PLSN caught up with Bon Jovi’s longtime designer Doug “Spike” Brant of Nimblist, the company he runs with Justin Collie based out of Lancaster, PA. Together the two designers and their team put on various immersive entertainment projects, live sports, broadcast specials, festivals and special events and most notably concert tours with the likes of Lady Gaga, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, just to name a few. We spoke with Brant about his work on the current Bon Jovi — This House Is Not For Sale Tour, along with lighting director and automation programmer Joe Bay.
Doug ‘Spike’ Brant
Production and Lighting Designer
The tour design conversation started with Brant & Jon Bon Jovi before the album was finished last spring, where they sat down at Jon’s home studio in New Jersey after a band rehearsal.
“Jon discussed where he was coming from and brought up an image he had seen of a dilapidated house that had grown roots. That Jerry Uelsmann image became the album cover. The last tour set the bar very high. Both Jon and I felt it was the best show yet that leveraged video projection in a very spectacular way that was very over the top.”
“This time, the brief was to simplify and move away from spectacle and focus on the music. Through a lifetime of work and love for the music, Bon Jovi has grown from being the star of an era to become a timeless icon of American songwriting. The design draws inspiration from the transformation that Jon embodies. We sought to give voice to the honest, introspective, uplifting message that the man and his music bring to the fans. To do that, we wanted to strip away the distractions of the production, but still present a dynamic show.”
They picked six key words to guide them forward — “Integrity, Authentic, Wisdom, Mortality, Endurance” and “Transcendence.”
“We had three key themes as the basis of the design. First off was ‘The House’ — the form as a symbol for everything that Bon Jovi has built over the years, and its deep roots. Its construction and transformation tell the story of his career. Second was ‘Light’ — volumetric beams of light form ethereal architectures. Light can define spaces like physical materials do, but they also refer to the limitless and transcending nature of the Bon Jovi story. Third was ‘Industry’ — Metal structures of beams and truss allude to the labor of building a monumental legacy. The strong architecture of these structures evoke endurance, and purpose.
“We finally sat down with Jon last fall and presented the initial design with no video elements, but with scenic elements functioning as kinetic machines to create ethereal and industrial architecture with structures and light. He loved it, and challenged us to develop an opening to not only build excitement but to give context to the moment. This added video elements to the show.”
Brant has again partnered with Tait Towers for the production design coming to life.
“We have pushed the limits of design and technology since we started designing Bon Jovi in 2000. The Navigator system is unparalleled in the industry. Without it, the motion in this show would be impossible. For this tour, we took the machines that were designed and built for the last tour and repurposed them in a different way. The telescoping triangular towers and the Y-winches that made up the solid hex columns for projection were stripped down to their raw essence.
“We made the conscious decision not to clad anything and make scenery that was a facade. Everything is real and practical. The design is simple and raw, yet transformative and dynamic. It has become the trademark of Bon Jovi arena shows to present a clean stage to the audience when they enter the room that becomes kinetic and ever evolving throughout the show. It is important to be able to direct the audience’s attention.”
PRG is the Bon Jovi tour lighting vendor again for 2017, with Mark O’Herlihy, Eamonn McCullagh and Jennifer Christiansen as tour reps.
“[PM] Jesse Sandler has a deep relationship with PRG, and has his go-to team with Tim Probert (lighting crew chief), who understands what he expects from his road crew and vendor. For the design team, Hayden Katz was the star. He was there for all the overnight programming sessions and helped tech all the gremlins out of the rig.
“The lighting rig is very powerful and the [Claypaky] Scenius spots are the stars of the show; they are the best hard edge currently available. I am also a big fan of the X4 XL from German Light Products, with the concentric rings on them. It takes away the glare off axis and helps them not feel like an LED fixture. The Showtec Sunstrips are a simple fixture, but so effective, and they give us an authentic tungsten look the show requires. The Solaris Flares are a workhorse, and we could have used more! They really have no competitor for a super bright wash/strobe. The PRG Best Boys are the Swiss army knife of the rig and live on all the kinetic lifts and winches.
“For the towers, we originally spec’d the Robe Spikie, but after getting our hands on them, we realized we needed more punch. PRG offered the Icon Beam, which has proven to be a great light and reminded me of the bygone days back at LSD. Finally, we are using the PRG Ground Control for all the spots in the show, giving us consistent level, angle and cuing impossible using house spots.”
The tour is Tony Bongiovi’s return as video director, after taking a hiatus to start a family and grow his pasta sauce business, says Brant.
“The camera package includes two cameras at FOH and two mounted on a track wrapping around three sides of the stage. Tony and the flypack live backstage. The 7mm LED screens for I-Mag are only visible to obstructed view on the side, behind the stage or upper bowl seats that can’t see Jon and the band. If you have a good seat on the floor or lower bowl we don’t provide a TV for you to watch… this is a live rock show. Watch the band and listen to the music!”
Brant wanted to find more ways to use the projectors beyond the two-minute opening.
