At a time when the concert lighting and video industries are scrambling to keep up with heightened demand amidst manufacturing and supply chain challenges, there are still bright spots.
The Coldplay “Music of the Spheres World Tour,” which kicked off March 18 in Costa Rica, has been lauded for its video innovation and commitment to sustainability. At the forefront is Production Resource Group (PRG), which provided the video including all the structural LED screens, scenic elements, camera/media server and switching package to control all the screen content.
At the helm of the team of 50 who brought the British rock band’s vision to life was EVP Worldwide Sales John Wiseman and Frederic Opsomer, CEO of PRG Projects, who created the LED elements from design to installation. Years of planning (beginning in January of 2020), creative invention and serendipity contributed to their success. The exercise was the classic square peg/ round hole conundrum, although literally. The challenge was to adapt a format that is typically square and make it round to best reflect the “Music of the Spheres” theme, which supports the tour and Coldplay’s ninth studio album by the same name.
The result has been called breathtaking with two large, 35-foot diameter LED screens flanking the stage that are circular discs. The back 80-foot LED wall, the “moonrise” screen, is curved along the top and sides. There are four massive 50-foot LED spheres positioned about the back wall. In addition, the framing and rigging needed to be environmentally conscious, including efficient dismantling and packing to use the least amount of space for a global tour with stops in Belgium, Central America, France, Germany, Poland, the UK and the U.S. The stage was built from a combination of lightweight, low-carbon and reusable materials that can be reused or recycled after the tour, according to the band. The lighting and audio use low energy LED screens with up to 50 percent less power consumption as compared to the previous tour.
“Frederic Opsomer has been innovative all along, but specifically with LED,” offered Wiseman. “What happened in the creative process – and it has gone through so many iterations – we were lucky to have Frederic at the table talking about what was practical. Things that people thought could not be done, Frederic would say, ‘Well actually, I’ve been thinking about that for a few years.’ So that started the whole creative process of pushing the boundaries and pushing the limits.”
At that pre-pandemic stage, the supply chain wasn’t yet an issue; it was arriving at a plan. But after it was clear the pandemic was going to have a long-lasting impact, Wiseman said PRG’s decision to “keep balls like this in the air” meant the project continued to have support from PRG leaders Jere Harris, Stephan Paridaen, and Gary Boyd to maintain momentum. “It took the whole breadth of the company,” Wiseman said. “Nobody else could have done this and the company backed Frederic and I and gambled to get this done on time.” PRG invested in securing the LED and production time necessary to pull it off without a deposit at a time when no one could predict the impact of supply chain and manufacturing shutdowns. “We were really hanging out there,” Wiseman said. “My experience in the past, and I’ve been doing this since 1980, maybe ’79, is that nobody ever remembers that there was indecision. What they remember is that you’re not delivering on time – so you have to gamble. It’s really an evaluation on the part of a lot of industry veterans on our side of the fence.” PRG had a fallback plan of how to use those parts and how far they could gamble. “It’s called strategic planning with contingency plans,” offered Wiseman. “We had a list of ‘What Ifs’ that we had to weigh out day to day and sometimes hour to hour.”
“Especially in this market where you had COVID going on, suddenly there starts to be a shortage of components,” added Opsomer. “That was an important factor, as shipping became a problem. We were dealing with a lot of parameters that in the past we didn’t have to deal with and that slowed down the process.” Being a global company with offices and personnel in China, where many of the components were being manufactured, made a difference.
“China was locked down, as you know,” Opsomer said. “Nobody could go into the country, and nobody could go out of the country.”
“You went anyway,” Wiseman responded with a chuckle. “We have people there and they were instrumental in doing this,” Opsomer went on. “If we had not had the office, there was no way to do it.”
Tour dates changed, but that didn’t add time to the production calendar. “It’s the life that we lead for everyone in the business,” Wiseman said. “There is a stake in the ground and that is load-in for the first show. Sometimes that moves a little bit and this one moved a couple of times, but we were always shooting for Costa Rica, and you work around the clock to make that happen.” Opsomer offered a real-life example: “We were meant to ship finished product and they shut down all the ports in China. We tried Hong Kong and that was not possible because that border was closed and then they shut down the most important harbors in China and you have to deal with it.”
“We are used to ‘Oh shit’ moments,” Wiseman added with characteristic honesty. “I don’t know what we would do if things went smooth.”
One of the early challenges was deciding how to transport the massive spheres. Moving three-dimensional orbs that size would normally take three trucks. But with Coldplay’s commitment to sustainability, that option would be “out of the question,” according to Opsomer. The solution was making them inflatable with LED capability built into the skin, which dramatically reduced the necessary space to store and transport. “It’s the fundamental physics of making something pretty, practical as well,” said Wiseman.
“Every sphere is transported as one piece,” Opsomer explained. “And the top of the sphere is a thing we called the mushroom, because that is what it looked like in the first sketches. Inside the mushroom is all the power, electronics and intelligence.”
“A lot is trial and error,” said Wiseman. “We learn from our failures. For every big success, we have tried things that haven’t worked. That is just the depth of experience. There is a lot to this. Frederic and his team actually created products that never existed before. And kudos to Coldplay for having the vision and backbone to do something like this.” Opsomer said the added bonus of supporting sustainability was “high” on his agenda. In addition to reducing truck space, sustainable materials were also researched and used where appropriate.
“They looked at materials that were way outside the box of what you would normally use, like bamboo structures and materials that are becoming commonplace to sustainability,” said Wiseman. “When the band gives you a directive you have to take it and when they put their wallet where their mouth is, it’s a dream come true.”
Wiseman added that the Coldplay team were valuable partners in the process including manager Phil Harvey, designer Misty Buckley, Sooner Routhier, and manager Dave Holmes. Innovation comes with cost and the band was willing to invest according to Opsomer, who said the custom technology he and his team created for the tour will be commonplace in a few years.
“It will be commonplace in a few years, but that is because Coldplay took the chance and had the vision, spent the money and did it right,” Wiseman said. “I’m in awe of the vision that we were allowed to be involved in and create.”