For Radiohead’s 2016 tour I art directed and designed a collection of real-time, procedural content to be controlled live from the lighting board. Traditional, linear content is suited to serialized content and film, but is resource-intensive and inflexible. Long the domain of gaming, procedural content with its expansiveness and flexibility is finding its way into new areas of culture and entertainment. Besides being uniquely suited to interactive and experiential design, it shines in live performance.
A month before the American leg of the tour, Autodesk reached out to me to provide their friend Andi Watson, lighting and stage designer for Radiohead, with something special. My challenge was to make beautiful, controllable content on a system that we could tech into the tour in one day at Madison Square Garden. My role was to direct and design the content and also to design how it would integrate with the show. I was designing the UX for one user: Andi.
Andi Watson is a cult figure in the music production scene. His monograph “Bulletproof… I Wish I Was” graces the coffee tables of production designers around the globe. And for good reason: he cut his teeth on shows for Prince and The Cure and has done the lighting and stage design for Radiohead since their club days. He’s a master of his craft.
Andi captains the whole visual side of the show himself, all from his GrandMA lighting console. His approach to the show is to keep the focus on the musicians by using abstract content mixed with live video feeds of the band. He doesn’t use any content that is narrative, figural, or literal in any way. He’s also completely hands-on. The band changes its set list show to show, so the production has to change nightly as well. What this means is that during the show Andi is at the helm of no less than 11 monitors with his fingers flying over the lighting board. That manual, organic control is what keeps the production feeling alive and truly singular.
Real-time, procedural content that can be parameterized for expressive variety is the perfect fit for the show. The direction I chose was abstract imagery inspired by geometry, pattern, and of course, light. On a technical level, we provided a custom media server that acts as a real-time video content generator. I created a GrandMA profile so that to Andi it looks and behaves like a lighting fixture. In this way the completely custom video content is as easy to control from his console and include in his presets as any standard moving light. Finally, I wrote up a detailed user guide with previews of different parameter settings, descriptions of the DMX control channels, pixel map options, and instructions for changing the audio settings.