Many thanks to Claire for the scans! I didn’t even know about this!
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ new tour features a tubular scenic/lighting concept
By: Sharon Stancavage
Designing a production for the Red Hot Chili Peppers is a fairly straightforward process, according to the group’s longtime production/lighting designer Scott Holthaus, of Happy Machine. “Normally, with different artists, we will have conceptual meetings and kind of meet in the middle with some cool ideas and it will flow into a final product,” he says. “That isn’t the case at all here. I come up with ideas and they just say yes or no. That’s it.”
For the current tour, Holthaus focused on a genre of modern art. He notes, “My wife and I saw a little clip of a German company that was making variable-control winches, and it was pretty exciting. It was a mini-kinetic sculpture; I’ve wanted to do something like that for 20 years. We have them in our home, we love them, but we have never had the control for them. We finally saw that and I immediately called TAIT.”
Tait, located in Lititz, Pennsylvania, already had something similar in development for Cadillac at the North American Auto Show; it was based on the company’s Nano Winch. “We spent about two years developing the Nano Winch,” says Tait senior director/head of project management for touring Brian Levine. “We had seen other installations, and there are other products like it. We didn’t set out to necessarily compete with them, but to build a superior winch that could do more, was safer, and also had the benefit of being able to run on the Navigator automation platform. This would allow not only a great safety system but also ease of programming. It’s so flexible you could program thousands of axes at a time.”
The Cadillac project, which took place in 2015, was comprised of 50 polished spheres on Nano Winches con-trolled by Navigator. The ideas Holthaus had were more challenging. “They wanted it to be really immersive and to cover the whole audience,” Levine notes. “It’s essentially a huge grid of 880 winches that starts upstage, behind the video wall, and goes all the way out to the scoreboard.”
There was also the budget issue. “When the band saw it, they flipped, management flipped and they gave the thumbs up in one second,” Holthaus explains. But, he adds, “We had absolutely no idea how much it might cost to tour; we were really concerned that we might sell the band something that they couldn’t afford.”
Levine picks up the story: “Six months before rehearsals, the Chili Peppers came to Lititz. We took 30 winches, hung them, and put on them random things we had laying around in the shop so they could see speeds, travel, and different kinds of LED fixtures. Basically, we asked, ‘What do you think you want to do?’ Scott was really into the cylindrical tube idea, and we played with different finishes for it”
Although the definition process took some time, it was clear that something LED-based and tubular would be hung from the Nano Winches. “We had the design approved and budgeted, then went out and did festival shows for months,” explains Holthaus. Levine says, “Scott would get to some random, middle-of-nowhere hotel and we’d have a FedEx package there for him.” Inside would be another prototype. “He’d plug it in, call us, tell us what he thought, and we’d make another one. We also brought him back to Lititz several times, when he had the time.”
“We had an incredible number of prototypes, because we originally wanted the LED tubes to be able to go black when turned off. We needed a film or a resin that was translucent, but still black when they weren’t on,” Holthaus comments. Turning the tubes black—or at least putting them in stealth mode—was a major fabrication challenge. “We played with different amounts of pigment injected into the plastic to get a gray, versus a black, versus a lighter gray and we couldn’t get to a place where he was happy with the output,” Levine says. “We ended up doing custom pigment-injected plastic, making hundreds of them; Scott came to see them and said, ‘I feel bad, but I don’t like this.’ With three weeks left, we ended up remaking all the tube finishes.” The problem was the brightness of the LEDs. “We really needed a lot of punch in the LEDs to bust through this dark plastic,” Levine adds. “There’s a trade-off: If you want it to be black when it’s off, you have to sacrifice some output, which Scott totally understood. Of course, for him, it was way more important that the light be as punchy as we could get, because that’s 90% of the show.”
Each tube is 30″ long and 4″ in diameter. “It’s a custom extruded polycarbonate with the right mixture of pigment in it, giving us enough diffusion so we don’t see the LED hot spots inside,” Levine explains. The tubes are filled with hundreds of LEDs, sourced by Tait. “We’ve taken several different products that we cut, soldered in, and worked
together to make a nice even finish,” he adds. “All you get is a nice glow; you never see any pixels. At the bottom of each tube is a white pinspot as the fourth channel; Scott can make the tubes glow as much as he wants in any color, but he can also them off to just have the pinspots. Eight hundred eighty little pinspots on the bottom of the tubes is a completely different effect; in some looks, the grid is dark and you just have tiny pinspots lighting the floor, which is neat”
The tubes are controlled via the Nano Winch cable. “The lifting line of the Nano Winch, the line that comes off the drum, is custom woven-ribbon cable; the conductors that power the LED run inside it,” Levine says. “The some line that lifts it also powers it, giving data down the ribbon cable.” Each tube weighs approximately 5lbs and the Nano Winch has a 10Ib weight limit. “You can also do 10′ per second, which is really fast, and you get 60′ of travel, which is way more travel than other winches provide.”
