It’s All In The Game As Diversity Get Digitized
May 2012 Issue 153
Since they were crowned winners of 2009’s Britain’s Got Talent, Diversity have continued to win over the nation with their dynamic dance moves and tight timing. TPi’s Zoe Mutter was at Sheffield Motorpoint Arena to meet the crew responsible for creating the high-tech production, Diversity Digitized, and witness the inventive choreography of group leader, Ashley Banjo, and his gifted troupe.
Creating a strong visual presence is a key component of any live show, but for the crew working on a production revolving around dance it is imperative. Aiming to accentuate the performers’ talent without overshadowing it was a prime concern for the team behind Diversity’s most recent outing, Diversity Digitized, as they worked tirelessly to complement the remarkable routines with cutting-edge equipment. Their third tour saw the production take a futuristic turn as the audience was invited to follow the group’s adventures as they attempt to escape the video game in which they were trapped.
The highly visual and Tron-influenced show packed more than enough punch for the UK’s arenas through a mixture of state-of-the-art screens, innovative design concepts, pyro gags, a flying sequence and of course tight dance routines. Production Manager, Sarah Hollis, explained the concept behind one of the biggest shows from any dance act, that led to it selling 11,000 tickets for a performance at the most high profile venue the group had played yet, London’s O2: “This show is quite unique, it is 11 dancers, telling a story in a theatre show format, but doing so in arenas. I don’t think anyone else has done anything like it for a long time. It’s a very different concept to what we normally do. The story is told in two acts with an interval and is based on Diversity being digitized into a computer game.“
Conversations with members of the production team as they prepared for the Sheffield show revealed just how extensive the input of group leader and choreographer Ashley Banjo had been in the pre-production stages. “It’s basically Ashley’s vision, interpreted by Lighting and Show Designer, Peter Barnes. He was the one who sat down with Ashley at the meetings to discuss the concept,” explained Hollis, who is a familiar face on Production North tours, having played a pivotal role as on X Factor Live, Olly Murs and now Diversity’s tour.
She continued: “We’d worked with Manager, Giles Baxendale, on a few other tours so when he started to manage Diversity he contacted Steve Levitt, Production North Director, regarding their Christmas 2010 tour. This was a mixture of theatres and small arenas that Steve asked me to put together and PM.
“This time around, it’s quite a complex rig as it’s got a lot of theatre type stunts and props - but it’s in and out of arenas on a dily basis. As well as the stunning visuals, we have aerialists, a flying system, LED inflatables, LED suits and lots of pyro - there’s six Redburn arctic trucks worth of kit on the show, which is a lot when you consider we don’t have any stage set or backline!”
The dynamic range of music selected by Banjo also called for a powerful PA system from Wigwam Acoustics. The d&b audiotechnik equipment more than lived upo to expectations, according to Hollis. A total of 24 d&b J8’s, four J12’s, eight J Subs, 24 V8’s and eight Q10’s. Additional kit supplied by the vendor included a pair of Shure SM58 microphones and two DPA 4088 cardioid headsets.
FUTURISTIC DESIGN CONCEPTS
The creative talent behind the lighting and set design was Peter Barnes, who lit his first music show back in 1975 when he was LD for blues musician Alexis Korner. Other notable projects include designing the lighting for and co-producing the Spice Girls’ first world tour in 1998 and acting as LD for 2005’s Live 8. This year, Barnes had already designed for Olly Murs arena show and The X Factor Live tour, before turning his creative expertise to Diversity Digitized.
The LD first worked with Diversity in a set design capacity on their Toys tour back in 2010. Production North’s Steve Levitt, then approached Barnes to become part of the current production. Added the LD: “Shortly after my name was put forward I received a call from Ashley and we met up to discuss the look of the show. He told me the idea would be based around a video game, but obviously there are many styles of game; from Angry Birds to Call of Duty, so Ashley mailed me some images to demonstrate how he envisaged it to be. I then used these as a reference to style the design.”
