At TPi for a long time, our primary focus has been the technical innovations within the live touring and festival industry, but alongside our redesign last year, we were keen to push our remit to other corners of the entertainment sphere. With that in mind, when we were given the opportunity to cover one of Las Vegas’ most-anticipated residencies, we jumped at the opportunity. Carrie Underwood’s latest Las Vegas engagement marked the first residency to grace the newly created AEG Resorts World Theatre – Las Vegas’ newest and tallest stage.
Although Celine Dion was scheduled to open the venue, due to illness, the responsibility fell to Underwood to break-in the city’s latest and biggest performance space. After a sold-out initial run, the production crew loaded out their show into storage to lay dormant until they would revisit the show in early 2022. Amid this downtime, TPi sat down – virtually – with the key players of the production to learn how, notwithstanding a global pandemic, a team of creatives joined forces to curate one of the biggest and brightest shows ever to grace the so-called ‘entertainment capital of the world’.
In the lead-up to opening night, the singer promised the show would “reflect the amazing journey I’ve been on for the past 16 years, as well as offer a glimpse into what lies ahead.” With this being her first Vegas residency, there was a feeling in the camp that this show had to go one step further than any other previous production. The singer once again surrounded herself with a loyal team including Production Manager, Graham Holmes.
Having been a permanent fixture since the summer of 2016, Holmes has overseen many of her 26 truck tours. “And yet this is by far the biggest Carrie crew we’ve ever amassed,” he began. “This was the first time she’d ever done something like this, so we brought in experienced professionals such as [Production and Show Caller] ‘Nimmer’ and [Stage Manager and Head Carp] Matt McLaughlin.”
With so many unique set elements, from a burning Jeep to an enormous waterfall set piece for her finale, not to mention the fact that 90% of this set was automated throughout the show, meant that a huge number of companies were brought in to create this monolith. “We had around eight people from PRG on site to create the waterfall, 15 from TAIT for the main set and automation along with several from Solotech providing additional lighting and video elements,” listed the PM, keen to emphasise the great effort made by all involved.
The list of suppliers reads like a who’s who of the live events industry, with show design and production coming from the team at Fireplay, TAIT, Solotech, Clair Global, PRG Scenic, Pyrotecnico and Gallagher Staging. The production also made use of the extensive in-house lighting and video rig, along with the venue’s L-Acoustic L-ISA system. “We certainly brought in the right mix of people and companies,” enthused Holmes, having listed the key players and suppliers.
JESUS, TAKE THE WHEEL
Before even a single point was hung in the roof, there were months of preparation for this performance. Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic mean less face-to-face time happening between the core crew and suppliers, the venue was not even built when the team began designing the show. What resulted were months of Zoom calls and swapping pre-vis files to get this show in the best state possible so as to hit the ground running when they finally got inside the space.
Having been brought in early 2020, throughout the pandemic, Fireplay CEO, Nick Whitehouse and his team continued to throw around ideas as well as conversing with Carrie Underwood’s Creative Director, Barry Lather, despite not knowing when Las Vegas would officially open up again.
“It wasn’t until early 2021 that we got the firm dates and we began to turn these ideas into firm plans,” he explained. “It’s Vegas, so the initial brief was really to go big or go home,” he laughed, outlining what his initial goals for the design were.
With the venue still being built, the Fireplay team had to rely even more than usual on an effective pre-visualisation workflow to get suppliers, management and artist all on the same page to realise the vision of the show.
The rehearsals took place in Nashville ahead of moving into Vegas. “As we’d be using so much of the house lighting rig when we moved into the space, we didn’t want to spend the unnecessary time and money replicating the exact same rig for the Nashville rehearsals,” explained Whitehouse. “Instead, we built the entire lighting rig, staging elements and automation, pyro and video into Unreal Engine. So, while Carrie and the band played in rehearsals, there was a monitor screen in front of them to track what would actually happen during each song.”
