J.Lo's It & # 39; s My Party tour starts with a bang. The curtain falls and shows that the artist dangles over the stage covered with Swarovski crystals. She sits in a sparkling hoop that sits under a wine glass chandelier. There are hundreds of balloons, dozens of dancers, and a multi-story video screen, all in different shades of purple and pink. It's a bombastic spectacle – and every detail was designed by a small creative team called Silent House.
Working at Silent House brings Alex Reardon behind some of the most visual moments in music. As creative director, designer and partner of the production group in Los Angeles, the list of acts with which Silent House has worked reads like a billboard table: Meghan Trainor, The Weeknd, Demi Lovato, Brockhampton, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj.
Reardon says his job is to figure out how to unlock an artist's “core” and show it on stage. In more practical terms, this means that he (and Silent House) can act as a one-stop shop for an artist's performance or tour, managing show design, production, creative directing, choreography, finance, logistical solutions, and more. Often, all of this is done in just a few months. "What we do is architecture at speed," laughs Reardon.
Even something as apparently simple as the floor an artist is standing on must be fully considered by Reardon and his team. For Tyler, the creator's blowout grammys performance, which Tyler put in the middle of an inclined set that was supposed to look like a street in the neighborhood, Silent House had to find a coating that met a number of creative requirements: So the set was Sharply Angled When Tyler moved onto the stage, a grippy floor texture was required and the coating had to withstand the flames that would shoot around him. A stack of metal tiles covered with pebble-like textures to test different floor finishes is still sitting in Reardon's office when I go to the Grammys.
We all know the end result of a show: the explosive, exaggerated moments full of ever-changing lifts, sets, videos, booming things and sparkling lights that astonish. But it can easily be forgotten that everyone, no matter how complicated, starts with "a meeting and a blank sheet of paper," says Reardon. After producing several appearances at this year's Grammys and Khalid's Free Spirit Tour, Reardon and I talk about how to bring some of the greatest music shows to life.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
How long does it take to get from an idea to a show?
We started working lightly on the Grammys in November. In general, however, it takes between four and six months.
It is not very long.
No it is not. We go from inspiration to the team that produces renderings, changes the budget, redesigns, and renders again and again until we get to “You like it, yay!”. Then we build it.
What we do is architecture for speed. But it is our basic speed. So it's not that scary if you do it all the time. If you took someone out of a normal job and just sent them in, the process would likely chew them up.
You did Tyler, the creator's most recent Grammys performance and his IGOR tour. During a recent panel, you said that designing was a creative challenge for Tyler. Why is this?
You can put Tyler on an empty stage with the house lights on, and he'd still be the best thing you've ever seen. How do you frame such a guy? How do you create something that doesn't try to compete with it?
It's about designing something you're just staring at and the rest of it complements it. The hair idea (for the IGOR tour) made visual sense. It is just appropriate. Here's a guy wearing a blonde wig and buzzing a bit. Why don't we make it the stage? It wasn't even expensive. I first went the way of using big thick cables and what sewing? said, "Actually, we have another idea. How about if we paint a good gray base material that can be projected well, cut it into 3/4 inch pieces, then throw eyelets and ties over it and you're done? "
But it was just a playground. It was a vehicle for its performance.
We have a wonderfully collaborative process. Tyler is very specific about color. I sent him Pantones to choose from for the Grammys performance. He gets that specifically. He is really, really involved in his pictures.
How many artists want to be involved?
Fifteen or 20 percent. They all have a say. They always give you notes. But Tyler is demanding. And he's a real eccentric, which I like because I get along with eccentrics.
How does the creative process start when someone starts silent house?
With ears. I hear. It is incredibly important to get this core. What is the artist trying to achieve? I'm here to find out what your show is about that your audience should go out with. Don't come to me with a laundry list and say, "I want the big screens and I want the pyro," because then we'll design something that looks like everyone else's show. But if I listen to your emotions, we can design something that works wonderfully on Instagram and goes around the world.
Alex Reardon's first sketch for Tyler, the creator's IGOR tour, and Silent House's final computer rendering of the show.
Image: Silent House and Image: Silent House
So the process begins with a first meeting. I used to like to submit draft designs without meeting people. I don't do this anymore because it increases the likelihood of failure.
We are designers, not artists. We have to be creative according to a specification. Always ask what they need to give them what they want. And figuring out what that means is sitting down with the person who is responsible for everything.
Is it always the artist?
Yes, the artist. And some have a creative director they work with to shape their vision. It can often be an advantage to have an intermediary between you and the artist.
Because they have a story with the artist. They already know what the artist likes or dislikes, so they can help very quickly in a collaborative way, like "Oh shit, I forgot to say they hate blue" or whatever. It is very beneficial.
Above a typical creative meeting with Reardon and J. Lo, during which tour ideas were discussed.
