A Day In The Life

An Interview With Howard Ungerleider

By Bruce Jordahl, LiveDesignOnline, July 1, 2008

If you have a pulse, a Rush concert is always a glorious experience, and while the band has been out for the last year supporting its latest album Snakes and Arrows, I finally got a chance to catch up with production designer and director Howard Ungerleider on tour and spend a day with the crew to see the latest rig on the second US leg since the band returned from Europe.

Combining the trio's superlative musicianship, a rich legacy of classic music along with a stunning new album, killer sound, and jaw-dropping visuals, Rush's show spans three hours with a definite emphasis on recent material. The primary creative force behind the group's 3D sensory presentation is Ungerleider, who is celebrating 34 years on the road with band members Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, and Alex Lifeson.

As technology has leaped forward over the last several decades, Ungerleider has remained a proponent of the latest and greatest. His creative use of saturated colors and dimensional lighting effects is matched by his timing and empathy toward the music, still finding time to work on other entertainment and architectural projects, as well as to operate Production Design International, a production and special effects company he runs with partners Brian Beggs and Louis Chu.

Ungerleider explains his design process and how his Snakes and Arrows rig came together. "My challenge each year is to come up with a new and refreshing design," he says. "I'm a firm believer that, when you go to a concert, the visuals should stick in your mind, so when you're driving down the road ten years later and hear the song, that memory is rekindled. I saw Pink Floyd in the 1970s, and I'll never forget their performance of 'Meddle.' Every time I hear the song, I see the visuals, and that philosophy helps a lot in creating my shows. I want to create a similar effect for fans that see Rush shows. Also, when I'm designing, I'm thinking, 'What did I do for this song in 1979, in 1984...' and so on. Then, let's bring it up to speed with new technology but try to retain memorable aspects of previous tours."

Ungerleider experienced a rather significant déjà vu during the formative phase of this production. "When I originally designed the Snakes and Arrows system, I hadn't yet heard the name of the album, so it was kind of bizarre that the truss that I designed was based on curves," he says, adding that he has been experimenting with curves over the past four years after reading an article about a new curved glass that architects are using in buildings. "I wondered what the effect would be if I put automated fixtures in that same configuration, so I did some experimenting over at my shop, and it worked really well. I decided to make this S-shaped concave truss with a convex section," he says. "I showed Geddy, and he loved it. I then asked if he had a copy of the album for me, and when he handed me the Snakes and Arrows cover, it kind of freaked me out!"

Along with the snake truss, custom futuristic pods on Show Distribution's VarioLift motion control, PDI's omnipresent lasers, and a fresh approach to media servers and video, a host of other creative elements were brought into the mix for Ungerleider's visual smorgasbord, including clever video segments added from numerous creators including Lee and Peart and overseen by Alan Weinrib.

Back on board are experienced Rush vendors, as is the core creative team Ungerleider utilizes to craft the evening's illumination. Premier Global Productions is the primary lighting vendor, with Production Design bringing critical elements like the Laserscope 60W YAG laser systems, the Catalyst media servers, High End Systems Showguns, and a fireplace mesh backdrop. Veteran designer David Davidian is once again serving as video director, Showco/Clair Brothers are providing audio (with Brad Madix at FOH and Brent Carpenter on monitors), and High End Systems' programmer Tim Grivas and Ungerleider's associate Matt Tucker also lent their talents to the mix. Video is provided by ScreenWorks, and Pyrotek supplies pyro effects. Rounding out the road crew are lighting crew chief Greg Haygood, dimmer tech Randy Garrett, moving light tech Lance Dennis, laser technician Andrew Seabeck, video technical supervisor Bob Larkin, video techs Rob Bargnesi and Adrian Brister, pyrotechnician John Arrowsmith, head rigger John Fletcher, and motion control guru Raffaele Buono.

Ungerleider relied primarily on a host of High End Systems lighting fixtures and control equipment, Philips Solid-State Lighting Solutions/Color Kinetics LEDs, the aforementioned VarioLifts, and a powerful custom laser system. The expansive gear list includes three High End Systems Wholehog 3 consoles, two Rock Wings, eight DP2000s, four Catalyst HD Media Servers, six Showguns, 52 x.Spot Xtremes with custom gobos, 32 Studio Beams, and 12 Cyberlight CLs with custom gobos. Additional gear includes 32 Martin MAC 2000 Wash fixtures with custom color, 10 Coemar Power Cycs, 21 Martin Atomic 3000 strobes, 16 Philips Solid-State Lighting Solutions/Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 72 and 30 ColorBlaze 48 LED fixtures, six Lycian 2kWs, and 24 custom wired MR16 Ministrips. Thirty one-ton Chain Master motors and 15 half-ton VarioLift motors hold it together from above. The articulating hexagonal truss pods for "War of the Worlds" were custom fabricated at Premier Global's facility in Nashville and designed by Ungerleider.

Assimilating multiform technology into a cohesive artistic statement is no easy task, but hey, that's Ungerleider's job. "I try to stay on top of the latest," he says. "I may not be the first, but I put it through its paces when I do find it. I look for unusual ways to use gear. When I was younger, I took things apart quite a bit and rearranged them. I used to drive people crazy! I like custom designing, as opposed to the 'let's get this off the shelf and put it here' mentality. For example, I don't use a front truss in any of my designs. I let the spotlights handle the key lighting, and it opens up a whole picture for atmospheric effects that are just endless, allowing you to create multiple levels of light and different dimensional shapes. And by doing this, we are giving everyone at that show, including the people in the back of the hall, a visual experience to remember."

