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Keith Urban Live

Nook Schoenfeld • Designer InsightsMarch 2020 • March 9, 2020

Photos by ALIVE Coverage

When Keith Urban announced Keith Urban Live, a series of residency show dates spanning 2020 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the artist wanted a fresh, youthful design for his new show. The word was out, and his team was in search of an exciting designer to bring his vision to life. The search led to the young design team Human Person, a collaboration of creative forces between Ben Dalgleish and Ian Valentine, based in Los Angeles. The duo (responsible for visual elements of Travis Scott, Post Malone, Janet Jackson, and others) have amassed a reputation for the avant garde in the fast paced industry of concert and show design. With a talented network of designers, programmers, and content manufacturers, Human Person answered the call to create an unstoppable and visionary experience for Keith Urban fans of every generation at Caesars. We caught up with the team while they were in Nashville, in rehearsals for the upcoming tour of Swedish pop artist Tove Lo.

Photos by ALIVE Coverage

“We went out and did a couple of warm-up TV shows with Keith; The Country Music Awards and the CFL halftime show for the Grey Cup in Calgary, Canada. We got a feel for his music, formulated ideas, and then dove into designing the production. There were two core ideas for the Vegas residency — Keith wanted a video-heavy show, and management wanted a show that translated beautifully on social media.” Expanding on the clients parameters, Ben added, “We wanted to build something iconic within the show, something different that we could call our own. It needed to be simple and effective. It needed to gel well with whatever gear was in house at the Colosseum and be versatile enough to look incredible at a festival. The Colosseum has a 100-foot-wide video wall upstage and we couldn’t overshadow that, so we decided to complement it. That’s how we arrived at the idea of creating the Spire.”

Video rain pours into the Spire and it spills out the sides.

The Spire is the name given to the 50-foot-long box truss that, while suspended and controlled by automated hoists, roams the mid-stage area to arrive in a variety of striking positions. The custom truss is covered with LED panels on the top, bottom, and front side, making a structural statement at any angle. Custom brackets were designed to hold the panels in place at any position. The back of the Spire contains a row of GLP X4 Bar 20’s that, Ben says “point in every which way, illuminating the back wall, the band, and the air. PRG built the custom structure for us in under three weeks, and did an amazing job. One great feature we worked on was a tube with perforated holes and a smoke machine to control the even line of atmosphere that it emitted.” The design also called for two Claypaky Xtylos fixtures hung at the ends of the structure. “I used these to shoot outward, appearing to extend the length of the Spire.”

Dancer imagery appears in tiers

‡‡         “Fresh Content is Key”

“The biggest challenge we faced was reinventing Keith’s visual content. We had three weeks to do that,” Ben explains, grinning. To most designers, this would be their worst nightmare, but for Human Person, it’s becoming the norm. “We have to give massive credit to the team we assembled for pulling something like this off within extremely tight time constraints. So many projects we have been involved with required a complete new production, with less than a month to go from the moment we got the go-ahead.

Notch is used to make cool imagery and augment I-Mag

“Our greatest strength is our network of content animators, designers, and programmers. This team is from all over the world — we work in so many time zones. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish what we set out to do. The same core crew has been working with us on nearly every project over the last few years. People like Ryan Sheppard, who we met working on Travis Scott. He programmed and created a series of really unique Notch looks for this Vegas Residency.”

Urban has utilized his own Green Hippo servers for years

Notch plays a huge role in this show, Dalgleish notes. “Many people think of Notch as a single use tool, just a way to manipulate I-Mag imagery of the artists. And it does that extremely well, but there is so much more that we can do with it. We always set Ryan with the task of making something new and unique for each show, and he really came through creating many physical architecture-inspired looks, made out of real time footage of Keith and the band.

3D-looking video plays into the looks

“Green Hippo is the media server of choice for Keith, and they actually own all of their own units,” Dalgleish adds. “Simon Roberts is a part of the Keith Urban touring team as the media server operator and was very helpful in getting this show going. He knows the gear inside and out and was a great resource, as he knows the artist and music so well.”

Not a bad seat in the house

We asked Ben to explain how he envisioned the Spire working in the grand scheme of things. “We needed this piece to do a lot of work throughout the show. For instance, we start the show with the spire lowered down in a position that blocks the backline and risers. We are basically using it here as a masking device. Keith walks onto the stage, and the Spire is his only backlight — a 50-foot-long strip of white or red light. We wanted the show to be all about Keith at the start. So we used the Spire to create a stark look that just showed the artist standing in front of this big block of mono-colored light, and it makes a statement. As the song progresses, we lower it to the stage to reveal the other players behind it. For the song ‘Stupid Boy,’ we lift it and tilt it at a 45° angle. It has the versatility to appear as a set element emitting single colored light, or as a moving LED wall that brings content from the main LED off of the wall and into the stage environment.”

The bar video plays in the background

Much of the content was made for the two video structures to seamlessly interact with each other, Ian Valentine explains. “What we found most important was the playful interaction we accomplished between the upstage LED wall and our LED structure. There is one moment in the show where we park the Spire right in the center of the video wall. The video wall is playing content that has droplets of rain that gather into a cascading waterfall, visually pouring over the edge directly onto the spire. The water appears to collect, contained within the body of the Spire, eventually overflowing and gushing out of the sides onto the stage.”

Vertical side towers loomed large in the show

Interactions like this one continue throughout the span of the performance. At times, the video will track as the Spire is in motion, so it looks straight, or aligns with what is playing on the rear wall. “Sometimes we would tilt the spire while also making the video content follow, creating a horizon at any angle. At other times, we allowed the structure to stand alone, strikingly independent of the wall behind it,” Ian adds.