Developing suitable lighting concepts for Diversity’s live performances required Barnes to generate a design that could keep up with the fast pace of the dancers and the accompanying music. “Their music has so many accents and changes, I think there were over 100 different snippets of music in the show. This meant the only way to programme the show was to use timecode. I had to leave Neil [Trenell] to deal with a lot of that as I had to leave rehearsals before the end due to other commitments and at that time the music was constantly evolving. I think he did a really great job,” he commented.
During the design process, Barnes and Banjo were united in their desire to create a futuristic look that gave a great feeling of depth to the stage. The size of the video screen was another of Banjo’s key concerns and as a result it grew in size in the weeks following his initial discussions with Barnes. The LD added: “Because of the nature of the show, the screen plays a big role in telling the story so he wanted it to be as large as possible. However, this forced the lighting wider as nothing can go in front of the screen, which ended up being 32ft wide and 19ft high.
“We agreed that the dancers needed a clear performance area of 40ft wide and 30ft deep, so again this meant any lighting low down was forced quite wide. I think it’s very important to get as many lights and beams as possible in the audience’s natural field of view behind the performers to have the most impact.”
TACKLING TIME ISSUES
Once the concepts had been generated, the first day of production rehearsals was a demanding time for Barnes as he pieced all elements of the set together as simply as possible without the use of too many pieces of scrap metal to allow him to position the lamps exactly where he wanted. “It was particularly important that it was easy to construct as due to the success of the tour, matinee performances had been added, which effectively meant the crew had five hours less time to get the rig up and working on a matinee day,” he explained.
PM Hollis agreed that time was a challenge when attempting to package the show to take out on the road: “Due to Ashley’s heavy work schedule as a judge on TV show Got To Dance, amongst other things, a lot of information and requests came through quite late with regards to elements like pyro, flying system and props. The week before the tour went into rehearsals was full on trying to get everything ready, but you have to rise to the challenge!
“Doing back-to-back shows then loading into matinees - of which there were a few - and being ready for a 2pm doors was tough. We had a lot of weight in the roof between the main LED screen and the LED portal that does not transfer into being a quick rig. To add to that, we had aerialists, a motorised flying system that went out over the audience, chevron shaped truss covered in led and a lot of props. So it was hard work for the crew, but thankfully I had a great team who pulled out all the stops to make sure it happened.”
DYNAMIC BEAMS OF LIGHT
The Tron-style theme was also incorporated into the lighting design, which was made up of a large number of dynamic beams and fixtures that were placed at different angles on the James Thomas Engineering A Type truss rather than solely on straight trusses. “Because the main video screen is so integral to the story, the lighting design was based around that. For example, lights surround the screen and there are around 10 different types of fixture to allow us to achieve a variety of looks around the video content,” explained Lighting Operator, Neil Trenell, who programmed and controlled the lighting to bring Barnes’ designs to life.
“The visual impact of the show was expanded further by the lighting covering chevrons positioned around the screens and further down the stage. It’s a very interesting show to watch because the design is so dynamic and all the fixtures are getting used heavily with there being 1,500 cues in a scene. There are lots of lights in different planes, which helps us when we’re programming because the dancing and music is so fast paced, meaning the lights have to change constantly. After all, the choreography is amazing and the theme of the production is fantastic so the lighting has to suit.”
Illumination of the stage and performers was carried out through the use of beams as opposed to LED. Added Barnes: “Current LED fixtures are better at washing areas as opposed to creating beams. The Clay Paky Sharpy does very well at producing beams on this show, which was a key reason for incorporating it into the lighting design.”
Control of the beams was carried out using MA Lighting’s grandMA2 Light from HSL, which Trenell is familiar with, currently owning six of the desks. “It is so versatile and I love it for its ease of use and accessibility. The music is so heavy and quite a lot of it’s synchronised so we’ve had to use timecode pretty heavily. The ability to change that quickly and have everything at your fingertips is vital. All keylight had to be manual because the guys are so dynamic on stage. Although the main structure of the songs is run manually, the effect lighting is pretty much timecoded,” said Trenell.
