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Justin Timberlake “Man of the Woods” World Tour

Mike Wharton • March 2019Production Profile • March 7, 2019

Justin Timberlake photo by Ralph Larmann

LD Nick Whitehouse and Fireplay Illuminate the MOTW Path

The Man of the Woods tour, Justin Timberlake’s sixth journey around the world, is now in its third leg, back in North America where the production launched a year ago, kicking off a few weeks after Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII halftime show. LD Nick Whitehouse and his Fireplay partners are at the helm of the production design for the ongoing tour.

Timberlake and Whitehouse have been working together after the two first crossed paths at a Coldplay show in Japan. Timberlake attended the show, liked what he saw, and they have been collaborating on looks for close to 15 years now.

Nick Whitehouse combined audience light with stage design to create the immersive effect Timberlake wanted.

Fireplay, formed by Whitehouse and his partners in 2017, served as the creative producers for the overall MOTW production, including video, lighting and set. “Justin had a concept and a general aesthetic about where he wanted it to go,” says Whitehouse. “The main thing was following up his Man of the Woods release, and he wanted to have the elements of playing a 360-degrees environment.”

Timberlake enjoyed what Nick and other collaborators had achieved on his previous world tour, the Nov. 2013-to-Jan. 2015 trek supporting the artist’s 20/20 Experience albums, where Timberlake performed in close proximity to his audience, reinforcing his connection with fans and enhancing the environment for both the performer and audiences.

“For MOTW, we wanted to bring an organic, really cool, never-before-seen, one-of-a-kind stage that wrapped all the way through the arena,” says Whitehouse. “Everything else layered on that.”

The massive stage provides Timberlake with performance spaces throughout the arena floor. Photo by Ralph Larmann

Timberlake also wanted to be able to perform in the middle of the arena, which meant a separate performance space from the main stage needed to be created, as the idea of a standard in-the-round stage was never considered.

These conversations took place about a year before the tour when the Fireplay team sat down with JT. The design started with the stage footprint. Nick explains, “JT is originally from Memphis, so our production designer Josh Zangen went away and thought about what he could take from that environment — the woods and Memphis.” What Zangen presented to the team was a stage layout based on the flood plain map of the Mississippi River as it runs through Memphis, with all its curves and different elevations.

“Once we had that established, determining how to bring video into the production was the next step,” says Whitehouse. “The team researched a lot of different materials and “out there” ways to bring an organic shape to the stage and incorporate all those curves.

The determining factor presented itself when the specifics of how to pull this off as a live production that has to move between venues all the time. “We hit upon the roll drops as the solution,” says Whitehouse. “We took our drawings to Tait and they delivered the final product.”

The 36 Tait roll drops were there from the beginning, outlining the shape of the stage. 36 Barco UDX-4K32 provided the projection that the lighting design would incorporate as well as work around the translucent screens.

180 Robe Spikies in custom built racks by Solotech ight the upstage catwalk. Photo by Ralph Larmann

‡‡         Lighting

Flying above the main stage is a large piece of artwork, which Tait constructed. It looks like a form of hieroglyphics representing the Man of the Woods logo. The emblem acted as a focal point and anchor to the main stage. The majority of the lights for the main stage, Claypaky Unicos, are on the “logo truss.”

“I wanted something with an enormous beam for the opening effect,” says Whitehouse, “and also have gobos; mixing color and really good optics so we could go from super sharp pin beams to the full arena rig. The Unico was the obvious choice. It’s one of those multi-purpose, really bright, really punchy fixtures.”

Above the main stage, a few trusses are hung with Vari-Lite VL4000 spots. These are key lights. Their only function is to light the 16 piece band, the six dancers or Timberlake, when he is on the main stage behind roll drops.

The M-O-T-W logo. Photo by Ralph Larmann

All the lighting and video was supplied by Solotech, as were the 140 motors to hang those elements.

“It was hard to light around a lot of the projection, though I love the roll drops,” laughs Whitehouse. “We had to use key light from a lot of positions for that reason. Add in the fact the audience was all around the stage, so we couldn’t just light him or any performers from the front, as on a normal stage. The VL4000 has a good quality output, and we made all the players look great.”

