. In discussion with the band after production rehearsals they (particularly the drummer Chris, who was very vocal about his ideas) requested a bit more action on it throughout. They were right.

It doesn't quite come over on video, but I inadvertently stumbled on a nice effect in this song. The cyc is lit in Lee 139, a very rich green, and Tanya is in mauve, Lee 126. The extreme contrast between these two colours meant that, when viewed from the front, Tanya appeared completely detached from the background, as if she'd been blue-screened into the scene.

Apart from that, nothing to do in this song. One beautiful scene is plenty

Angel
22:06:08
Hold on the backlight to build tension until the band actually explodes. Play with expectation - the audience wants to see the band, but you can tease them with the shadows. First view of the bright vertical lights from the back, follow the dynamic and motion of the song. I also like to use the minimum number of cues (groups of lights together) for each song, so there's a visual tag for people to hang their memories of the each song on.

For desks on this tour I was using a Celco (lovely old English lighting desk company, now defunct as far as I know) Pathfinder MIDI'd to a Navigator. It was less than ideal. There was a lag in the MIDI transmission that meant I had to preempt certain cues to get them to land on time with the music, and the lack of channels meant I was running my cyc lights off the last few LTP channels of the Pathfinder (look it up!). It led to some interesting effects I wouldn't have otherwise got, but most of the time it was a pain in the arse.

Used a Radiohead downstage wash as between songs, to keep it distinct from the songs themselves. Lee 181 is about my favourite colour ever, but it is very dark, so on this tour, where the number of lights was limited, I substituted it for Rosco 56, which had the same colour properties but was still bright enough to cover a theatre stage with only 8 cans.

White Belly
22:09:34
Now some of this is going to seem big-headed, but hey, I'm proud of some stuff that I've done. I really love the way the Intellabeams move in the riff of this song. I have always hated (and still do) watching lighting where it looks like someone is just running the lights through what they *can* do (which nowadays is bloody anything you can imagine), rather than trying to create a visual representation of the song. A couple of times on this show (this song, and Ripcord in the Radiohead set) I feel I got a movement which fitted the musical moment so perfectly that they strode confidently in sync together up the aisle, unhesitatingly grabbed exactly the Pot Noodle they desired (no doubt the brown flavour) and immediately headed to the counter WITH EXACTLY THE CORRECT MONEY IN HAND.

The rest of this song was throwing together some nice looking combinations which I didn't use on any other song. Having kept Angel mostly binary (a red cue, followed by a blue one), here's a combination - Tanya and the drummer in red, and guitarist Tom and mentally bouncy bassist Gail in blue. Holding back the other colours in my arsenal for later on.

Ooh! Look! 22:10:17, it's the first entry of Belly's backline tech and stage manager. I regret I've forgotten his name, but both him and his tech buddy on stage left were inordinately fond of trotting around the stage during the show, very different to the almost invisible Radiohead crew. Look out for them!

Verse 2 22:10:52, first moment for a bit of Intellabeam on the cyc. Plenty more of that to come.

22:11:26 the nice pastel pink makes its first appearance. Can't remember the gel number. Sorry. But another thing to notice, that gets thought about less nowadays, is the way the lights are focused to create movement as you swap between cues. The pink cue has a very pronounced cross (Tom and Gail are lit from the opposite side of the stage to where they stand), whereas the blue has a smaller cross. The red and blue has a more pronounced no cross / cross look that emphasises the change.

I also really enjoyed performing it all, every cue on a fader, and as trained by the wonderful Andi Watson always using fingers on faders rather than buttons, so you can control the fade in and fade out musically, instead of it just being ON! or OFF! Many LDs today use cue stacks - a preprogrammed list of cues that happen one after another when 'GO' is pressed. For very complex cues there's often no other way of doing it, but the interaction of it was always important for me, for my pleasure and for the musicality. The end of the 'white belly up in the sun' middle 8 I'm following the drums with the upstage lights and gently following the guitar with the downstage cans, which requires dexterity, almost no-one in the audience would ever notice, but as always I hope that there is a subconscious heightening of the effect of the music, by a notch.

