While some may argue that too few artists have done their bit to raise awareness for the people of the music industry who since March 2020 have been forced to stop practicing their profession, one artist who has stepped up to the plate is singer-songwriter and former One Direction star, Niall Horan. Joining forces with the crew-led organisation, We Need Crew, on 7 November 2020, the singer welcomed fans from around the globe to bear witness to a one-off performance from the eerily empty Royal Albert Hall, with all profits going to his touring family and technical entertainment charity, Backup.
In the lead up to the livestream, Horan could be found on almost every television network, promoting the show and explaining why the performance required the attention of all music lovers. In his own words: “I’m putting on this gig to raise awareness of the immense value they bring to an industry enjoyed by so many and do something to help them and their families. I ask all my fans to support them with me and buy a ticket if you can, and I encourage all artists to do the same.”
With several weeks passing since both artist and crew took over the RAH, TPi caught up with the crew behind the project and to get their thoughts on this very special event.
“I remember it was a Monday morning when I got the call from Karen [Ringland] and Alice [Martin], who explained the concept of We Need Crew,” reminisced Ant Carr, Head of Production for Modest! Management. Both founders of We Need Crew explained to Carr that the goal of We Need Crew is, in association with #WeMakeEvents, to raise money for touring professionals who have fallen on hard times due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What really appealed about their organisation was that it was created by crew, for crew,” Carr said. “Around the same time, I was having conversations with Niall, who had already seen a few peers doing livestream performances, and we discussed the idea of performing in an iconic venue to raise awareness for the plight of the industry.”
With these two conversions in mind, Carr began to pull the pieces of would become Horan’s streamed performance together, as well as a big launch for the We Need Crew campaign. Carr and the rest of the Modest! team got to work reforming his touring family, whose album cycle had been stopped prematurely in March 2020.
“We were in LA when everything began shutting down,” stated Carr, who explained how he and the rest of the crew were in their last few weeks of promo before heading into rehearsals for Horan’s world tour. “We were finishing up a week on James Corden when the announcement came that the borders were due to be shut, so we all had to head back to the UK pretty quickly.”
After several months with no work, both Carr and the rest of the crew were all enthusiastic about getting back together to put on a very special performance. “In many ways, it was like we had never been away,” explained Production Manager, Andy Colby. “There was a part of me that thought it might have been a bit strange with it being so long since we worked together, but 30 minutes into the first rehearsal at SW19, it was like we had just got off the plane from LA.”
Colby was one of many familiar faces from Horan’s touring family who got the call to help with the livestream, alongside several technical suppliers including Wigwam and midnight:lights. KB Event provided a Megacube Artic for rehearsals in SW19 along with a Tech Kit for the show, oversaw by Lead Driver, Steve Crawley. Pulse Films and promoter, Driift were brought into the fold to make the event a reality.
In total, some 127,000 tickets for the performance were sold to 151 countries. “The response we had from fans was fantastic,” enthused Carr. “The funds raised are going to be able to help a good number of touring crew and their families and we kept this in the forefront of our mind in all aspects of the show.”
Carr was also quick to complement the attitude of the man in front of the camera. “Niall was very involved in every step of the process. He really gained a full grasp of the situation and during the promotion of the show, he really wanted to educate the public, and his fanbase, about what was going on in the sector.”
SETTING THE STAGE…
A few weeks from the broadcast date, a small group visited the Royal Albert Hall to make a start on planning how the show would come together. Lighting and Show Designer, Emma Bull and Director, Paul Dugdale led the creative vision. The livestream began with Horan performing a song on the piano on the venue’s stage, before walking down to the centre of the room to play the rest of the show in 360° in the centre of the hall. A top priority for the visual team was putting both Niall and the venue in the spotlight.
Bull elaborated: “Although several dance shows utilise the centre of the room, Paul’s Dugdale’s suggestion to do this for a music act felt fresh and was a strong starting point for the design,” she noted. “Having Niall and the band in the centre gave us a few options to really show off the building and take advantage of the fact the whole space was empty.”
One of her design ideas to make use of the space was to fill the empty boxes of the hall with lights. “It really ‘shined a light’ on the fact that there was nobody in the space,” she commented.
Aiding her in both the programming and running the show was Richard White of midnight:lights. “In total, we built 114 bespoke plinths for the audience boxes,” he stated. “On these sat a combination of Robe LED Beam 150s and Robe Spiiders.” The arrangement of these fixtures and boxes created a 360° backdrop of the central stage, with fixtures focussed into the room as well as back on themselves to flood the boxes.