Featuring in the configuration of fixtures supplied by HSL were 10 Clay Paky 700 Alpha Beams and five Philips Vari-Lite VL3500’s, both placed on the screen surround. The six mid stage and six down stage chevrons, which were clad in Martin Professional EC-20 video, were accentuated with six Clay Paky 700 Alpha Beams. The front truss, which was split into two L-shaped sections either side of the Flying By Foy system, comprised 18 Vari-Lite VL2500 Washes, six MAC III Profiles and 10 linear molefays. Elsewhere, the pyramid finger-like truss structures included 12 Robe Robin 600 LED Washes and four James Thomas Pixel PAR 90’s. A further eight Vari-Lite 3500 Washes and five Clay Paky Shapys were positioned on the rear trusses.
Illuminating either side of the screen surround were four sunstrips, with six MAC III’s placed on the floor, along with four Robe Robin 600 LED Washes behind the screen. Under the stage, six linear moles and a collection of Studio Duo Citycolours were positioned, in addition to three Martin Jem ZR24/7 hazers and and two Le Maitre Stadium hazers, which were used to produce the haze that was frequently used throughout the show. A total of three Studio Dua CityColors positioned on the floor and two ZR22 smoke machines were put to good use to add impact to the grand finale.
As a return customer, PM Hollis was impressed once again by the multiple services provided by vendor HSL: “They rose to the challenge in supplying the lighting, video and rigging, which worked particularly well for this type of show. It needed to load in as quickly as possible and having all the gear and crew from the same supplier proved advantageous as everyone helped with whatever needed doing.”
“We are using a 32ft wide by 19ft high tracking LED video screen made up of Martin Professional EC-10. It was first class and to mine and HSL’s knowledge, it is the largest touring screen configuration of the EC-10 outside of tradeshows and probably the best screen we’ve ever used on tour for clarity. Its build time is quick and overall it is very low maintenance compared to other screens I’ve used,” enthused PM Hollis. “We also have an 8ft high curved EC-20 video portal on Kinesys hoists that descends from the roof. In the opening sequence, some of Diversity jump out of this into a custom built ‘foam pit’ concealed within the 60ft by 16ft forestage, both supplied by Production North.”
Video Playback Engineer, Christian Lewis, has a busy schedule on Diversity Digitized, being not only responsible for playing all video content on the vast screen, but for triggering the audio and some of the lighting that accompanied it as well. Lewis started in the lighting industry 15 years ago, before moving into the corporate market, where he divided his time between project managing, audio, video and lighting.
“I’ve recently come back into the playback side of production and this is the first time I’ve worked with a touring artist for a while. I was brought in originally just to do playback but I’ve ended up helping the guys with LED so it’s been a bit of a learning curve for me. It’s a very visual show so triggering the video content using computers is an exciting role for me,” said Lewis, who was brought onto Diversity’s tour through his connection with Audiotech’s Director, Des Ward, who he had previously worked for on corporate projects.
The visual displays were made possible due to the services of HSL, which supplied the LED panels and system controllers, and Audiotech, which provided the playback and switchers. On tour with the dance troupe, Lewis worked alongside LED Technician, Iain Wood, to oversee the Martin Professional LED system. The main wall at the back of the stage, which was split into two, comprised 160 panels of Martin EC-10 - a 10mm pixel pitch LED display panel. This was teamed with the 100 EC-20 20mm panels that were on chevrons as part of the set and on the portal structure, forming a fully compatible LED solution.
“The Martin products have been great. We run them at about 20%, which I suppose is quite low, so we don’t overpower the guys on stage when they are performing. We also knocked it back for the DVD record,” said Lewis. “It’s been so reliable. Due to the way the show is designed, a lot of the storyline is in the video and it is very interactive between the dancers and what it is displayed on the screen, so the content is crucial.”
Lewis ran two Apple Mac Pros - supplied by Audiotech – that were in sych as a main and back-up system. These ran audio and video playback software called QLab and were triggered via an iPad and MIDI. “Other than that, the outputs are going through a TV One switcher from which it will come out at 1920 x 1080 into the Martin P3-200 and P3-100 system controllers,” explained Lewis.