For the playout, combine the Intellabeam move with other cues. Still keeping the list of cues for a song short, but climaxing the dynamic by bringing them together in concert. And a classic swing up over the audience to end!

Sexy Sadie
22:13:23

Haha. Did I mention Andi Watson earlier? Because I'm not a man ever shy about trying to emulate other work. I love his lighting. I had a video of the Cure's Disintegration tour that he operated Varilites on, and this is one of his cues that I have forever been trying to copy, but never managed. For A Forest, he used the Varilites in blue, changing colour to red. To do this the wheel had to go past white for an instant (so BLUE - FLASH! - RED), and the effect was incredible. It made Robert Smith look like he was jumping microscopically forwards and backwards, because of the way the eye works with deeply saturated blues and reds, and when for the latter part of the song it was blue on the right, red on the left, then SWAP, it was one of the greatest lighting cues known to man. That's what I was trying to do here, but Intellabeams just don't cut it - no white in between the red and blue, and they don't change colour fast enough for the visual effect to happen.

22:13:43 - stage manager!

Pink and amber in the choruses, for the bigness. First entry for the whole amber cue, and I know think I've just about used up everything that the audience might not have seen. One of those times though where I didn't need to do so much I think. I could have just stuck with those two cues for the whole of the multi-part chorus. I was young. Naive. Excitable. A little immature.

Guitar solo - a little chase (a sequence of cues played back automatically by the desk). Often I did chases myself with the dextrous fingers, but occasionally for aggressive speed technology does it better.

Not the best track. A little uninspired. But got to do something! Can't just leave them in the dark.

Full Moon, Empty Heart
22:17:39

Clearly haven't used up everything, here's a couple of new gags. A Thomas 8-lite behind the drummer (gelled in Lee 201, to match it with the white from the Intellabeam lighting Tanya), and a leko at the base of each 'Radiohead' downstage truss with a breakup gobo in. Moody intro, gently pushing a touch of movement with fades following the vocal. I love darkness. I'm not afraid of everything going nearly black, so that you can have more effect when you make it light again.

Star
22:21:05

Now, being English I don't like things being too literal. I think it was Chris's suggestion to project stars on the backdrop for this song. I probably would have rejected it as too cheesy, but it works (thanks Chris!), so mostly I ended up just playing with different colours and stuff on the cyc. Cues are the old classic front blue & back red / front red & back blue combos. Made a bit of use of the split cyc channels for the dancing colours.

22:24:02 Whoops! Shouldn't have leant on that in between songs. As you were. Ignore the enormous blue green cyc. Carry on.

Dream On Me
22:24:13

I distinctly remember not really having an idea of what to do for this song. Mostly I'd listen to something and it would provoke some kind of image in my mind. But not this one. So it's not very inspired, just doing *something*. A gobo on the cyc. A bit of truss warming (lighting up the trusses that the lights are hung on) from the I-beams. Creating limits for myself - only lights from the outer of the vertical bars for the verses for instance. Looks OK, but it's always troubled me. And I don't like the way the downstage pinks get onto the cyc too much.

Low Red Moon
22:30:12

My undoubted favourite of the Belly set. This was one where I saw it pretty much as is in my head when I heard the song first time, and managed to make the lighting rig comply. It sounded like fire in the night (yes yes, I'm getting a bit poncey), so I held back the deep red (Rosco 27) cyc for this song, with tight yellow I-beams scanning around the stage, and the floor I-beams providing the pulse. Still gives me a bit of a horn now. To me, it looks like it sounds. Then the verses are moody and dark (with a bit of a nod to parts of Home By The Sea from Genesis' Mama Tour video). For a few shows we had a PAR on the floor in front of Tanya in red as well that made her look positively demonic when the yellow lights centered on her from behind, but I think we'd dropped that for technical reasons by this point.

