1,000 Words with Video Director Paul Becher

by Michael S. Eddy
in PLSN Interview
I-Mag helps Paul McCartney connect with the huge crowds attending his shows.
I-Mag helps Paul McCartney connect with the huge crowds attending his shows.

Recently, PLSN had the pleasure of catching up with the concert touring video pioneer Paul Becher for a quick talk about how he started in the industry 30-plus years ago, his long working relationship with Sir Paul McCartney, and what he enjoys about being a video director.

Paul Becher

PLSN: You just wrapped up Paul McCartney’s One on One tour at the Desert Trip Festival in Indio, CA.

Paul Becher: We did, and it was a great event. Of course, the talent was unbelievable all through the festival. It was just a great time running into so many old friends and the shows were really well received. As the video director, the production design at Desert Trip gave us a huge palette to play with; the screens were massive. It was really a lot of fun and a great way to end the tour.

You have been working with McCartney since 1989, right?

Yes, my first McCartney show was in Toronto in1990. I was first hired as technical director by Aubrey “Po” Powell. Po was creative director; he would call the show and I would cut the show. I worked with McCartney until he took a break from touring in the mid-90s. Then in 2002 he started up again, and Nocturne was the video vendor for the tour. Gerry Stickells was the production manager, and since I had a previous relationship with him, I was hired as the video director for that tour. I’ve been there ever since whenever Paul goes out on the road.

You mentioned Nocturne, which you were a co-founder; please talk a little about your start the industry.

Well, going way back in the time machine, I moved to San Francisco in 1974 following my brother Bob, who had started a small video studio in Mill Valley, CA. He suggested that I learn about video, so I went and I worked at a local TV station. I learned shooting camera and lighting, that’s where I got my video background, and then I went to work with Bob at his studio.

Of course, at that time, Mill Valley was a hotbed of the music industry. We had everybody from the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana and David Crosby living there. Marty Balin lived like three doors away. The San Francisco music scene was really happening at the time. I got to meet Bill Graham, who also lived in Mill Valley at the time, and he offered me a job at Winterland as video director there. I was paid $25 a weekend but I got to see great music. Everybody who came through San Francisco played at Winterland. It was a great time for a young kid — the video and music industries were at a crossroad. From there, things kind of took off.

I got to meet Herbie Herbert, he was actually best friends with my brother and also the manager of Journey. He wanted to take video on the road with Journey and offered me the job as their video director. No one had toured with video before. [This was the start of I-Mag.] That was 1982, when Journey was at the height of their popularity. Herbie’s business model for Journey was to buy the gear instead of renting, and when Journey was not on tour, they would rent it out to other bands.

When Journey came off the road that year, Bill Curbishley, the manager of The Who, contacted us. He had seen that bands were taking video screens on the road and wanted them for The Who. It had been on their prior tour (late 1979) that they had the tragedy in Cincinnati where 11 people got crushed rushing the stage. He felt that if they had video screens, the people in the back could see the band close up and that wouldn’t happen again. So our next client was The Who, and I went out on that tour; I actually did three tours with The Who. Other bands started hearing about video, it was kind of a buzzword in the industry, and at the time we were pretty much the only company doing this, so many of them came directly to us — The Police, David Bowie, Tina Turner, among others. Really, that’s how the whole thing started. That’s when Nocturne started to grow.

You have seen a lot of changes in video technology from when you began to this most recent tour with McCartney.

When I began, video projection was the state of the art. We were using Eidophor projectors, which were about the size of a refrigerator and put out maybe 1,500 lumens. Today, you get brighter images out of a desktop projector. I think the biggest advance was the advent of LED screens. Of course they have just gotten brighter and brighter. You’re not competing with the lights anymore; in the early days, lighting would just wipe out the video screens. It used to be that I would ask the lighting director to turn the lights out so we could focus the projectors now, the LD is asking us to turn off the LED screens so he can focus the lights!

What do you enjoy most about being a video director?

The creativity, listening to the music and just being part of the whole scene of putting on a show. I’ve always loved music but never learned how to play an instrument. In a way, video directing makes me feel like I’m part of a band. I enjoy every part of touring, from load-in to the show itself, and even load-out. I’m not loading the trucks anymore, but I still get a bit of exercise, I pack up my own gear, get it ready for someone else to push on the truck.

Earlier, you mentioned how much you enjoyed doing the McCartney shows at Desert Trip. What have been some other memorable shows you’ve done, touring with McCartney?

There have been so many. Playing the first rock show in Red Square was very memorable. Playing shows in Mexico City in the Capital Square for 400,000 people, and also playing in front of the Colosseum in Rome, again for a couple hundred thousand people. He’s such an icon, that every show is unique and a joy to be part of. During a show in Anaheim, we did an uplink through NASA to the space station, and he sang to the astronauts up there. He is such a personable and surprisingly approachable man, I really feel blessed to get to work with him. As long as he keeps touring, I hope to continue on with him.