“The sculpture goes from about 100′ from almost at the front of house to beyond the band and screens,” Holthaus says. “There are 80 tubes behind the screens, so you get a three-dimensional perspective. The tubes are set up with a mother truss for each 80, so there are 12 spines.” Levine adds, “We custom-designed the kinetic sculpture truss so that we could have it on two points; anything on two points is very easy to rig and to level every day. The 50′ span lets us get under scoreboards, so there’s never going to be a venue where there is a problem.”
Control of the tubes includes Navigator, Derivative’s TouchDesigner, and two Catalyst V5 media servers [a spare and a backup] with, according to Holthaus, “a sweet tune-up” from creator Richard Bleasdale. “It’s all an experiment, and we wanted all the tools we could possibly get. We knew that Catalyst could play grayscale movies, but we weren’t sure we could get full organic motion out of it, like the case of a flag waving, or water. TouchDesigner was built directly for that sort of application. The motion cues
are built in TouchDesigner; for same, we run grayscale movies via Catalyst and some are right out from the desk, like lights. Half the time, Catalyst controls the movement and the other half would be TouchDesigner.” Each tube has an Art-Net control via the Tait system. Holthaus adds, “The console [an MA Lighting grandMA2] is the manifold, so to speak, and the Catalyst and/or TouchDesigner, as well as the lighting desk, can send information to the sculpture.” The movement of the sculpture is astonishing; among other things, it dances over the audience during “By the Way,” creates a moving, flat, angular ceiling in “Around the World,” and transforms into a waterfall chandelier for “Scar Tissue.” Programming was done by Holthaus and Leif Dixon; production was done over nine days at Rock Lititz.
Touring the kinetic sculpture was another challenge. “The packaging starts with how we hang it every day,” Levine says. “We want it to be as light as possible, as easy as possible, as repeatable as possible. When the winches land, the LED tubes are packaged on the same bar that the winches live in, so you don’t disconnect anything. You grab the LED, pop it on top of the winch bar, and put a bungee over it; two guys grab it and throw the winch bar into a cart. The winch bar has four winches; two guys can grab a bar of four winches, pop it into a cart, and it just clips on and off the truss. It’s all very quick; there are no tools or anything like that.” Currently, the kinetic sculpture load-in takes three hours on a good day; at more challenging venues, it takes approximately four-and-a-half. Levine adds, “There is a five-person automation team from Tait out there, and they’re the best in the world; they’re rock stars.”
For the US leg, the kinetic sculpture has grown exponentially; an additional 160 tubes am being used. Levine says, “Adding 160 more winches was the ultimate validation; clearly, they see the value in it. It will be officially the most axes of automation ever toured.” Holthaus is making additional changes: “The high trim for the sculpture is 60′ and the low trim 12′,” he says. “I want to go a foot lower; 10′ 6″ is an American rule, from New York State, I think, that’s the lowest you can have scenery over the audience. Onstage, it’s 5′ higher, so the sculpture is going to come right to the band.” The additional winches and tubes bring the total sculpture pieces to 1,040.
While the Kinetic Sculpture takes up three-quarters of the arena, the actual lighting rig is much more conservative. “Its the smallest rig I think I’ve had in 20 years,” Holthaus admits. He adds, “There’s nothing over the stage; it’s a waste of time without smoke.” However, he says, upstage are “Idlollipop torms on purpose-built spines, no you don’t see any truss at all; Tait made them beautifully. They’re 4″ x 4″ metal tubes that are hidden by the light. It looks like the lights have no visible means of support.” Each 16′ vertical torm has “five [Ayrton] MagicBlade-es that are a millionth of an inch apart so they can form a long line when they’re vertical. For 80% of the show, they’re used as architectural pieces, making lines and shapes. The bottom of each torm has two [Clay Fairy A.leda] B-Eyes K-20s; the top and bot-tom have [TMB Solaris] Flares.”