To make this seamless move over to the virtual world, Fireplay worked closely with the team at Imaginary Labs in the use of the Carbon Plugin, which enabled the entire visual departments to move their CAD drawings and designs into Unreal Engine.
“For the past 20 years, I’ve been doing some form of pre-visualisation using a wide range of software, but I was never 100% happy with the experience,” stated David Perkins, CEO and Chief Architect from Imaginary Labs, while discussing the company’s offering. “You either got unlimited flexibility but with long render times or a quick image that was limited to specific kinds of content.”
After being captivated by an Unreal Engine demo in 2014, Perkins began to see the platform as an “everything visualiser”. It was this that then led Perkins and his team to create a plug-in to connect traditional workflows within the events industry with Unreal Engine.
Perkins outlined what the Imaginary Labs team brought to the table. “We first identified the visualisation goals to determine what could be handled natively in Carbon and some bespoke solutions that we had to craft. We knew from the outset that the artist would have eyes on the resulting video, so we had to be very detailed.”
AEG and Celine Dion’s design team provided the team with a detailed model of the venue in Unreal Engine. Perkins then optimised the model for real-time performance, as well as filling the model with all the relevant lighting fixtures using Carbon’s data-driving pipeline. “Nick also specified a few fixtures he didn’t have in his library, so we performed a series of tests to make sure the lighting programming done in pre-vis was trustworthy,” he noted.
As one might guess from the name of the show, the set contained a number of reflective stage elements. “Unreal supports real-time raytracing, rather than typical ‘screen-space reflection’ tricks,” enthused Perkins, while explaining why Unreal was even more of an ‘ideal’ choice for this project. “We built custom blueprints in Unreal to support the automation moves from DMX along with a prototype system for three and four points to simulate automation. This will be at the heart of automation visualised in Carbon in the future.”
Commenting on this more ‘realistic’ style of pre-visualisation was Whitehouse’s number two, Brian Vaughan, the show’s co-Lighting Designer and Technical Director. “We’ve worked with every pre-vis under the sun and this setup just seems to be above and beyond all the others when it comes to detail and overall smoothness,” he enthused. “One of the benefits is that you’re able to show the end client the show and they can understand what they are looking at. With most other visualisers, you don’t really know what you’re looking at unless you’re an LD.”
When it came to the duo’s workflow, Vaughan did a lot of the lighting and rig design, while Whitehouse handled the programming. This back and forth all took place remotely with three separate desks being linked together across America. This was done via Just Networking’s BRIDGE device.
“I had a desk at my home while there was one in Nashville with the final in Vegas,” Vaughan explained. This added to the speed at which the show could be created as Vaughan and Whitehouse could work on the show at different times without even needing to be in the same state. “We’d wake up in the morning and Brian had done loads of work to the show file,” enthused Melody Tseng, Whitehouse’s Associate Producer. Having been brought in midway through the project, Tseng shadowed Whitehouse through the tail end of the design phase and managed video content design and delivery onsite.
According to Whitehouse, the way he and the team utilised both Unreal Engine as well as the connecting desks to work remotely will now be something Fireplay takes forward into the future. “We have already used this Unreal workflow for two other shows,” he said. “It’s hard to get equipment right now, let alone the people to crew a rehearsal. With this workflow, we can cut down the amount of time we need to spend rehearsing and dialling in the show with the physical equipment. It also gives the crew more flexibility to work on other productions and not have to commit to a month’s rehearsal.”
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Although COVID-19 is having less of a grip on the events industry with venues reopening across the globe, one undeniable strain on any production right now comes down to supply. Be it kit or crew, there isn’t one industry professional who doesn’t see this as a significant problem. “We were aware of this issue rather early on in the design phase,” mused Holmes. “TAIT had been planning on using Perspex on the set then one day I got an email saying there was a world shortage.”
What followed was a lot of “out the box thinking” from both designers and suppliers to bring this show to existence. “Just getting plywood was an ask at one point,” added Whitehouse. “There was a lot of juggling, but I think it hit TAIT the hardest as they were due to build a lot of kit for this show.”
