Creativity thrives under constraint and a 21st Century pandemic is no exception. While in-person audiences in the UK are currently on hiatus, the industry has turned its attention to crafting livestream performances for musos in lockdown. Although the consensus is that virtual experiences are not a long-term replacement for the energy and excitement of live shows, the possibilities to create interactive experiences are endless. With no audience to contend with, the goalposts of a live gig are constantly shifting – filming locations are now more diverse than ever before. Over the past six months, TPi has spoken to the teams involved in broadcast performances from caves, forts in the middle of the sea and tour bus workshops. The latest artist to toss his navy woollen hat into the ring is rock ’n’ roll star, Liam Gallagher – performing on a barge sailing down London’s River Thames.
Tour Manager, Ben Pomphrett served as Event Producer and Production Manager, Davey Murphy handled project management, supervising the budget, logistics, crew welfare and health and safety of a live performance on a barge. Their trusted choice of vendors comprised Neg Earth, Transition Video, Forest of Black, MelodyVR, Red TX, EPS Events, Skan PA, All Access Staging UK, Rock-it Cargo, Fly By Nite, John Henry’s, Pearce Hire, Port Of London Authority, Livett’s Of London, Helicopter Film Services and Headline Security.
Lighting and production design was devised by Dan Hill and Chris ‘Squib’ Swain of Cassius Creative. The duo worked closely with the artist, management and the on-site production crew to devise the visual aspects of the show on board the barge.
“The idea of a performance on a moving barge came from Liam,” the duo began. “He was keen to keep this looking very raw and focus on exactly what it was – an almost impromptu, guerrilla-style performance that wasn’t about usual show technology or making this feel overtly design led with overbearing lighting or video effects.”
A far cry from Sex Pistols’ silver jubilee boat trip in 1977 and the beer-proof consoles of his last arena tour, Down By The River Thames was presented with Hollywood-style aerial shots. “A lot of the initial references and discussions came from old punk performances, Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Beatles’ iconic Savile Row rooftop performance,” they explained.
“We wanted to retain the authenticity and rawness of those shows and their focus on the music, performance and natural look of the location. It was a really refreshing change in direction from the technology led livestreams throughout the 2020 lockdown.” Keen to retain the authenticity of the performance, the collective emphasised certain features of the barge, with the film crew capturing the scale and natural aesthetic of a “very raw and open metal barge” surroundings.
Adding enough lighting to emphasise the feel and energy of performance without becoming a distraction, the rig was kept simple and open plan to maximise the band playing live, and secondly, the obscurity of sailing down the River Thames with one of the most recognisable figures in modern music. “Naturally, a gig on a boat, in Winter, comes with its challenges – the weather, the fact everything moves and the height restrictions for bridges had to be considered,” the designers noted.
The team attended a site visit of the route the boat would take. The design duo said: “It was definitely one of the more exciting recces we’ve done. After a couple weeks of delays through various lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions, we delivered the performance after a setup day and a late-afternoon shoot the following day.”
With such a raw setup, and the performance being all about the outside landscape – previsualisation was deemed redundant. There was some basic console preparation, but most of the work was achieved during the limited timeframe onsite. “From videos and images of the initial site visit trip, to watching the light levels and sky change during the set-up day,” Hill and Squib said. “We were able to balance the requirements of stage lighting, against making the most of the natural light and emphasise the dynamic landscape accordingly, whether that was dominant or took more of a background to the stage performance.”
‘LIVE MUSIC IS A VITAL PASTIME’
Lighting was purposefully kept very simple. Hill and Squib hand selected the appropriate lighting fixtures and presented them in a way which framed the band simply, yet purposefully, provided a balanced live show, which showcased the nautical backdrop and excitement of LG livestreaming his way through his back catalogue. The Neg Earth prep sheet specified an array of Tungsten Coda Cyc floods around the stage edge, Tungsten Bulkhead fittings around the boat’s circumference, and Arri Lc-7 and Lc-5 Fresnels to light the band. “We chose the Arri’s to continue a classic, technology free feel in the aesthetic while sneakily giving us the ability of changing colour,” the designers remarked.
In keeping with the brief, Cassius Creative was given access to Neg Earth’s long-term storage area to dig through its archive of fixtures. “Like any of Neg Earth’s gear. It was all well maintained and, irrespective of how old it is, it often works the first time around,” Neg Earth’s Sam Ridgway said.
In addition to the Tungsten Bulkhead fittings, the floor package featured Astera AX3s, Solaris LED SoLED W840 Strobes, and Par 56 Short Nose Cans. Neg Earth fabricated custom wooden boxes to fit the Tungsten Bulkhead fittings to the barge deck.
