The League of Legends World Final esports event at Beijing National Stadium in 2017 (Courtesy Star Events Ltd.)
The last 10 years have seen a dramatic shift in production staging, as advances in technology and the demand of artists seeking to justify higher ticket prices by presenting more dazzling shows for their fans push the size and scope of the creations and construction that companies in the industry produce.
Staging takes places across the board on live events — concert tours, festivals, Broadway and touring theatrical shows. Even corporate installations have gotten so elaborate that they require teams of staging experts to pull them off.
It’s a long way from the early days of touring, when the production elements were really “just a cover against the rain,” said Roger Barrett, special projects director for Star Events Ltd., based in the U.K. Gone is the era when an act went out with a couple of stools, a backdrop and maybe a smoke machine, he said.
Brigitte Fuss, an executive at Megaforce Staging Co. in Germany, agreed that today’s staging is calling for “higher, faster, further. The music business has changed over the past years. More money must be earned through live music events and at the same time, festivals and music concerts have become a global trend. These and other factors lead to a growing market with more competition. And more competition results in progress. So, we see a harder market than ever and the need to excite visitors with extraordinary shows and with elements that have never been seen before.”
Bill Gorlin, vice president of the entertainment division at McLaren Engineering Group, based in New Jersey, has been with the company since 2000. Gorlin’s company engineers for concerts, festivals, Broadway-style shows and corporate displays, exhibits and activations. His firm worked on Taylor Swift’s last two tours, the last U2 tour, and Broadway’s “Frozen” and the “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” stage show.
“The shows started to get big in the ’70s, they got bigger in the ’80s, and by the ’90s they started to need some serious engineering,” he said. “It’s evolved quickly and in a parallel manner to the theatrical industry. That industry started using wood flats and staging and migrated to metal and then scaffold-type supports, and all that has now been replaced with purpose-built modular staging systems.”
Theatrical touring shows are particularly difficult to construct, he said. “The ability to tour is vital to the viability to a show,” he said. “A touring show typically only gets a day or two to load into a venue. The design and rigging is quite different for something that has to load in and load out constantly versus a show that stays in one theater for a long time.”
“The productions are getting more challenging and we’re constantly looking for solutions to make it work,” said Tom Frederickx, project manager for Stageco. The company, which has offices in Europe and the U.S., specializes in electronic dance music festivals and has worked on many of Insomniac’s events, including Beyond Wonderland, Hard and Nocturnal, on multiple continents.
“The staging is getting really big and (has gone) a long way away from a small DJ platform to big productions that require multiple screens and set pieces,” Frederickx said. “The shows are also being sent all over the world, so the sets have to be adjustable and movable and it’s becoming more and more difficult to stage them.”
LED ADVANCEMENTS BLESSING AND CURSE
Advancements in LED screens have ramped up what is possible and what modern audiences expect. “Good-image-quality screens are pushing the structural designs,” Barrett said. “In the early days, a screen of 3 feet across was considered to be huge. Now we’re hauling in 200-foot screens.”
“Nowadays, bigger stages including more big LED screens is the norm,” Fuss said. “Some stages seem to be only LED. A large screen can be as big as 1,000 square meters (10,764 square feet).
Budgets can run from $100,000 to $500,000 for a one-off show, said Frederickx. Traveling tours can see budgets in the millions, Gorlin added.
With the productions growing in size and shape exponentially, one of the challenges is fitting them into older venues that were never built to house modern, elaborate, heavy and technically complicated sets.
Barrett used a recent AEG-promoted Roger Waters show in Hyde Park, “Barclaycard presents British Summer Time,” as an example of a show that tested the limits. “We used the entire length of the stage but had to cut back capacity to fit it all in,” he said. “That’s been happening over and over in the last two to three years.”
Fuss sees the bigger productions as a chance to move the industry forward. “Megaforce is always continuing to develop our systems. We are adapting to the new technical changes and we see these developments as new challenges to build stages with the highest level of efficiency, security and load capacity.”
The League of Legends World Final, an esports event held in 2017 at Beijing National Stadium (known as the Bird’s Nest when it was the focal point for the 2008 Summer Olympics), was an example of when the design was simply too big for the venue. “We ran out of space and had to chop away screens,” Barrett recalled.
Frederickx said he works closely with the designers to make sure what they’re creating will fit. “I often have to tell them to scale it back. My goal is always to find that out in the design phase rather than have a big headache on the ground.”
