The Deconstruction of Rush

Projection, Lights and Staging News, July 21, 2015


Rush hit the road last month for what they are calling the continuation of R40 — celebrating 40 years as a band. Parnelli award winning production designer Howard Ungerleider actually explains that he is entering his 41st year with the band, having been brought into the fray back in 1974 as he says, “to teach a new band how to tour.” But what is separating this tour from any other Rush show is they are touring behind a theme this time. They are “Deconstructing” their career live — as each song they play takes you back one more step in their long, storied career.

“Subtractive Technology in Motion”

Before every Rush tour, the artistic team, including creative director Dale Heslip, producer Allan Weinrib, lead singer/bassist Geddy Lee (Allan’s older brother) and Howard Ungerleider start by getting together for some new ideas.

Prior to their latest brainstorming session, Dale came up with an idea of going backwards in time. His idea was to stage a show that started where they left off in 2013, with the Clockwork Angels tour and all its high tech visuals, and take the audience back in time all the way to when Rush played their first gigs with a few PARs on sticks and a mirror ball.

Dale pitched the idea to Geddy, who immediately called a meeting to discuss the concept further. There, everyone looked to Howard to come up with ways to make the concept come to fruition.

While Ungerleider is the first to admit that the theme for the tour is a great idea, he also realized it would probably be the most work he has ever had to put into a Rush design. His personal theme for this production was deemed “Subtractive Technology in Motion.” Everyone agreed that this was the path to follow. They could bring back old video footage, lighting looks and songs that have not been heard in a while. They needed a rough period outline of the band’s career, which the creative team decided could be brought about by dividing the bands’ career into five time segments. These included:

  • Current Big Technology Era (2007-present)
  • Large Arena Looks (1990s-2000s)
  • Small Arena Looks (1980s)
  • Theater Looks (late 1970s)
  • Gymnasium Period (early 1970s)

They then started up a storyboard for the performance and updated it accordingly as they moved on, trying to keep to four to five songs for each time period. Of course, Rush shows are known to never get stagnant, so the band will resort to three separate, revolving set lists.

To rehash the looks from these eras, Howard had to gather 40 years worth of lighting plots to look into. The last 20 years were the easiest — those were all done in CAD, and he had those renderings and designs on his computer. But for the first 20 years, Howard had to empty his personal time capsule and dig out not only the pasted symbol blueprints he created at See Factor in the 1980s but the pencil-drawn plots that preceded that era as well — plots drawn even before Howard became instrumental in the birth of the ACL bulb in a PAR can.

Lighting wasn’t the only technology that changed for Rush in the last 40 years. Rush and Ungerleider have embraced the use of multimedia visuals throughout their whole career, and video elements have, of course, changed as well.

While the Clockwork Angels tour featured a massive LED wall upstage, it wasn’t always that easy to add big, animated visuals to a show. For the Fly By Night tour in 1975, the band had a large owl as their logo. Through the use of some Kodak S-AV projectors, the band had the owl flap its wings. Howard moved on to 16mm film loops, rear-projected on a screen, followed by three separate 35mm machines projecting at once on a single wide screen.

“I tried to emulate the 3D IMAX experience,” he explains. “But back then, you could not tour with those beastly projectors and, of course, we had no media servers. I would feather the ends of the movie clips to try and splice the images together, long before we had edge-blending. It was a big learning curve, and we had many issues at the time, but we solved them all in the end.”

The biggest issue facing Ungerleider was probably the backwards principle of starting the show with the big looks, culminating with the simplest bare bones lighting to end the show. Howard is renowned for starting shows with basic looks and building the lighting up as the show progresses. He may use a single lighting effect for just one song during a performance, yet that effect may require 100 light fixtures. For instance, on the last Rush tour, Howard had 68 Clay Paky Sharpys mounted in his rig. But the audience did not see a single one until two thirds of the show had gone by. And when he did use them, the look he chose was so different than what any other designer was doing at the time. He used them to imitate a sideways rainstorm on stage.

The Lighting

A 60-foot-wide Austrian drape is down and separating the stage from the audience during walk-in. Two Barco 26K projectors set up at front of house open the show with a brilliant video intro that features the band members playing assorted characters. The audience eats this up, as personal videos with band members acting out different roles has long been a fan favorite. The show started precisely where the last tour left off. With dancing pods of lights on high-speed motors, driven through a Raynok by Niscon system supplied by Five Points Rigging that was programmed by Sebastien Richard. Howard was all in from the first moment the Austrian drape rose to reveal the band.

While the concept of moving pods may have been used last year, the lights on this tour were new fixtures this year. Ungerleider incorporated several types of fixtures onto each pod for different looks. The pods were held steady with RSC Light Locks between the hoist and the pod. Each pod was about four feet wide and had a new Vari*Lite VL4000 spot as the centerpiece. Flanking the spot on either side was a Clay Paky Mythos fixture along with two Solaris Flares. A single Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 48 LED strip light lined the front of each pod.

