In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Big tours are, understandably, big productions. Taylor Swift might be on stage singing, but she’s got dozens if not hundreds of people working to put that show on each night, from dancers to costumers to roadies and lighting technicians. Leroy “Roy” Bennett is one of those lighting professionals, having designed productions for everyone from The Weeknd to Deadmau5. With an impressive resume that includes Prince’s ’80s and ’90s tours, most everything Beyoncé has done for the past five years, Lady Gaga’s over-the-top stage extravaganzas, and tours from Paul McCartney and Nine Inch Nails, Bennett is one of the top names working in live lighting design today. But what does that mean? The A.V. Club talked to him about what he does on the job every day and how he helps acts achieve their big stage visions.
The A.V. Club: How did you get into the lighting business?
Roy Bennett: I grew up in a very musical, artistic family. My mom was a trained opera singer, my father was an interior designer, and I grew up in that world of music. Both of my parents are into musicals and performing, and so music was always a very visual thing since I was a very small kid.
As a teenager, I realized I wanted to be involved with the music industry. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. Both my sister and my parents could perform on stage, but that was the last thing I wanted to do. I got up there and froze. The spotlight was not for me.
Once I graduated high school, I worked with a friend’s band from Rhode Island, where I grew up. They were playing the club circuit up and down the east coast. They invited me to come live with them—they were living in D.C. at the time—and help move their gear around. So I did that. They had a little lighting package at that time.
AVC: When you say “lighting package,” what do you mean?
RB: It was a tiny basic lighting system, some flash pots, pyro—just very basic stuff.
I realized at that point that I could perform musically without having to get on stage. So I left them and I went back to Rhode Island to work for a lighting company there that did national tours. I worked with them as a technician for just a little over a year. I learned the ins and outs of what it took to do a national tour, all the basic elements of the typical set of stuff. Then I worked for another company here in L.A. and did a couple of tours with them. The director of the company realized I wanted to be more than a technician and said, “Look, the next client that comes through who doesn’t have a designer, I’m going to put your name forward.”
The next client that came through was Prince. This was the 1980s, and it was not easy the first week with him. He’s a pretty intense guy. But I survived the week and worked for another 14 years with him. I did the Purple Rain movie and his videos and some other movies, every live show, all his touring stuff, and also all those television performances. He pushed me to the limit, to beyond what I thought I could do, which was great. The way I started my career with him was the best thing to do, like the ultimate boot camp. If you can survive 14 years with him, you can survive anything. It was great.
After the first tour where I was just doing lights, I got very interested in designing the stage set and becoming a production designer, which didn’t really exist at that point in the touring industry, though it did in films. I ended up designing the stage sets and the lights, which was really unusual at that time, because there was always one person or the other. One doing one department, one doing the other.
Obviously, my career expanded because of Prince’s popularity. My reputation grew as a designer. He’s a musician’s musician, so all these artists would come see him, and they’d approach me to see if I’d want to design their shows. It’s been a pretty amazing career so far.
AVC: Let’s say you get a call today from Beyoncé, and she’s asking for help on her tour. What’s the process? Does an artist call and say, “We have an idea for a tour, we have an idea for the look of things, can you help us with it?”
RB: There are three kinds of artists. There are the artists that know exactly what they want. There are artists that have kind of a clue but not quite. And then there ones that have absolutely no clue what they want. With the artist who doesn’t know what they want, I have total freedom to do whatever I feel. The ones who kind of have a clue, I have to decipher what they mean, and then there’s the ones that have very, very specific things. I take what they do and interpret it into what I believe needs to happen.
That’s how it starts out. Before that, I have meetings with the artists. I meet them face-to-face, get a feel of who they are if I’ve never met with them before. I like to know—I do homework, obviously—who they are as an artist now, in the past, and hopefully try to get an insight of where they may be going in the future.
Because every show is different and every artist is different, I don’t have a formula other than to study the artist. Every show is specifically for them and not something that I repeat for other people. There may be technology I take from one thing to another, but as far as the overall feel of the show, never. It’s always specific to them.
Once I’m in that mode, then I come up with a concept, go back to the artist and say, “Here’s what I believe you should have.” And then take it from there.
AVC: What’s your overall goal? When you’re designing a production, what are you trying to convey? A cool look? A vibe? A sense of the artist?
RB: All of the above. For me, it’s very important that I design a show that’s specifically for them, that represents who they are as an artist, and that has versatility.
Every song by an artist is a different little story. So you have to be able to tell the story of every song. You have to be able to do that in a way within the design so you demonstrate those multiple personalities. There’s a lot that goes into designing something for these artists. It’s their home away from home, that’s where they live when they’re on the road. And it has to be an extension of them. I try to capture the essence of who they are, basically.
AVC: How big is your team for, let’s say, a Beyoncé tour?