“This is the biggest EC-10 system that has been put out on a tour so it needed two processors to handle that many panels. The processors will only handle half a million pixels and that size screen is 550,000, which is slightly over what one can do, so we have a total of six processors on the job including back-ups.”
Due to the fast nature of the performance, directing cameras would be extremely challenging and as a result, no live footage was displayed on the screens during the show. Lewis elaborated: “The focus on individual dancers changes every second so to cut cameras would be very demanding for both vision mixer and camera crew.”
Instead of live footage, vibrant and futuristic animation produced by Clive Silver at CS Media appeared on the crystal clear screens to complement the dancers’ mind-blowing moves. Added Lewis: “It’s all about movement and bright colours on the screen as well as in Diversity’s performance. There are also characters on the screen that talk to the dancers so the on-screen content is crucial to the storyline as it narrates what is happening on stage.
“CS Media were great and they updated and altered content as we went along. We have three areas - the main screen, the chevrons and the portal, so working out timings for when the portal started to move down and their video content needed to come in and fade out had to be done with precision.”
As the show kicked off with four back-to-back performances straight out of rehearsals, time was a challenge for all members of the production crew, but with the help of some efficient planning, a production as polished as Diversity’s dance moves came together. A week of rehearsals - complete with a full rig - were carried out at LS-Live, which according to Lewis, provided the perfect facilities for all members of the production team as it allowed the dance troupe to rehearse in the dance studios upstairs and then come down to practice with the complete set-up on stage with the crew. However, time was still tight for Lewis and the visual team, he added: “We had some virtual rehearsals on 21 February and then went to Glasgow a week later – at which point we had the audio but the video content was still being fine tuned so we probably had one full day of rehearsals with video content incorporated before heading out on the road.”
As well as playing back the video and audio, Lewis’ role also incorporated sending out timecode, which equipment such as Trenell’s lighting desk was programmed to. Lewis continued: “This triggers off the lights when they aren’t being manually controlled by Neil. The show is great visually because of this tight timing and with the combination of video, it’s so entertaining for the public and I enjoy being a part of that.”
Kinesys and Automation Operator, Adrian ‘Paddy’ Neilly, had previous experience of working with the dance act, having played a crucial part in their other tours. PM Hollis, who had also worked with Diversity, found this an advantage: “We already knew how their shows run, which was so useful. Essentially, it’s a large theatre show put out into arena’s that has many cues and lots of moving aspects to it, so it’s good to already have knowledge of how they want to work this time around,” said Paddy.
Before becoming involved in the live shows of star such as Enrique Iglesias and Gladys Knight and taking up the role of Head of Automation on Phantom of the Opera’s 25th anniversary performance at the Royal Albert Hall, Paddy learnt his trade as a rigger and from installing automation systems in nightclubs. “As automation became more of a normality in touring I moved into that side of the industry. What I do is a cross between lighting and rigging because it is operated very much like a lighting desk, but you need to know the theory of rigging,” explained Paddy.
“We’ve played venues as high as the O2 and as low as Cardiff - and one of the things I know from working with Diversity last year is the guys are very precise timers - they know exactly where they need to be and when in relation to the music, so I have to follow them very closely.
The stage the artists dance on stayed the same wherever they performed, but the roof heights and points change, explained Paddy: “There are so many different variables so I tend to programme everything so they know the time it takes them to get from A to B will be the same every day and they don’t need to worry about changing the choreography because of the automation. The round video screen - nicknamed the portal - can be a tricky one. It is used as a set piece to change between levels in the game. They disappear through the portal into a hole in the stage floor and I need to time the movement of this accurately.
“This means I have to spend time looking at previous shows and my ideal set-up and timings and then either slow things down or speed them up. The end result is the same, the guys on stage need to be able to do their thing without too much disruption because get-in times are tight.”
