Never shy of making headlines, Trent Reznor the front man and mastermind behind industrial rock act Nine Inch Nails (NIN), has again drawn the attention of the media, but this time its deservedly for his creative talent rather than his notorious tongue. Kelly Lewis reports.
Reznor may well be a controversial and outspoken critic of the music industry, but as the band’s only official member, which is now free from its contractual obligations with former record label Interscope Records, Reznor has flaunted his artistic freedom to create a touring show where multimedia and music coexist, the Lights in the Sky tour.
The 2008 tour makes it way throughout North and South America and brings together some of the most technically sophisticated equipment ever integrated on the stage of a touring show, which introduces a new frontier for live touring bands.
The show involves high–end lighting and video technology that enables NIN to creatively interact with live stage equipment and trigger an array of spectacular visual effects.
In addition to the creative free reign paraded by the Lights in the Sky tour, it showcases NIN as the first band to pioneer with this “ground breaking” technology and raises the bar for the live events industry at large.
The complex and multifaceted show requires a host of industry professionals working collectively to bring the numerous technical elements together as one cohesive artistic work – no small feat.
With this in mind, the show’s essential ingredients were painstakingly planned and created over a three-month-plus period, which primarily involved Reznor, NIN art director Rob Sheridan, NIN lighting designer Roy Bennett and Dominic Audet and Sakchin Bessette from Montreal based new media arts and entertainment studio, Moment Factory, who created the show’s content and interactive components.
Specialising in the production of immersive digital environments; Moment Factory has worked with some of the biggest entertainers, including Cirque du Soleil.
For the Lights in the Sky tour Audet and Bessette, introduced to the outfit by Bennett, became involved in designing the interactive set-up that allows NIN to self generate the show’s visuals, which are displayed on three large LED screens making each and every show visually unique.
Due to the show’s originality and technical advancement, in that it has the capacity to track process and generate content all triggered in real-time, it has made leaps and bounds for live bands and realises Reznor’s artistic vision.
As previous NIN tours had played with the idea of interactive visuals, it was a natural progression for this tour to be the next step in developing a fully live and interactive environment, which sees on-stage equipment integrated into the performance as live visual instruments that the band plays with.
Sheridan has been working with Reznor on NIN’s artistic creations since 1999 and for him this tour was about juxtaposing the show’s interactive multimedia components with the musical elements to create a new theatrical environment.“Trent and I have been experimenting with video effects in the NIN tour production for quite a while now – with each tour we get new hardware that we can use to push the visual effects a little further,” Sheridan states.
“This time, we wanted to expand upon some ideas we’d started to explore on the 2007 tour, but for the first time make them truly interactive. We have these giant screens on stage with the band, and instead of playing movies we wanted them to become part of the performance.
“The screens create environments, interact with the band and become virtual instruments. We wanted the multimedia aspect of the show to play as big of a role as the music, to elevate the show into something beyond what anyone would expect from a rock concert.”
For the show’s visual components Sheridan says “discreet” video systems control the screens visuals depending on the type of content required.
The interactive elements of the show are rendered by three of Moment Factory’s custom-built Linux-based systems, which render particles in real time and are triggered by live camera input and laser sensors placed on and about the stage.
“A Mac Pro running ArKaos GrandVJ also plays video clips according to MIDI triggers sent by Alessandro Cortini (multi-instrumentalist) and Reznor from the stage, allowing them to manipulate the visuals based on what they’re playing. Additionally, we have the Hippotizer, which is a playback system that we use occasionally to trigger playback of a pre-rendered clip. This is also used for the live security camera feeds we have in Survivalism,” says Sheridan.
The mechanics involved in designing such a sophisticated performance are complicated and require meticulous planning in order for the show’s visuals to be fluently communicated to the audience.
As Moment Factory are based in Montreal Audet and Bessette, under the artistic direction of Reznor and Sheridan, worked remotely designing the show’s concepts, programming their system and tweaking it’s custom interfacing Experience Management System (XMS) that interfaces with all of their input devices – infrared cameras, lasers sensors – for two months prior to working with the band live.
Audet and Bessette flew to LA in June to meet the NIN crew and spent a further month integrating and adapting their system to suit the band’s live performance.
Unlike most live shows that are pre-rendered, around 60% of the visual content for the Lights in the Sky comes from live, self-generated interactive visuals. Moment Factory provides five custom-designed interactive tracks and three video playback tracks, as well as working with Sheridan on additional video playback elements for the show.
Multiple parties have been involved in designing the various aspects of the show and Sheridan says that at times, it proved to be a challenge getting everyone to work harmoniously.Additionally, because the interactive components of Moment Factory’s system are intricate and based on ‘generated triggering’, incorporating this technology into a live show proved to be an ‘experimental’ process for all involved.