Across the back of the stage is what I call the typical Howard “Mother-in-Law truss” — Ungerleider takes a 60-foot truss and hangs everything in the world but his mother-in-law on that sucker. No lie, this truss weighs 10,000 pounds. It contains 20 more Vari*Lite VL4000 spots as well as 13 of the brand new VL4000 BeamWash fixtures. More Mythos also were dispersed, but the really big statement was made by the three rows of ColorBlaze fixtures that were stacked on top of each other and ran the length of the truss.

Trusses packed to the max with light fixtures have been a staple of Rush shows since the beginning. Howard explained to me how he got a straight row of fixtures across the back of his stage before he ever thought of using truss. While using Atlantis Lighting in the 1970s, Howard had the crew set up four Genie air towers, each separated by about 12 feet of space. On either side of the Genie towers, he could hang six PAR 64s straight out from a pipe. Under that pipe he would hang black cloth, so when the Genie towers lifted up to trim they would be hidden. His straight 48-foot line of lights was considered massive at the time.

Downstage of the Austrian drape is what Howard terms his “anti-proscenium truss” — so called because it reminds him of the old days when he had to fly trusses way downstage to shoot under the theater proscenium arches. On this truss, he mounts Vari*Lite VL3500s for key lighting. On the sides of the stage are two large pods full of GLP X4 Zoom-LED pancake fixtures that work great as side wash. To pick the band members out through the wall of video and lighting, the LD has six Robert Juliat Ivanhoe 2.5K truss spots mounted on the rear and sides.

Ungerleider was impressed with the VL4000 fixtures. “I hadn’t used Vari*Lites in quite a few years,” he notes. “At LDI this year, their rep, Brad Schiller, took me aside and gave me a private demo of these fixtures. I was sold on site, and I couldn’t be happier with my choice to utilize both VL 4000 series products on this tour. The fact that they are still bright when zoomed out to 40 degrees is pretty cool, and I just love the saturated colors I can get out of this series of fixtures.”

Howard also chose the Mythos for their flexibility. “Whenever I needed a certain type beam to conclude a look I was working on, I knew I could use these,” he says. “Whether I needed a pin spot, a gobo or some more wash coverage, I was covered.”

The Video Looks

After a few songs, the pods recede to the rafters, never to be seen by that night’s audience again. We revert to the era of the “large arena” looks, a time when big rock lighting looks ruled and set pieces, video and lights in motion did not have the same impact they do today. Large video looks were emerging, but today’s 60-foot-wide video walls that can accompany a band’s performance for the whole show did not exist for much of the band’s career. So this year, Dale chose to split up the wall. A main 25-by-25-foot 8mm wall was the centerpiece for this portion of the show, stretching from the deck to ceiling. Downstage and off stage of the main wall were side video walls measuring seven feet wide and matching the center screen’s 25 feet in height. The design team decided they could use these side screens to create the illusion of playing in a theater type scenario. Between them and the Austrian drape along the front, they could achieve that proscenium vibe.

Veteran video director Dave Davidian, now in his 13th year with the band, once again helms the controls of the video elements and calls the camera shots. For the first time in Rush’s career, they flew side projection screens for just I-Mag purposes. Dave finds himself cutting cameras for this three-hour show constantly, as well as mixing media scenes with I-mag on stage. Through his Grass Valley switcher, he steered various images that were cued by him and his team as well as Howard and Geddy himself (via MIDI Notes live while playing on stage) to show up at opportune times. Davidian had three operators manning cameras, but missing from the scene were jibs, camera dollies and handheld camera operators down front in the pit. In their place, Dave strategically placed various lipstick cams and nine remote-controlled robocams, including one that traversed the downstage edge of the stage on a tracking dolly system for close-up angles on the band members.

Allan is in charge of producing the videos. There’s a mixture of content. Some new contemporary pieces were made for songs like “Roll the Bones,” but many others were old pieces that needed to be edited to work within the confines of the new show and its elements. This is one of the big reasons that for the first time this native Toronto group is using a Canadian vendor for both video and lighting. Howard expresses that he and the band loved the work that Screenworks did for them all those years, but Solotech was able to provide them with an in-house content creation company that was geared to work locally with the design team. Howard hadn’t planned on switching lighting vendors, but Solotech asked if they could be allowed to bid on that as well. Howard was astonished when the company came to him with not only a very fair price but they agreed to provide 100 percent of the fixtures that were on the plot with not a single substitution. Add in the fact that Howard and Allan love the work of fellow LD Yves Aucoin who runs the content creation side of Solotech (called 4U2C), and the switch to them was a no-brainer for this tour.

Between the video elements, Howard has hung some vertical light ladders, which separated the stage look completely. One doesn’t notice them during the beginning of the show and it wasn’t until Howard entered the small arena look where I noticed them highlighted with some High End Showgun fixtures hung in the center. Surrounding each Showgun were four more Mythos in the corners along with even more ColorBlaze 48s surrounding each section. Picture a section of Hollywood Squares between the video walls.

Lasers and Scenic Elements

The show is divided into two parts. During the first half, I kept waiting for the lasers to appear, but to no avail. The band has not used them for the last several tours, but they are such a mainstay in the history of Rush shows that it was only a matter of time.

