The last 10 years have seen Mark Fisher and his studio team originate the most visually stimulating set designs for rock 'n' roll tours and other large scale events. For our anniversary special, Diana Scrimgeour visited their Kings Cross-based studio
In the 10 years of TPi’s existence, very few editions have passed without mention of the name Mark Fisher — a name synonymous with the evolution of live scenic event design over the past three decades. A designer whose creativity is the benchmark by which all others are measured.
Trained at architectural school in the late ’60s, his interest in building temporary structures and inflatables caught the attention of Roger Waters and led to his first rock’n’roll commission for Pink Floyd’s Animals tour of 1977 at a time when rock touring was in its infancy and set design non-existent. Fisher got his break and never looked back.
Under the guise of Fisher Park, he and engineer Jonathan Park collaborated on groundbreaking set designs for a roll-call of major live productions throughout the ’80s and early ’90s including Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1980-81), Tina Turner’s Private Dancer (1985), George Michael’s Faith (1988), Jean Michel Jarre’s Concerts In China (1981), Rendez-Vous Houston (1986) and Destination Docklands (1988), U2’s ZooTV (1992-93) and the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle and Voodoo Lounge tours of 1989-90 and 1994-95 respectively.
The company split into two in 1994, with Fisher setting up his Mark Fisher Studio — more readily known these days as Stufish — to move forward with the most iconic touring sets of the mid-to-late ’90s: Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell, U2’s PopMart and the Stones’ Bridges To Babylon. His studio is now responsible for upwards of 20 projects annually, encompassing a wide range of events from ship launches to parades, awards shows to theatrical installations, and from rock’n’roll to the celebrated Cirque du Soleil.
As Stufish’s work has been the subject of around 25 TPi cover features since we began in 1998, we thought it timely to celebrate the studio’s contributions to scenic event design and the key aspects of technology and creativity that have resulted in its best work over the past decade.
And so it was that as autumn turned to winter, our long-time correspondent Diana Scrimgeour met with Fisher and his associate Ray Winkler, the set designer of Live Earth and recent tours by Robbie Williams, Muse and Take That, at their studio HQ in London’s Kings Cross.
When you started, back in the 1970s, do you recall having any vision of what the future held?
“I never had any vision beyond wanting to have a fulfilling creative life. Working in entertainment has allowed me to pursue my design interests and have a lot of fun.”
Can you summarise your creative goals over the past 10 years?
“I hope that the work the studio creates is accessible to our audience. I try to find a narrative thread in everything that we do, and use colloquial visual language to express it. With popular culture, if the audience don’t understand what they’re looking at, the game is lost.
“For example, Bridges To Babylon mixed together monumental theatre and decadent luxury, PopMart was a satire on consumer culture, OVO [The Millennium Show] was a play in three five-minute acts that explored innocence, corruption and redemption, and [Cirque du Soleil’s] KÀ evokes a majestic imperial world as background for a dynastic drama. In each of those shows, the pictures we create on stage reinforce the story.”
When TPi launched in February 1998, the PopMart tour was still in full swing and it coincided with Ray [Winkler] coming on board at Stufish. How the two of you meet?
“Ray was working for Neil Thomas, an engineer friend of mine whose office, Atelier One, has always been my first choice for collaboration on many of the projects we’ve done, including the Floyd arch for the ’94 Division Bell tour and the cobra for Voodoo Lounge.
“When we were designing U2’s PopMart, Ray showed up as part of Neil’s team and after a short while Neil took me aside and said, ‘you’re using Ray so much on your project that you should pay him instead of me!’. So I became Ray’s employer overnight. He started as an assistant and has become an associate.”
“PopMart was a great opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade. After 10 years in higher education, I’d lots of theory but not much practice. I worked very closely with Mark and Richard Hartman on the gold arch and learned how much the realisation of an idea depends on the way it is designed and built. I also learned the importance of quick assembly. That’s the key to the success of everything we do. If it can’t be put together and taken apart in time and fit within certain constraints, it’s useless.”