Working on the project for TAIT was Aaron Siebert and Emma Reichard. “We experienced material delay lead times on a few fronts and had to use creative thinking to solve some of the problems,” they said in a joint statement. “That said, through all the delays and uncertain times, the show was able to go on and was a spectacular performance for Carrie’s fans.”
SOMETHING IN THE WATER
Collectively, the show’s set elements created an ever-moving tapestry, taking fans into different worlds throughout the performance. The secret behind most of this was the TAIT automation team. The company provided several automation assets for the show, including 60 Nav Hoists that gave movement to 20 aerial triangle set elements. TAIT also provided an upstage performer lift with two to 14ft of travel, and omnidirectional automated wagons. A house axis responsible for opening the curtain, four aerialist winches and a half axis for the centre stage lift were also supplied.
“Our proprietary TAIT Navigator Automation Platform provided smooth controls throughout the performance including safely moving a large gem that was manufactured by TAIT along with the flaming Jeep,” stated Siebert and Reichard. The duo put the successful delivery of this project down to its long-standing relationships with Fireplay. “The production was the culmination of a creative team and venue team that have a 20-year history as well as the start of a new relationship with a new production team,” they said.
One of the main points of contact that TAIT had with Fireplay was via Joanna-Maria Helinurm, the show’s Production Designer. Although AEG’s new venue is now Vegas’ largest stage and might present somewhat of a daunting task for many as such a large canvas to fill, as Helinurm is an architect by trade and just as comfortable designing skyscrapers, REFLECTION was a far smaller project for her in terms of scale.
“The scale of the AEG stage gave us a lot of options and the ability to make this a transformative show,” she mused. “Around 90% of the physical elements are movable, which resulted in a very dynamic show.” The production designer explained that the design drew inspiration from the venue, specifically the geometry of the building. “It’s a subtle nod and might not be noticed by some of the audience members, but it all led to it being a more impactful show.”
Chris ‘Rock’ Glatfelter from Gallagher Staging discussed the Jeep that was flown in during the song, Before He Cheats. During the song, Underwood throws a lighter into the vehicle that then sets alight. “Originally, the Jeep was due to be mounted onto a sloped riser that would come up on the house lift until Fireplay opted to instead fly it in from the roof,” began Rock.
The model in questions was a ‘96 Jeep Renegade that was at the time being used daily. “Not for long,” laughed Rock as he explained how they ripped out the motor, transmission and everything unnecessary before wrapping it in a chrome vinyl wrap. “At this point, Pyrotecnico was brought in, who advised on further adaptation needed to make sure it met the fire marshal code,” he explained. To allow the Jeep to fly, Gallagher reinforced and attached steel beams across the underside of the frame and attached four eye bolts, which became the fly points with steel string to connect to TAIT’s automation system.
On the subject of eye-catching set pieces, TPi managed to grab some time with Mark Peterson of PRG to discuss the waterfall set piece that rose from beneath the stage during the show’s finale. “In our initial meetings, Nick expressed that for this to be wonderful, we needed a lot of water,” he recalled .
The waterfall is broken into four main parts – the main wall structure, Carrie’s platform, the base pools and the water plumbing. “We have done water effects before but nothing on this scale,” Peterson explained. “We have about 1,800 gallons of water in the system – some of it is just there for ballast and to keep the pumps submerged but it stays there all day. The pump system we have has a filter and heater bypass that allows us to run the pumps all day without the water effects. During the day, the water is being cleaned, heated and filtered.”
The main wall of the waterfall structure, which had dancers performing routines using poles to stay in place on the wall, utilised an aluminium truss framework to support the textured façade. The entire structure was carefully engineered in order to support itself but also the dynamic load of the performers during the song.
To close, Peterson expressed how it was always exciting to work in a new venue. “The biggest asset of Resorts World for us was the large basement space for us to set up the waterfall. The square footage down there was great and gave us plenty of room to move our large pieces around. I spent so much time in the basement with our waterfall that I barely even saw the rest of the stage – next time I’ll have to walk upstairs a little more!”
