One of my Introduction to Film students discovered that I worked on the Metallica S&M (Symphony and Metallica) concert. He wanted me to talk about it. I told him I would do a blog post on it. Here it is.
His first question – How did you get the gig?
How I got the gig…
Take a moment of silence for the two birds that died for this one blog post.
The 1998 Purdue Musical Organization (PMO) Christmas Show is where the story starts and I don’t want to blog about the Christmas Show again, even though it was huge, and the show the next year was pretty huge too. In the spring of 1998 I was a graduate student in scenography (a theatre term for production design) at Purdue University. I was asked to co-design the PMO Christmas Show with the manager of the Elliott Hall of Music on Purdue’s campus. The Hall of Music is a 6000 seat theater designed with the same consultant that helped design Radio City Music Hall in New York so it is very similar in size (100′ wide stage for instance). The Christmas Show had a budget of approximately $250K and its proceeds funded the Glee Club’s (yup Glee Club – Purdue had no Music major at that time, but had one of the biggest music programs in the country – weird) travels and programs for the following year. The show sold out 6 performances every year and drew people from all over the region. It was also featured on PBS on a regular basis during the Christmas season. Just a reminder – 6 shows at 6000 people = 36,000 people. Ticket prices varied based on distance from the stage, but nevertheless, this concert made a lot of money.
The show required a lot of physical scenery, which were sets built and painted during the summer. When I was brought onboard I recommended that we use projections as part of the scenery. The co-designer/manager, Steve Hall, drew a crude sketch of how he wanted the people and existing painted drops to be used and he wanted lots of pictures of Santa Claus. I took that brief and turned it into a set and decorations. I then worked with the PMO grand dragon, Brian Breed, to develop imagery ideas for each of the songs. Throughout the summer, I worked with fellow grad student and now professional scene designer, Robert Kovach, to create all of the physical scenery. We mainly painted, while Ron Clark and carpenters built the scenery. Throughout the fall semester I created imagery that would be projected during the show.
At some point during the summer I took a road trip with the video director at the Hall, Bill Callison, to visit with some guys in Nashville, TN, who would lead the playback and projection equipment and video logistics for the show. The guys were Scott Scovill, owner of MooTV, and Jim Lockhart, compositor/artist and essentially only employee at MooTV at the time. We walked through the problems – 66′ wide by 24′ tall screen space – needs to be bright enough for a live staged event – need playback – the image size required multiple projectors and some edge overlap/blending.
Jim worked out the overlap and blending. I created the imagery at a single raster size and then we ran the full image through three After Effects composites, which would break the image into three different sections with appropriate gradients that would blend together properly when overlapped using multiple projectors and video servers. Nowadays the playback software does this automagically.
We had three pairs of projectors. Any one of the projectors were more expensive than my house… One of each pair was a digital projector with a short throw lens. It was crazy expensive just by itself. The analog projector below it was dialed in to match the digital projector since it had more image warping capability. By the time all six were aligned and properly blending we had a total of 33K lumens on the screen. FYI, a typical classroom projector runs at 3K lumens.
We played the imagery back on three DoReMi video servers and triggered them using a single Dataton timeline. All this stuff can be done by elementary students now, but in 1998 we were a select few in the world that could pull off such a project. Pretty cool.
Now to the point – I impressed the guys at MooTV. They saw that I could create imagery in 2D and 3D very fast and at a high level of quality. Scott called me the “Art Factory.”
Images: design sketch – me putting details to Steve’s overall ideas. Maquette of one of the 12′ Santa sculptures I made. The maquette is made with cheap paper-mache material from Hobby Lobby. The set as seen on stage. The set with with a large part of the Glee Club and the animation of the March of the Toy Soldiers I created in 3D. Jim Lockhart in our lair.
Fast forward 4 months.
Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony
I had read about this project in Entertainment Weekly. I was excited because I had been a Metallica fan since I was 13 years old and I loved classical music. Out of the blue, I got a call from Scott Scovill. He said he had a gig he couldn’t talk about, but was with a symphony and a famous band. I said Metallica. He said yes. I said I was in, what do you need? He told me the brief, which was to bring Mark Rothko (markrothko.org, artsy)- like paintings to life. They had tried a few things, but they were not working out and they thought I might have a different take on it. I did. My art abilities and training in art history became very useful and I threw together a couple of demos. It was a little over a week before the show. I suggested that I be there on site rather than working from Indiana. Scott agreed. A few days and animations later I was on a plane to California.
A side note about computers. Laptops were popular at this time, but had very little power to do animation. I had recently built a nice computer based around the best Intel server/workstation class processor available and Windows NT 4. I needed to take it to the gig. My wife, Shauna, made me a carrier for my desktop CPU case so I could travel with it as if it were carry-on luggage. This was pre-9/11 so I made it, but please imagine me walking though an airport with a large desktop computer in a padded bag. Awesome, but it could never happen again. There is another story I could tell regarding getting a monitor at the gig, but I will save it for now. It became a trend (aka, running joke) with MooTV gigs.