To answer your question, it starts with a meeting and a blank sheet of paper. I will do some research. I watch their promotional videos and listen to some of the music when I can. Sometimes designing a show for an artist whose music you don't particularly like is challenging. (Laughing)
How did you see how stage production has changed over the years?
Well when I started it was a couple of climbs, a flat stage and a couple of lights. As soon as someone moved the decimal point of ticket costs, the production value and the technology increased as a result. Now the bar is pushed further up and up. And because of social media, everyone sees everyone else's shows.
Do you always design with Instagram in mind?
Completely. I remember talking to Marc Brickman many years ago, who is still one of the best lighting designers of all time and who worked with Pink Floyd. He said he designed for the person with the worst seat in the house at the time. I remembered it because it's very easy to fire the fans. Not me. I see these people as a contribution to my mortgage. Thank you for coming.
From there we went to the enlargement, where every single person was filmed on stage and shown on giant screens. That means I design a show for the person with the worst place in the house, but also for the camera.
Alex Reardon at Silent House.
So when I go to a festival like Lollapalooza and see these big sidewalls on both sides of a stage, remember to light up these feeds.
Yes. You need to know what you're doing when it comes to color temperature, the color of white light, and the balance of lighting in a person's face, as every part of the show is broadcast up close. And if you are dealing with a musician who has an ego – and I think some of them have an ego – you have to make sure that you have a very cosmetic line. For example, everyone over a certain age must illuminate very carefully. Depending on the skin tone, you can balance between 4,200 and 5,600 Kelvin. It's a pretty narrow band that would be acceptable to light someone's face.
What do you mean by "Toe a Cosmetic Line"?
Most modern light sources burn a very blue version of what we consider "white". They also have an almost imperceptible shade of green. However, this green is displayed in front of the camera. To ensure that our customers don't look like The Walking Dead performers, we need to know which combination of gels to use to achieve the most cosmetic version of white light. We can slide around a bit in the color spectrum to create a cool white that is still flattering. The closer we get to the warm white of a candle, the more "romantic" the lighting is.
Was it just "light it as much as possible" before the enlargement?
Yes, yes. At that time we didn't have the opportunity to get so bright. The lights we used could not produce the same amount of light.
So we stopped lighting it so the person could see in the background, then zoomed in, and now for Instagram, which means that everyone takes pictures all the time. Every single moment has to be thought through. Still, based on what Marc told me, I always try to design for the person who can't quite see.
What does it mean to design something for Instagram?
You think about the whole thing. And you need to make sure that there are certain effective apex moments when things hit exactly.
It's not so much that the look changes. It's more that a show is shaped for moments. An apex moment could be a silhouette or a flash of lightning for chaos or someone on a pedestal. It's not about the paragraphs, but about punctuation during a show.
I think I thought the answer would be exaggerated and a spectacle.
Yes, there are exaggerated bits, like when the whole pyro runs out. However, this is just another punctuation point. A punctuation point could also be someone who falls from something into a crash mat. It doesn't have to be big.
One of my favorite shows you designed was the giant head for Aviciis Levels Tour.
With this show, I had already presented five different designs, and everyone agreed on number five. But about two days later, I remember thinking as an old raver: "What made house music so attractive to me?" It was so positive. And then I thought, "What is house music?" It's about everyone. So what does everyone represent? Human form. Organic form. The head came here as a stage idea.
This was in 2012 and the projection mapping was still fairly new. I met some very, very smart people and we managed to figure out how to make things look like they were floating in front of your head. We filmed an African American at the beginning of the show for the song that starts with "Oh, sometimes I feel good". I got pretty specific and said, "Find someone with teeth from the 1970s." Then we mixed everything else and all we projected was the mouth on the lips of the head. So many viewers actually thought it was animatronic! It was interesting to play with people's expectations.
One of the things I love about projection mapping is that you can create textures and materials in the virtual world that you can't physically do in the real world. We made it look like the whole head was made of metal. And then we melted the metal off our faces. We made it look like a mirrored cube was hovering in front of the head and spinning. Then it became a neon magic cube and broke. The specification back then was to just fuck with the ravers. How many more flashes? How many things can you do to burst your brain?
Are there any tricks to make the projections look so real?
There is a product called Screen Goo, which is possibly the worst product name. It's a two-step painting process that is very goopy and terrible. However, this is the best product for painting hard surfaces for projection.
Why doesn't projection mapping work on every surface?
Let's say you decide to have a movie night at home in your garden, hang up a white sheet and put a projector on it. Everything that comes out of the projector is black and looks gray. Your color resolution will be lost. You have an idea of what you see, but it doesn't look as good as on a television.
A flat material absorbs light, a shiny material reflects the lens, and you need to find a balance between matte and shiny. Screen Goo is highly pigmented and has a slight silvering in color, which reflects the light back at many different angles. It improves color rendering (accuracy).
Since Avicii is a DJ, how did you deal with not knowing which song will be played next?