“This project was a great opportunity to offer some work to the freelancers who have supported us over the years and have not been able to qualify for government support initiatives or the furlough scheme,” Ridgway underlined. “Any opportunity for us to give back to them is incredibly important to us.”
The lighting team comprised Lighting Crew Chief, Antti Saari, Mark Bradshaw and Andrew ‘Jurgen’ Munford, Lighting Operator, Jon Barker and long-time Liam Gallagher Lighting Tech, Martin Golding. “Live music is a vital pastime, we’ve been hard pressed to find anything to smile about this past year so if we continue to present high-quality broadcast events at an affordable price, not only does it provide live music fans with some much-needed respite, but it keeps the industry ticking over,” Ridgway stated.
‘I’VE NEVER BEEN INVOLVED IN A PROJECT ON A BARGE BEFORE’
As well as providing fixtures, Neg Earth supplied a bespoke control package and data network system, tapping into Pearce Hire’s on-site generators, with racks situated in a container. Pearce Hire’s Jake Vernum and Jake Langham supplied a distribution package which centred around a pair of synchronised 300kVA generators. “I’ve never been involved in a project on a barge before,” Vernum laughed. “Our greatest challenge was figuring out how to get the kit onboard. In the end, we reversed a truck onto the quayside as far as the harbour master would permit and craned them on.”
After a fairly fallow year of live projects, Vernum was pleased to be back onsite. “Thankfully, we at Pearce Hire, have had quite a few power contracts in 2020, but nothing involving upwards of 100kVA generators, so it was nice to be back in an outdoor space, wrangling powerful generators and wiring them up, away from building hospitals or installing external infrastructure for Amazon warehouses, which is what we’ve spent most of 2020 doing.”
Having watched the livestream back, Vernum was pleased with the outcome. “The helicopter shots were incredible,” he summarised. “We are very grateful to be involved during this difficult time for the industry.”
‘THE BEST THING THAT HAPPENED TO ME IN 2020’
Transition Video worked alongside Glasgow-based production company, Forest of Black to film the project. “Forest of Black was keen on a cinematic approach, so we specified Arri Amira and Arris Alexa cameras using a variation of cinematic lenses to achieve the look,” PM Rhodri Shaw clarified.
On board the barge were six cameras – a steady cam, a remotely operated track and dolly system, as well as a FOH camera and three handheld cameras. Following the barge was another handheld camera on a support boat, along with a motorbike with a camera operator picking up the shots required from land. “We contacted Helicopter Film Services and arranged the use of one of their Airbus AS355 twin-engine helicopters with a gyro-stabilised camera mount. They also supplied an Arri Alexa Mini camera, which kept the consistency of our cinematic look,” Shaw said.
Loading onto the barge the day before the shoot, the video team set up an OB unit and tested the cameras. “Driving the OB unit onto a barge was a challenge,” Shaw conceded. “However, once the OB was in situ, you could hardly tell you were on a boat.” In fact, the 50m by 15m barge is designed to hold 500-tonne cranes, so movement on the barge was minimal. The cameras connected on Wireless RF links to the OB unit where Video Director, Phil Woodhead and Video Director / Producer, Oscar Sansom of Forest of Black were positioned in the gallery.
“The direction and shots from Oscar Sansom and Phil Woodhead were stunning, and Brett Turnbull’s eye as DOP meant that by working with and emphasising what they were all envisaging, we were able to really create some stunning shots of the performance – without any individual visual element needing to dominantly take over,” Cassius Creative commented.
Having toured with Gallagher for three years, Woodhead was familiar with the artist’s back catalogue and on-stage movement, so was entrusted with the line cut during the show, while Sansom looked after the aerial, boat shots and edit with MelodyVR handled the livestream elements.
“We wanted to make it as special as possible because it was a real one-off show,” Woodhead noted. Outside of the broadcast unit and gallery, five Arris Amira cameras, four Arri Alexa cameras, additional cinematic cameras and Luna Remote Systems’ Junior 5 Telescopic remote track and dolly system. The dolly is fully encoded and can be used for AR and VR use with a track, which ensured all angles were covered. “We aren’t using typical touring cameras; these much higher spec cameras and lenses,” Woodhead enthused. “The glass in the lenses is top-notch, Hollywood-grade glass.”
Unable to replicate the latest incarnation of Gallagher’s stage show with no IMAG or graphics, the only elements the team could replicate from the tour was an attention to detail on capturing conventional rock ’n’ roll shots such as instruments, the band members and Liam’s signature stage presence, which included pointing at the steady camera operator and telling him, in no uncertain terms, to get out of the way.
