Perhaps the most decorated of the modern-day era of rap music figures, Post Malone graced the 2020 Billboard Music Awards with a unique performance befitting the nine awards he scooped for top artist and top rap tour, among others on 14 October 2020. Behind the curtain of the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, there is an equally important success story – a core group of technically-proficient creatives joining forces for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 to present a unique BBMAs performance.
The last time TPi met the team behind Post Malone’s live shows was during the artist’s inaugural arena campaign in 2019. Speaking from the caverns of what was then known as Manchester Arena, long-time creative partners, Travis Brothers and Lewis James recalled the singer’s rapid rise in popularity. “It has been like a rocket ship,” James said. “Within the space of two years, we’ve gone from playing sold-out amphitheatres to stadiums – headlining Coachella and creating Posty Fest last year at AT&T Stadium with 60,000 people attending.”
Two years on, having made a name for himself in stage design and performance direction circles as one half of Post Malone’s show design collective, James sat down with TPi to reflect on the BBMAs, recalling a ‘factory reset’ to his creative process following the COVID-19 outbreak, leading him to explore new ideas resulting in the one-off performance.
“The expectation for Post Malone shows is a lot bigger than it used to be,” he began. “Thankfully, the team involved are all hard working and I don’t think there are many teams that can get things done in the timescales we are usually up against.” Case in point; the BBMAs performance was assembled in just over a week.
“We found this location 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles, which is essentially a large industrial wash plant,” James explained. “We wanted to explore a space that was beautifully unannounced – bringing life and energy to something that is otherwise raw and rooting itself in Industry.” James walked TPi through the multifaceted structure spanning three tiers with a staircase. Using the topography of structure in the simplest way was key as the creative team didn’t want to overcomplicate processes. “We wanted to embrace the location as opposed to the scale of the structure, until the very end, when the pyro was launched.”
The unique nature of the location posed a series of technical and logistical hurdles, such as getting the gear into the space and setting the kit up. Production Manager, Dennis Danneels and Tour Manager, Angela Warner enlisted the technical prowess of PRG for audio and lighting, PYROTECNICO, Star Power, Big Finn Productions for local labour and Ahern Entertainment as technical suppliers.
“The team loaded in within a day and worked through the night to get the handheld lights on to the structure,” James explained. “It was a difficult task, but the crew stepped up to the mark. There was a big explosion of energy from the crew who were unable to tour amid the lockdown. Not only did we want to bring this project to life, after several months off the road, I think everyone wanted to make it as good as possible.”
With most Post Malone projects grounded for the foreseeable, the luxury of time imposed by the COVID-19 lockdown provided the designers with increased creative parameters to explore. “We used to be constrained to whatever staging the TV show had. Whereas now, you’ve got the scope to explore way broader approaches to the design process, be that large scale or more intimate productions,” James said. “There’s not so much of a framework in place currently, so it naturally leads to a lot of scope on what a live performance can be.”
Operating remotely, Lewis and Brothers were able to tune into proceedings courtesy of modern spyware. A series of cameras were rigged across the site and structure. Recording software, Qtake allowed James and Brothers access to the cameras and they were able to communicate via Facetime and Zoom. “It’s very much like a bat cave for the live feed,” he remarked. “It’s one thing seeing it in person and being on set, but when you’re sitting behind a screen thousands of miles away analysing the camera feeds, you are constantly seeing it in its near final form, which is surprisingly helpful and rewarding.”
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‘PROVIDING NEW CONTENT IN LOCKDOWN’
Lighting was considered in layers. “We made use of external rear lighting to cast the entire structure into silhouette against the backdrop of the atmosphere we made, while at moments revealing the frame in a contrasting way,” James explained, adding that the role of lighting was reduced to a ‘specific mood’ to highlight the structure in a way that wasn’t initially obvious. “We made a lot of decisions going back and forth through multiple lighting looks like the structure itself creates so many interesting shafts and shadows based on where you place light.”
This was a particularly challenging process with the team in constant battle with the sun. “We only had a few hours to figure it all out, program, focus and finalise the entire performance,” James recalled.
For the project, Brothers and James enlisted the support of Lighting Director / Programmer and Stage Design Assistant, Dan Norman, who James dubbed as an ‘MVP’ of the project. “He was our eyes on the ground and in the air.”
PRG provided 48 Solaris Flares, 48 GLP JDC1s, four PRG GroundControl Followspot Systems with four Bad Boy HPs, eight Bad Boy HP Frames, 12 Jem ZR45s, 12 AF 2 Fans, a pair of MA Lighting grandMA2 full size consoles, an MA2 light console and Tyler GT Truss. A further trio of GLP JDC1 pods and FOH spot truss were suspended on 55’ Telescoping Forklifts.
Norman oversaw site visits, created 3D models of the structure in Cinema 4D, drafted plans in Vectorworks and coordinated with PRG on staging areas, crewing, and cable paths. “I helped the director and film crew with the walk through of the space the night before load-in so they could understand the artist blocking and movement, sourcing Telescoping Fork Boom Lifts, supplied by Ahern Entertainment, which were used to get the GLP JDC1 pods high enough,” he explained.