RB: My core team usually consists of more people than I bring with me into a situation. But it’s usually a couple lighting programmers and a video media server programmer who programs all the screens. Then my art director usually comes along just in case there’s other work that we have to do as far as designing props and all of that. That’s normally what’s on-site. There’s also one other person, who should be the lighting director, who takes the show out on the road and then runs it for the length of the tour. So that’s four to five people. Depending on the size of the show, you could have a lighting crew of six to 12 people. There are also carpenters that set up the stage set. That could be up to 12 people or more. It all depends.
AVC: It probably depends how grand something is.
RB: Exactly—the scale, and the complexity. It depends on if it’s a stadium or an arena. There are a lot of factors that go into the size of the crew. And obviously, most productions try to keep it down to a minimum if they can.
AVC: How long does a production take to prep? What kind of window do you like working with?
RB: Ideally, a comfortable time frame is four months. Six is great. But there are people who try to push it and give me two months or even six weeks. That’s the worst-case scenario. I caution highly against that.
AVC: What’s your process over that four months? Are you making mock-ups or are you setting cues? What are you working with behind the scenes?
RB: In a four-month period, you have to bank on at least a month to build something. With four months, the fourth month is for manufacturing—building the lighting system and the stage set. It takes between four to six weeks to build something. So you have to take that into consideration. Then you back up from there.
I may have two weeks to design the show, then I have another week and a half, two weeks of refining any adjustments that need to be made. Then the production manager has to go and put everything out to bid to different lighting vendors, video vendors, set building companies. That process takes a couple of weeks. And there’s the logistics of going back and forth with whoever the vendors are, talking about what it takes to build all this stuff, engineer it and all of that. It’s the selling of the design, the refining of the design, the bidding of the design, and the engineering and the building of the design.
Once that’s done in the four-month period, then there’s the rehearsal period that comes after that. Four months is the pure process of getting things made from design to actually, physically in the rehearsals. Then rehearsals can go from 10 days to four weeks depending on the complexity of the show.
AVC: When you say you’re designing the show, what do you mean specifically? Are you placing pyro and strobes, or how does it work?
RB: A lot of that is done right in rehearsals. Some of it’s premeditated, like pyro is usually premeditated because you have to design stuff specific for the songs and for the show, where lighting is more abstract. That’s more of an organic process in rehearsals. As far as the set goes, you have to design video screens, the lifts, and all that stuff. When I’m in a show like Beyoncé’s or Gaga’s or any of those other things where there’s a lot of choreography, you have to introduce a lot of different elements like lifts or entrances, props, things that pop up on the stage, new scenes—all that stuff. The only thing that’s really last minute and organic as far as how it works is the programming of the lights. All the video content, everything else has to be premeditated.
AVC: Let’s talk about specific tours. What do you remember about working on Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball tour? What was that process like?
RB: That was interesting. That was a very last-minute tour. She was already out on tour doing theaters, but she was moving into arenas. I was brought in to do the arena tour, and they completely changed everybody out from the theater thing. We were in rehearsals in February—I think the end of February—and I got the call in the middle of December.
I had to quickly design this concept of a show that was put together by she and Laurieann Gibson, who was her creative director at the time. It was storyboarded, and it was based off The Wiz in a way. So I had to take all their abstract concepts of scenes and then piece it together. I had basically two weeks to do that. Then refine it, sell the concept, and then we had to build it. It was put together so quickly—it was a little scary.
AVC: How does a Lady Gaga tour differ from something like a Paul McCartney show? Can you be more aggressive with the design of her show or with his show?
RB: Lady Gaga’s shows are very theatrical, or have been, where Paul’s are straightforward rock. So there’s two different ways of approaching it. The actual lights are the same, but how it’s run is a different story. Sometimes, I use SMPTE code—the time code—and shows that have ProTools or any backing tracks, they generate time code. We use that to trigger everything. So we can get into very complex cuing on shows that an operator could never physically do. You get into a lot of little subtleties and all of that. Somebody like Nine Inch Nails or Gaga or Beyoncé, that’s all run off of time code. Things like Paul McCartney, because it’s a rock band just playing straightforward rock, there’s no electronics involved as far as playback or anything. It’s all manual.
AVC: So for that, you’ve got somebody behind the board running all the cues for all the lights?
RB: Oh yeah. There’s always a person there. Even if it’s on SMPTE code, there are some manual cues that have to be done, and if the system crashes, they have to know how to get through it manually.
AVC: Or try to.
RB: Exactly, It’s like being a pilot in a jet. It’s on autopilot, but if that system goes down, you have to know how to fly the plane.
AVC: How does that work? If you have a Gaga show, is it firing every light on every cue, just firing, firing, firing? If she wants to riff between songs, is that possible, or is it all set to time?
RB: It depends. As you’re building the show, you know the moments—you worked closely with the musical director and the person that’s in charge of the playback stuff. They’ll tell you, “Okay, at this point, time code’s going to stop and the artist is going to freeform for a little bit until the time code starts again and everything clicks in and everything starts back up.” It’s all premeditated. You know when that stuff’s going to happen, and you just don’t do it randomly. We make it very clear that they can’t do that. They can do whatever they want, whenever they want, but they have to let us know exactly where.
