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Fri 17 Dec 2010 12:00 AM

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Formula for success

The eyes of the world turned to Yas Island last month - the 2010 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after-race concerts saw a huge contingent of the regions event and production experts come together to bring three nights of stellar entertainment from Kanye West, Linkin Park and Prince to almost 150,000 fans. And while Sebastian Vettel might have won the race, the concerts put the Middle East event’s sector in pole position.

Formula for success

The undoubted jewel in the UAE’s event crown – the Formula 1
Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix lived up to expectations last month –
topped off by three nights of after-race concerts that highlighted the region’s
production capabilities to the eyes of the world. An estimated 45,000-strong
crowd descended on the Yas Arena each night following the races to see Kanye
West, Linkin Park and then Prince perform on the
massive 20 metre-wide stage that was nestled into the Ferrari World
architecture. A collaborative effort between a team from Flash Entertainment –
led by Lee Charteris and Jean Calr ‘JC’ Saliba – and Steve Shipman from Clean
Edge Design, the stage’s design took inspiration from the UAE’s own skyline’s.

“We wanted to go for an industrial, city-scape look,”
explains Charteris. He says an idea of using corrugated iron surfaces spawned
some intensive research and testing before the team was happy with the result.
“We drove around Jebel Ali and were taking lots of pictures of the corrugated
iron on the rooves and walls of sheds and warehouses.”

Shipman adds that it was important to distinguish from last
year’s event and venue and offer something different. “The first suggestion of
any design shape was that we wanted a big flat wall. Last year we had the stage
wrapping around and this year we decided to go more flat. We had sort of an
empty space at the end of the building. You’ve got this tri-form structure with
a huge empty space and we wanted to create a big wall that would fill that;
like putting a big plug in the space. We wanted it to look bold.”

The use of different sized, corrugated towers either side of
the stage resulted in a look that Charteris describes as reminiscent of
Marvel-comic style buildings. “It looks like a million bucks, and it’s the roof
of a warehouse,” he jokes of the low-cost corrugation used.

Adding to the city-scape effect was the lighting design,
which was the result of much trial and error from Shipman, who acted as
production manager for the project. “We did a lot of experimentation with a lot
of different types of corrugated iron and we came up with some surfaces that
lit really nicely.”

Saliba adds: “We mixed the surfaces to get the best lighting
effect and the matt one especially takes all the light.”

The end-result had even those in the know guessing when it
came to design materials. “Even coming from our industry, looking at it, if you
didn’t know how it had been done and it would take you a minute to work out
what was going on,” Shipman says.

Three nights of back-to-back concerts is a technical and
logistical challenge at the best of times, but the necessary build of a
temporary venue meant that the project set up and construction started back in
October, with Saliba admitting that final touches were being put in place right
up until the day of the first performance. And that meant a huge team of people
were involved.

“On the largest day when we had the most scaffolders in we
had around 260, but on event days, with F&B, technical, security staff,
we’ll be up in the range of almost 800 people,” he says.

The stage design incorporated the inevitable VIP element of
such a prestigious event, with an exclusive entrance built in to accommodate
these guests. “The VIPs have their own entrance this year. We built entrances
through the stage which Lee and I came up with so the VIP’s can semi-interact
with the atmosphere,” explains Saliba.

Shining brighter than the VIPs though, was the stage AV,
which was used to highlight the city-scape design. “We built the IMAG LED
screens as big as we possibly could and then we took the extra towers, which
are supposed to resemble city buildings, and each tower has flashing red lights
on it so that when people walked in the evening, it looked like a city scape
just like Abu Dhabi and Dubai are now,” says Charteris.

He describes Shipman as “the real unsung hero in all of
this,” an accolade that the production manager takes in his stride.

“It was a team-effort,” says Shipman, who says that despite
the big-names acts that graced the stage, the lighting design was born before
he knew who the performers were and had two things in mind – size and
flexibility.

“The festival environment is never ideal, from a lighting
point of view. Every band has to use what’s there and every band has different
needs so there’s always some compromises. All three acts did have a few extra
bits that we put in, so we accommodate them where it’s feasible, and the bands
have to adapt where it’s feasible so hopefully you meet in the middle,” he
explains.

Control-wise, three different systems were used. “The main
festival system that I put in was a Grand MA Series 1 full-size. The only ones
that used that were Kanye West – his LD was Cory Fitzgerald - and the DJ’s that
were on before each main act. Linkin Park and Prince brought their own consoles
– Linkin Park a Martin M1, and Prince a Hog 3,” says Shipman.

