Synchronized Dreams: Owl City Live in 2012

in Production Profile

Cory FitzGerald’s design for Owl City’s Fall 2012 tour included beams of light blasting through barnwood slats. Photo by Cory FitzGerald.Adam Young, the mastermind of electronic-pop band Owl City (OC), began writing and recording music in his parents’ Owatonna, MN, basement to combat his insomnia, and the cover art for his two most recent albums — as well as his tour visuals — have a dream-like quality that seems well-aligned with his bright, fantasy-infused and often uplifting music.

Dreamlike Visions

For the tour supporting 2011’s All Things Bright and Beautiful, lighting designers/programmers Brian Jenkins and Paul Holst used curved truss to echo the rounded contours of the pastoral pathway featured on the album’s cover art. The curved truss supported automated fixtures that created halos of light upstage of the band.

The cover art for The Midsummer Station, released in August 2012, plunges deeper into hallucinatory surrealism — and though the tour’s visual design reflects input from Young, the electronic music artists, who once referred to his inner eyelids as projection screens, also granted the tour’s visual designers creative freedom.

The band’s smaller summer tour, with a design by Daniel Navarro, featured lights mounted on four truss towers.“Sometimes, based on obvious lyrics here and there, I’ll ask for a phrase to be ‘blue’ or ‘green,’ just to tie the overall experience together,” Young says. “Generally, I just send my LD the new recordings and let them daydream and visualize how to interpret the mood, or feeling, they get from the music into a physical lighting setup. I’ve been pretty happy with everything so far.”

Although this year’s 15-date summer jaunt had to overcome considerable budget constraints, there was “a lot of detail,” notes OC lighting director Daniel Navarro, who served as LD for the Midsummer promo tour.

For the summer tour, Daniel Navarro manipulated intensity effects for the song, “Fireflies.”The promo tour rig was limited to a four truss tower setup — two 8-foot and two 10-foot towers, made with 12-by-12-inch truss. The towers supported four Vari*Lite VL2500 spots, four GLP impression 90 LED fixtures and four 4-lite molefays, controlled by a Jands Vista S3 console running v2 software.

Even so, “there were a lot of hits,” Navarro says, noting the use of the VL2500s’ intensity effects to produce pulsing spots of light to accompany one of OC’s signature songs, “Fireflies.”

The Fall Tour’s walls and fixtures sat on the ground; the band did not carry truss or overhead motors. Photo by Cory FitzGerald.From Concept to Set

For the 2012 fall tour, the budget was a bit more flexible. “They wanted to come out swinging,” says Cory FitzGerald, the fall tour’s LD. “A lot of bands at the club level do a solid backdrop, or a backdrop with a logo,” FitzGerald adds, but he envisioned something more. “I thought, ‘instead of a static backdrop, what if we build a three-dimensional series of walls, very much like the architecture of the album art?’” he notes. “These walls would have actual wood planks, slats, almost like an old wood barn, with gaps in between them. Then I thought we could line the framing that holds these walls upright with [Elation’s] DMX-controlled LED tape.”

Cory FitzGerald and Daniel Navarro synched the Fall Tour’s lighting cues to the band’s click track. Photo by Darryl Ross.The rough-hewn slats would also tie in with The Midsummer Station’s depiction of a jumble of fishing shacks, which appear as though they’re mysteriously submerged just beneath the surface of a glass-green sea.

Once he had settled on the concept, FitzGerald sent his designs to Upstaging, Inc., which engineered, constructed, painted and fireproofed the barn structures.

“We just got creative, as far as how we organized the slats,” says Travis Shaffer, head of the fabrication department at Upstaging, located in Sycamore, IL, outside of Chicago.

“Where Upstaging is located, there’s farmland and lots of inspiration,” Shaffer says. “The look Cory was going for was old barn wood. Our scenic artist [Sahin Sahinoglu] is amazing. He does some really nice work. It’s funny: we’re in the only business where we paint wood to look like wood.

“We used two inch by two inch aluminum channels for the uprights and ¾-inch Baltic birch for the slats,” Shaffer continues. “Each of the wooden slats is riveted to the aluminum channel. Inside the aluminum channel we tack the LED tape to a smaller, inner groove or channel that protects and masks the tape. This way, if the LED tape ever needs to be replaced, they just take off three screws, pull [the LED tape] out and pop in new tape.”

Upstaging built five walls, each composed of five-, four- and three-foot sections. (Two of the five walls measure five feet across, and each of the remaining three walls spans eight feet in length.) This custom, modular construction ensured that the set fit comfortably inside the different venues on Owl City’s global tour.

Because each wall is a stand-alone structure, pieces can be placed in zigzag patterns to accommodate a variety of stages. In addition, Upstaging fashioned a removable T-shaped stabilizing base for these set pieces. “When I saw the barn walls in real life, I thought it was much better than I had envisioned,” says FitzGerald. “The walls can be angled, and they give the stage much more of a Broadway-style look.”