When it comes to new technology, specifically for this tour, Ungerleider notes that he was looking forward to sending a video signal into the LED lighting fixtures through an Art-Net component. "We were able to establish sequences that would take months to program," he says. "We capture it, run it from Catalyst to Art-Net, and then right into the [Philips Solid-State Lighting Solutions] Color Kinetics fixtures using a pixel-mapping program. It's just amazing what you can do with that technology, and we'll ultimately branch out to doing the same with some of our other intelligent fixtures over time. The five custom pods on the VarioLift system certainly add an extra energy element into the show. I wanted some asymmetry on this tour, as well as sometimes creating the illusion of symmetry. Basically, I want people's blood pressure to go up. The music is so strong, yet you want to complement without distraction. I think the element of surprise coupled with retinal fatigue and drama make for an amazing show, especially with musicians of Rush's caliber."

The pods were designed for Showguns to sit in the center, with four x.Spot Xtremes surrounding the exterior and the interior of the structure fitted with the ColorBlaze 48s built on custom brackets. "Designers should consider Showgun as a convertible Fresnel," Ungerleider points out. "I like the fact that, when that 2,000W light source comes on, it doesn't spill. It's concentrated to the location where you need it, just like a big Fresnel. And the LED ring on the outside? Those LEDs are plenty bright. If the interior light color is programmed to complement the exterior LED color, you can achieve a three-dimensional look that is very surreal and incredibly powerful."

In the melding of visual disciplines, Ungerleider's show operation combined with Davidian's skill produce a fantastic collaborative effort. "When media servers are being utilized, and video is being incorporated properly with your lighting, there's the opportunity to do choreography that will blend seamlessly with the music's timing and structure," Ungerleider enthuses. "And when it's time to throw it to live video, and you have a guy like Dave Davidian back there as video director, it just works so nicely when everyone is in tune. I do like to surround myself with a strong and intelligent team; it really helps the show flow smoothly."

Davidian details the video technology that Snakes and Arrows offers over previous tours. "The Toshiba video screens have better resolution ' we're using 10mm rather than 14mm screens ' and I'm also utilizing an SDI digital system rather than an analog composite system," he says. "Those two factors combined make a big difference to how the screens look."

Davidian also uses a Ross digital switcher system to access the media server, Doremi Labs playback, and live footage. "The Ross is terrific, especially with a three-screen format," he says. "It allows you to build memories like you would with a lighting console, and it lets me work the three screens with ease, rather than using two of the three hands I'd need to run three MEs!"

Addressing his working relationship with Ungerleider, Davidian says he is equally in tune with what Ungerleider is looking for from behind the magic curtain. "Absolutely, as a lighting designer, I understand Howard's needs, as well as his struggles, and what he's up against in every different venue," he says. "And in the same way that he's got a video eye, I've got a lighting eye; there's a symbiosis, since our backgrounds are similar."

To capture live footage, several cameras ' three of them unmanned Sony BRC-300s ' include two Sony cams at FOH (one with a Fujinon 80:1 lens, the other a Canon 70:1 lens), as well as a Sony BVP950 in the pit. They film at 16x9 ratio and are SDI. Davidian offers major kudos to his live camera operators. "They're awesome," he says. "I couldn't do the show without them. This is a very complex and challenging show, as there are only three screens and three cameras, and the four POVs are in unique situations. Those three cameras are on all the time. It's not like a normal show where you're cutting around it. They really have to create a show for the whole night and keep their camera angles interesting."

One constant in Rush's tour lighting is Ungerleider's unabashed love of saturated dichroic colors. "I've always liked using saturates," he says. "The kings of saturates are Roy Bennett and Chas Herington. Chas lit Dire Straits; now that was a beautiful show! And Roy, he's one of the few other designers that will use green, so it blends with other primary saturates...there's a definite art form and process in doing this, so the colors don't blend to white. When you set it up in a specific way, you achieve an amazing combination of saturated color, which ultimately gives you depth perception. I always think of myself as that ticket holder when I'm designing a show. What would I want to see as an audience member?"

After 34 years, one must assume Ungerleider has acquired some serious job security with Rush. "The guys in the band have complete faith in what I do, and we know each other well," he comments. "We actually hang out when we're off the road, and I have freedom to pursue other projects when I'm not touring with them. As much as I love this gig, I also enjoy working on other projects; it gives me an opportunity to get away and into many different camps and come up with new fresh ideas. I think differently for each band I work with. Again, my whole thing is about uniqueness." Ungerleider's company has recently worked on the Las Vegas Hilton's production of Barry Manilow's Manilow: Music and Passion, We Will Rock You, and tours for Tool and Carrie Underwood.

Ungerleider is adamant about crediting his programmers for their contributions to the extraordinary visuals they produce. "For over 15 years, Tim Grivas and I have worked on many different projects, Rush being one, and we work quite well together. He knows what I like, I know what I want to see and how I want to see it, and Tim is very quick; he's the master expediter of my expectations, and it saves a lot of time. Both Tim and Matt Tucker are instrumental to this process. Matt is an amazing programmer as well and is able to make any changes required on the road. Plus, he definitely has his plate full during the show, especially working with the likes of me!"