Lighting Dimensions, January/February 1988

Floyd Droids

By M. Williams

Marc Brickman -MB

Back in the primordial days of rock and roll, only a few bands knew that sound and light somehow belonged together. One was the Wilde Flowers, precursor to the long-lived British groups Soft Machine and Caravan, all of which experimented with multimedia productions well before such things became popular. The other was Pink Floyd, which formed in 1966 and within months was performing concerts at the London Free School's Sound/Light workshop. Pink Floyd played it's psychedelic- drenched rock while Joel and Toni Brown, American disciples of Dr Timothy Leary, projected slides over them.

Pink Floyd was riding the leading edge back then. In 1987 they still are. The Pink Floyd members do not run around the stage like run-of-the-mill rock stars; they simply occupy the stage and provide the music while high-tech lighting, films, and dramatic effects tell their dark tales. The miniature airplane that crashes to the stage during "Dark Side of the Moon," the gigantic flying pig that buzzes the audience during "Animals," and the animated cartoons, particularly Gerald Scarfe's frightening accompaniment to "Welcome to the Machine," have provided some of the most memorable moments in Rock and Roll.

For the first time since 1980, Pink Floyd took to the road since late last year, in the midst of controversy. Founding member and main songwriter Roger Waters had left the band for a solo career and then sued his three ex-mates, guitarist David Gilmour, keyboardist player Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason, to keep them from using the Floyd moniker. That legal action still pending, both Waters and Pink Floyd began a string of concerts in America touting classic Floyd-style shows.

Los Angeles-based Lighting Designer Marc Brickman and Set Designer Paul Staples are responsible for the look of the current Pink Floyd tour, which will last well into 1988. While they have revived the pig, the crashing plane, and many other Floyd trademarks, Brickman and Staples have drenched the show in technological wonder, employing automated lights and lasers in new and startling ways. Marc Brickman:, who for many years designed lighting for Bruce Springsteen, had worked with Pink Floyd in 1980. He was called in at the last minute to rescue "The Wall," week- long sets of performances in Los Angeles, New York, and London based on Waters' double album magnum opus. In that very theatrical production, crew members built a towering wall around the band, representing the main character's growing alienation from his rock and roll audience. At the end, the wall came crashing down.

The current Pink Floyd wanted nothing that high-concept for it's comeback tour; neither did the band members worry about competing with Waters' theatrical RADIO K.A.O.S. show. Basically, they wanted it to be a show continuing in the Pink Floyd tradition. The focus was to be the music and surrounding effects (the quad sound and the visuals), not personalities or a theme, as with THE WALL tour.

The designers had to accomplish several things for the new Pink Floyd show. The had to include some of the old Floyd's "classic" effects while making use of the lighting technology that has been developed since the band's last full-fledged tour in 1977. They also had to develop staging and lighting that would pack and truck quickly enough to do one-nighters in stadiums with no setup days between dates. "Paul Staples accomplished that," said Marc Brickman, "The whole stage is metal grating. It folds up into seven scene dollies and goes away in 45 minutes. It's pretty amazing." Brickman talked about his design for Pink Floyd during the band's run of dates in Montreal in September, shortly after the end of rehearsals in a Toronto airplane hangar.

Q: When did you get involved in the current tour?

MB: I got to know Paul Staples at the first meeting, with Nick Mason and Dave Gilmour, in London in February 1987. Over the next few months,in March and April, Paul and I met up again in Amsterdam, where was doing an Opera. We started to sketch out the concept there. We didn't want it to look like every other rock and roll show, with hundreds of PAR cans hanging above the band. We started out with a concept where we had no stage, no grid, no nothing. And it all kind of flew in from different places around the hall. We went from there to more realistic ideas, to get what we have now. Paul's whole idea was a "black box," sort of like a magician's show where all these effects start happening.

Q: So there is literally nothing onstage?

MB: There is band gear onstage. One idea was to have a cricket green on top with the band gear underneath, and have an explosion where the cricket green blown apart and the equipment rises up. But, you know, all of those ideas sound great until you try to do them. They cost money. It's not that Pink Floyd will spend any amount of money, but they have been wise in their choices. They backed us 300% on the stuff they finally did choose. Basically, we use all the technology that's available in this show. You've seen it on other shows, but here it's used in a different manner. The only thing we have that no one's ever used are the Floyd Droids, which are Robot-like lamps. There are four of them-Manny, Moe, Jack, and Cloyd. They have a Mercury vapour source, but that's hard to figure out, because the output looks like lasers. They're an unusual kind of light. As they appear during the show, each becomes a little personality in it's own right. At one point, each has it's own little solo. The Floyd droids have MIDI capability, although we're running them manually right now. We're still programming- the software is being written as we speak. Dave Gilmour is really into it, he wants lights on MIDI.