“AEG really wanted to make Resorts World their flagship venue and as such have invested heavily in their in-house rig,” commented Whitehouse. “It’s a full Robe rig and we made use of the Tarrantulas and Pointes already available on the rig.”
Along with the fixtures already on site, Solotech supplied additional lighting elements, specifically 38 Claypaky Unicos as well as debuting 15 Mini Xtylos HPE moving heads. “The Unicos were really our spot profile fixtures,” added Vaughan. “We had used them extensively on Justin Timberlake’s last tour and it was good to bring them back after such a long time.”
For control, Fireplay utilised MA Lighting grandMA3, running MA3 software. “We had an incredible amount of support from MA and ACET in the build up to the show,” enthused Whitehouse. “I’m a big fan of this new software and I will not be going back. Like many others, the team at MA really took advantage of the downtime during the pandemic to develop all the features. There is obviously a transition period while you work out how to do certain things in the new software in a similar way to when you change your iPhone. It just takes some time to learn the new processes.”
Giving Solotech’s perspective on the project was Director of Production Services, John Flynn. “A large part of our remit wasn’t to be a traditional vendor in a touring sense but to support and compliment Resorts World equipment and staff,” he commented. “Our Sales and Integration division actually did the install for Resorts World, meaning there were no issues at all on the infrastructure side.” Dave Evans from Solotech’s Nashville operation also provided consoles, the BRIDGE system along with lighting fixtures for the pre-visualisation setup, along with some rigging to rehearsals in Nashville prior to the team coming to Vegas.
Handling the show from day to day was Underwood’s long-standing Lighting Director of 10 years, Nate Cromwell. As well as managing the show, Cromwell looked after the BlackTrax system used during the show. Having been purchased by the Underwood camp directly, it has been used on many of her productions over the years. “For this show, every department is utilising the bleeding edge of technology in their respective field,” enthused the director, citing the lighting department’s use of BlackTrax as a case in point.
“Our system deploys 14 infrared cameras that track eight people onstage with a total of 18 tracking points,” he explained. “We have 42 different fixtures that are tracking onto them at any one given time.” Having used the system for many years, he outlined several benefits. “The largest advantage to using BlackTrax is its amazing precision. Every pickup and fade out is perfect. The algorithms correctly and expertly predict motion and it is a system I have confidence in running day in day out on a Vegas stage or an arena tour.”
Excitingly, the system will be used for several other departments, so it will also send information to the robo cameras as well as provide location information to the L-Acoustics L-ISA system to provide tracking information to the immersive sound system. “It’s easier to adapt than people realise,” he stated plainly, referring to his usage of an MA Lighting grandMA3 system.
“I used the ACT Academy courses and was able to get up to speed during tech rehearsals. As a programmer and designer, I like the new direction they have taken the effects engine and the concepts of recipes and GDTF. As an operator, I particularly enjoy the feel of the keys and increased speed I get from the double encoder wheel.”
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SEE YOU AGAIN
With over 5,000 sq ft of house 3mm LED screen out on the stage, Fireplay brought in three content creators to produce several different looks in the show. These included BLINK Inc, Comix, and Lüz Studio.
Producing what he referred to as ‘virtual set extension’ for three songs during the set was Matt Larivée of Lüz Studio. “We created photorealistic CG looks within the screen,” explained Larivée. “We then created virtual lights to highlight the set giving control to the lighting designer. The stage at the Resorts World Theatre is really wide so we didn’t want to draw focus away from the artist, which is why creating a content of decor was perfect for the show as it’s not too overwhelming.”
This project represented quite a landmark for Lüz as this was the team’s first 16K production. “It really pushed our 3D renders to the limit and the power supplies of the computers were literally blipping overnight due to the amount of power needed,” he said.
