By Michael S. Eddy

Like most of the nation, Philadelphia celebrated a grand 4th of July this summer. As befitting the birthplace of the United States, the city played host to a wide range of activities, many of them charitable in nature. One venue, however, hosted the two largest events, the July 2nd Live 8 concert — one of 10 international concerts held in conjunction with the G8 summit — and the July 4th Sunoco Philadelphia Freedom concert, with headliner Elton John, that raised money for HIV/AIDS awareness. Staging both events within 48 hours in the same location presented a logistical nightmare.

Delaware-based production company Light Action, Inc. provided the lighting, staging, power, and crew for both major events. Since the concerts were so close together, Light Action worked with LD Tom Beck for the Live 8 show as well as LD John Featherstone of Lightswitch for the Freedom Concert to streamline the turnaround time. It was decided that the majority of the equipment would have to be loaded in at once: do the Live 8 show, turn it all around as fast as possible, and then run the Freedom Concert. Making it all run smoothly took some careful coordination, some off-site pre-visualization, and a lot of dedicated crew.

Featherstone was already working on the Freedom Concert when he got asked to design for Elton John. “We were retained to take care of the lighting for the event, which, besides Elton, featured Bryan Adams, Patti Labelle, Rufus Wainwright, and the Philly Pops,” says Featherstone, who was pinch-hitting for John's regular LD, Kevin Bye, who was in Europe with John's current tour. Featherstone had previously lit John last spring, when the entertainer performed at McDonald's 50th anniversary event in Chicago. “Kevin Bye has been great in letting us know some of the guidelines of lighting Elton,” he says.

While in the process of designing the Freedom Concert, the Live 8 event was announced. “It was relatively late in the process, early to mid-June, because Live 8 came together extremely rapidly,” says Featherstone. He was happy with the early load-in of the Freedom Concert equipment, leaving him to concentrate on preprogramming the show off-site. “The Elton rig was put in a week early, tested, checked, and wrung out by Light Action, and they did a fantastic job. Tom Beck, who was doing Live 8, grabbed the rig and ran with it.”

Beck had been prepping for the Live 8 concert, when he got a sudden promotion. “Originally, Roy Bennett was contracted to do the show, and he hired me to be his lighting director,” says Beck. “Paul McCartney wound up doing Live 8 in London and requested Roy's presence there, so since I had done all the groundwork, he passed it on to me.”

Scott Humphrey, president of Light Action, was already planning the Fourth of July events when Live 8 was layered on. “It started out with the design for the Elton John show, and then we incorporated that with the Tom Beck's design for the Live 8 concert,” he says. “Basically, we just added to the show that already existed. I was aware that something was going to happen about six weeks out, but they hadn't nailed down the time or the designer, so it all came together in something like 30 days.”

Humphrey explains some of the logistics of the two closely spaced shows. “On one hand, it was helpful to have Live 8 be a day show just for logistics: if it was a night show, there would have been another level of designers involved; it made it a lot easier. Plus, it gave us more time for the turnaround between the 2nd and the 4th.”

As if this wasn't enough work to do, Light Action had other areas to light, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which served as a backdrop for the Freedom Concert when the Live 8 video wall was struck. “We had a whole package that lit the art museum,” says Humphrey. “We set that up on the 3rd; we had all of the parade lighting; and everything needed for the audience had to be hung as well. It wasn't too bad. It could have been a lot worse, but it came together really well, and we pretty much stayed on schedule.”

The crew was key to how Light Action kept things running on the tight schedule, according to Humphrey. “We had 10 people in our camp with 20 to 30 IATSE Local 8 hands that did the lighting turnaround. It wasn't too painful,” he says. “We loaded a lot of the structure and elements up for July 4th that, even though we didn't use them, made it a lot easier for the turnaround that way.”

Humphrey was pleased with the end result and the crewing choices. “We brought in some good people that worked on the show and let them do their jobs,” he says. “I didn't try to micromanage things — just gave them the list of what needed to be accomplished and the big picture, and everybody worked together on that, which worked out really well. When you are putting together a show of this size, it all comes down to how you set up your leads and what you have them doing, and you try not to have them wear too many hats. It was two different shows, and I had different leads for the different shows, so they kept focused on what they had to get done. It wasn't like one person trying to worry about two different shows; it was two or three people.”

One of the people Humphrey called upon was Tom Thompson of Prelite SF and LA, who is originally from Philadelphia and has longtime ties with Light Action. He came on board to coordinate parts of the project. “I used to work for Light Action in the early 90s, and we have always been really good friends,” says Thompson. “I know John Featherstone and Tom Beck quite well from working with them, and Scott hadn't worked with either of them before, so he asked, ‘Why don't you come out and work for Light Action and help coordinate things?’”