“Moment Factory had hoped to really flesh out all the visual ideas ahead of time, but Reznor and I don’t work particularly well that way. It’s hard to know how your ideas are actually going to look when they go up on those LED screens and you actually see it live,” informs Sheridan.
“You could spend hours working on a beautiful video piece that looks great on the computer, only to find out that it doesn’t translate at all on a low-resolution LED wall.
“So, Reznor and I like to get the hardware up and just throw all kinds of images on it – anything we can find – and start to get an idea of what types of things work on the specific hardware we have.”
Sheridan says once the visual content came together the crew quickly became aware of the possibilities they could play with and their imagination ran wild.
“We ended up with too many ideas, and one of the challenges became editing down the visual gimmicks in the show, so it wouldn’t get tiring or heavy-handed and would feel like a cohesive presentation,” he states.
“Moment Factory had a very ambitious list of things they were going to try, and not all of them worked, either we ran out of time or the idea just never gelled the way it had on paper. But it worked out, if everything they’d set out to do had come together, it would have been overkill.”
The creative team worked around the clock to pull the content together and the unique insight that Moment Factory was able to lend to the production, inevitably introduced new ideas along the way.
Meanwhile Roy Bennett, who designed the stage setup based on discussions with Reznor, worked at night to program the lighting for each song.
“He’s the best in the business and has worked with NIN in the past,” Sheridan says.
“While he was programming the lights he came up with areas in the show where he wanted to include video elements, so Moment Factory and I helped him to achieve this.During the day, Sheridan says the band rehearsed and worked through “endless technical hurdles” on the musical side, while he worked on video content using After Effects, Motion, and Final Cut Pro.
“The ‘electronic’ portion of the set was put together by me and Michael “Blumpy” Tuller, our audio software genius, who runs the GrandVJ software and interfaces with our keyboard tech Matt Mitchell to figure out how Cortini and Reznor are going to control video from the stage,” informs Sheridan.
With all of the different systems and people working on the show’s various elements, Sheridan says the whole show did not fully come together until the last minute, and even then still required further tweaking.
“Moment Factory slaved away for weeks getting things just right. We’d come in every day, take a look at the latest version of what they were working on, give them notes, and they’d go back to the drawing board,” he adds. “We also had some unique choreography issues on songs like Only, where the static on the screen reacts to Reznor’s movements.”
From behind the screens, where Reznor stands, Sheridan says there was no visual indication of what was being displayed on the screen.
So, now there is a line on stage that represents the sensor line and once Reznor steps across it he knows the particles on the screen will then begin to react to him but, he can never see what it looks like.
“For our first trials of Only, we set up a video camera and a TV facing Reznor on the stage, so he could watch what was happening from the other side of the screen and get a sense of how he could play with the particles,” informs Sheridan.
There are a variety of unpredictable factors at play on this tour, which has been a new experience for Reznor and Sheridan as they do not have the complete control they are used to working with on stage.
Sheridan says while this aspect has been challenging, it has also been an extraordinary experience.
With more than 40 tonnes of lighting and stage rigging and hundreds of LED lights to play with Bennett has created a show of visual wizardry.
After Reznor gave Bennett his initial ideas of what he wanted to visually achieve with the show, Bennett not only set out to compliment the show’s interactivity, but to create a virtually transparent 3D environment to add more “depth” to the on-stage performance.
“Trent and I were always of the mindset to try and push the visual boundaries of the show and create illusions that would challenge the visual perception of audiences,” Bennett says.“I wanted to create a 3D type effect with the stage consisting of layers of transparent video screen with high resolution video running all the way up-stage, by doing this I would be able to expose different levels of depth at various times throughout its duration.”
Bennett said his previous NIN tour (With Teeth, 2005) was primarily based on MIDI triggering from musical instruments and the imagery had a very “non-descriptive electronic look”.
“On this tour, Reznor wanted to develop that technology further, so I introduced him to the Moment Factory guys,” he says.
“Reznor liked the fact that Moment Factory could tweak their technology allowing him to physically interact with the screens as well use the musical instruments to trigger the visuals – this tour created another whole new level for what Reznor could do artistically.”
A number of years ago during the Downward Spiral tour Bennett worked with front DLP image projection onto curtains made of opera gauze (transparent gauze). The curtains, while transparent, acted like virtual partitions transforming the stage from one entire performance area into separate areas that the band moved within.
This theme has been replicated for the Lights in the Sky tour, but this time three physical screens have been thrown into the mix – a first for Bennett.
The screens on the down and mid-stage sections are two low-resolution Element Labs 25mm mesh STEALTH LED screens, which are lightweight and transparent, on the up-stage a high-resolution Barco 14mm D7 LED screen takes pride of place.