Another long-time collaborator with Fireplay, brought in for this project was BLINK Inc. “Carrie’s Creative Director, Barry Lather, and Fireplay’s William Baker came to us with incredible references that explored the theme of ‘reflection’ artistically,” began BLINK’s Tom Colbourne. “We had a number of great images from fashion, music and film and a detailed plan of how our content supported the show’s, staging, lighting and choreography.”
Working with her team, BLINK defined the structure and appropriate production design for the shoots which were used for the intro to the performance as well in the songs Good Girl, Jesus, Take The Wheel as well as created graphic content for Cowboy Casanova. The team also created content for Before He Cheats along with a CG waterfall to go alongside Something in the Water.
“The big feature was designing a flexible mirrored set, which we presented back to the team. We knew we would embrace a lot of post-production and VFX, but we also knew we needed a playful physical set to shoot real mirrors that Carrie could have fun interacting with.” BLINK designed two mirrored sets and a green screen set filmed over a three-day 8K studio shoot with Underwood and a string section in Nashville.
Harry Bird outlined Comix’s involvement. “We were approached by Fireplay in summer 2021 to provide a broad mix of content using 3D, 2D and footage compositions.” Just like the wider visual team, Bird got to utilise Unreal Engine for the content delivery such as in the song Church Bells. “This ethereal chapel scene was a detailed set extension that we are very proud of,” stated Bird. “This was created using Unreal Engine, the volumetric lighting and many custom ZBrush model elements of glass and architecture came together beautifully in the final show.”
Providing everything from lasers to pyrotechnic effects, Pyrotecnico VP of Live Events, Rocco Vitale walked TPi through this latest collaboration. “We got the call for this one in the summer in 2021,” he explained. “The show in its entirety was amazing and one we were really proud to be part of.”
For lasers, the SFX supplier provided six Kvant 25W, six Light Line RGBO 12W HD Lasers and Eight Light Line RGB audience scanning lasers. “The highlight when it came to lasers in the show was during the song Flat On The Floor,” stated Vitale.
The company also supplied an arsenal of pyrotechnic gear including two Pyrotecnico FX Stage Rail Waterfall Systems, four TBF 5-Master Flame Systems and three Galaxis G-Flame Flame Systems. “We had four crew on the show,” explained Vitale. “There was a Pyrodigital Firing System with two FC-A Controllers that dealt with all the pyrotechnics with all SFX being controlled by a MA Lighting grandMA Dot2 Core DMX Control with the lasers being controlled by a Pangolin BEYOND system.” Lastly, on the SXF rider were 12 Master FX Atlas Foggers, four Le Maitre Freeze Fog Low Fog Systems, four Ultratec G3000 Foggers and two EFX RE II Fans.
To close, Vitale discussed the more detailed pre-vis process that went into the creation of this performance. “SFX has never typically been a pre-vis item. From our company’s standpoint, we’ve always believed that showing customers some examples of the kind of effects we’ll be producing before they get into a room makes the development of a show design much more efficient.” However, since 2020, Pyrotecnico has been working on its pre-vis offering and was more than happy to insert themselves into Fireplay’s use of Unreal Engine to give a full picture of the show to present to Underwood and her wider team.
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DON’T FORGET TO REMEMBER ME
Having both started with Carrie Underwood in 2018, FOH Engineer, Tim Holder and Monitor Engineer, Travis White were excited to be working on yet another live show with the artist. Throughout 2020 and ‘21, despite live gigs being out on hold, the audio engineers kept themselves busy with several TV and video shoots with Underwood.
With a few post-lockdown projects under their belts, Holder and White went into band rehearsals in October 2021 to begin pulling the pieces of the residency together. “In the early stages of the rehearsals, the band came in and began working out timings of the show, accounting for wardrobe and set changes and coming up with creative transformations,” began Holder. “Some of these transition movements ended up becoming some of the most dramatic elements of the show.”
Although this was new ground for the artist, entering the world of Vegas residencies, there were many aspects of the audio setup that remained the same from previous touring campaigns. Both engineers opted to once again mix on Yamaha desks with Holder opting for a RIVAGE PM7 while White used a PM10.