Thompson also wore his Prelite hat when working with Featherstone on the pre-visualization of the Freedom Concert. While Live 8 was rehearsing and getting underway, Featherstone and Thompson set up shop at Light Action in Delaware with a Prelite Onsite rig and got the pre-visualization work going. “We knew with Live 8 happening on the 2nd, that would kill our programming time for the 4th, so it was John and Scott's idea to use Prelite,” says Thompson.

“Dennis Connors programmed for me,” adds Featherstone. “Being at Light Action's facility, we were out of everybody's way onsite. It was the only feasible way to do it. We had to do some degree of pre-viz because we weren't going to get the time onsite. Live 8 finished the evening of the 2nd. Pretty much all day the 3rd was taken reconfiguring the stage. We got site time in the evening to touch up the focuses, and we were off and running on the 4th.”

Featherstone is a great believer in pre-visualization. “It was a great demonstration of the huge value of doing pre-viz, particularly taking data from a previous show [McDonald's] and reconfiguring it to a different production,” he says. “It also reinforced to me the value of using a pre-viz provider like Prelite. Tom Thompson had the ability to really keep of on top of what was going on. It was an evolutionary load-in. Things were getting tweaked. We couldn't get trusses exactly where we wanted them. Things had to shift around so they could get the weight capacity they needed for the LED wall for Live 8. So Tom was on top of that stuff, tracking it and keeping the model we were using as accurate as possible. Had we gone in the night before and tried to program the show, it wouldn't have been anywhere near as good.”

While Featherstone was indoors, Beck, who had lit a lot of concerts prior to moving into lighting for film and television, knew that the sunny day predicted for July 2nd meant he had his work cut out for him with the Philadelphia leg of the Live 8 event. Since the concert was scheduled as a daytime show, Beck would be dealing mostly with trying to balance the stage with daylight and making the show work for the cameras that were feeding images to the many IMAG screens in the area, as well as to television and Internet broadcasts around the world.

“This was a particularly difficult one, because it was daytime, outdoors with a roof over the stage,” says Beck. “When we started the show, the sun was directly overhead being blocked by the roof. We brought in a quite substantial HMI package to balance things out. We had two 18kW Fresnels, eight 12kW HMI PARs, four 6kW HMI PARs, and then a number of smaller HMIs for sidelight and backlight. Mainly, it is about trying to balance the sky that is incredibly bright, so with the wide shots, you have bright sun, and then you have a stage that is shadowed by the roof. For television, it is all about balance — making it a nice and interesting image on video. When you have the sun that is so bright, it does make it a little challenging. You have to bring the levels up on the stage, or the sky is totally blown out.”

Beck enjoyed taking advantage of Featherstone's lighting rig. “We used the Elton rig for sparkle and a little flash,” comments Beck. “Mark Butts did an excellent job of managing that for me.” In addition to sparkle and flash, Beck used the automated rig for punch. “I needed backlight on all these performers, so I used the automation for that, and I also used the automation onstage to light the banners and the area underneath the huge LED screen upstage center. The automation was going to be there anyway, so we worked out a deal where I was able to use them, which was quite nice.”

“It worked out well, because even though Live 8 was during the daytime, there was some interesting stuff happening,” adds Thompson.

When Live 8 came down on Saturday evening, the fun began with the changeover for the Freedom Concert. “The load-out ran basically like this: we removed as much as we could of the HMI package on the evening of the 2nd, and on the 3rd, we were heavy changing over; it was all about Elton John,” says Thompson. “We wrung things out; in the late afternoon, they came in and made some changes; then they programmed until 2am, and then they did a big rock show the next day.”

One of the major items removed was the video wall opening the stage up to allow the museum to be the backdrop for the Freedom Concert, according to Featherstone. “As is traditional for this 4th of July show, we used the art museum itself as the backdrop, so we lit it using various automated fixtures to light the famous ‘Rocky steps’ and the façade.”

Once the Live 8 video wall was removed, some of the rig still had to be hung for the Freedom Concert during change over. “We had to put up some fixtures and some trusses that we couldn't fly because the video wall was in the way on the 2nd,” says Humphrey.

Both designers have nothing but praise for Light Action and the technicians. “Considering the throughput of both audience and performers in a very short space of time, it was a testament to the planning, particularly by Scott and his team at Light Action,” Featherstone says. “It was the first time I had the opportunity to work with them, and it would have been a tough show for any vendor no matter how big they are, but Scott's company really did a fantastic job making sure everybody was taken care of.”

In the end, both the Live 8 Concert and the Freedom Concert provided a lot of great music and raised money and awareness for good causes, but from a production point of view, maybe Thompson sums it up best: “It was actually a pretty uneventful show, which is good.”