The Spire melds into the back LED wall

Both Dalgleish of Human Person and Keith Urban himself are from New Zealand originally, and all parties thought it necessary to pay a hidden homage to their home somewhere within the show. “We found the perfect opportunity in the strangest of places,” Ian explains. In the middle of the show, Keith plays his Graffiti U hit, “Texas Time.” “We wanted to shoot custom footage for the song — we wanted to create the atmosphere of a country dive bar. On location in Wellington, New Zealand, we got together a small cast of Kiwis and transformed a Wellington pub into the Texan country dive bar of our dreams — complete with American flags and taxidermy!”

The Spire is framed by the 100′ wide LED wall

Elaborating on the purpose of the shoot, Ian adds that, “in the background of the bar set, we had a series of small televisions. Using a UV pass process — think Real Time green screen — we are able to take the I-Mag shots tracking Keith live each night and superimpose that feed onto the screens of the TVs within the video footage. Essentially, creating a changing reality, where Kiwis in Wellington transform into Texans that are dancing the night away watching Keith Urban Live in Las Vegas. It is so much fun, and adds a really special element to the show.”

The Spire masks the band at the start

Expanding on the versatility of the production, Ian describes going north for another iconic moment in the show. “For another part of the show, we decided to take the visuals in a more performative and intimate direction. Transforming the LED wall into a frosted glass covered scaffolding, we imagined having dancers moving to the music behind the glass. Keeping the content custom was huge for us in this show, so we headed to Toronto, where Black Lake is based. They are a collective of cinematographers and editors — their video editor, Matt Cummer, has become essential to our team and works on nearly every production with us. Black Lake created a standalone glass structure and shot custom footage of dancers behind the glass, which we then assembled across the digital scaffolding we created for the song ‘Somewhere in my Car’. It’s just one example of the collaborative strength of our team. We really believe in working with these artists we trust from around the world. It brings a creative language to the show that you just can’t recreate working alone.”

Key lighting was not always required

‡‡         Illuminating the Artist

Because this show was designed to have a versatile application, adapting to use at the Colosseum as well as upcoming 2020 festival stages, there was never an overhead lighting rig designed. The Caesars Colosseum had recently completed a full makeover of their lighting and video systems and the amount of high quality lighting fixtures available for use was plenty for Human Person. “Instead, we concentrated the design around a forest of floor lights,” Dalgleish states.

A carousel of video appears behind Keith

“We had this huge screen, and just a five piece band with a lot of room, which turned out to be a lot of fun. A few of our clients do not carry musicians on tour. It’s fun to watch Keith mix it up and interact with his band mates. We needed the lighting to work with the big screen and accent the band as best it could. Vertical towers from the sides and floor lights just seemed to be the right way to approach this design. The idea is that we can bring in a scaled down version of the floor package, along with the spire, into any festival and clone the aerial fixtures generically. Keith is set to go off to do some Euro shows this summer, but he returns to Las Vegas for dates in the summer and fall.”

Negative space brings out the Spire

The lighting forest consisted of straight lines of similar fixtures. GLP features prominently with a row of X4 Bar 20’s as well as a row of JDC1 strobes. Ben explains, “My idea was to kind of match the Spire with vertical rows of fixtures. I had about 50 Robe Pointes in play, chosen for the beam and the small footprint they take on stage. Lastly I added in a bunch of Claypaky Scenius Unico’s, a light that can do almost anything I want it to.”

Urban turns up the heat in Vegas

“We rented Patrick Dierson’s ‘The Farm’ previz suite in Las Vegas for four days, then went into the venue for three,” Ben adds. Programmer Nick Van Nostrand brought his lighting expertise to the table. “I first worked with Nick also in Las Vegas — we did the Janet Jackson show last summer. Once again, he’s been such an invaluable asset to the team, bringing years of experience lighting some of the biggest acts in music.”

ROE Visual MC5 product lines the Spire

“Maybe unlike many of the shows Human Person works on, this show is unpredictable,” Dalgleish continues. “Keith might add new songs, rearrange them, or extend others. Brent Maxon is the talented lighting director in the K.U. camp, and it was a pleasure to work with him. He’s able to edit and roll with the punches, adding his own flavor to the songs. In fact the whole Keith Urban camp was amazing to work with especially tour manager Chuck Hull, who took the last minute nature of the project in his stride and was incredibly helpful in bringing it all together.”

UV pass filters allow the live video to appear within the picture frames

When asked about key lighting, Dalgleish is quick to point out, “Keith is interested in being lit in unique ways. We do have front followspots, but we don’t always use them. We’re not afraid to light him in any color if it’s called for, or just from a side or top light.”

Content was made by Human Person reps

Ian adds, “The show represents a celebration of Keith’s incredible career and the beginning of a visual evolution as he continues to impress. It’s our ultimate goal to reflect the best of the artist in the show and I think it’s a huge visual success for all of us.” In conclusion Ben notes, “I believe this artist will continue to refine his show and evolve as time goes by. Human Person plans to be there for him, popping in and out all year to add more content and programming as needed.”

Human Person employed a forest of floor lights

The Keith Urban Live series of Las Vegas residency shows launched with four shows in Jan. 2020 and continue with two shows in late April, three in July, two in August, three more in September and two shows in November — 16 performances in all. For more information, go to www.plsn.me/KU-Vegas.

Custom video was all made in under a month

The artist walks out to a stark look

 

 

 

 

 

 

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