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Lighting U2 on Top of the Rock; Quick Cues, More

PLSN Staff • Designer Watch • March 10, 2014

U2 harnessed the beauty of the New York City skyline glimmering on a wintery night as their panoramic set. You could call it “Elevation” meets “360°” — the mashup of two tour names for the band. The band sang “Invisible,” but the only invisible aspect about it were the behind-the-scenes challenges that came with performing outside, 70 stories up on the Top of the Rock observation deck atop Rockefeller Center’s tallest building in bone-chilling Polar Vortex weather.

U2 atop Rockefeller Center for the Feb. 17 premiere of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Photo courtesy of NBCLighting designer Mike Baldassari knows. This special televised performance to air the first night of NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Feb. 17 was “exhilarating,” he said. But it carried more than a few challenges.

The physical location as a performance site was the first challenge. “The iconic Top of the Rock in Rockefeller Center is a major New York City tourist attraction that couldn’t be completely shut down just for us. The load-in had to happen overnight — so we began at midnight — 70 stories in the air — outside — in February! The temperature at ground level was 20 degrees, so with the wind chill, and 70 stories up, you can just imagine — baby, it was cold outside!”

U2 atop Rockefeller Center for the Feb. 17 premiere of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Photo courtesy of NBCThe load-in presented another issue. “Everything about the space was difficult, including the path to get from the street to the 70th floor. There were many elevators involved — with the final one being a small four-person size elevator — so the largest piece of truss we could use was only a five-footer.”

Then there was the compact footprint of the rooftop. “The uppermost deck that was being used as the performance space is only 19 feet wide, so it was a compact place to get in the six cameras (three handhelds, three jib arms), the stage, the band and the audience. Fred Bock did the initial plot, which consisted of two truss goalposts 14 feet high at either end of the performance space, in addition to some floor lights. There were also entire groups of lights on some of the other floors to uplight the sides of the building that would be seen by the helicopter.”

The midnight load-in let the team rehearse and tape a run-through on Sunday night, in case inclement weather on Monday night, the night of the premiere, would cancel the performance. “Given the extreme weather this winter in New York City, this was a good call,” he said. After Sunday night’s shoot, which they did around 7 p.m., the LD met with U2’s legendary director, Willie Williams, and the band in the control room. “There were a few things to change here and there, but overall everyone was very happy with what we had recorded,” he said.

“However, executive producer Lorne
suggested we shoot the real thing an hour earlier on Monday night, so there would be a little more light in the sky. It was a great idea, but a bit of a logistical nightmare for the show, which shoots in real time, and getting Jimmy from the sixth floor to the 70th and back down was going to be tight.

“We discussed it for a bit, and since I knew pretty well where my key light levels where, I offered the director two suggestions: First, we had enough light level that if we shot earlier, and they could make the logistics work, we could go with Lorne’s request. If they couldn’t make it work, then I said we could pull all of the lights down, and open the irises on the cameras to make the city brighter that way. One of the things that made the city look so spectacular is that when you looked down from the 70th floor, all the rooftops were covered in white snow, so there was a terrific reflective quality everywhere you looked.

“When we came in on Monday,” Baldassari continued, “the show had figured out how to coordinate shooting the segment an hour or so earlier. My problem was that the look we had set the previous night would need to be substantially adjusted because of the time change, and the rehearsal for cameras in the afternoon wouldn’t help, because it was about two hours earlier than the target time. The rehearsal had to be early enough to allow the helicopter to refuel in New Jersey and return to Rockefeller Center. As we were counting down the minutes, I was really watching the sunset and hoping that we didn’t go too early, all the while trying to calculate where the key levels would have to go since they would need to be adjusted basically as we went to air. Once we hit it for real with the band, I was adjusting the key lights on the fly, calling the light cues, and watching the monitor. Fred made a few helpful suggestions as well from the Tonight Show control room down on the seventh floor. While I usually prefer to have a lot more control over all the elements, I can’t deny it was an exhilarating experience to be crafting the look totally in the moment, while trying to balance that amazing sunset. I’m really happy that we were able to strike that delicate balance.”

As luck would have it, Baldassari said, they “threaded a fine needle” between two snowstorms. “There was one storm just hours before the load-in and another mere moments after the crew had finished the load out. We managed to shoot in the one tiny window that this brutal NYC winter allowed us.” Baldassari gives props to the Local 1 stagehands for their hard work and “get it done” attitude on the gig. “Despite the cold and windburn, I’m very glad NBC called me in to do this,” he said. To view the U2 segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, go to

Quick Cues…

After lighting the opening and closing of the Paralympic Ceremonies in Sochi, Russia, LD Durham Marenghi then returns to the U.K. to light the farewell Dancing on Ice Live arena tour with skaters Torvill and Dean and other celebrity skaters starting March 28 to April 27…

LD Seth Jackson has been asked by Broadway lighting designer Jeff Croiter to team up with him on the lighting design for the new musical, Harmony, written by longtime collaborators Barry Manilow and theatre veteran Bruce Sussman. It recently finished its debut at the Alliance in Atlanta and opens at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in March…

TV LD John Conti has refined his focus. “Things are great as we sold all our equipment and John Conti Lighting is getting out of the rental business. I believe when I started I was the only designer in the television industry who owned their own gear. I’m still consulting and designing, though. Right now we’re working on our regular running shows.”

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