How has that partnership evolved since then and how do you decide which projects you individually take on?
“The studio has changed a lot in 10 years. In the beginning, it was just Ray, Adrian Mudd and me, and I directed everything. Five years ago, Ray took over most of the TV shows. In 2006 he designed the Robbie Williams Close Encounters tour and the Rolling Stones’ Super Bowl show. That was followed in ’07 by Live Earth, Muse, Take That, and a big show for USJ in Japan. And he is the designer for one of the shows we are currently working on for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.
“A studio like mine can only grow organically. It develops when clients start feeling comfortable speaking directly to the other members of the studio. You can’t force the pace, it happens in its own time.”
“We have always had a relationship that’s been very much based on trust and encouragement on Mark’s part. He doesn’t micromanage; he gives us all the opportunity to develop and discover our strengths, and he directs us towards that goal. The amount of supervision on the projects I‘ve done has reduced gradually over the years so that now we work on projects which sometimes overlap and sometimes have no crossover. Mark is relaxed about the way the studio works within its own logic as a group of individuals with different skills.”
How many people do you have working in the studio, and how would you characterise their roles and input into the design process?
“Stufish is currently 11 people. Nicoline Refsing is working on the BRIT Awards, Ala Pratt is working on a project for Swarovski and the naming ceremony for Cunard’s Queen Victoria. Jeremy Lloyd, the main man on Genesis’ Turn It On Again tour, is now working with me on a rock show we’re doing in Japan and also helping Ala on the technical stuff for the Swarovski job. And then we have Adrian Mudd, who has been around longer than anyone.
“I met Adrian when he started working for Jonathan and I, building models of stage sets back in the days when models were built of cardboard. He now directs all our video animation, with Ric Lipson and Austin Hutchinson assisting. Finally, we have Katy Hepburn, our archivist, and Lucy Davenport and Layla Ziari who run the studio and organise everything.”
“We’re not the sort of office that balloons for every project. We adjust our workload to the number of people we have available. If the project is interesting enough, and our in-house resources are stretched, we have a good network of people outside who help us with drafting, detailed engineering and art direction. We regularly work with Tamlyn Wright in Los Angeles, and with Malcolm Birkett and Nick Evans in the UK.
“Jeremy did a lot of work with Mark as an independent before he joined us full-time. Somebody with his skillbase is valuable because projects move through the studio so quickly. On Genesis, Mark did the concept sketches and discussed the design with the band, I built the AutoCAD 3D model, but it was Jeremy who developed the detail.
“All of the stuff with the pods whizzing up and down, and the way the video screen was rigged and assembled fell into Jeremy’s lap. From my 3D model to cutting the first metal took about three months. That is the sort of high-end design that we can do in the studio because we have people around who know the industry and the fabrication process intimately.
“For animated presentations, Adrian’s talent, his understanding of his medium and his output are just phenomenal. His stuff just gets better with every project.
“Genesis made a souvenir pop-up book of our stage design for their merchandising and included our presentation DVD in the package. It was a great tribute to Adrian and Ric’s work, rather as if the band were saying, ‘we hope you enjoyed the show, but this is what it was really meant to look like!’.
“The thing that characterises the studio is that no one is only a front person. I expect all our designers to be able to sketch, to be fluent in 3D AutoCAD, to work with the scenery vendors and lighting designers on the details, and to work one-on-one with our clients. I try to avoid being the interface, because I just become a bottleneck.”
“I discuss my jobs on a regular basis with Mark so that we make sure the workflow in the studio runs smoothly. We typically have 15-20 live jobs on the books, and normally work on four or five projects at the same time.”
THE BENEFITS OF ANIMATION
Can you describe the role animation plays in the design process?
“I got into the entertainment business because it gave me the opportunity to work with portable structures and big machines. Animation makes moving structures much easier to understand, both for the designer and for the client. It plays a huge part in our studio both as a design tool, and as an aid to communication. Over the years it’s made a real difference to our hit rate in giving clients the confidence to go ahead with projects.
