Set in a Bag

in LD at Large

Illustration by Andy AuEach year I get a few calls from bands looking for a set or lighting design for their tour. It’s always an exciting process as I let my imagination run for a few days before I start putting pencil to paper. Last month, I got a call from a booking agent looking to hook me up with one of her new acts. So I contacted the management company and they emailed me a response. “Before we chat, take a listen to this music and let us know if this is something you would be interested in.” Nobody has ever approached me in this manner before. I had not thought I heard the band’s name previously.

» Ready to Soar

So I download the music and was pleasantly surprised. Not only had I heard these songs on the radio, they were popping up in advertisements from banks to insurance companies. They were played as background music for football games. They were Imagine Dragons, and I realized right away they were going to be huge. Only problem was, I was booked solid for the next two months with putting together other shows. It was time to call in the cavalry again. First call goes out to Lightswitch veteran John Featherstone. John always finds time to help a brother out when he is swamped. I forwarded him the email with the music link. He listened. He was sold. We would need to tag team the project. I called the manager up and explained how thrilled I was with the band’s music. I asked for a week to come up with some renderings of my ideas. He in turn emailed me some paper bag sketches of trees with lanterns in them and some ideas the band had been bouncing off him. The following Friday, he was meeting with a couple other designers and would talk to us afterwards. There was only one stipulation. Whatever I designed, it had to fit in a 16-foot trailer towed behind a bus.

Normally this would have been a huge turnoff for us. Instead, it became a challenge. I told John some of my ideas, and we devised a preliminary plan. I called my artist Chris Tousey in Las Vegas. I discussed some ideas with him, and he started devising preliminary sketches. Since Mac (the band’s manager) was located in the same town as him, it would make it easy to have Chris walk into his office with a thumb drive full of nice pics and a conversation that explains everything. I had a team of good talent, willing to work cheap because we just all liked what we were hearing. Sometimes you have to offer your services affordably and grow with the band. Two hours after Chris met with Mac, I got the email. “You guys nailed it. You got us exactly what we wanted, plus so much more. But can we project stuff on the sails?” Of course we can. With that said, I immediately got one of my trusty young Lighting Directors to come on board for the same financial considerations. Justin Shaw completed the line up. He was now the tour’s carpenter, video engineer and lighting designer.

» Bag of Tricks

When I got called to design a compact set, I thought about something my friend Jonathan Smeeton described on Facebook. He developed a “set in the bag” concept for one of his artists. Some simple cloth sails made of stretchy silk-like material that one attaches to a skeleton frame of aluminum. I was thinking tent pole style nylon sails. But once I drew my idea on paper and sent them to my artist, I realized they were a lot bigger than what I originally thought of. I had envisioned a little freestanding half moon shape behind the drummer. Once drawn, it turned out to be 15 feet high by 32 feet wide. Then I asked for two smaller shapes that could go downstage on the sides of the half moon. Chris came up with some shark fin-shaped sails that added to the depth of the stage. In front of these sails I designed four aluminum trees. Fourteen feet tall by about eight feet wide. Complete with faux leaves. The trees looked totally 3D and curved like old fruit trees. I hung three Martin MAC 101 LED movers and three homemade lanterns from each tree. Joe Gallagher built the entire set for a fair price, and it fit on top of lighting cases. The whole set was huge, but took up four feet of truck space. I knew that this set would be playing large outdoor venues by summer, so I needed to have the sails made with beefy construction as opposed to tent poles.

»The Lighting Rig

I wanted a lighting package that was self-contained. Something that was big enough to light the band without any other help from a venue’s in house lighting, But I did ask each venue to supply me with 4 x 6 lamps bars and a handful of Lekos to help with basic keylighting. Christie Lites was the vendor of choice for this act, as they have offices right there in Vegas. They knew they were not going to make money off this two-month swing, but it got their foot in the door with a band that will probably go big, rather soon. I knew that they owned tons of Martin gear, and for this tour I spec’d all of their fixtures. I used a single Martin Stagebar as a footlight for the front faces of each band member. Six Auras were utilized for their wide beams, to illuminate the sails and uplight the trees. Then I chose five MAC Vipers — two from the sides and three from the back — to light the act. The wide beam, fast response of the yokes, and the incredible gobo selection these lights provide made them the most important tool for the show. Because of money concerns, I chose the economical Martin M1 console.

I had one week of open time in January to spend at home. Thank God for Heroic Lighting. Heroic is the premier lighting/video/audio rental house in Minneapolis. Last month, I stopped down at their shop on a request. They were toying with the idea of getting an ESP system and a pre-viz studio in their complex. I gave them a few words of advice, since I spend a lot of time in these joints. In return they offered for me to be their first client, for free, to work out the bugs. There really weren’t any, as these guys built a state-of-the-art room that was the perfect setting for me to work. And it was only a few miles outside of my downtown home. My director Justin flew in to meet me. After a 30-minute lesson in how the M1 console works, he was programming like an old pro. This console is just that easy. The six-foot-wide plasma screen at Heroic made it all simple. We knocked out 14 songs in two days, with a third spent running the cues back in the visualizer.

Two weeks later, we all met up at S.I.R. in Vegas for rehearsals. Warren Flynn, the account rep from Christie Lites, came through for us with a couple of trusses and some ground support for this square box of rehearsal space. I flew in for a day to do a quick grip and grin with the band, felt their excitement, then left it up to the rest of the team to polish the rough gem of a show I left them with. Now on to designing the arena tour later this spring.