We developed software that wirelessly syncs an iPad to four Mac Minis located under the four decks in the cabin. We knew there were about 60 tracks from which he would probably choose. Once he selected a track to load onto a deck, the graphic of the track was loaded. We took the clock off each track and triggered lighting and video content. For example, when he changed the playback speed of a track, the flashlights were synchronized in real time. And I watched how I thought, "It worked damn well!" I miss the little guy.
Do you ever design shows where certain lighting and visual components run on the fly?
Ninety-nine percent are tied to timecode. The reason is that you can do more by using timecode. When I started, I ran a lighting console like a piano and played every little cue. But now, if you really want to get the most out of what you design, give it to the watch.
Technologically, what we did on Avicii's tour was fascinating to me. My background is a classically trained musician and my father is an architect. For me, everything that has to do with light and production has to be very specific. It has to be musical. I see so many designs and shows that look like they were created by a technician who was released. When people ask me, "How many lights do you have on the rig?" I have no idea. It is not relevant. That is the wrong question.
During your panel at NAMM, another silent house designer said your industry was very wasteful. How?
Most tours are about 80 percent rental items that are used for other purposes, and that's wonderful, but 20 percent are custom-made items that are never used again and are dumped.
They used to build huge sets that were stored for a while and then scrapped. But we don't really create the amount of landfill that we used to have, mainly because a lot of sets were built with video panels. If your scenery is digital, the small video panel that has been merged into one person's array will appear in another person's array next week.
This is great and they are LED so they don't consume as much power. There are also new moving lights that we've used at Jonas Brothers and Tyler that are LED and are phenomenally bright. I think we will have a noticeably reduced carbon footprint over the next two years.
What we are now consuming a lot is electricity and diesel fuel. There are many trucks, many means of transportation, airplanes, tour buses and hotel rooms.
Main work area of Silent House.
What was the most effective technical development for the design of shows?
Integration. There used to be different visual disciplines for a show: the screen content, the lights, the set.
Now most things can do double duty or all of these things can be at the same time. I can only illuminate a show with video screens. We make sets from video screens. We can integrate the movement of the video screens into the movement of the artist. The more this symbiosis becomes a visual unit, the more flexibility I have to have to create different looks. If I can now integrate LED screens as a lighting source, we have now combined lighting and video.
You can see that very clearly in Khalid's Free Spirit Tour.
In this phase it was about creating a small box in which this very fine circulating cord is used. When Khalid came in, he said it was like an art installation.
There were lots of projectors, but we also had LED screens at the top and bottom of Khalid. So he was completely in the set, which was interesting and presented his own challenges.
During a rehearsal, we hit a cue and he covered his face and skipped that "ahhhh!" We had no idea what he was responding to. When we were done rehearsing, I went on stage to check things out and thought, "Seems pretty good to me." Then suddenly I get what's the problem and I shout "Whoa, stop, stop, stop, stop!" The LED floor had those really bright white flashes of light that looked great 150 feet away, but when you're on top of them, they dazzle. (Laughs) When I set the power of an LED screen to 100, it's like the sun. We usually reduce them to about 20 percent of their performance.
What new technology are you most looking forward to?
A software called Notch. Notch has the ability to create live visual effects in real time. I am still convinced that it is black magic because it requires a lot of rendering.
We can apply that to a live camera input from the stage. So graphics can respond to how someone moves on stage. At Tyler, the creator, I used an algorithm that allowed him to control the depth of the effect based on its speed.
For other things, he wanted to look like he was in the rain. Typically, you would simply add another layer to the video with the rain falling. However, Notch can recognize in real time. So it can react to a live video feed and hit the droplets on its nose and burst. Or his shoulders. Notch is such a broad brush. You can do so much with it.
I see great interest in this area, how shows can be made more dynamic and reactive to the performance.
Yes. And it's about music, not technology. It's frustrating to see people so engrossed in technology that doesn't serve music. I want technology to reference a violinist's vibrations. The vibrations of the voices. We vibrate at the molecular level. The vibration of the music determines everything.
Are there any other technologies you are enthusiastic about like Notch?
AR. The idea of taking a negative, meaning that everyone sees shows on their cell phones, and turning it into a positive. But if you can't kill it, use it.
When you watch in a mailbox on your phone, you may get one set of AR conditions and another when you watch vertically. You can use AR to decorate a stage to your liking. Snakes could go around things, trees could grow, glass could melt, things could float. There is all this magic that you can do out of the window with physics.
And there's no reason why an artist couldn't monetize it. It opens up opportunities for sponsorship branding and merchandise. Imagine that a virtual neon sign appears for an AR merch stand. You can buy a t-shirt while you are in the crowd and have it delivered to your home before the show even starts.
Where do you see the future of stage production?
More integration with AR and maybe even AI. It would be interesting to take some feeds from the audience and to inform them about what is happening on stage.
Photography by Dani Deahl / The Verge