“Back in ’95, I was working on a show at EPCOT in Orlando, and Adrian was using 3D Studio for visualisation. Taz Marosi, the production manager, introduced us to the DPS Perception PVR card for PCs. It allowed us to suck animation off a hard drive in real time and spit it out to a VCR, and we built the Disney show proposal around the animation. The same year we created our first animated presentation for a rock show, for Tina Turner’s Goldeneye tour.
“When we came to the Stones’ Bridges To Babylon in ’97, I showed the band some sketches for the bridge to the B stage at the beginning of a torturous year of design. Keith’s response was, ‘what the fuck do we want that for?’ But I went back 10 months later with an animation of the same idea and he said, ‘that’s fantastic; we gotta have one of those’. So Keith bought into the telescoping bridge entirely on the strength of the animation.
“For the Millennium Show at the Dome, we made a 12-minute animation of the show that illustrated every scene. It was instrumental in pushing the show past the politicians and getting the money for it to go ahead.
“Because we animate in house, we can explore design ideas quickly and change them or throw them away when they don’t work creatively. We made more animation for KÀ than the final running time of the show. And so far, we’ve made over an hour of animation for the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony.”
You appear to have maintained very long relationships with the majority of the companies that you engage in your projects — Brilliant Stages, Air Artists for the inflatables, Tait Towers, Stageco, etc. Have you formed many new ones over the last 10 years?
“We’ve built up very strong relationships with Stageco, Brilliant Stages and Tait Towers. I have grown up working with Tony Bowern at Brilliant, and through that experience there’s a mutual understanding of what we are trying to do and of how things work. Likewise, with Michael Tait, Adam Davis and Winky [James Fairorth] at Tait Towers. The projects we do with them are very collaborative. It’s the only way to work because of the speed at which decisions need to be made. The relationships we have with them are based on a willingness to work closely together.”
“Aside from our clients, we have significant long-term relationships with three groups of professionals: lighting designers, production managers and scenery companies. It’s hard to decide if the most important relationships we have are with the lighting designers or the production managers. As I see it, we create less than half of what the audience gets to see; it’s the lighting designers who make it look good and the production managers who deliver it to the public.
“Although we’ve added new names to our list of favourite illuminators, we’ve been collaborating with Patrick Woodroffe, Willie Williams, Marc Brickman, Abbey Holmes and Durham Marenghi for more than 20 years. And we’ve worked with so many great production designers, it’s hard to know who to mention without pissing off those I leave out.
“Our relationships with Keith Bradley, Dale Skjerseth [‘Opie’], Gary Lanvy, Robbie Williams and Jake Berry go back way before TPi was even thought of. In the last 10 years we’ve worked with a lot of experienced people who are new to us, including Wob Roberts, Ted Irwin, and Stephane Mongeau’s production teams at Cirque du Soleil.
“We go way back with Brilliant Stages and Tait Towers, and even further with Rob Harries at Air Artists — we started working together in 1976 on the designs for the Animals inflatables. New companies that we’ve established relationships with over the past 10 years include Tomcat in Midland, Show FX in LA, Show Canada in Montreal and Shimizu Octo in Japan.
“The successes of the large touring shows would have been impossible without the relationship that we have developed with Stageco. Back in the early ’90s it was challenging to get them to believe that what I was trying to do was achievable. The Floyd arch was a real exercise in cajolement and wheedling, because Hedwig [de Meyer, Stageco founder] had never really thought about doing custom structures with his product.
“Now, of course, bespoke structures are taken for granted. But even now, when we do projects like the Stones’ A Bigger Bang and Genesis, it’s easy for outsiders to miss the level of synergy that’s going on between our companies. The personal relationships between Ray, Jeremy and the Stageco team give everyone the confidence that makes those projects possible.
“Another important relationship we’ve developed is with Frederic Opsomer at Innovative Designs. We’ve worked with Frederic on all the groundbreaking video projects we’ve done with Willie Williams, from the ZooTV tour onward. Frederic did all the technical development work on the PopMart screen, and since then we developed the Barco MiSphere with him, originally for a 3D screen but finally used on the roll-up screens on Vertigo. We’re currently working with him on some very sexy stuff for 2008.”