Whitehouse chose GLP’s JDC1 fixtures for their capabilities as a strobe and as big color washes.” I spread them throughout the rig,” notes Whitehouse. “The fact they can tilt means we can do some really cool effects either lighting the stage or the audience.”

Translucent video screen roll drops outline the stage as it runs throughout the arena floor. Photo by Ralph Larmann

The Robe Spikie also has a huge presence in the design, with more than 300 in the rig. “I needed a really small light that could fit in the roll drop trusses to give me beam effects and key light,” Whitehouse explains. “We actually took a little bit of a gamble on the Spikies. Most people use them as an effect light. We used them as everything,” including as a “key light.”

Vari-Lite VL3015 fixtures were used all along the dasher line. These brought out the audience lighting all around the arena. Whitehouse also uses them for audience effects and to help paint a larger scene on camera, so there is not just a black hole when highlighting a performer. “I’ve been using it for years and have to say, it is still my go-to fixture for that job.

“We also have a couple of trusses around the arena that have four banks of Claypaky Scenius Unicos on them, which are programmed into the Follow Me system to spotlight JT throughout the show,” Whitehouse adds. “I use the Unico’s because they look great and are fast enough to keep up with the system.”

Tait automation “grows grass” from beneath the stage. Photo by Ralph Larmann

‡‡         Automation

The show contains a lot of animation built by Tait and operated through their Navigator system. The effects range from the 36 video roll drops to elevation lifts beneath the main stage for exits and entrances, to risers that rotate so the band can play to and face the entire arena at one point or another.

The upstage catwalk is automated to reveal a wall of backlights. At certain points, it drops four feet to reveal the racks of lights so Whitehouse is able to have a back wall of lighting providing some amazing effects. A total of 180 lights travel in the racks. “The way Solotech built them is really ingenious,” he says. “They simply roll into position and flip up off their wheels.”

An integral part of the show is the campfire moment. “That scene is one of those things that became so important, we knew there could never be a show without the fire scene,” says Kelly Sticksel, Fireplay’s SFX designer. “We didn’t want to go down the road of using a silk fire. We knew it had to be actual flames and heat. We engineered something that had never been done before with a dual fuel system. Many venues won’t allow propane inside their building, so we developed a system that would also burn butane cylinders.”

On the campfire stage are a couple of lifts for entrances, exits and to put the campfire in place. But even more intriguing are the blades of grass that appear in performance space. Tait’s automation has a mechanism that actually pushes up blades of grass through the stage. “We grow grass with help from all the automation in that little deck,” Whitehouse smiles.

“The whole campfire scene is an effort to contrast this super high gloss black stage and technology by adding those elements that make it JT’s Man of the Woods show,” he adds.

Strictly FX provided the complex laser system and control. Photo by Ralph Larmann

‡‡         Lasers

Strictly FX provided the laser system and control, which is self-contained and operated separately from the grandMA. Kelly Sticksel, the laser designer and one of Whitehouse’s partners from Fireplay, cited the need for a separate control setup on the sheer number of effects, “and how complicated it was to program them. We knew it was really going to be intricate and timed. All the lasers do slightly different things, so it made sense for FX to program separately.” The 40 lasers in the grid range from 6W to 30W.

One of Whitehouse’s favorite moments in the show happens with lasers and Timberlake’s mic stand. “That piece is choreographed almost down to the millisecond,” Whitehouse says. “It was a lot of fun creating it, and Justin was really hands on, sitting with us, going through the programming and changing audio tracks to make it work visually. It was a fantastic experience, which took a week to program, believe it or not! In the 10-second performance, there are 150 cues.” Whitehouse credits Sticksel for “an incredible job making that come together.”

Barco projectors created imagery on the drops. Photo by Ralph Larmann

‡‡         Transitions

Partially into the tour, between the first North American leg and the European show dates last year, Solotech was asked by production to supply a disguise gx2 4K option, according to Lee Moro, account rep for Solotech. The design team was in need of doing some things with their 4K footage that they were unable to achieve without going to disguise for the best solution.

