Nowadays, any major band with a reasonable budget can have a visually dynamic show-but only Rush has bunnies. Which, as the Canadian band approaches its twentieth anniversary next year, only goes to prove that time hasn't dulled its sense of humor.
Nor can the stage show for its recent Counterparts tour, designed by the band's longtime lighting and set designer Howard Ungerleider, be accused of serving up any dull moments. The designer combined video projections and animation with a powerful light show, pyrotechnic displays, and the aforementioned inflatable rabbits, which were created by London-based Air Artists.
"One of the things that we do is create the illusion of a set without really using a set," Ungerleider says. "And because of the film and all the lighting and a few props, we can create the illusion that it's a huge stage set, when in essence it's not. And economically, that's really great. It gives the show a lot of space, an open ceiling-there isn't a bad house for this show."
For this tour, Ungerleider teamed up with a fellow Toronto-dweller, architect Rick Hopkins, who sketched out many of the staging plans.
"Back in August , we started with a couple of schemes and ideas," Hopkins says. "We'd talk about things and I'd do some sketches and some drawings, sometimes computer renderings, and then come back with a series of perspectives and drawings and we'd talk about it again and it would go through another alteration."
Although the band regularly uses a standard, promoter-provided stage, Hopkins proposed adding the runways and wings to get the two mobile band members, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, further out into the audience.
Next, Ungerleider and Hopkins worked out the truss configuration. "We thought it would be really interesting if the band were playing inside some sort of geometrical form, but we realized that making a spiral would be a bit of a problem given the budget, so we substituted the curved trusses instead," Hopkins says. "Then, from the fact that they had sort of nested up there, Howard decided to move them in and fly them down. So we get a similar effect."
Other original ideas that fell by the wayside included a pixel board, which was changed to strips of MR-16s on a flying truss, and a video wall on a second level. "The video wall came out when we decided to have just the one level and put the lights on different elevations," Hopkins says. "And that's when we started building those bolt-shaped light stands, which were supposed to just be strewn loosely about the stage-but in the final design, Howard wanted them to be more symmetrical and controlled because the entire rig was very, very symmetrical."
Ungerleider explains that the concept for the bolt-shaped light stands was to give the visual implication that the band was the "nut" and the stage the "bolt" they fit into.
Forming the stationary part of that nut is the drum set, which is on an electronic rotation. "It's like a carousel-it works electrically," Ungerleider says. "Larry Allen, the drum tech, puts that whole thing together. It's electric, and he has a switch and he knows exactly where to go. All of this was done because drummer Neil Peart has two drum kits, and when he uses the back one he'd rather turn towards the audience than face his back to the audience."
All of the tour's custom trussing and the conventional lighting was supplied by one of Ungerleider's longtime associates, Long Island City, NY-based See Factor. The show's lighting equipment includes: 18 5[degrees]Berkeys, 260 PAR-64s, 40 XF-running lights inside of PAR-Scan moving fixtures with color changers, ten 5ks with color changers, 16 nine-light Mole lamps with color changers for cyc lighting, nine HMI 1200 spotlights, five custom-made cone-shaped mirror balls, and 32 LSD Icons, of which Ungerleider is a big fan. There are also 200 Wybron color changers on the system. Fog effects are provided by four High End F-100s and the trussing motors are all CM Hoists. For control, Ungerleider used a combination of three boards: a specially modified Avo 500, a See Factor Light Coordinator, and an Icon board.
"I really enjoy the [Icon] lamp, because aside from putting out many different kinds of multi-color effects, it also allows you to rotate the gobos inside the lamp," Ungerleider says. "The light gives you a really amazing animated look at times, plus it puts out an incredible spectrum of color. I also like that at times it looks like a laser. So you really maximize your effects without spending that much money."