The other key lighting elements included three Robe BMFL Robospots for keylight, which were placed in the venue’s gallery level. “We kept most of the control of these at the console with it being a 360° shoot,” stated White. “We were then able to shift the keylight/backlight across the fixtures as the camera tracked.” Around the central stage, the lighting team deployed SGM Q2s to provide some glowing footlights, along with Litepanel Gemini Softlights for Niall’s microphone position. “From the beginning, I knew I didn’t want there to be any rigging or trussing in the shot,” explained Bull. “We didn’t want anything to distract from the key elements of the shot – Niall and venue – to produce a clean look.” This is also why the visual department moved away from the idea of a backdrop and instead showed off the immensity of the famed venue.
Aiding both Bull and White in their endeavours was Lighting Programmer, Dan Young. In the lead up to the show, both Young and White spent several days in the previs suite at midnight:lights using Syncronorm Depence² to plan the show. “I have worked with both Dan and Richard several times and they have a great understanding of my aesthetic,” praised Bull. “I like things to be quite static in terms of colour palette with refined looks.” During the show, White oversaw the key lighting with Young programming all the moves. This gave Bull the freedom to act as a go-between between both the lighting and the stage to ensure the integrity of the design for the broadcast.
“The main challenge for this show was to provide consistent lighting over the different shooting styles,” mused White. “On one hand, we needed to have soft beauty lighting for close-up shots and steadycam work, but we also needed to make sure that the stage was physically as clear as possible for all the wide room shots and overhead wire-cam.” To add a level of accuracy, most of the live show was programmed to timecode because the visual team were situated outside of the room during the shoot.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, LIVESTREAM…
Jim Parsons was brought in by Pulse Films to assume the role of Producer. “By the time I got involved, the concept had already been fairly well developed by Emma Bull and Paul Dugdale,” Parsons began. “From my side, it was a case of getting all the video and visual elements and working out some of logistics of how we’d get the event to the finish line.”
Parsons has collaborated with Horan several times over the years. “The fact he came from the TV world means he has much more of a grasp than many of his peers of what goes into this style of performance and how to connect with fans through a camera,” he enthused.
Speaking a few weeks after the event took place, Parsons reflected on what he and the team achieved with the livestream. “We always knew we had an opportunity to do something different with this show,” he commented. “The end resulted was big and beautiful, but it was still ‘live’. It had the feel of a real show and didn’t come across prescriptive or dull.”
Parsons went on to describe the collaboration between himself and Driift, having worked together several times during 2020 on shows for Kylie Minogue and Sleaford Mods. “Ric Salmon and the rest of the Driift team are the kind of broadcasters I really like collaborating with in that they just let you get on with your work,” stated Parsons plainly. “They were obviously interested in the initial conversations and in the creative, but once it was all in place, they left us to it.”
Driift CEO, Ric Salmon offered his two cents on the project. “The fact that Niall ended up selling 127,000 tickets for the event is such a huge achievement, made all the better as it was all for such an amazing cause,” he stated. Unsurprisingly, 2020 was a busy year for Driift as the company offered livestreaming solutions for several artists. “There are almost too many benefits with this format of show,” stated Salmons while discussing the progression of livestreaming solutions that have only expanded in the past few years. “As we move forward, I think you’ll find more people opting for this style of event over, say, music videos,”
Parsons described what it was like working in the RAH. “It’s a beautiful venue, but we have all seen it thousands of times and there’s no denying that making it look different is quite a challenge. So, hats have to go off to the visual team for making this livestream look so unique.”
A Luna Remote System Junior 5 Telescopic remote compact dolly on a circular track along with a Dactylcam Pro point-to-point wire camera system captured the magic of the livestream. The spanned the periphery of central stage to present virtual audiences with a 360° view.
Camera Supervisor and joint Owner of Luna Remote Systems, Dean Clish discussed what it meant to be involved in such a prestigious show. “It was an honour to be involved in Niall’s show,” he commented. “It was for such a great cause and it’s always good to be in the Royal Albert Hall – you can’t go wrong with such a beautiful location.”
He continued to discuss why the camera selection was ideal for this type of performance. “The Junior 5 and the Dactylcam Pro are perfect for this kind of shoot because of the need to socially distance and, of course, with this sort of intimate production, they are both really unobtrusive and discreet systems,” he explained. “We’ve rigged the Dactylcam in the Royal Albert Hall before. It’s a brilliant system to use in there as you can really capture the essence of the hall from a height, in flight, in a way that you can’t with static systems.”