Light and Shadow

The design of these barn walls, specifically the gaps between the wooden slats, afforded FitzGerald the opportunity to create a variety of lighting looks. “I knew the walls were something you could light and something that threw shadows that you could play with,” says FitzGerald. “You get these really tight beams, almost like searchlights, cutting through the slats of wood. Then, sometimes, the planks of wood break up the light.”

FitzGerald placed four different types of fixtures in front and behind the walls. “We have [Chauvet] COLORado strip lights, which are RGBWA strip lights, behind and in front of each set piece to wash the walls,” FitzGerald says. “In front and behind the set, we have [Martin] MAC Auras and [Clay Paky] Sharpys. On the deck are more Auras and more Sharpys. Water-based hazers are on either side of the stage, and we use a lot of haze, so when we shoot through these wooden slats of the barn walls, and have the fixtures pan and tilt, you see movement.”

The song, “Fireflies,” once again inspired a unique look, and for the fall tour, FitzGerald used Elation’s multi-pixel LED tape to achieve it.

“The song opens with sounds of crickets chirping,” FitzGerald says. “The concept was that the LED tape would be glowing and randomly flickering, and you’d see bursts of yellow light that fade away, just like fireflies. Lighting the set piece from the inside adds a whole other dimension to the show.”

No Truss, No Muss

FitzGerald designed the show knowing that not one lighting fixture would be secured to trussing. “We don’t hang a single piece of truss,” says FitzGerald. “None. No overheads. We didn’t want to carry any trussing or motors. All lights sit on the floor or on road cases…Only in clubs where we have a ton of extra gear do we think it’s necessary to augment [the rig] to make it look bigger. I think the show is pretty big anyway, and on club and theater stages, I think the lighting looks huge. Bringing in 10 overhead moving lights is almost overkill. We do occasionally add some key lights or some wash lights to frontlight the band from above. A lot of times that’s PAR cans, Lekos or moving lights.”

As FitzGerald sat down to program the fall OC production, Navarro looked on, assisting the lighting designer by fielding his questions. “He obviously knew the band and the music very well, and it was good to bounce ideas off of him and to ask how the band normally performs a song,” says FitzGerald of Navarro, adding, “He was not a grandMA guy to begin with, I think, but he’s been converted.”

“It was so easy to create your own palettes and effects with Jands Vista,” adds Navarro. “But I got the hang of the grandMA.”

FitzGerald estimates that there are more than 800 cues for the tour. “There are a lot of synchronized events,” FitzGerald says. “The band plays to a click track, so [the FOH lighting position] gets a SMPTE code feed from the Pro Tools rig. We’ve time-coded the songs to be precisely in synch with what the band’s playing. There’s a backline guy who runs the Pro Tools rig, so when the band starts a song or resets to a song, they follow along. Then, when the click track starts, it sends a simultaneous signal to lighting at FOH.” The click track, he notes, “is playing along with the band at all times.”

Snake Charming

With lighting and music so in synch, FitzGerald notes the importance of allowing yourself time to “push” new fixtures to unlock your creativity.

“We had three MAC Vipers, which I had never used on a show before, and it was great to see what they could do,” he says. “They have incredibly fast features, which made a lot of the looks possible. You always have ideas in your head of what you want to do, and it’s great to see how, mechanically, the fixture or console reacts in time.

“For the second-to-last song, called ‘Take It All Away,’ we used the MAC Viper’s fast iris and zoom functions to create an effect of a ‘cone of light’ opening up every time the snare drum is struck,” says FitzGerald. “That’s something I wouldn’t have tried with another unit, but the motors [of the Vipers] are so fast that the light is able to snap open and zoom out, and its iris opens then closes and resets by the time the next snare drum hit happens. It may not have worked with another song, because the snare [hits] may have been too close together. But on that song it was perfect timing.”

Sonic Depth, Lit Surfaces

In the end, the sonic depth of the music has helped to shape Owl City’s dramatic visual presentation. “I enjoy the music,” FitzGerald says. “It’s very energetic, with all kinds of intertwining synthesizer sounds and melodies. That gives you plenty of opportunities to make different looks and let the music play off the lighting, and vice versa. If there are repetitive sounds in the music, you should see the same kind of rhythm in the lighting. I try to do that with every show, but the Owl City camp was keen on having it all synchronized.”

Owl City Fall 2012 Tour


1     grandMA2 Light

1     grandMA onPC (backup)

8     Clay Paky Sharpys

3     Martin MAC Viper Profiles

15   Martin MAC Auras

14   Chauvet COLORado Batten LED strip light bars

10       Elation DMX-controlled LED tape sections (10’)