Lasers had become something of a trademark for Rush and Ungerleider, as he was affiliated with Rocklite International and Laserlite F/X since 1986. He disassociated himself from them this past February, and is now exclusively available through his own company, Internal Affairs International. "I've used lasers for three tours, but the effects were getting tiring," Ungerleider says. "I figured pyro is a great change of pace, so I brought out a little bit of pyrotechnics, and left the lasers out. We use a light deck to get some neat effects that are sort of laser-like. With this show, people always see things that aren't there, and it's great. If you're creating an illusion like that, then you know that you're doing your job, which is fun."
Few hard rock bands can claim being a stranger to pyro, and Rush is no different, having used it in the late 70s, the early 80s, and now the 90s. "Pyrotek Special Effects of Toronto does all the legitimate theatre across Canada, like The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, and they do effects for the [Toronto] Blue Jays at the Skydome. They have a very, very great safety record-probably the best in the business-and they deliver what we want to perfection," Ungerleider says. "And they are one of the companies that has a modern digital controller with three fail-safe mechanisms, so it's impossible to go to a board and set off a cue without going through three codes."
The tour's pyro effects were designed by Douglas Lang Adams with Douglas Reid Schulte-Derne as the operator and Randal Douglas Bast as the tech. The pyro equipment includes: one Pyrotek 120-channel digital Matrix controller, one Pyrotek sequential firing system, 60 circuit devices, 18 flame projectors, six flash pots, 10 three-fluted gerb holders, and two LSX low smoke converters. Effects throughout the show comprise 24 sequential firing airbursts systems that are positioned above the band in the trussing; twelve 1/2-20 silver jets with silver embers firing 20' in criss-cross configurations; 18 10x12 silver gerbs in a 60' cascading waterfall; 18 flame projectors that fire brilliant 12' flames in three shots of six; six red flashes that slow burn brightly; 12 large Coliseum airbursts (in trussing above band); 24 airbursts in a chase pattern that fires in pairs from the trussing to a cluster over the audience; two Evil Rabbit gunshots shot towards the Good Rabbit and the resulting billowing smoke; and six concussion motors.
"We certainly have a lot of pyro," Ungerleider acknowledges. "We have the flame effects. We have what are called air bursts and gerb effects. We have red flares, and we have a lot of indoor aerial effects. We have waterfall fountains in different colors. We try to use them peacefully because we want to enhance a situation rather than it becoming a random effect."
Certainly the show's most memorable effect involves the famous inflatable rabbits. The Good Rabbit, stage right, is shot by the Evil Rabbit (complete with dangling cigarette) from stage left. Rush has had the rabbit theme going since its 1986 Presto tour. "The bunnies were actually left over from previous tours, but the evil, nasty bunny with the gun was remade by Air Effects of London," Ungerleider explains.
The animated film sequence that goes along with it was created by Ungerleider alone and lead singer Geddy Lee by working with longtime associate Norm Stangl from Toronto-based Spin Productions. "It's a very large company with really high-tech computer graphics, and they use Emerald Systems, which is a silicon graphics company," Ungerleider says. "The rabbit shooting, involving the inflatables and the film, was coordinated through headset cues. We knew what we were going to do, and we knew how long it took for the rabbits to deflate. And we knew where the rabbits were going to be onstage, so we just slammed it up with the three projectors."
It took three 7k 35mm projectors rented from Associates & Ferren and positioned stage-left, stage-center, and stage-right to fill the three screens, which span 60' across, to pull the sequence off "The rabbits are inflated on cue by carpenters using fans backstage, and once the song is over, the film rolls, and everything is done visually from that point," Ungerleider explains. "The shooting of the gun is done visually with the film, and so is the exploding of the rabbit on the other side of the film. And it works really well together."
The show also features video and more animation because the band members are keen on having a lot of humor in the show. Also, Geddy Lee's brother, Alan Weinrib, contributed to the show by directing the visuals for the number "Trees."
All of this and it fits in only six trucks? "Yeah, people think this is an eight- or 10-truck show," Ungerleider says. "But when you look at it, it appears to be a lot larger than it is."