It's A True Team Effort
Fenton Williams and a team of talented individuals create a dynamic blend of video and automated luminaires
Published Monday, October 8, 2007
by Bryan Matthews

On August 1, 2007, the Grammy® Award-winning and multi-platinum record-selling group Dave Matthews Band launched their summer tour at Tweeter Center in Mansfield, MA. Behind the scenes of the sold-out tour, lighting designer Fenton Williams and co-lighting designer/programmer Aaron Stinebrink, along with a team of talented individuals, worked together to create an exciting and captivating lighting design combining the best in LED video and automated luminaires. And to anchor the automated luminaire package, this creative team chose the VARI*LITE® VL3500™ Wash and VL3000™ Spot luminaires, supplied by Theatrical Media Services in Omaha, NE.

In developing their latest North American tour, the Dave Matthews Band production team began looking at new ways to showcase the free-spirited band. To accomplish this, they first began looking for innovative ways to use LED video. Williams wanted to move away from the typical video screens seen in many of today's tours, so the team got to work.

Williams began, "I drew up a few ideas early on in the design phase and then took them over to Aaron. He and I together then began to bounce around other possibilities, and once we had our collaboration complete, we sent the drawings to set designer Bruce Rodgers for his input. All of our designs are truly a team effort."

As Williams, Stinebrink and Rodgers continued to delve into just how to use video screens on the tour, they landed on the idea of using LED video as the backbone of the set design. The LED screens would then be called upon to support live camera feeds, b-roll video, and various lighting effects, while being hung directly behind the band.

"We spoke with Filament Productions who turned us on to the HelixTM G75 LED columns from Element Labs, and so we placed three of the units directly upstage of the band," continued Williams. "We then wanted to use the MiTrix LED Screen, from Barco, to add depth and create dimensions on stage, but we weren't quite able to angle the two screens the way that we wanted and overlapping too many LED screens caused visual confusion. So we wondered what would happen if we encircled the band with the LED screens? What happened was that it gave us a sort of teepee effect, and we could now control a total of five separate LED screens individually, in groups, or all together as one. It allowed us to really mix the video up."

With the set design for the tour now in place through the use of LED screens, the search for automated luminaires to complement the design took place. By using five large LED screens as the backdrop, Williams and his team needed automated luminaires with enough actual lumen output to stand up against the intense brightness created from the video.

"We needed the lights bright enough to really punch through the LED," explained Williams. "Plus we do a lot of audience lighting using gobos and color-mixing. We needed automated luminaires with great color-mixing and the power necessary to work in tandem with the video without being drowned out."

Continuing to work with TMS, Williams and his team were offered their newly acquired inventory of VL3500 Wash luminaires. With an actual light output of over 50,000 lumens and the color-mixing system found only in a VARI*LITE luminaire, 16 VL3500 Wash luminaires were specified for the automated lighting package.

"This tour is very much video driven and the lighting is used to accent the video," said Stinebrink. "I really like the VL3500 Wash with the narrow/clear lens that provides a nice tight beam that beautifully shoots over the stage and into the house. Plus we can close the VL3500's Vari*Brite Lens to return the emphasis to the video."

Williams added, "The VL3500 Wash is awesome. I have really enjoyed them and they are a dynamic light. We are using the units for stage lighting which slowly moves over the band and then to shoot out into the audience creating for a great atmosphere in the air. The lights are constantly moving and flowing throughout the show."

To further complement the lighting design, TMS also supplied 36 VL3000 Spot luminaires for the production.

Stinebrink continued, "We use the VL3000 Spot in the beginning of the show to highlight the video walls, which are turned off, with gobos and graphics giving texture to the screens. They are also used to highlight the individual band members."

"Then as we add in the LED video," said Williams, "we use the VL3000 Spots for a majority of the audience light to create the ambience in the house using the color-mixing and gobos."

With the automated lighting package firmly in place, the design team next moved into the programming phase of the production. But programming for a Dave Matthews Band tour is not an easy as it seems. With a plethora of established hits in their song catalog, the Dave Matthews Band is not committed to one particular set list. Random songs on random nights can make a lighting designer and programmer's duties a little bit tougher.

Williams explained, "The way I have the lighting set up is that we really wing it a lot. We have definite set looks preprogrammed in the console and then we just recall them as the show moves on."

Stinebrink agreed, "This lighting design is very interactive because the band is often improvisational. We get a set list about 30 minutes before the show and we have about 70 songs with preprogrammed looks. Then we just add in existing automated effects on top of the looks. It's great because the fans won't see the same show twice. It's a different show every night."

Added Williams, "But we have to be ready for whatever. For instance, they may play a song that they have not done in years. If we don't have a palette set up, we'll recall the palette of a similar song and use it. We've set up a good base to work with and the rest of it, we sort of fly by the seat of our pants. But with the VARI*LITE luminaires, we have so many effects possible that we can basically wing whatever we want."

As the tour prepares to wind down on October 2, 2007 at the Hollywood Bowl, Williams and Stinebrink have been very pleased with the outcome and performance of their unique lighting design, which is a masterful collaboration between LED and automated lighting,

Said Stinebrink, "We have used many fixtures throughout the years, but the VARI*LITE luminaires have been rock solid. It's been a very pleasant tour from the start."

"Both the VL3500 Wash and VL3000 Spot have worked excellent on this tour," confirmed Williams. "They are very reactionary lights in that they move the instant you tell them to move and their performance has been fantastic. I am extremely pleased with how everything in our design has held up throughout the tour."

Fenton Williams has served as the lighting designer for the Dave Matthews Band for over 15 years. Throughout his tenure, he acknowledges that all aspects of the design phase and tours have been a team effort. And this tour is no different. For this tour, Williams wishes to acknowledge the dedicated efforts of Mai Sakai and Sean Dougall with Tribe Design, Pete Franks and the whole staff at Theatrical Media Services, Filament Productions, and of course Aaron Stinebrink and set designer Bruce Rodgers.

Williams concluded, "It's is truly an overall team effort. There is no real separation of duties. We all jump in together. If one member of the team has a good idea we go with it. We all have a great time and work very well together. This is a true team environment and a great group to have working side by side."

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