The production brought back the audio double act of FOH Engineer, Matthew Kettle and Monitor Engineer, Joe Campbell to oversee the mix for the livestream and the band on stage. Having started working with Horan on his first solo album cycle, Kettle gave an overview of his time with the artist. “I didn’t really know what to expect before I’d heard the debut record and, as I was more known for working with rock music, I wasn’t sure I’d be the right fit,” he commented. However, with Horan’s solo music citing influences including Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen, the Engineer explained how it had been a fruitful partnership over the past three years. “Niall is really quite involved with the audio production and often during rehearsals will listen to the mixes to get a feel of what is being produced.”
Having been put on a hiatus since the tour’s cancellation in March, Kettle described what it was like to pull the pieces back together for the tour. “It’s really quite a different process producing a mix for a livestream compared to a live show,” he mused. “I have always had massive respect for broadcast engineers as it is such a different craft. When you’re mixing live in a venue, if anything goes wrong, you can fix it for the next performance. However, with a broadcast, everything is under much more of a microscope and under a great deal of scrutiny. Not only that, but you only have one shot at a show.”
Kettle explained that once he and the team entered rehearsals, they soon found their rhythm. “The approach to mixing was not too dissimilar to what we had already been working on for the tour. Just like the visual department, we didn’t want the production to be too flashy, aiming to simply reflect the intimacy of the performance without too much embellishment,” he commented.
For this reason, both Kettle and Campbell virtually replicated their audio setups they had planned to use for the world tour, featuring two DiGiCo SD5 consoles for monitors and FOH, along with Shure Axient Handhelds with Sennheiser 2000 Series IEMs, d&b audiotechnik wedges and a V-Series for side fills.
The console setup was not significantly different from the touring configuration, with multiple inputs from various SD-Racks in different parts of the stage and performance areas going to the broadcast SD5, all connected by an Opticore loop and shared with Campbell’s SD5 in monitor world. “The SD5 is my favourite console in the world,” said Campbell. “I love it and, because DiGiCo products are well proven and rock solid reliable, we rarely have to include them directly in what we do.” Cambpell was initially concerned in the lead up to the show, having not touched a desk since March. “Thankfully, Wigwam had kept the desks in pristine condition – so much so that our show files were even still loaded on the desk from the tour. This saved a great deal of time in rehearsals and certainly made it easier to get back into the saddle.”
Campbell was keen to replicate the same stage setup for Niall and the band. “During the tour, although he uses IEMs, I still have a wedge and side fills just in case he wants to take out his ears to hear the crowd,” he explained. “Even though it was a livestream with no audience, I wanted the show to feel as familiar as possible for him and the band.”
Despite a relatively “meat and potatoes” band setup, Campbell had just under 100 inputs on his desk – the result of several reverb returns and an elaborate talkback system. “Each one of the band members have a talkback mic so throughout the performance they can talk to one another and me,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Kettle’s ‘FOH’ position was slightly further away, setting up in a corridor off from the main hall. “Wigwam prepared an acoustic treatment kit so I sat at the desk with several studio monitors to mix the show and then sent my audio feed to the Pulse team,” stated Kettle. “Before going into the RAH, I was concerned with how the room would react with no audience in there to dampen the sound, but from the first sound check it sounded fantastic.”
Discussing Wigwam’s involvement with the project, Tom Bush commented: “We were all extremely proud to be supplying Niall’s livestream, especially as it was addressing the We Need Crew and #WeMakeEvents funds and highlighting what goes into putting on a production with the unseen and behind-the-scenes rolls.”
Bush went on to explain the approach to this type of performance: “A slightly different thought process can be needed – the standard positions for mixing, for example. The package wasn’t too dissimilar to the one we had ready for the world tour, so we had a good starting point. A few additions and tweaks were needed to adhere to the show setup, but Matt and Joe’s attention to detail made sure the process was smooth. The need for trucks full of PA hasn’t been required yet, but soon hopefully. We currently have a few livestreams pencilled in that we’re all looking forward to.”
Looking back at the slew of 2020 livestreamed performances, Niall Horan stands out among the crowd, not only for its aesthetic, but because of everything it represented – not to mention the sizeable pot of funds it raised for the live events industry.
As we enter a new year with the live events sector entrenched in the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hope is that more musicians will follow in Horan’s footsteps to shine the spotlight on hardworking crew members that are so often out of sight and mind to the average live music lover. In the meantime, more information regarding the We Need Crew initiative can be found on www.weneedcrew.co.uk
This article originally appeared in issue #257 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos: Conor McDonnell
(firstname.lastname@example.org / @conormcdphoto)