“We had the disguise people on board helping us and we put it together very quickly. It was a seamless transition with noticeable improvement in the operation and final output. Everybody was very pleased with the outcome. The next leg started without a hitch and the video was now running flawlessly. Kudos to disguise for stepping in with support.”

The Follow Me lighting tracking system Fireplay implemented came with a few technical hurdles due to the size and shape of the stage. Tait and Fireplay were very faithful to recreating the Mississippi floodplain so the elevation of the deck that routes through the audience changes just as the topography of the real river. Follow Me wrote a program that added a “Z” plane to account for these changes. “I believe, at the time, this was the largest scale project that Follow Me had done with different elevations,” says Moro.

“Every project has its uniqueness,” he adds. “This was just one of many, and the Follow Me people came through with great support and it is running smoothly out there. Though I have managed this project for Solotech for several years, Richard Lachance, our leader, who started the international touring division for Solotech, has had a relationship with the Justin team and Fireplay for a long time. He is the guy who put this together on the business side and helped with the creative side of things to get what the production needed. Without him, none of this would be possible. I feel sure Nick [Whitehouse], “Hydro” [Robert Mullin, production manager] and tour accountant Dan McGee would agree with that statement.”

The Follow Me system was used for spotlights. Photo by Ralph Larmann

‡‡         Moments

“In every show you have to have the huge moments, but you also have to have the tiny moments where your senses can kind of recover before you build back up again,” says Whitehouse. “The Fireplay team had to exercise a bit of restraint building the effects for those moments because the instinct of a lighting designer is to follow the music, but for many moments, it’s more about the art that happens.

For the song “Cry Me a River” the creative team used low fog created from custom nitrogen tanks. As this fog rolled along the stage ramp that is the Mississippi flood plain, Whitehouse designed a simple chase that created the illusion of water flowing using the Robe Spikies positioned above the runway in a continuous line. “I was very impressed by the Spikies. They give a lot of light output for their size, and they hold their own against all the projection. For a 60-watt light, that is really impressive.”

Custom nitrogen tanks push low fog across the stage ramp for Cry Me A River. Photo by Ralph Larmann

Projection onto the roll drop screens looked like tiny white particles in the air subtly moving in reaction to the music. The idea for this look came from the way camera filters were used to create what were once known as beauty lights. “Using the technology we had,” “we made it look like the people where being animated, but it’s just a trick with projection,” says Whitehouse. “It is a simple thing, but a statement piece.”

Therein lies the “Magic of Theatre.”

The campfire scene is an iconic moment in the show, with real flames. Photo by Ralph Larmann

“We run a lot of the show on timecode,” states Whitehouse.” It is such a big show with so many cues that it’s a lot simpler to timecode it. Some of these songs have a thousand-plus cues in three minutes. Timecode ensures everything is just spot on. However, it is programmed, so it can be run manually. I have Brian Vaughan, who is the lighting director out there, run the show manually every now and then so that he goes through it.”

The production places cameras mostly in the seats, along with a couple of hand-helds with really well experienced operators. The show is tightly choreographed and scripted as to where these shots are taken from. “We integrate all the I-Mag and all the shots into the content and use it for effect” says Whitehouse,” then drive it through Notch and through d3 [disguise]. It’s very important that the shots are right for these effects to work, and I think the guys pull this off very well every night.”

Before the doors open on the first show of the tour, Timberlake has put his eyes and ears on every single moment of the upcoming 90-minute performance. “He’s very involved, which is a joy and a challenge for us,” says Sticksel. “It’s our job to take his music which reflects who he is and where he is at this certain time of his life and present it in a way that puts his stamp on it.”

“In fact,” says Whitehouse, “there are times when he has sat with us at 2 a.m., running through a cue-to-cue with us, letting us know what he likes and what he doesn’t. He’ll even suggest changing up the music so it will flow better with a scene.”