Believing it to be one of the easiest systems to make fast changes using, Paddy opted for the Kinesys Vector system. He continued: “The guys at Kinesys are second to none with their back up so they’re always on the end of the phone come what may and that’s a great help if there is a problem or a change I need to make which is outside the parameters of the software or the equipment.”
With a video screen weighing around two tones, time was invested into ensuring weight was equally spread and under control. Due to weight transfers across the entire track that were dependant on the video screens’ position, Paddy had to ensure everything was exactly the right level at all times. He added: “The portal, again, is very heavy and moving quite fast so decelerating it in time is important and it cannot always work in time with the choreography, but safety is paramount at all times. We don’t always have the height - with Cardiff probably being the biggest challenge - so we occasionally have to rejig things to try to get the portal as high as we can because it can’t be shrunk and nor can the video screen.”
Paddy chose a one tonne Kinesys motor on all of the moving items apart from the video screen, which he used a two-trollied Kinesys system for. He commented: “I find it gives you great accuracy needed. When you use a high-def video screen, a slight change in position can end up with a black line down the middle, which everyone can see. With two video screens coming together to make a seamless point if anything is out you would notice if anything was out as it wouldn’t be centred so I tend to use the encoded system because it’s highly accurate and gives me the tools to do my job properly.”
Paddy was aware of how hands-on Banjo was as an artist from when they collaborated successfully on the previous production. He explained: “He is the Producer and Choreographer so in rehearsals I need to understand what he is trying to achieve. I also have a very close working relationship with Rigger, Johnny ‘Hotpants’ Ashton, because the decisions I make in regards to weight impact on his job and keeping an eye on the restrictions of each venue.”
Performing on a stage surrounded by hefty moving structures such as those that featured on Diversity Digitized needed to be done with caution and therefore all artists received a prep talk from Paddy covering safety: “This made sure they all knew what can happen if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. A couple of the moving objects are very close to the guys so it’s all about knowing how to use the system and understanding it can make a world of difference if people are standing a foot away from where they should be.”
Ashton was loading Florence + The Machine into Birmingham when he was contacted to come on tour with Diversity. The standard rigging team working with Ashton comprised six up and three down, going up to eight up and four down for Manchester. “There were less for Liverpool, where there are house riggers and Bournemouth, where any more than four in the roof and they start fighting over the points!
“No extra riggers were needed for Sheffield because Sean Orchard, the house rigger on site for UK Rigging is all over that venue. There were potential issues with points under the score board there, but Sean just sat down and did some calculations and gave us more than we needed. If anything that venue is the best in the country for rigging, I can’t think of a single tour crew who doesn’t like that venue - grid, load-in, catering.
“The rigging was fairly standard. As it was so late in the day HSL had done all the loading calculations for the rigging plot including the video which HSL was providing and some of the PA weights and dimensions which was coming from Wigwam. As we moved into the rehearsal load-in we found that elements of the mother-grid we were flying weren’t going to work. We adjusted on site and later I was able to amend the CAD plots without having to bother Rupert back on the mother-ship [HSL],” he said.
Being such tight knit masters of street dance, timing is Diversity’s forte and as a result, all other visual aspects of the show - including pyro and special effects - had to be synched to the performance with precision. With an incredible track record of producing some mesmerizing effects for some of the industry’s biggest stars, Pyrojunkies was Production North’s first choice for product and crew for the tour.
Selecting the most suitable pyro gags was a prime concern for Banjo, who visited Pyrojunkies’ offices in Kent to see what explosive effects the company could create. “We showed him what we could do and then by rehearsals he knew exactly what he wanted and had integrated most of it into the dances. It was all pretty on the mark for what he was looking for,” said Pyrojunkies Project Manager, Dan Mott [Tinie Tempah, Olly Murs].
“The artists are very happy with the outcome and although this is my first time with them, Pyrojunkies has done all three Diversity tours. I actually picked to work on this show because I knew it would be such great fun and there’s more pyro used on their most recent tour, with bigger effects to suit its larger scale.”
