The logistics of stadium set design

The uncertain fate of the set for Michael Jackson’s cancelled O2 concerts makes Tom Banks consider the logistics of stadium set design

In a confused fortnight following the death of Michael Jackson, a very public brawl over his legacy has erupted, including what is to happen with his 50 sell-out slots at London’s The O2 this month.

Little is known about what will become of the This Is It stage set. Promoter AEG Live is unable to confirm reports that a tribute show will go ahead at the venue using the same set, which is believed to be part of a $20m (£12.4m) production investment.

However, Randy Phillips, AEG Live chief executive, has told Billboard.com, ‘It would be some closure for fans who have nowhere to really express their emotion and are looking for a place.’

The creative team behind the set is Michael Curry Design, from Oregon in the US. Group president Michael Curry declines to comment on the details, as he is under ‘a confidentiality agreement’. However, he does say, ‘It looks very different to how you’d expect a Michael Jackson show to look. We only hope that it can be seen by people, as it’s a very beautiful show – that’s the big question.’ Lighting for the show was being put together by UK designer Patrick Woodroffe.

Mark Fisher, founder of entertainment design group Stufish, has more than 30 years of experience in stage design. He counts Pink Floyd’s The Wall set, every Rolling Stones show since 1989 and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – for which Jack Morton Worldwide acted as production consultant – among his most notable designs.

Fisher currently has three sets travelling with artists on global tours – U2, AC/DC and Pink. He empathises with the uncertain fate of Curry’s set. ‘It must be disappointing for him. Anyone would be disappointed by putting so much into something that might not be seen,’ he says.

Fisher designed U2’s 360 degree Tour stage, due to appear in Nice, Berlin and Amsterdam this week. He tends to work directly with bands. ‘We’re talking about rock’n’roll design – there are no rules,’ he says.

For the U2 set, Fisher was in direct consultation with each of the band members, and with show director Willy Williams. ‘They know how we’ve worked historically – we’ve done every show with them since 1992, so it’s based on friendship,’ says Fisher.

Initial sketches for the set were drawn up in 2006, the lead time for stage design often being long. ‘It’s episodic,’ Fisher says. ‘In the case of U2, we only got the go-ahead in September last year.’

The band is said to have wanted to regain audience contact, without compromising the scale of a stadium show.

Fisher and Williams opted to design a set ‘in the round’ that could be used for both arenas and stadiums. The two types of space are ‘radically different’, accordingto Fisher. ‘Most stadiums don’t have roofs, so there’s nowhere to hang anything from.’

Williams’ solution was to propose a structure which spans the stadium floor on narrow legs with vaulting arches. Conventionally at stadium gigs, a touring roof, supported on pillars, is erected over the stage, which obstructs sightlines from some seats.

Design can take ‘anything from six weeks to a year’, says Fisher, but in the case of the AC/DC Black Ice tour, his consultancy’s set was designed so far in advance that it was overtaken by the renaming of the band’s album. ‘Their working title for the album was Run-Away Train,’ explains Fisher, which is what he had worked to in theming the set. That album was to become Black Ice, but Fisher’s set remains a literal interpretation of a run-away train.

The execution of Fisher’s design is a vast, co-ordinated effort. Williams has designed the lighting for the show, which has to be carefully tuned to avoid clashing with other elements of the set.

Moritz Waldemeyer, who has designed a ‘laser jacket’ for U2 front man Bono, says, ‘Strangely enough, lasers, LEDs and animations on clothing haven’t been properly explored, but that’s what I do. It does have an impact on lighting design and they had to run a lot of tests on stage.’

The boundary between costume and stage design was also blurred at Grace Jones’ performance at Somerset House in London last week. Originally conceived by ex-husband and graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude, her new stage set was later adapted by milliner Philip Treacy, following the singer’s return to the stage after a 19-year hiatus.

Treacy was responsible for Jones’ hat, costume and stage design, and for developing Goude’s set, which included a flight of stairs, by adding an industrial fan. A spokesperson for Treacy says, ‘[Jones and Treacy] work out artistic direction between them, but both have very strong views.’

Notable Stadium Set Design

  • Take That’s Circus stadium tour, which ended on 5 July, saw the band perform atop a giant mechanical elephant
  • Yeah Yeah Yeah’s set for the band’s 2009 It’s Blitz tour features a giant eyeball which stares out at the crowd from the back of the stage
  • Kanye West’s upcoming European tour will see the rapper perform on a sculpted gold-coloured stage

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