Charteris emphasises the vision of the mega-sized stage: “If
you take a normal stage and then you went and stood at the back of the arena it
would look like a postage stamp so we wanted to go really big – as big as we
possibly could.” And Shipman kept this at the forefront of his mind.

“I was trying to think big,” he says. “The stage was 22
metres wide - quite a wide stage - so we completely filled that with lighting
which was quite a big look. I made square pods which sort of copied the
building we had either side, we put a screen on the pods so that we could light
it the same way that the wings were lit.

“The flexibility I was trying the achieve was that it was
six individual pods that could be at different heights, and we could change the
shape of it for different bands. Kanye West really took advantage of that. He
had a bunch of scenic trusses, fabric archways that when lit, looked like
stone. We made the lighting rig flat so that they could hand their scenic
trusses beneath.”

He says the sheer number of lights used meant supplier
Protec was stretched to its limits. “We used everything they had. We cleared
out their stock, but they were great.”

For Shipman, the hero of the enormous amount of kit supplied
was the Mac 301 moving head LEDs. “We had 88 of them lining the buildings in
the wings and it was a combination of the LED lighting that lit the corrugated
surface and then these, that are more of a beam light – that were pointing out
into the audience so we could get a lot of different effects.” He says their
light weight, compact size and low power consumption, in addition to the
brightness and tightness of beam were winning attributes, describing them as
“perfect” for laser-type effects.

The other star of the lighting system was the Clay Paky
Alpha Beams, according to Shipman. “We had 34 Alpha Beam 300s in the main over
head lighting system and then 10 Alpha Beam 1500s that were on top of the
buildings out in the wings. And they’re fantastic, they’re just so unbelievably
bright, again, great for beam effects too,” he says.

Like most who attended the concerts, S&S included,
Prince’s performance was the highlight of the three nights for Shipman, who
says the artists lighting designer, Andy Doig, utilised the system to its maximum
potential.

“I stood back and thought, wow, he’s using all the tools
that I put there,” says Shipman. He says pre-show planning with each of the
three performers’ LDs took place remotely, with Doig in particular taking
advantage of the wysiwig model. “I was able to send it to him about a week
before so he had a 3D model of the gig with all the lights so he was able to
programme from his living room in Paris
before he’d even seen the system,” explains Shipman. “He still had a lot of
touching up to do but it saved a lot of time.”

Prince’s marathon show, which went for well over two hours
and saw an impromptu crowd of around 30 fans joining the singer on stage, kept
even his production team on their toes. “Andy [Doig] said with a Prince show,
he never knows what’s going to be happen,” says Shipman. “He’d insisted on
having communication to the camera vision mixer for that reason, because a lot
of unexpected things can happen. And with that he was able to give them a
heads-up as to what was happening.

“Another thing that Prince insists on is Andy Doig having an
in-ear monitor so Prince can talk to him during the show and there was a couple
of times where he said, ‘turn the lights off,’ and stuff like that, he just
does on the fly.”

One of the most remarkable technical moments throughout the
project though, according to Shipman, was seeing Linkin Park’s
lighting designer, AJ Pen at work. He describes Pen’s methods as “fascinating”
and the resulting look as “impressive and very different.”

“He programmed the cues on a timeline with a MIDI keyboard - literally a piano keyboard - and
afterwards, assigned lighting fixtures and lighting looks to each event
programmed by the keyboard onto the timeline. So the lighting looks were
applied after the cues were created – before he even decided what they were
going to do,” explains Shipman. “I’ve never seen anything like it. He was a
musician himself so playing a keyboard came naturally. The speed of the cues,
it was lightning fast. Andy Cooper from Protec said he’d never seen his moving
lights work so hard, they were just constantly in motion,” he jokes.

The moving lights weren’t the only thing working hard – many
those involved in the concerts, particularly Charteris and Saliba from Flash,
were simultaneously involved with other events in Abu Dhabi as part of the Yasalam festival.
The Beats on the Beach concerts saw a series of free performances on the Abu
Dhabi Corniche, after-parties that followed the F1 concerts were introduced for
the first time and the Flash Forum, hosted by Beirut’s legendary SkyBar, took place on the
grounds of the Yas Hotel.

A slightly altered version of the Yas Arena stage will
remain in place for the duration of the ‘Yas Island Show Weekends’, featuring
Axl Roses’ Guns n’ Roses and others; and following that, Flash and it’s
technical partners can take a break and look back proudly at a world-class two
month music and entertainment marathon achieved in the Capital. “It was a long mile but it was worth it,” sums up Saliba.

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