Q: Does he want the band members to control lights from their instruments?

MB: Yes

Q: Would that allow perfect synchronization between the music and the lights?

MB: Yes

Q: Are the droids mechanically shuttered, so they're an instant on-off source?

MB: Yes, So there could be a perfect sync between a light source and a musical cue. The sunn MIDI board (model PLC 816) actually controls the Droids right now.

Q: How are the droids mounted?

MB: They're mounted on hydraulic ramps that come out of the stage. Laser Media developed the lamp housing on my specifications, and Pink Floyd put up the money for the research and development. That's why they're called Floyd Droids. I'm not quite sure how it will work out, but I think that sometime next year, they'll be available for use by other bands.

Q: Similar to Genesis' deal with Vari-Lite?

MB: Similar, but I don't think the Droids will have quite the same impact on the industry that Genesis and Vari-lite did. But you never know. It's a very interesting light source. In fact, Vari-lite's involved in the Floyd Droids, as they manufactured the moving yoke for us.

Q: Are they being used as a special effect or as a primary light source?

MB: Primarily as a special effect, although we use them as a light source several times on a couple of the band members. That part of it could be better than it is; I originally wanted to use them more as a light source, but they've become special effects. Paul Rother and Joe Fitzpatrick are programming the Droids. We did have a midair collision during the encore last night. It's okay-Jack's fine. He got banged up, and Moe got a little shaken. And one of the lighting pods took a pretty big hit. It could have been serious. A couple things got bent, and Jack's ear got smashed in, but nothing was damaged too badly. It was probably bound to happen, because the show gets pretty crazy towards the end, when things are coming out of the stage and flying around-everthing's moving at the end. There isn't one piece on that stage that isn't going crazy.

Q: What are the primary light sources?

MB: We have four 8' diameter pods that fly around the room on custom trolleys (weighing in at 1,300lbs. apiece) that run along the stage, two on angles and two cross stage. They run about 64', and we trim at 55', so they come flying out of the ceiling and go straight across the stage on any angle. On these pods we have mounted Telescans and Vari-lites. We're using Vari-lites because the pods move all the time, and we needed a light that could move with the pods. There are couple of times when a pod goes screaming across the stage, focused let's say, on Gilmour during a solo. It starts at one end and ends up at the other, and as the pod moves, the lights pivot to stay on the performer. so we're using all kinds of motion at once. The programming is pretty intricate. It took us a long time, many nights in Toronto to program them. We also have 24 Telescans dead hung around the perimeter of the stage. Actually they have the ability to move, but I haven't been moving them. So when you look up over the stage, there doesn't appear to be any lights at all. There is no basic lighting rig; the little bit of trussing we do have is by Samuelson Concert Productions. We also have Laser Media out here with two full colour laser systems, along with Vari-lite's VL2's and VL3's and Telescan. We also have the circular projection screen, which is 32' in diameter, on which we show 35mm movies. It's a Pink Floyd trademark. Around the screen are 28 VL3s, which do some of the most amazing things that I have ever seen. At first I told Dale Polansky who is with us from Vari-lite, that I wouldn't be using the lights on the screen. But I find I can get some unbelievable effects out of the VL3s. They not only light the screen, they pull you in. The effect of spinning them around in colour looks like flowers and camera irises. It looks like the sun. It looks like an acid trip. Last night we came up with a new look for the VL2s on the pods, shooting them onto the screen. What we came up with looked like a painting. A couple of the guys in the band came up to me after the show and said, "What was that?"

Q: Is there any interaction between the screen and the stage?

MB: There are some relationships there, although basically when the screen is on the stage isn't. That's pretty much how David likes it. The focus of your attention goes to different places. When the pig comes out, everyone looks at the pig. When the plane comes flying out of the ceiling and explodes on the stage, you look at that. When a film is on, there is a little bit of stage lighting, so the band can see, but not very much. There are a couple of times in "Welcome to the Machine" where the animated film (a holdover from previous Pink Floyd tours) and the Droids work together.

Q: Why are you using lasers?

MB: Because there's no overhead truss, and there's a wide open area over the stage. Every time I see lasers used, they seem to be doing some kind of scanning graphics. For this show, I wanted very big, architectural-type monolithic structures over the stage. What we've come up with are these really pretty beam sculptures, static looks that become part of lighting and the look of certain songs. I feel they're more powerful that way than when you flash them and do moving beam tricks.