As part of the UK government’s Events Research Programme (ERP), The BRIT Awards 2021 celebrated the return of live entertainment with an in-person audience of 4,000 local residents, most of them frontline NHS workers, at London’s O2 arena on 11 May. With it came a brand-new colourful stage, designed by Es Devlin OBE, along with set specialist, Diagon, who worked in collaboration with the famed designer to create and build it.
The design of this year’s presenter stage combined the use of maze architecture – which expressed the paths that many of those working within the creative industries have had to navigate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic – with the use of colour by multidisciplinary artist Yinka Ilori MBE, which symbolised a message of hope and something to look forward to during these difficult times.
Diagon worked with Devlin to bring her extraordinary vision to life, fabricating the structure at its London studio. The design ran through the stage backdrop and platform, the carpet across the room and was also used on the music performance stage in video content and throughout the TV production visuals.
This year’s BRITs was the latest in a series of collaborations between Diagon and Devlin, previous work includes her 2016 Mirror Maze and 2019’s Memory Palace at Pitzhanger Manor.
“It was great to be back working with the BRITs and to once again collaborate with the brilliant Es Devlin,” commented Diagon’s Liam Ownsworth. “It was a huge privilege to bring Es Delvin’s vision to life for the biggest night in UK music. Heralding the return of live music events, it was a special moment for everyone working within the creative industry, who have been especially hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The multiple layers and geometric shapes of the set needed to be built and installed without any visible supports from multiple angles for the camera shots, so internal spigot supports were used along with a few subtle flying points. Tasked with capturing a series of looks on the night, Luna Remote Systems supplied three Junior Remote Dollies, three Towercams, a four-point Eagle eye wirecam system piloted by Luna Remote Systems Head Technician, Gino Moodley and Luna Remote Systems Owner/Director, Dean Clish.
During the Coldplay opener, where the band performed a unique set floating down London’s Thames on a stage platform, Luna Remote Systems were on-hand with a trio of wireless Junior Dolliers with stabilised remote heads and a Towercam.
To ensure the safety of the performing artists and crew, The BRITs and O2 arena employed an accreditation system and comprehensive briefing information. Rapid COVID-19 testing was enforced on entry to the site with results delivered within 10 minutes and a schedule of retesting for staff on site throughout the build and show days. All contractors donned masks and the schedule was planned with more time than usual to allow for additional measures.
Diagon Managing Director, Tom Sabin commented: “The events sector is full of incredibly resilient and creative people, problem solvers who work to deadlines and with changing parameters. It’s testament to everyone involved that a complex show on live TV could be done so successfully right now and gives confidence to the industry going forwards.”
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LIVE SOUND RETURNS WITH BRIT ROW
“Safety was paramount”, began audio Crew Chief, Steve Donovan, working on behalf of audio supplier, Britannia Row Productions (BRP). “The BRITs were very different this year in terms of crew logistics and, in particular, the COVID-19 testing of every individual onsite. Crew were tested every 72 hours minimum throughout the course of the build and show. It was critical to ensure we didn’t have positive tests prior to show day.”
The BRP show team included two System Technicians, Laurie Fradley and Adam Smith, System Engineer, Sergiy Zhytnikov and System Designer and FOH Engineer, Josh Lloyd, who was charged with PA design and FOH artist mixes, while Chris Coxhead handled presenter audio.
Lloyd opted for DiGiCo Quantum 7 consoles, while Coxhead used a pair of mirrored SD12s with multiple layers of redundancy. A DiGiCo SD11 was utilised for the comms talk back system.
With no second stage required due to the limited capacity, Lloyd formulated an in the round system to suit the ‘horseshoe’ stage design. “We wanted to reduce the amount of spill and deliver a more direct sound for the people watching in the room,” Lloyd explained. “The fact that the floor space was relatively freed up meant that the performers were always placed behind the PA, and this made mixing somewhat easier.”
The L-Acoustics rig, which was tuned by Zhytnikov, comprised seven main arrays of K2s with KS28s behind the curve, augmented by three arrays of KARAs and KS21s. Flown LA amp racks were incorporated into the design and the floor deployment saw boxes of K2, KARA and X8 speakers in situ.
Lloyd explained: “Because we were positioned at the back of the venue, we mixed off the L-Acoustics X8 speakers rather than the main PA.” The point-source coaxial speakers really impressed Lloyd, who enthused: “size really doesn’t matter when it comes to L-Acoustics products, as the quality and tonality has the same sonic signature, regardless of the size of the box.”
As in prior years, an Outline Newton processor was specified to deal with several mission-critical tasks at the core of the audio system. Fradley described the role of the kit.
“The Newton was used to handle the matrix mixing from our FOH consoles into the PA and we were able to utilise its optical MADI, AES and analogue inputs to provide a main and redundant path from both the band console and presenter board,” he commented. “The 18 by 16 matrix also gave us additional inputs for playback, system tuning and alignment, with the unit simultaneously outputting back-up mixes for broadcast and additional effects used in the room.”
Newton’s ability to patch to the MADI output stream made it possible to provide each PA element with its own discrete back-up. “This eliminated the need to split the analogue signal and also allowed us the function of soft-patching the back-up from FOH should a change be required,” Fradley remarked.
Performing live and mixed by Lloyd were Olivia Rodrigo, Dua Lipa, Griff, Headie One, Arlo Parks, The Weeknd and Sir Elton John with Years & Years, while Rag’n’Bone Man’s duet with P!nk was mixed by Rob Sadler.