The challenge with this performance, James outlined, was unlike a traditional “broadcast stage”, the structure had no set direction in terms of framing; Post Malone and Tyla Yaweh walked through and around the structure much like a maze led by the camera, so pre-visualisation was key. “We recreated the entire machine in 3D and used virtual cameras to enable us to time the performance out and place atmosphere and pyro so they would shoot off in sync and in frame.”
Using Syncronorm previsualisation software, Depence², Norman was able to try out a few fixture types, beam fixtures, spots, other wash lights, but discovered that the GLP JDC1 with the RGB plate and strobe strip was the best option for light output. “We needed bright colours to wash the structure from the pods, but also a crisp white to pop on the hits, often visible through the pipework and machinery,” Norman noted. “Brightness was essential with such a large surface to cover. Using the Aggressive Mode, I was able to get the high output needed.”
PRG Bad Boy HP Frames and a GroundControl Followspot System was chosen due to the power output of the units. A PRG Bad Boy HP Frame was situated in each pod position. “We didn’t want many moving heads on the show, so larger brighter units were the way to go. We filmed on the front and back, so they were used as key lights shuttered to the back platform for parts and building washes for other moments,” he added. “GroundControl with remote operators made the operation of the show easy. I like having control of colour and intensity, giving the operator P/T plus Iris made it great to hit all the timecode moments without complicated cue calling.”
Walking TPi through the rest of the lighting rig, he noted: “Solaris Flares were undoubtedly the workhorse fixtures. They are bright, simple, but they deliver wonderful colours. We wanted a fixed colour wash to put into the sand pit, so we didn’t have to worry about mechanical failure due to sand getting into motors or belts and Solaris Flares were the perfect choice.”
For control, Norman needn’t look elsewhere. “MA2 has been my ‘go-to’ for years, I’ve always been able to accomplish my designs efficiently and quickly using their MA2 software. The hardware is easy to set up and configure, we had no issues with the network or hardware.”
During the load-in, Norman marked out the lighting positions to help expedite the gear placement. He then programmed the show using timecode on an MA Lighting grandMA2 console, with James and Brothers providing notes via FaceTime. “Lewis had a clear idea of what he wanted the performance to look like. Very bold operatic gestures of light, washing the entire structure from a few key angles,” Norman stated. “We never tried to hide the location, we embraced it. Using shadows, bright and dark shafts of light, and always lots of fog and atmosphere.”
Norman and the team hand placed lights inside the structure in ways that would allow enough light to pass but also generate interesting shadows. “There is so much grating, pipework, ventilation shafts and machinery of all shapes and sizes to work around… It is such a unique structure to light; it’s not every day you get a set with so many angles for light and shadow to dance on.”
While virtual performances are gaining popularity, Norman believes that it is still important to showcase the physicality of live music. “There are so many virtual productions using XR stages at the minute that when you see a production that uses real equipment and locations, it’s really refreshing. Being stuck at home, we still need new content to help ease the boredom and mundanity of lockdown,” he underlined. “It is so important to provide audiences with new content to help keep them inside.”
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‘THE SHOW MUST GO ON’
Pyrotecnico VP of Live Events, Rocco Vitale oversaw those responsible for handling pyrotechnics for the performance. “Lewis and Dennis reached out with a concept of filming a performance in a quarry in California. In addition to SFX and lasers, we also have a large firework display division; with that, we were able to provide some innovative solutions for the look they were going for with the show.”
As soon as they received reference photos, Vitale and SFX Designer, Ron Bleggi began hammering out ideas, which resulted in the landmark performance. “Pyrotecnico did an excellent job of finding some weird and wonderful stuff for us to play around with,” James reported, including lighting mines, shells and 400ft comets. “It was key for us to be playful with the atmospherics; these were all delicately picked and considered together to form an ever-changing and evolving backdrop, as well as, of course, bringing the spectacle that is a pyrotechnic display.”
The various looks were all masterfully operated by a Pyrodigital control system. Keeping it simple and almost picturesque, the design team opted for a muted colour palette of white, red and some silver tails on the comets. The delicate palette was chosen to create a cool and refined composition as opposed to a raucous firework show – all while maintaining the signature, smoky and foggy atmosphere of typical Post Malone shows.
The Pyrotecnico team deployed a series of products from its Spanish vendor. “They make some unique and beautiful effects, which are not traditionally seen in stage show performances and, based on the fact we had a lot of real estate to work with at this venue, we were able to put forth some cool effects, including a red lighting effect and motor mines.”
Despite the unique nature of the task, Vitale was not unnerved by the quick turnaround. “We live in a very fast society; technology has pushed us to that and one of the things we pride ourselves on is our ability to turn around a project fast with distribution networks across the States.”
Aiding Vitale in the project was the experienced crew of Bob Mays, Alex Smith, Christine Bernat, Spencer Lowry, Josh Smith, Dave Yarbrough, Marc Domings and George Zamora.
Vitale concluded: “One of the beauties of this situation we’re all in, people in the production and creative industries are finding ways to entertain people. Whether that is as a livestream of a film shoot in a rock quarry somewhere. The industry isn’t allowing the pandemic to dictate the narrative. It may look and feel different, but the show must go on.”
James, concurred, stating how it is more important than ever to provide live music fans with new experiences. “Many people crave live music more so now than ever and with all that’s going on, attempting to make memorable performances that strike a connection is what it’s all about.”
This article originally appeared in issue #257 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos courtesy of Lewis James