Effects chosen for the visually spectacular performance included six metre jets of silver sparks and stage comets that were fired eight metres into the air. On the downstage edge, six flame units were placed along with two five-finger liquid flame units. An audience gag in the second act of the show also required four four ft balloons to be released into the crowd.Elsewhere in the production, a giant wall of CO2 was created for one of many grand entrances and two giant fans were used when the video screens opened to act as a confetti blower producing a storm of confetti.
Mostly in-house effects were used, produced at Pyrojunkies’ sister company, Wells Fireworks, with the majority of the pyro taking place in the second half of the show as the energetic performance built to its climax. As always, safety was of prime importance, Mott explained: “Every venue has a three metre barrier from the downstage edge for audience safety. There are also children involved in the show so we are a bit more cautious and always double-check everything.
“It’s not too over the top or packed with pyro, it’s more about integrating certain effects into the show where needed. Ashley hasn’t just put pyro in for the sake of it, it’s more about what he wants to achieve with them. One example of effective use of effects is when the boys simulated a machine gun onstage and we created a rapid shot of six metre Jets from stage right to stage left to simulate the gun firing.”
A HIGH FLYING PERFORMANCE
Although aerial stunts were used sparingly on Diversity Digitized, Performer Flying Supervisors from Flying By Foy, Martin Peralta and Eddie Tolland, put in maximum effort on each show day to make sure the production’s finale ran smoothly. To add further impact to the performance, Banjo was hoisted up into the air and flown across the crowd.
The skilled and experienced team at Flying By Foy has been responsible for aerial effects for thousands of productions, from stage, film and TV through to musical, operas and rock concerts. By providing clients with a range of equipment and specialists in the field to supervise, the company is able to design flying sequences with safety at the forefront of their minds. The kit on offer from Flying By Foy is adapted to suit different sizes and types of venue, with motorized, computer controlled and radio controlled systems available.
For the action-packed show, the company’s Pegasus automation control software was selected, which - like all of Flying By Foy’s custom equipment - is manufactured at their facilities in London and the U.S. Explained Peralta: “When we are playing arenas of varying heights our main concern is to look out for the safety of the performers. Ashley is the only one that flies during the show and he wanted to fly very steadily at a certain speed without a swing so we had to control it very slowly and make sure he took of from exactly the correct point.”
Flying Supervisors such as Peralta and Tolland - who have operated the flying systems for Dancing On Ice, Britain’s Got Talent and the live productions of U2, Usher and Leona Lewis - can produce dynamic flying sequences with ease using the cutting edge control technology and winch systems produced by the company, that can be tailored to any type of production.
While Banjo was moving in a straight line over the crowd, a custom made harness, innovative winch system and Foy’s unique custom engineered Pegasus system allowed him to fly in a controlled manner. The Windows-based and user-friendly Pegasus system is able to write, edit and store cues and can produce hundreds of axes of motion control.
The IW-V - Flying By Foy’s lightweight cable winch that was chosen for the job can deliver 120ft of line travel at eight feet per second. Continued Peralta: “The two winches we have are in the truss already. They are high capacity and very fast, but for these shows we are not using their whole capacity because we are only flying one performer.”
ENCOURAGING INVENTIVE DESIGN
Creativity was the foundation for every aspect of Diversity Digitized; visual content, lighting design and sepcial effects all needed to stand out for their innovation whilst working in unison with the artists’ choreography. The inventive manner in which concepts were generated made being part of the production satisfying and exhilarating. Commented Hollis: “After all the hard work of getting Diversity Digitized ready for the first show, to see the finished product was great. Ashley is very clever and had put together an amazing show, which is quite unique. There are not many dance acts out there selling out arenas.”
Lighting Designer, Barnes, echoed the sentiments of a proud team: “Working with someone as creative as Ashley was the highlight for me. In some of our conversations concerning how we would achieve certain elements of the show, we would both get as excited as a couple of school kids as we came up with the solutions and the realization of how it would look. You don’t tend to get that kind of experience working with bands - in many instances with bands it is more about the music than the staging.”
Photography: Zoe Mutter
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