The gig was on Wednesday, April 21 and Thursday, April 22, 1999. We arrived on-site on Saturday. Sunday through Tuesday we setup the video gear, which included an 18′ tall x 24′ wide LED video wall and several portable racks of video equipment. In 1999, that LED screen was worth $1 Million. UCA has something similar in its football stadium now – didn’t cost that much… John Broderick (J.B.) was the lighting and scene designer. He saw the screens being assembled and said that they should not be completely assembled. I immediately became a fan. The wall was assembled by taking screen sections and attaching them vertically into narrow columns hung by chain motors and then connecting them horizontally. He said don’t connect them horizontally. Let’s adjust the height of each column so they do not align. Then let’s rotate each column so they are not flat to each other. It is not a rectangular screen, but a series of vertical columns with imagery that spans across columns in a dis-jointed manner (too academic a description?). I got what he was after and I was invigorated – and it was Metallica of course so I was on top of the world.
JB looked at the imagery we had created by Sunday. He identified animations that should correspond with certain songs. He wanted an old-school liquid light show for the opening number (Ecstasy of Gold and The Call of Ktulu), so we sent our camera man out to shoot it with a hippie in San Francisco. He also wanted a few other things that we needed to create there on-site. Jim and I worked as much as we could to create the rest of the imagery. The lights, sound, and projection were being powered using Show Power, which were generators outside the venue. When they shutdown, we shutdown. No all-nighters for us!
As far as imagery was concerned, the highlight of my professional life was this gig. Before coming to California, I had created a 3D animation of what I thought a Rothko painting would look like if it were in 3D space. I made blocks of color typical in his popular paintings into 3D blocks that looked 2D when viewed straight on, but broken into 3D objects in different planes of depth when seen from the side. I created an animation that turned around these blocks in 360 degrees so it could loop easily. I then ran an effect over it so it looked similar to a painting. JB loved it and assigned it to “Outlaw Torn.” It would be the only thing on the screen during the song. I was ecstatic. Why? “Outlaw Torn” is my all-time favorite song – to me, it is the greatest song that’s ever been recorded (BTW, #2 is Creedence’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and #3 is S&G “Sound of Silence”). I could post about it all by itself, but I simply love the song and the fact that my favorite work for the gig was assigned to my favorite song put me in a place I have not been since or expect to ever be professionally. The S&M version of “Outlaw Torn” is the ultimate music experience and I highly recommend listening to it as loud as you can – preferably with a 5.1 system and the official DVD set to 5.1.
We had some other things going on the screen. We had a live camera backstage shooting at the wonderful texture on the back wall of the theater; we had access to the 5 cameras shooting the concert under a different vendor (the main cameras for the DVD); and we had one of our own cameras (run by the same guy who grabbed the liquid light show – aka Schmaba – awesome and talented guy, who happened to give me some great advice that I can share in a later post). We used an Abakus DVEous to warp and twist live video. We used a video switcher to key warped video into the dark areas of animated Rothko-esque imagery. We threw the kitchen sink at the screen to be as creative as possible in a live concert environment in a short amount of time. The DVD video director, Wayne Isham, was not always thrilled with what we and JB came up with, but we did not seem to care. It was funny that we were working with the hottest video director of the era, but he seemed to be 2 steps behind us. Unfortunately, he got the final say on the DVD edit, so our screen is not featured as much as it could have been if we were more collaborative with him.
All of this imagery had to be coordinated for the concert. Jim and I were big Metallica fans, but Scott, the director, who ran the switcher, which controlled the screen, was not as familiar with the music – he was our boss, but he was at a loss. Jim was running the playback of the animations using a Media 100 video editor (crazy compared to the tools we have nowadays for realtime playback) so he had a job. Our video engineer, Barry Otto, was running the Abekus. I was done, or so I thought. By Monday evening it seemed I needed to be the assistant video director (the Stage Manager for you Theater types). I ran the show. I called cues for Jim, Barry, and Scott, so all aspects of the screen could be properly coordinated with the live show. I had a lot of experience doing similar work as a light or sound board operator or stage manager in theatrical productions so I was was equipped to handle it, however, I was truly scared by the scale and importance of the project. “Outlaw Torn” was the only time during the show I got to rest and enjoy the show – I was fine with that.
There were some other cool moments. Wednesday night after the show, Metallica and the Symphony recorded some singles. They turned the P.A. around and played and recorded “Master of Puppets,” which we stayed around to hear. The bosses wanted to go back to the hotel so we missed the other recordings they did. There were also some weird moments, such as yelling at Wayne Isham, being yelled at by the Bass tech, and hoping we were really pulling this off.
Some images from the show. These are from “Outlaw Torn.” Notice the unity of the stage lighting and screen imagery;)
I have a Metallica part II, which was their summer Sanitarium Tour in 2000. I have some thoughts about catering at the S&M gig, but I think I will hold them for part II.