"MPH did a great job!"
Toby Dennis, PM
THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS
The Chemical Brothers don’t speak one word between them (saves on microphones!) letting their music and visuals take centre stage with incredible animations, film, giant bouncing balloons, fake snow and even a pair of giant toy robots with laser beams shooting from their eyes. It’s a flawless union of lighting and video that allows the band to remain in silhouette as Tom and Ed aren't actually that interested in being prominent on stage so in a way the visuals become the lead singer.
Show designers Marcus Lyall and Adam Smith have been working with the pair for 28 years, and they've got the spectacle down to a fine art.
Unusually, most of the show’s visuals are film delivering quite a different impression to other shows. Each song is an entirely different immersive experience for the audience with most of the films involving real-world action shot with performers, sometimes enhanced with computer graphics and sometimes featuring exceptionally ambitious productions.
Many of the crew have also been with the band for several years making for a touring family with a relaxed vibe. It’s up to production manager Toby Dennis, who has worked with the act for sixteen years, to bring the wild ideas of Lyall and Smith to life saying they are a pleasure to work with.
“It’s always fun trying to decipher what they want and then make it a reality!” he added. “We call it fantasy land and it’s our job to turn it into real life. We have to make it affordable to tour as well as practical. Helicopters, people parachuting in – these are just some of the ideas that have been talked about before! Quite often you’re restricted by the venue and also money rather than the ideas and what you can accomplish.”
Toby commented that the show is all about the interaction of the visuals with the lights and how to make those visuals come to life.
“Everything has to be related and that’s something we’ve definitely developed and fine-tuned over the years. There has to be a meaning for it, nothing ever flashes or swoops for no reason, there’s a thought behind every cut, every edit and every interaction.”
Toby says that his biggest challenge is squeezing it all in especially as it’s an arena show which sometimes has to be squeezed onto a festival stage.
“It’s not just put a load of lights up and stick a screen there, everything has a relationship so if you change just one thing there’s a complete ripple effect to do with the mapping, the stagecraft etc,” he said. “There’s definitely a level of predicting what’s to come and making sure we have a trick up our sleeve to be able to deal with that. It’s not a simple show to production manage! We’ve always prided ourselves on delivering all elements of the show and over the sixteen years, I can’t think of one occasion where we’ve said we just won’t do something, we always find a way to deliver each element.”
At The Dome in Sydney, Toby said that the weight loads in the roof were a hindrance as it’s a heavy show with heaps of automation resulting in lots of dynamic loads. Toby’s solution was to add a stage to the venue, in this case a Clifton’s Apollo stage which he describes as a fantastic stage that goes up quick, is black, has only four legs and you can pretty much hang what you want where you want.
“It worked a treat and solved all of our problems,” Toby said. “We really are a big family who all really care and will go the extra mile to solve a problem, nothing is too much to deliver the show for Tom and Ed.”
The massive 15.6m x 8.4m Roe Vanish 18 screen was sourced from Universal Pixels in the UK with Toby noting its’ amazing transparency.
“We were thinking of using the Roe MC18, the difference is the framework and the different IM’s on the front whereas the Vanish disappears into nothing which is what we need in order to implement all of our mapping,” he added.
Behind the large LED screen upstage were five moving truss pods, each loaded with a Robe MegaPointe moving light and some LED battens. These were automated on ten Kinesys motors being run on a K2 controller. The pods changed positions constantly throughout the set, so fans were aware of moving light sources as they flew up and down, with lights blasting through the screen. However, being masked by the screen, it wasn’t immediately apparent where they were in relation to the stage, adding another layer of optical depth and texturing to this very multi-faceted picture.
“We’ve also developed our own app that creates a relationship between Kinesys, the real world, Catalyst and the grandMA resulting in all three different software talking to each other,” remarked Toby. “It means we can do some really fun stuff with mapping and physical movement of equipment. MA has their PosiStageNet that they use for tracking but we developed our own app which takes Kinesys feedback, PosiStageNet and also Catalyst, and allows us to create a 3D space that they all respond to.”
“The issue we had is that the automation system and the lighting control use different protocols so we had to convert between the two,” concurred James Cooksey from Basic Monkey “The whole show is so integrated with all departments really tied together and not just through the time code system. We’re taking automation code and integrating it with video content and all the lighting positions, rather than being set pan and tilt, they take feedback from the motors. As the lights move down, the pods move and the lights track their static position which is pretty cool.”
For The Chemical Brothers what goes on the screen is the most visually important factor in the show so the show design always begins with a large screen. The lighting design is then based on how the visuals can be enlarged.
“It’s not your usual light show as basically the lighting is present to help the content and the videos,” explained Jean Christophe Aubrée, lighting operator on the tour. “The lights interact through the screen and around the screen helping to give depth of field as the screen is flat and making the show more immersive.”
MPH supplied the lighting package for the tour including fifty Robe MegaPointes to create beams, wash and colours. Twelve MegaPointes each were positioned in lines along the upstage and downstage edges of the stage, with another twelve rigged on the downstage truss. There were another ten behind the LED wall, rigged onto five moving pods together with some LED battens.
“What I like most about the MegaPointe is its’ size,” said Jean Christophe. “It’s a very compact fixture with so many features within. Normally that many features would result in a much bigger and heavier fixture. As we have twelve downstage on the floor a larger fixture would have looked ugly. They’re super quick – in movement and all the effects – and extremely easy to programme. The lens is very clear and sharp. For some songs we have lasers and MegaPointes on together and they match very well. The lasers have very saturated colours and we can do that with the MegaPointes too. They’re still very bright even with saturated colours, still very punchy alongside the lasers.”
Strobes are an integral part of Chemical Brothers’ shows and for this tour they created a wall of them. As well as having TMB Solaris Flares downstage and on the upstage, there was a strobe wall of 9 x 5 Solaris Flares on custom wire ladders which went up on mid-stage kinesys 500kg liftkets at points in the show. The Flares delivered multi-coloured strobing at the level of intensity required whilst their four-cell mode was used for different shapes and textures giving endless visual options to play with.
MA Lighting grandMA3 consoles travelled over from the UK with the band, with two at FOH and two by dimmer city so the Kinesys guy is able to make sure everything is working well as he can see on the MA the values coming in. It’s a fairly big network system with NPUs too.
Jean Christophe describes his show file as very big but not complicated, however there are many details and the result is 7000 cues!
It wouldn’t be a Chemical Brothers show without a dazzling laser display and the tour was serviced by ER Productions. With careful planning and perfectly executed cues, ER’s lasers created a stunning atmosphere using 18 Kinekts, (eight positioned along the downstage edge, eight upstage, and two located behind the screen on the Kinesys pods), one 30w Phaenon positioned centrally on a lifting column, a 24w Tripan centre stage, and four custom built Beambursts inside the eyes of the robots. All were controlled by ER Productions’ senior laser technician, Tom Vallis, via Pangolin Beyond.
This article first appeared in the print edition of CX Magazine December 2019.
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Photos: Ashley Mar