Sadler summed up his experience: “There was an excitement in the room that you just don’t get from an empty venue or a studio. Hearing a live band through a PA system for the first time in months was such a great feeling. With most of the audience being situated high up in the seats, a lot of effort had been put into making sure that the audio coverage was maximised. Brit Row and the entire audio team definitely delivered.”
Colin Pink assumed his recurring role as Live Sound Supervisor. In monitor world, an A-B system was agreed upon. “The O2 arena is never an easy room, even less so with just 4,000 people in it,” said Monitor Engineer, Nico Antonietti, who was riding faders on one of two DiGiCo Quantum 7 consoles alongside Dan Ungaretti.
Antonietti explained how user-friendly the desks are: “Dan had built a show file for past editions of the event, so we adapted it, made changes according to the requests of each guest artist and saved the presets. Each artist had a snapshot in order to avoid loading different show files during changeovers.”
This protocol helped to minimise any potential contamination. Each of the monitor consoles was connected to two SD Racks, one for band inputs and one for RF mics and playback. In addition, two Waves systems (one per engine) were required. Each console generated 14 mixes for Sennheiser SR2050 in-ear monitors and 10 mixes for 28 d&b audiotechnik M4 wedges, used primarily by the dancers.
As well as its deployment of bespoke capsules, Sennheiser provided technical support, despite the company having no on-site presence. “Manufacturer reps were only a phone call away and provided that layer of support from over the phone,” explained Lloyd.
Sapna Patel led the slick RF operation, aided by Britannia Row Head of RF, Technician Sam Spice. “Every artist had a dedicated handheld microphone that wasn’t used by anyone else,” said Patel. “We attempt that most years for technical and logistical reasons, and in the past, it wouldn’t have been an issue if mics were re-used but this year, it was vital they weren’t. I was the only technician outside of the artist bubbles to have contact with the microphones, so I kept it minimal.”
Headsets were fitted by the artist directly. Despite the unnerving effect COVID-19 has had on concerts, Britannia Row was keen to instil faith in the industry and incorporate live production students into the event’s audio team. Through its partnership with the BRIT School, two places were allocated by Brit Row Director, Lez Dwight.
BRIT School student Caitlyn Balderstone stated: “The experience gave an opportunity to meet and work with industry professionals in their element. Brit Row has shown me how important teamwork is to get a project done quickly and efficiently.”
Fellow student Edward Winnifrith added: “I’ve gained so much – it’s not only helped build my knowledge of equipment and processes but has built my confidence too. It’s allowed me to gain an insight into the live sound positions I aspire to hold in the future.”
Reflecting on a monumental re-emergence, Donovan concluded: “It was emotional seeing how engaged and loud the BRITs audience was, even in relatively small numbers. Audiences are critical to this industry. While the adoption of live streaming throughout the pandemic has thrown a lifeline to bands, crew and fans alike, nothing will ever compare to the live, human experience.”
Lloyd believes the BRITs 2021 marked a significant step forward: “It’s clear that artists thrive off live interaction, and the entire BRITs production team has shown that it is achievable to run a safe event while the pandemic is sadly ongoing.”
As the lighting supplier, PRG teamed up with The BRIT School to offer three students hands-on experience as part of an ongoing work placement partnership. The students were involved in the whole crew experience – from prepping equipment, loading in and the run of the live event to the load out.
PRG supplied 1,000 lighting fixtures, including 110 new Robe Tetra 2 Battens, several small GLP FR1 Washlites and over 80 wireless Astera LED Titan Tubes. The expansive lighting rig also featured 120 PRG Icon Edges, 76 Best Boys HP Spots, 47 Icon Stages, 11 individual Best Boy GroundControl followspot systems with seven GroundControl Longthrows with Manual Handles on the fixtures; 60 Robe Spiikes; 40 GLP JDC1s, 18 Chroma-Q Colour Force 72s MkII and 90 Martin Viper Performances.
All of this was controlled by two High End Systems Hog 4 and MA Lighting grandMA3 lighting consoles (running in 3 mode), with six MA Lighting processing units providing the processing for the 130 universes of DMX all distributed by the rock solid PRG S400 Super Nodes and Switches.
PRG UK Vice President of Event Services, Richard Gorrod said: “It is always great to have the students from The BRIT School on the show. We have a large amount of very experienced crew on this project. By providing a chance to work alongside them, we hope that they gain a large amount of experience and knowledge. It is nice to see them grow in knowledge and confidence throughout the week. Will, Kai and Josh were all great students willing to do anything to help. It’s a real win-win situation on both sides. Long may the relationship continue.”
Kai, William and Josh joined a long list of past students to work with PRG on this project. With several BRIT School alumni now working full time with PRG, this year’s students had the opportunity to work alongside their predecessors, seeing first-hand where their careers could lead.
BRIT School Director of Production Arts, Olivia Chew commended PRG for its support of entry level education in production, for working closely with the school to maintain clear and honest communication throughout the placements and for helping to provide confidence in their students at such an early stage in their careers.
“Our ongoing partnership with PRG provides our entry level Production Arts students with unparalleled access to the best equipment and experience available. Allowing our students to gain hands-on experience on some of the biggest live events in the world gives them an edge amongst their peers, be that in higher education or the freelance job markets,” Chew commented. “We are so grateful to PRG for supporting Production Arts at The BRIT School and ensuring that our diverse student body has the best opportunities within the events and performance industry.”
This article originally appeared in issue #262 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos: John Marshall – JM Enternational and Diagon.