“This was hands-down the best thing that happened to me in 2020,” Woodhead said with sincerity. “Everything about it. The premise of floating down the River Thames with Liam Gallagher was exciting. The way all the departments communicated and were pleased to see each other after such a long time off the road.”
The veteran VD was pleased to get a semblance of normality. “I know there are tens of thousands who haven’t been afforded that chance of working on a live show in 2020 and I am incredibly grateful.”
An additional support boat followed the barge with an RF link setup sending a live video feed showing the live cut. “This job took some serious planning by Ben Pomphrett and his team,” Shaw acknowledged, adding that the main challenges were organising the relevant permissions with the barge owner and the Port of London whilst ensuring a COVID-19 safe production. “Working on a boat was a little different to the norm,” he continued. “All crew had to wear life jackets along with face masks, but as soon as we were loaded in and tested, it started to feel like a normal shoot.” Health and Safety Manager, Jake Piper was on site to ensure appropriate PPE and necessary social distancing was adhered to, while all flight cases and equipment were sanitised by a specialist team before boarding the barge. “This shoot was months in the planning; we had intended to shoot a month before, but it got postponed,” Shaw recalled. “The actual shoot day then happened to be on the second day of lockdown. It was strange seeing the river so quiet and the streets of central London so derelict.”
While the level of production on the shoot was minimal, the focus was on the band performing live and passing famous landmarks. “Cassius Creative did a great job of lighting the band and barge. This was a streaming event without an audience, so it was all about the cameras. Forest of Black did a phenomenal job with the edit and we are proud to have been involved in this project, it is certainly one of my career highlights.”
Video world was manned by Project Manager, Rhodri Shaw; Video Engineers, Ben Mason and Carl Stage; Remote Dolly Operator, Dave Nixon and Remote Dolly Assistant, Lukas Rusek. “It was fantastic to be back working on a live show. After months of planning, the job ran seamlessly, and the product couldn’t have looked any better. This project will certainly stay with me forever and I’m proud to have been involved,” Shaw concluded. “This project was very different to the usual Liam show. We normally supply vast amounts of LED screens, media servers and a camera package for his touring arena shows, however, this show was all about getting the appropriate camera package and positions.”
‘CATHARTIC TO PREP A SYSTEM, LOAD A TRUCK AND GET BACK TO WORK’
Skan PA supplied an audio solution for Monitor Engineer, Bertie Hunter based on a single DiGiCo SD7 Quantum monitor desk featuring an SD-rack and an SD-mini-rack with 32-bit cards. As the monitor desk was housed half the world away from the traditional side-of-stage, Skan PA supplied extensions for all sub-multis.
While the location posed no logistical problems, using RF open air and moving was particularly challenging in the middle of a large city with plenty of the PMSE spectrum already in use. “With our colleagues at Ofcom PMSE, we devised a solution and Skan PA’s on-site RF expert, Liam Tucker, made it all work,” Skan PA Director, Chris Fitch commented.
On site, Tucker oversaw 16 mixes, Shure PSM1000 IEM systems, six d&b M2 wedges and a Reaper multi-track system for virtual soundcheck and archive material. Although Skan PA are not specialist recording engineers, the technology is such that the team routinely supply multitrack record and playback for tours, which have been used on major concert film releases in the past. As one of the UK’s largest audio equipment rental outfits, surprisingly, Down By The River Thames was one of Skan PA’s first major contracts in eight months. “Without doubt, it was cathartic to prepare a system, load a truck, and get back to work,” he enthused. “It was great to be involved in successfully delivering this show for Liam and to do some of what we are good at!”
Guessing ‘what’s next’ for Skan PA requires understanding the reorganisation required to reach the other side of this latest lockdown, while retaining operational capacity. “I’d like to say something optimistic about the future, but it feels bleak now,” Fitch admitted. “We have already closed one warehouse, disposed of 15% of our inventory and have 40% less staff but, with zero income, the future is a constant and unknowable anxiety.”
Although it remains slim pickings for the live events supply chain in comparison to prior years, Down By The River Thames marked a welcomed crescendo to a torrid 2020 for some of the crew members.
“This was my first and only gig of 2020,” Woodhead told TPi. “I have since opened my own craft beer and cider delivery service in my local in town of Shoreham to weather the economic storm of COVID-19, but nothing beats the thrill of live events – it was fantastic to get back in the director’s chair and do what I, and all the team involved, love to do.”
This article originally appeared in issue #257 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos: Forest of Black, Liam Tucker & Jon Barker (@professorbubbles)