With the productions becoming bigger, load-in and load-out times are being stressed, Barrett said. “In the U.K. we have a very short summer,” he said. “That means shows are squeezing through short periods and the venues are really busy and are not interested in providing any more time to set up and pull down the productions than they did five years ago.”
“We’re having to get faster and faster, but there’s only so many hours in a day,” he said. “The venues want to take advantage of every day they can, and the artists want to bring in these gigantic shows, and it’s straining the relationship between the artists’ team and the venue runners. This problem seems to get worse every season with no solution in sight.”
Barrett also said that to save time, multiple vendors are all working at the same time, rather than sequentially as they once did, which creates challenges with them “bumping into each other and fighting for access.”
Vendors have to pick up the cost and are surviving by their ability to adapt to the new commercial reality, he said. “This is causing rapid development in structural systems. The days of guys building towers are long since gone. We’re working almost exclusively with cranes, using much bigger pieces.”
Finding the highly skilled employees required to run all the big equipment is also a challenge for production houses, with Brexit in the U.K. only adding to the lack of talent available, according to Barrett.
Brexit will stop the ability of non-U.K. workers to work in that country without special visas. “The agencies that we use to provide labor are finding it’s harder to attract people to work for them with vast amounts of people from Eastern Europe leaving the U.K. and going back to their own countries ahead of the Brexit deadline, which is March 2019.”
Fuss confirmed that finding qualified people is harder than ever “because of the higher complexity and the technical progress of stages.”
“It’s difficult to find the right people and the right amount of people,” said Frederickx.
Gorlin said that typically with a touring theatrical show there’s a full-time crew that moves with the production, but local labor is hired in each new location to supplement the core crew. He also agreed that technology advancements are making it harder and harder to find those workers.
WIND IS A BIG DEAL
The lack of people to build and set up the shows may be concerning, but more alarming to the experts is the safety of the crews, artists and fans as the weight of the productions grows bigger every year.
“We’re now building structures with built-in load monitoring capabilities, but we’re always at the mercy of the wind,” Barrett said. “Because the screens are now so massive, it’s not practical to take them down. We design the pieces with the wind load in mind, but the bigger the screens get, the more substantial the engineering needs to get.”
Lighter LEDs have made things more efficient, said Gorlin. “But at a price. The LED products are improving month by month and becoming much lighter, which then creates the wind challenges. The same screen that weighs 12,000 pounds today weighed 35,000 pounds 20 years ago. Making the systems lighter and better for touring has made them much more vulnerable to wind. The industry continues to struggle with this problem, and it gets worse with each new LED advancement.”
You must have an emergency strategy in case of wind, said Fuss, who added that Megaforce systems can hold up to wind force, but when the faced with anything higher they have to stop a show.
Frederickx also sees the wind factor as one of the most pressing issue facing staging companies today. “At a certain moment you have no choice but to shut down the show,” he said. “One of the production manager’s main jobs is to coordinate with local weather experts. It’s always better to cancel a show ahead of time than have to evacuate a site.”
Barrett said he’s finding that at the top end the resource and knowledge levels surrounding safety is good; it’s on the lower end where there is less control, less skill and less resources, and he believes that’s where the risks become much higher.
THE GROWTH OF CORPORATE ACTIVATION
Barrett is coming across one growth area outside of musical touring shows more and more often: “big brands looking to create weird and wonderful activations to show off their brand at festivals and other places.”
“But many of them come to us with mad ideas and little knowledge of actual production and rigging,” he said. “Those people often have no idea of the gravity of what they are proposing.”
Gorlin said his biggest challenge when designing for today’s landscape is probably “having to play policeman” while trying to meet client expectations. “I often have to explain regulatory issues and governmental rules to clients and tell them they can’t do something. There are height restrictions, weight restrictions, lighting restrictions and time of day restrictions that all need to be understood before even beginning to design a staging project.”
COLLATERAL EFFECTS OF NEW TECHNOLOGY
Gorlin sees technological changes as generally positive “but with collateral effects we need to be mindful of.”
He cited fabrication techniques as an area affected by new tech. “In the old days things were measured and cut in the shop on the floor. Now it’s all precision cutting machines using computer-generated geometry,” he said. “Today there are a lot of plates that get assembled jigsaw-puzzle style. That means we have lost the layout guy, and the people who specialized in that are out of a job.”
Frederickx called it an evolution. “New technology is great,” he said, “but training people how to use it can be tricky and time consuming.”
“People don’t really care about stages— until they fall over,” Barrett added. “We’re not about the glamour parade of screens and sounds; we’re about the engineering and the quiet professional discipline in the background. The pleasure is to enable the creative people to do what they do.”