The torms am shaped like capital “I”s and, like the rest of the rig, are automated. “There are two Navigator-auto-mated variable-speed chain hoists per lollipop,” Levine says. “They keep them stable.” There are 11 torms with two motors that go up and down translate into “22 axes of motion,” according to Levine. Also, eight B-Eyes are placed on the side trusses, along with six Martin by Harman MAC Viper Air FX units and four additional Solads Flares; 20 additional B-Eyes are found on the floor.
Holthaus has always used truss spots, but this time, he says, he found a better option. “We have eight PRG Bad Boys with the PRG GroundControl system and I love it. They work every night; no spot operator can kick the cable out—and there’s always a 30% chance of that. The Bad Boys have incredible output and am clean lights.” His decision to use the Bad Boys was directly related to the type of IMAG used. “If I had divas or needed clean IMAG, wouldn’t use them, but for men with [Andy] Warholed [heavily and colorfully effected] IMAG, they’re splendid.”
The use of frontlight is limited. “We have FOH spots that I very rarely use,” Holthaus says. “The Bad Boys are so strong, and the sidelighting is so much more effective than frontlighting.” There’s also an aesthetic issue: “Frontlighting flattens them out whenever, and if it’s low, you put the circle on the amp line, and it’s high-school-tacky. However, our huge backlighting is aimed at the audience; sometimes in big, bright moments, you add a touch of frontlight so the artists’ faces aren’t beat out by the backlight.” The lighting rig is provided by Madison, Tennessee-based Premier Global Productions.
As for his color palette, Holthaus confides, “You can find your whole palette in any Dr. Seuss book. It’s that simple.” Programming was done on a grandMA2 console with the assistance of Zack Pellits. Holthaus adds, “We have 49 songs programmed, since the band doesn’t stick to a set list.”
‘There are four 12′-wide x 20′-high ROE Visual Linx SMD 9mm walls; all four are 48′ wide x 20′ high. They break into one, two, or four pieces,” explains Holthaus. The Roe product is new, and was provided by Nashville-based Colonel Tom Touring. Two hundred forty 300mm x 1200mm tiles are used. “The product is completely plastic, with no microscopic metal power supplies, and it is completely magnetic,” Holthaus says. “When I went to look at the prototype, it was a 6′ x 12’ piece put together on pipe on a forklift, held up by zip ties, and they weren’t worried about it at all.” Each tile weighs 10.6 lbs., the approximate weight of an average male house cat. “It’s the lightest thing we have right now,” notes Barry Otto, director of operations and engineering at Colonel Tom Touring. The use of magnets is a new trend in LED walls. “Because of the resolution, alignment is critical; you can see tiny seams if pixels aren’t lined up. The magnets force the panels to line up perfectly,” notes Otto. The wall can be rolled up; however, this feature isn’t necessarily optimized for touring. “The design team liked the transparency of the product; that was the driving force behind it. However, in terms of building the walls the way they are on tour, frames make it easier,” explains Otto. Speaking of the Roe product, Holthaus adds, “We lost about 80% of the weight and the translucency is better; we can fly it cheaper, lighter, and better, and it looks amazing. This is the future. You don’t need massive steel boxes anymore.”
The frames were the final step in making the product roadworthy. °Jeff Wickley, from Wickley World Wide [n San Antonio], was instrumental in fabbing out the pieces, and he was CNC-machining stuff late at night to make sure it was a cohesive system,” Holthaus says.
The walls move horizontally as well as vertically, and are also controlled via Navigator. “It’s a Tait video track truss system, which is relatively standard,” Levine says. “However, we built some custom bumpers for the top to space out the video. There are another four axes of automation on the video screens, but they rise up and down; overall, it’s another 12 axes of automation.” Content for the LED wall is provided by Montreal-based Moment Factory and Dave Hughes, of Million Monkeys Inc. The video system includes three manned Sony HSC-300 camera,s six Panasonic AW-HE 130 robotic cameras, and a Ross-Carbonite 2.5 M/E switcher. “Catalyst is used for the camera treatments and for playing back the pre-made content,” Holthaus adds.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers began the US leg of the tour this month, and will continue here through July. Holthaus says, “I thought the sculpture might be too arty, but thank God it worked.
“Every show I’ve done in the past was pretty much a bunch of lights and big TVs; those were pretty much the only tools I had. It’s cool to get away with that. I’m going to hopefully get away from that forever.”