These screens divide the stage’s performance area into virtual sections. But, because Moment Factory have integrated the visual content to work in a seamless and harmonious fashion with the transparency of the STEALTH screens; it allows the band to perform predominately behind the first two screens, while remaining clearly visible throughout the show’s duration.
Bennett says this advancement has allowed NIN to create a variety of “looks” to their show.
Although the visuals are spectacular, Bennett notes that there is a risk of being monotonous with this type of show because while the band is performing behind screens, albeit transparent, the mesh LED panel is still a solid surface.
“You have to be careful not to make the band look like they’re performing inside of a cage and that’s where all the interaction and visual stimulation supports the overall look of the show,” he states.Bennett says a multiplicity of video layers are superimposed on the screens at different stages throughout the performance creating a 3D layering effect and intensifying the show’s magnitude.
“At times, one set of elements runs all the way up-stage on the Barco screen projecting through the STEALTH screens in front, then at other times, I run imagery on partial sections of the mid and down-stage STEALTH screens,” Bennett adds.
As with any initial stage design plans they are subject to change for one reason or another, usually financial or logistical and Bennett says this was the case with the original plans for the show’s screens.
“Originally I wanted to have two custom-built hyperbolic paraboloid screens (complex 3D curved screens) on the down-stage to come around the band (moving vertically up and down) creating the illusion of a bowl like configuration around NIN while they performed,” hes says.
“But, because the manufacturing expense and mathematical complexities involved were too great, we decided to run with the down-stage STEALTH as a convex screen and the mid-stage STEALTH concave. This allows the screens to stretch the imagery adding a very interesting perspective to the whole projection.”
While the bulk of the lighting design consists of moving LEDs, Bennett says Saco designed custom fixtures to suit the show’s uniqueness.
“I use custom-designed lighting instruments that Saco developed for me; Highlite White LEDs and Smartflo White LEDs. The designs of these fixtures are an offshoot from the technology used to create the commercial installation fixtures,” claims Bennett.
“The Smartflo’s, which appear on-stage like LED tips built into custom wall rack at the rear, while the Highlites are ¾ inch-wide tubes measuring about 4ft long fitted with white LEDs inside.
“Eight of the Highlite fixtures hang down either side of each band member three feet above the stage, while they are behind the STEALTH screens. Each individual strip is hung on a swivel hinge, allowing the band to interact with the fixtures by hitting them to make them swing.”
To give the illusion that the band is surrounded by dozens of Highlites, prior footage was recorded of them interacting with the Smartflos, which is also projected onto live on the screens.
Bennett says Saco also designed a range of fixtures similar to PixelPARs for the tour.
“Saco also made fixtures that are basically like a Martin MAC 300 LED Wash with the front lens and body removed and replaced with a RGBW LED piece into the lens of the lamp, which looks like a moving wall of LED fixtures,” he describes.
The workhorse running the lighting system is one of MA lighting’s grandMA consoles, which is also triggering the Hippotizer Stage Media Server and some of the Moment Factory content.
In designing the visual elements for the stage, Bennett says he starts with the image content before designing the lighting components to suit.
“I always start with what the video content is and then work from there to interact the video with the lighting. I never treat them as separate elements; the basis of anything I do visually with the lighting is always an extension of what’s happening with the video,” states Bennett.
In addition to integrating the lighting design into the show’s imagery, Bennett has to balance the power output of the video against the lighting output, so neither cancels-out the other.
“The LED screens can pretty much stand-up to any lighting instrument, so it was more about using fixtures to compete with the power output of the screens. Most of the time I use the Vari*lite VL 3500 wash and the Vari*lite VL 3000 spot because they are powerful so don’t get blown-out by the video,” he says.
To enable Bennett to have a fluid and creative approach in his lighting design, he says that he programmes the individual lighting elements for each song as if he were recording a song in a studio.
“I programme the lighting in tracks, one light session at a time. I continue until all the lighting elements I’m after come together. Moment Factory’s elements are another track to add to the mix.”
Working the lighting design in with the video content proved to be “technically challenging” for Bennett, in that nothing looks the same or is visually repeated throughout the performance.
The programming Moment Factory set-up for the tour’s interactive songs allows each song to have a variety of visual settings that interact with the band’s input.The effects are created by a 3D particle-based graphic system that simulates the rendering of abstract and visual effects.
Bennett says because Reznor is artistically ambitious about creating high performance art, as a lighting designer, it allows him to step out from what the normal creative boundaries of a rock show are.
“This tour is the beginning of a new frontier for touring shows and because we’re the first to do this, all we can really do from this point is refine it and build on what we’ve achieved,” he states.
Reznor is a perfectionist and that’s why he’s always pushing the envelope - this tour has definitely pushed it pretty far.”
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