LeRoy Bennett continued his long-standing artistic collaboration of over 15 years with Paul McCartney for the 2017 One on One world tour, in the featured roles of creative director, production and lighting designer. We spoke to LeRoy about his collaboration with McCartney, his design inspirations, and his approach to stadium-scale lighting and set creation.
What was your starting point on designing for this production?
Over the years I’ve evolved the show through either advancing new technology or adding new elements to the production. This enables me to create a fresh, new show without starting from scratch. This is primarily because we don’t have a huge amount of rehearsal time, so the production design execution takes what we’ve done in the past, then augments and reshapes it.
You’ve spoken about the very visual nature of your emotional response to music. How do you translate those feelings into a design?
For me, like many others, The Beatles’ and Paul’s music has really influenced who we are and how we listen to music in a variety of different ways. Listening to that music evokes important times in my life . . . It conjures a time and a space, and I honestly believe that it does the same for anybody who has listened to and loved Paul’s music, and who comes along to the shows.
Paul’s music spans so many decades and so many different styles. I have such a great appreciation for so many styles of music - every song is its own story. So within the production design I have to be able to translate visually the emotions of a time and a place in the music. My approach is to do this in an abstract way, not necessarily an obvious way.
What specific inspirational veins did you tap and why?
A lot of what The Beatles’ and Paul’s music did was very specific, not just in musical style but also as it related to the particular graphical, inspirational styles of the era, whether it was what they did with Peter Max, or A Hard Day’s Night, or the Monty Python-style graphics mixed with psychedelic styles. This is what I drew from.
Paul is an artist himself, outside of being a musical artist, and so we also drew on a number of his favourite visual artists and incorporated their artwork into the art style. There are a lot of things that I always tap into for any of the designs for Paul’s shows. For the One on One tour, we animated the album cover for Sgt. Pepper, because it was the 50th anniversary. It was fun turning a still image into an animated video clip.
How difficult is it to create that connection between a solo artist and the audience on a stadium scale?
The main thing is to keep the focus on Paul, on the solo artist. It’s easy to lose any artist on a stage, particularly on a stadium scale. A lot of how I do that is through the use of the big, vertical, portrait IMAG screens . . . But at the same time, you have to keep the focus towards the centre of the stage, so that it’s always about Paul, even though he is playing within this kind of an atmospheric, abstract world of lights and video. The transition from a large arena to a stadium is about scaling things up, but still keeping the focus.
What do you find most satisfying about creating a spectacle on this scale?
For me, it’s being able to keep the audience immersed within the spectacle of the concert, no matter what the scale is. What’s most interesting is that the idea is to try to make the audience feel that they are lost within this world of music and visuals. It’s fun to do that in front of a stadium-size audience.
I always take into consideration that the audience spends a lot of money to see the artist. It’s very important to me that they get more than their money’s worth based on my participation in the production.
What’s important to McCartney in the visual design?
Paul takes a big interest in the production design. Most of his focus is on the video content: he has a keen eye for graphics and art, both of which are very important to him.
Basically, Paul and I are completely on the same page with what we’re trying to do, with the exception of certain things where he is very specific about what he’s looking for. For most of the other parts of making this experience happen within the show, he trusts my judgement as to how it gets done.
How does McCartney compare with other artists you’ve worked with?
“There are three types of artist that I usually categorize: artists that understand exactly what they want; artists that don’t really know but are open to anything; and then the artists that do kind of know, but don’t really know how to express it! Paul is in the first category: there are very specific things that he likes, although he’s also very open to collaboration and that’s what’s great about him. I really enjoy working with artists like Paul, like David Bowie or Trent Reznor, that are so collaborative - not that I don’t enjoy working with other artists! It’s just a very interesting and stimulating way to work, with artists that have a very strong vision of what they’re looking for.
When it comes to the production design, he likes to know exactly why I’m thinking the things that I’m thinking, and how I’ve integrated his thoughts into the whole production design.
What are your priorities when specifying fixtures? How important is the quality of the light output to you?
Quality is always very important for me, in reliability as well as light output. Flexibility of effects is also an important factor in any lamp choice. In this design we used GLP-X4s, Ayrton Magic Panels and Vari-Lite VL6000 Beams - all of which brought new and different visual layers that didn’t exist for previous tours. The VL6000s were reminiscent of the original VL1 but in a larger format - I liked the rawness of how it functions.
You’ve designed shows for many of the biggest names in music. What would you still like to achieve in your career?
I have been very lucky and blessed in my career,” he says. “I’ve been at it for a long time and as much of a dream gig as it is, it has also taken a lot of work to build it up . . . it doesn’t happen instantaneously, it’s a trial-and-error learning process every day. I’m still learning. There are so many things that I envision that I can achieve through the advancement of technology. I’m presently working on an interesting project, that will hopefully enable me to achieve that goal.