Whitehouse’s design process begins for all his projects by looking at the moments he’s going to light inside the bigger production, noting that the way Timberlake works, “where everyone can have an opinion, and everyone can come to the table and bring what they do best into this little room. It’s not really a roundtable discussion so much as it is collaboration. It all starts with the vision of the stage and what we want to do,” says Whitehouse.

From Fireplay, the four leads were on the project full time for a lot of hours before anything even got into building. “It’s a very definite process,” agrees Sticksel — “one that is really fun to watch, be a part of and full of challenging rewards.”

The end results on the stage hold up through the smoke and mirrors. “It’s his show alright; it’s got his stamp on it,” says Whitehouse. “It starts with the little scenes. Everything comes back from that.”

MOTW tour photos by Ralph Larmann

Justin Timberlake Man of the Woods World Tour

 Crew

  • Creative Director: Justin Timberlake
  • Lead Creative Team: Fireplay (Nick Whitehouse, John Zangen, Kelly Sticksel, Brian Vaughan, Alex Barrette)
  • Creative Producer/LD: Nick Whitehouse
  • Production Designer: Josh Zangen
  • SFX Designer: Kelly Sticksel
  • Lighting Director: Brian Vaughan
  • Video Designer/Programmer: Alex Barrette
  • Lighting Co: Solotech
  • Lighting Crew: Vincent Cadieux (Lighting Crew Chief), Eric “Frenchy” Bellinger, Kevin Chan, Gabriel Facault-Lemieux, Harry O’Neil, Clay Joiner, Pierre Gravel-Larocque, Jean- Sebastien Tardif, Sabastien Valin-Lemay
  • Video Director: Bert Pare
  • Video Co: Solotech
  • Video Crew: Johnny Moore (Video Crew Chief), Fred Fournier (Video Engineer), Zane Moore (Camera Op), Quincy Yip (LED Tech), Andreanne Lafrance (Lead Projectionist), Danny Lambert, Max Gabriel (Projectionists), Zachary Rossi (Video Tech)
  • Production Manager: Bob “Hydro” Mullin
  • Production Assistant: Christine “Mama C” Mullin
  • Staging & Automation- Tait Towers
  • Automation Crew: Aaron Levy (Automation Head), Brian Benauer, Stan Fruge
  • Rigging Co: Solotech
  • Riggers: William Williams (Head Rigger), Ken Mitchell, Jeremy Caldwell
  • SFX & Lasers: Strictly FX
  • FX Crew: David Yarbrough (Crew Chief/Shooter), Justin Seedle (Laser Shooter), Brien Carpenter, Joshua Jackson, Jeff Jowdy, Alec Lopez (FX techs)
  • Stage Manager: Luke Larson
  • Carps: James “Rawd” van Egmon (Head Carp), Gary Doerr, Rob Hagedorn, Allen Haley, Patrick Harbin, Dennis Osborne, Charles Phillips, Tracy van Egmon, Lance Weaver, Eric Williams
  • Choreographer/Staging Directors: Marty Kudelka, AJ Harpold
  • Music Director: Adam Blackstone
  • Video Content: The Good Company
  • Audio: Clair Brothers
  • Barrier Co: Guardian

 

Photo by Ralph Larmann

Gear

Lighting:

  • 3       grandMA2 consoles
  • 68     Claypaky Scenius Unicos
  • 32     Vari-Lite VL4000 Spots
  • 32     Vari-Lite VL3000 Spots
  • 130  GLP JDC1’s
  • 330  Robe Spikies
  • 35     Tait roll drops in truss
  • 410’ Tyler GT Truss

 

Video:

  • 36     Barco UDX-4K32 projectors
  • 9       disguise GX2 4K media servers
  • 2       4K cameras w/ 99x lenses
  • 3       4K cameras w/ short throw lenses
  • 1       Wireless camera
  • 4       Robocams
  • 1       LED floor

 

FX:

  • 3       30W laser systems
  • 20     15W laser systems
  • 17     6W laser systems
  • 1       Fire pit
  • 8       Low fog units
  • 1       Pangolin control setup

 

Photo by Ralph Larmann

 

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