“I’ve been on the PM10 since I started with Carrie,” stated White. “It’s incredibly reliable and in my opinion is the best sounding digital console. Scene control is very detailed in regard to different parameters that can be controlled, especially with the latest firmware.”
As well as offering a level of familiarity, one of the reasons why the PM7 was an ideal choice for Holder was its ability to fit seamlessly into the in-house L-Acoustics L-ISA system with the console’s Desklink function. “This was my first experience mixing a live show on the L-ISA system,” he commented.
With limited time to do the training, L-Acoustics came to him and in Nashville during the rehearsals the engineer was set up with a small demo rig. “With the L-Acoustics team I was able to set the basic placement of the inputs and had a mix in minutes.”
Holder also had a few days with Resorts World’s L-ISA system before the band arrived in Vegas. “The depth and clarity is amazing, even if you’re not using the surrounding features,” he enthused. “This opens a new door for FOH mixers. You have to make creative decisions on how and when to use surround aspects of the immersive audio system. You no longer use the master bus for outputs, instead sending a direct out for each input to the L-ISA controller.”
He went on to explain that it was somewhat of a ‘leap of faith’ jumping into the world of L-ISA – especially as he’s an engineer who prides himself on his hand-built analogue op amps in his stereo bus compressor. “This system behaves differently than a conventional left and right stereo rig giving you an unveiled sense of the mix.”
Despite all the new elements with the L-ISA system, other aspects of the audio department remained more familiar, with the audio team once again putting its faith in the DPA 401VL for the singer’s vocals. “It’s the right mic for her dynamic style of singing,” explained Holder. “It’s just as robust at arms length as it is close up.”
With the nature of the show involving a lot of scene and costume changes, there was a need for a number of different colour microphones. To deal with this roulette wheel of microphones, Holder and White introduced a GPI switcher. “Both Travis and I use outboard analogue gear on her vocal chain so the switcher activated and the monitor desk meant we could select the correct signal to send the splitter,” explained Holder. Each of the microphones had its own frequency and Shure Axient Digital receiver channel.
White broke down some more facts about the singer’s vocal mix. “One change we brought into this show was that her vocal chain is now analogue the entire way through to her IEM mix,” he stated. “I’ve been using an API Channel Strip with Rupert Neve Designs 5045, ELI Lil’ Freq EQ and a Tube-Tech CL1B for some time. But this time it now goes into an SSL summing unit as opposed to converting it to digital. I’ve wanted to try for a while to eliminate latency on how she is hearing her vocals. The result is almost an 8db reduction in vocal leaving in her mix. Less vocals mean less ambient noise which leads to a cleaner mix.”
Underwood and her band were on Jerry Harvey Roxannes all driven by Shure PSM1000 with the exception of the drummer, who used an Albatros Audio PH9B headphone amp. “We used to have a very loud wedge set up for Mark the MD and our bass player,” commented Holder. “In the interest of having a cleaner look and a quieter stage, we found the Porter & Davies KT Concert Platform. It did not disappoint. It could rattle your teeth loose if needed. Mark had a giant smile the first time he stood on it.” When the show goes back, it’s not just going to be business as usual for the audio team who hope to continue to push the boat out as Holder explained. “During the song Wasted, we have two fiddle players soloing back and forth while they move down stage and cross and swap positions,” he stated. “I will be introducing BlackTrax to track the panning of the two players’ positions into the audio system.”
With the sold-out debut run gaining praise from fans and critics alike, this hard-working production happily ticked off this first run of shows with the excitement of bringing it back to life in March 2022 and beyond. Once again, Las Vegas showcased why it is the epicentre of big, bold and striking stage shows. There is no doubt that with AEG’s ambition to make this one of the live events spaces for the world’s biggest artists, it will not be the last time TPi covers a production in Vegas’ latest home for live music.
This article originally appeared in issue #268 of TPi, which you can read here.