Those damn strobes (High End Dataflash, with a controller) never did what I wanted them to for the entire tour. Always twitchy. This is their first dramatic entry into the Belly set though. Hopefully they'd been absent long enough for people to forget about them being in the Radiohead set.

It was unbelievably difficult to get lights to gently scan around the stage with the desks I had. Modern desks make it so simple it's untrue. Lucky kids today, don't know they're born, etc. etc.

Feed The Tree
22:37:45

Last gag! Floral gobos projected onto the cyc from a couple of lekos on the front truss. Tree - geddit? Tried for the mexican wave effect (love it on Los Endos from The Invisible Touch Tour DVD), but it wasn't very effective on a tiny number of moving mirror fixtures, plus the fact that on the last night of the tour the smoke machines had run out of fluid, so the beams were invisible. Ho hum. I did have a tendency to use a touch too much smoke (this was before I had access to more effective haze), but this is too little. Then tried another Disintegration gag of the bar gobos sweeping left to right that also didn't cut the mustard. Still, the 126 cue looks nice.

Gepetto
22:41:38

Always saw a ceiling of changing light when I heard the riff to this song. So wallop! there it is. Playing havoc with the camera's autofocus. Thinking shapes on the back PARs - pairs of lights together. That blue and amber combo from the downstage truss looks pretty sexy of Tanya and Gail. We're getting towards the end, and it's a single, so let's throw more shit in! Bigger! Better! Faster! More! Classic audience sweep to finish!

Are You Experienced
22:45:07

Like the I-beam colour combo (pink and light blue). Saved up the open white (well, Lee 201 for a less yellow white) cyc for this back end of the set. Going for shapes rather than particular colours on the upstage PARs (climbing straight up the bars). And another movement that I'm well proud of for the drum break at the end of the guitar solo (despite the audio wobble on the ancient tape just at that moment) - the lights look like they're 'doing' the music.

Slow Dog
22:50:05

End of the set, abandon subtlety! Those moving lights scanning over the crowd - 25 seconds work on a modern desk, maybe 10 minutes every day back in 1993. I'm not a fan of lights just wobbling all over the place for no apparent musical reason, but it seems to do good things for the end of gig energy, so, OK. Loads of sweeping here and there for lights - look what we've spent! Super bright everything white chorus (with the not very under control strobes helping, but not much), but I really like the way it tightens up and goes mauve - if you look you can see the iris on the I-beam open up a little as each light changes back to white, making the stage open up over the course of those two bars. More effective with smoke again. My lighting crew chief was very embarrassed about that.

Bridge looks a little like the mysterons from Captain Scarlet. And how do you end? Audience sweep! Leave the cyc lit to nail that 'Belly' look into the audiences eyes while they're waiting for the encore.

Untogether
22:55:53

Tanya and Thom did this as a duet for the whole tour. It was not universally loved by the crew (speaking just for myself I found it mawkish and oversentimental), so for this last show of the tour we pranked it. There was a large plastic goose backstage at the theatre (no, I've no idea why), so we rigged it up on a pulley so it could majestically descend while Thom and Tanya were serenading each other. It was a source of great joy for me to be on my intercom saying "stand by goose... go goose" to the stage crew. Then, to make the point, all of the I-beams moved in to light it up. And just at that, very appropriate point the tape ends.



If you made it this far, you're either some kind of boredom masochist or actually interested in lights and the tedious way my mind works. Either way - thanks for reading! I *promise* there'll be another Puritan chapter coming up.


Martin, Mon 12th May 2014, 02:54:39 PM
Hi Nigel

Thanks for writing that - very interesting. I'm a lighting geek who has also been tortured by the Navigator and Pathfinder (not Celco's finest hour...), and I'm a big fan of Andi Watson's work too.

I've also been really impressed by the work Shaun Moore has been doing with you guys - Broken Piano at the O2 especially hit the spot.

Thanks

Martin
 

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