“I imagined roll drops behind the band for a second moment in the show, but kept the idea to myself. During rehearsals, I was with the band discussing the new record and the heartfelt stories Jon was telling, and how we should find a way to add that to the show. Jon asked about adding a backdrop for that moment in the show. That discussion turned into deconstructing that backdrop into the five strips we have now. The third way we use projection is to project directly onto the band, stage and audience as a texture. The six Barco 30K’s are hung in portrait in pairs. Control Freak handled the screen control and playback of the PRG projectors using d3 media servers.”
Brant’s company Nimblist produced all the content for the tour.
“We tapped my friend and collaborator Scott Peterman to be the content creative director. Scott and I come from totally different worlds but we have a kindred spirit. We have worked on many projects, and he is a strategic partner to Nimblist. I was excited to bring him into the world of rock ‘n’ roll. His point of view as a technologist, screenwriter and creative director was refreshing and invaluable through the process, not just with the content, but looking at the overall arc of the show. It started with the intro, where we took Jon’s inspiration for the opening, and developed the concept of a custom opening for each city. Scott worked with our favorite animator and visual designer, Andrew Hildebrand, to build it out.
“They both created custom coding and scripting to make the daily customization practical and affordable. When Jon added the roll drops for the storyteller portion of the set, which focuses on the new songs, we worked with the existing videos that were shot along with creating some new content from scratch. With the increased scope of the content needs, we reached out to Oli Goulet from 4U2C and his team to help us with the additional content. All in all, the team did an amazing job of delivering, with minimal revisions, exactly what Jon was looking for. For ‘Scars on This Guitar,’ we do use a live camera with a sepia effect which works nicely.”
The conversation always starts with Paul Korzilius, who sets the tone of each tour cycle from the start, says Brant.
“Paul has been with Jon since Slippery When Wet, where we met on my first tour. He was very clear from the beginning where Jon wanted to go with this tour. He is constantly challenging us to justify the design and cost, which I see as a healthy practice. Jesse Sandler has been an awesome partner in putting this show together. With Bon Jovi, not only do we need to deliver an amazing show, but Paul also demands efficiency and high return on his investment. This means keeping the production in as few trucks as possible and justifying every expense. Jesse has been great fighting to get what is needed for the show and balancing the design and reality of operations.
“This tour, we had a completely new design team to program the show, starting with the lighting director Joe Bay. He is a young star and this is his first tour. We took a chance on him a few years back and gave him his first job in the industry. Recently, he has been working under the mentorship of Eric Marchwinski and Kirk Miller at Earlybird Visual LLC. He has built his chops programming, impressing designer Kille Knobel on Pearl Jam and my partner Justin Collie on Ice Cube at Coachella. As the LD and programmer, he has pushed the limits of the grandMA2 as the central show controller.
“At Tait, my old friend Matt Hales was our project manager and helped get us through all the challenges of a system this dynamic along with Jimmy Southworth, the Navigator programmer. We also had the Tait super stars of Alex Serrano and Ben Gasper help get all the machines running flawlessly. The biggest star on the automation side is Madison Wade, the tour Navigator tech and all around smart dude. We were lucky to have him, and he was critical in letting us push the limits of everything.
“The tour and design represent the evolution and continued relevance of Bon Jovi. The band sounds better than ever. This show reflects where they are now; more comfortable than ever with who they are. It’s a great show that doesn’t distract, but adds to the music and the message.”
Lighting Director and Automation Programmer
Joe notes that this show provided a few technical challenges.
“We’re driving lighting, video playback, and automation all from a single console. It took a few weeks just to develop a programming workflow that’s efficient yet powerful. With just under 40 axes of motion moving constantly throughout the show, there are a lot of important elements to think about. One major feat was the stage tracking. This allows us to take any fixture and focus it on Jon — regardless of it’s position/rotation. This level of tracking gives us the ability to create powerful looks that weren’t possible before. This was made possible by the real-time positional feedback from Navigator. I was able to push the XYZ tracking functionality of the grandMA2 and always had a quick response from the guys at ACT Lighting whenever needed. We also used XYZ tracking for the less noticeable things, such as evenly lighting the hex towers as they move. Because the console knows where the moving pieces are, it allows us to track those pieces with light.
“The approach to programming automation is a lot different than programming lighting. Lights are more forgiving; you can try things and quickly determine if you like them. Automation, on the other hand, requires more care. With that much weight in the air, you could very quickly cause problems if you’re not cautious. That’s when MA3D proved to be a great tool. It allowed us to create elements in previz, and then send it to the real world when we were ready.
“Having a strong relationship with Spike is important, especially being both the programmer and the lighting director. This show isn’t something that you program once and take out on the road, it’s an evolving thing that I’m constantly improving. The set list is flexible, with songs being added to the show all the time, meaning I’ll often be programming up until doors. Luckily, we have an awesome crew that is always ready to go and make it happen.”