Has any new health and safety legislation had an influence over what you can't design now, that you could several years ago?
“No. We have always considered construction safety an important part of the design process and it doesn’t limit the creativity. At a practical level it does mean that we try to avoid work at height, and design in ground level site management that avoids the need for departments to compete for floor space. These design goals also increase the efficiency of load-in and load-out, so it is all part of experience leading to better organisation.”
Over the last 10 years, has there been one or maybe a few projects in which you introduced a design aspect so radical that it had a major influence on a later project?
“I think the LED screen on PopMart has to be a landmark. It was just so enormous and revolutionary and it is still the largest screen that has ever been taken on a world tour. It was a completely new concept based on technology that was right on the edge at that time. There’s no way that the scale of LED used in shows today would have happened without the kick-start of that initial vision.
“For PopMart, Mark, Richard Hartman and Neil Thomas developed the idea of using heavy-duty curtain tracks to rig scenery and video panels very quickly. Bridges To Babylon, and subsequently many other shows, including the Robbie Williams 2006 tour and the Genesis 2007 tour, built on the technology that they developed.
“The curtains of MiSpheres on U2’s Vertigo [2005-6] were video technology on a tangent, originally planned as a 360° video screen. Again, that was taking video technology to the next level.”
Have any technologies arrived since 1998 that have changed the way you operate?
“Since I started working at Stufish, the technology in the studio has changed beyond recognition. When I first started, we had one computer each. We now have a render farm with 60 fast machines sitting in an air-conditioned room that gives us the ability to make three minute videos over a weekend, and the ability to exchange information around the world pretty much instantly. If communication is not instant, everybody gets really wound up.”
Back in 1998, we often asked how far the modern live production could go in terms of its architecture, and that question is as relevant as ever...
“There is no limit to the power of imagination. The only limits are economics and logistics. Anything is possible so long as the client can afford it and it will fit on a truck. The biggest change in the past 10 years has been the rising cost of transport.
“Back in the ’90s, it was possible to regard show transport as being close to free. For example, Jake Berry would regularly increase the number of trucks on a tour, arguing that the extra cost of trucking was more than offset by the money saved in shorter stage-hand calls and faster load-outs.
“The rising cost of fuel and carbon taxes will make trucking increasingly expensive in future. This will increase the demand for stage architecture that packs more efficiently and deploys quickly with minimum manpower.”
In your experience, has the disintegration of the record industry resulted in more demand on your studio, i.e. less record sales = more concert ticket sales?
“Not really, because out of the 20 or so shows we’re currently working on only two or three are rock’n’roll tours. Rock’n’roll represents about 15% of our turnover.”
So far, Stufish’s work has been represented by approximately 25 TPi front covers. If push comes to shove, what would you name as your most enjoyable and fulfilling project of the last 10 years?
“If I had to choose three projects I am proud to have been involved with, they would be PopMart, Bridges To Babylon and KÀ.
“KÀ was a big step into a different world; it turned out very successfully and it was a real adventure getting it done. In the rock’n’roll world it’s hard for me to choose. I’d say Babylon or A Bigger Bang for the mechanical content, and PopMart for the groundbreaking video art.
“Babylon, PopMart and KÀ were all very good answers to the briefs that were created by the show directors and the bands. Each project had a very different style. Willie and Bono invented PopMart together. Bridges To Babylon came out of long conversations with Mick Jagger, Tom Stoppard, Patrick Woodroffe and, occasionally, Charlie Watts.
“KÀ emerged after some very intense working sessions with Robert LePage. If you were to put those three groups of people together, you couldn’t find more different ideas and objectives. But the one thing they all had in common was a profound creative involvement in the process. That made for some stimulating conversations, some great ideas, and some challenging projects.
“One of the greatest pleasures for me has been to work with such extraordinary people. It’s been an amazing 10 years. Looking back, I’m astonished at what we’ve accomplished, because I never thought about it as we went along.”