When laser operator Scott Wilson from Production Design International (pdifx.com) hits the first cue, there is an audible gasp from the crowd. Stunning displays of beams ricochet through the arena and erupt over the crowd, spilling joyous vectors of color just over their heads. PDI has two custom-built 20-watt full color optical units located either side of the stage in the downstage corners. Howard spec’d a 30-watt unit upstage center so it could compete with the video wall at any time. He also incorporated 28 2-watt blue lasers to put out miniature beams of sexy light over the band at one point.

“In reality, we only go to the lasers for a few choice moments,” says Ungerleider, who is part owner of PDI, the Toronto-based special effects company that supplies lasers to many touring productions as well as special events. “They reflect what we were doing with them 20 years ago,” Howard adds, also noting that Rush has long been known for its “constant-changing set looks.” And for this tour, the tradition of morphing set looks continues. As the band plays each song, a series of technicians load out and load in various pieces of set gear and backline tools.

The show starts with the Steampunk vibe of the Clockwork Angels tour, which includes a number of eye-catching machines on stage. As the show continues, technicians roaming behind the band transform the look by swapping out the Steampunk elements with industrial clothes dryers from an earlier tour. By the second half of the show, the machines have, in turn, been replaced with mammoth stacks of Marshall speakers and Ampeg bass cabinets.

Above the stage, three circle truss elements, each 12 feet in diameter, draw the audience’s eye as they get flown into place. These rings were a constant feature during the time period when Rush tended to play mostly small arena rock shows, and Howard built large light rigs that were centered around the circle truss elements. Playing hits from their 1980 Moving Pictures album (i.e., “Tom Sawyer,” “YYZ”) brings the crowd to an uproar as Ungerleider emulates the early days of moving lights through the 12 Mythos mounted on each ring.

Eventually, the upstage vertical torms are covered by some handsomely lit red drapes, transforming the arena into more of a theater look. Finally, the massive backline has been stripped down. For the encore, the stage is merely a couple of vertical floor pipes with PARs on them and a single mirror ball hanging over the band as they emulated their nights at the Holiday Inn and various school gyms. The die-hard Rush fans from 40 years ago are in heaven now.

Programming duties on the Hog4 console were handled once again by Tim Grivas, who has worked alongside Howard for 20 years now. They have 37 songs in the can, so to speak, but as Howard often says, the show is constantly a work in progress. Accompanying Ungerleider on tour is freelance programmer Andy o’Toole, who handles the day-to-day changes for the designer. “Anything good is a lot of work,” Howard admits. “But this is one of the most exciting things I have done in a while. It rekindled my desires and brought out the inner child in me.”

Crew

Creative Directors: Geddy Lee, Dale Heslip

Producer: Allan Weinrib

Lighting Designer/Director: Howard Ungerleider

Programmers: Tim Grivas, Andrew o’Toole

Lighting/Video Co: Solotech

Lighting Crew: Yanick Blais (crew chief), Vincent Cadieux, Denis Ayott, Benoit Paille

Video Director: David Davidian

Video Content: Yves Aucoin/4U2C

Video Crew: Dominic Moreau (crew chief), Frederic Fournier (video engineer), Philippe Casutt (LED specialist), Philippe Valade (projections), Jonathan Gagnon-Roy, Matthew Miller (videographer)

Laser Co: Production Design International

Laser Technician: Scott Wilson

Production Manager: Craig Blazier

Production Assistant: Lydia Bourgeau

Stage Manager: George Steinert

Tour Manager/Accountant: Liam Birt

Road Manager: Donovan Lundstrom

Carpenters: Cliff Sharpling (head carpenter), John Renner

Automation/Motion Control: Sebastien Richard/Five Points Rigging

Riggers: Jerry Ritter (head rigger), James Harrelson

Pyro Technician: John Arrowsmith


Gear

Lighting:

3 High End Systems Hog4 consoles w/ 2 expansion wings

66 Vari*Lite VL4000 Spots

15 Vari*Lite VL4000 BeamWash fixtures

14 Vari*Lite VL3500 Spots

12 Vari*Lite VL3500 Wash FX

50 GLP impression X4 S zoom fixtures

40 Clay Paky Mythos

7 High End Systems Showguns

54 Solaris LED Flares

12 Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 72s

50 Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 48s

16 PAR 64s

6 Robert Juliat Ivanhoe truss spots

12 RSC Light Locks

3 PDI custom laser projection systems w/scanners & Pangolin Beyond software and 32 mirrors

28 Automated custom blue laser diodes

4 MDG theONE smoke generator

1 Mirror Ball (4’)

1 Tait Towers Electric Austrian Curtain (60’ x 40’)


Video:

1 Solotech 8mm main video wall (25’ x 25’)

2 Solotech 8mm side video walls (7’ x 25’ each)

2 26K Barco projectors w/custom lenses

4 20K Christie projectors

2 80:1 Canon lenses w/ Sony camera bodies

1 72:1 camera lens with Sony camera body

1 Black Cam dolly track system

5 Sony BRC700 robocams

4 Lipstick cams on drums (1 on Kit A; 3 on Kit B)

3 Catalyst media servers

1 Grass Valley Karrera system w/switcher, 2 K2 video servers