AVC: So many of these shows have moments that seem so spontaneous, but if you see that show two or three times, you realize that it’s not as spontaneous as you think.
RB: No. If you see Madonna, there’s nothing spontaneous about that show. Everything’s within a quarter of an inch movement of anything she does. If anything is off, that’s it. She freaks out.
AVC: I’ve seen Paul McCartney a few times, and his banter seems so spur of the moment, like, “Hey, I just thought of this story I want to tell you guys,” but it’s totally not. He tells the same stories in a way that’s so organic. It’s like a comedian, where it seems like he just came up with in that moment.
RB: There are some nights where he does switch it up—it’s the same story, but he tells it slightly differently. He needs—well, I can’t say, “He needs to change it up,” but he does change his stories up every once and a while. He’s a creature of habit sometimes.
AVC: He knows what works.
RB: Yeah, he knows what they want to hear. It’s all related to certain songs, so he’s basically telling you history. People love that, and it’s pretty amazing to hear that stuff. If it’s a certain song, the history doesn’t change, so you have to tell the history.
AVC: You worked on the Deadmau5 tour. With something where the artist’s maybe less dynamic, how does your approach change?
RB: With somebody like Joel—Deadmau5—it’s atmospheric, it’s not tailored around him. You show him on stage, but it’s not just about him as an artist. It’s more about what he’s doing and the music. Like I said, it’s more atmospheric versus somebody where, like McCartney or Beyoncé, where they are the star.
AVC: How did Jay Z and Beyoncé’s On The Run Tour work? They’re such distinct personalities, but you also want to see them interact on stage.
RB: People like that, the focus has to be on them. You build the atmosphere behind them, but it’s an enhancement and never a detraction from who they are as stars.
AVC: You’ve been doing this for a number of years and the technology has clearly changed a lot. Do you think anything has changed philosophically within the touring industry over that time? Do fans want a bigger show? Do they say, “I’m paying $55 for this ticket, I want it to be $55 worth of extravaganza?”
RB: Every artist wants the best show out there. The audience doesn’t demand anything verbally, but they deserve it. So you always want to make sure—well, I do—that the audience gets more than what they pay for. Everybody works hard. These tickets aren’t cheap. They deserve to get what they paid for if not more.
The thing is, in the music industry now, artists don’t make money off of record sales. They make it off of touring and live shows and merchandising and sponsorship and all that. Ultimately, you’re only as good as your last show. There are a lot of artists—like, look at the Rolling Stones. They really haven’t had any hits for years, or even decades. But they can sell out stadiums because it’s a spectacle. It’s more about the event than it is going to listen to new songs. And that’s pretty much the case for all artists. An audience will go to a live show for the experience, not just the music. If they want to listen to music, they sit at home.
AVC: They want Beyoncé, but they want a show! They want Cirque Du Soleil. They want people falling from the ceiling and fireworks.
RB: If it’s something that’s relevant to the music. It can’t be a distraction. There are some artists that need what I call a “beard.” Somebody that’s on stage that is so-so as an entertainer—there are a lot of young artists out there that are not great singers. They’re manufactured, and those kinds of artists need everything around them as much as possible to keep the audience entertained and distracted from the fact that they’re not what everybody thinks they are.
AVC: Have you worked with any of those people? You don’t have to name names.
RB: A couple of them. Fortunately, not a lot.
AVC: How much does lighting and production cost, generally?
RB: I’m not an accountant. When I do a design, I design based off of what I believe it needs to be versus—well, budget and logistics are always in the back of my mind—but that’s a tough question. Lighting systems for a tour—and again, it’s relative to the size of the venue—but when you play theaters, a big budget for a theater is $35,000 a week. If you play an arena, a large budget for lighting could be $120,000.
AVC: And that includes manpower?
RB: Yeah, that’s labor and all that stuff. A stadium could be $250,000. It all depends.
AVC: You’ve consulted on other events like Lady Gaga and The Weeknd’s performances at this year’s Oscars. Why do you consult on those kinds of events? Why don’t artists just say, “Oh, the Oscars have lighting people”?
RB: Well, Bobby Dickinson’s there, who was the lighting designer for the Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys. I’m brought in by the artist as a safety net, pretty much, because they’re used to me. They know that I know what they want. Any artist wants a designer for them, and brings their designer in because they know the designer understands who they are and what they want in that particular kind of situation. So people like Gaga or The Weeknd bring me into the Oscars to ensure their performance is interpreted in the way that is fitting for them and who they are but also fits within the elements of the Oscars.
I’ve been a production designer for television and lighting designer for television, so I understand both worlds. And it helps them because they don’t have to—particularly new artists—but they don’t have to deal directly with the production people on television because I already have that association and I know them. So it just makes everything easier. I’m the intermediate guy, but also the guy that helps build whatever the performance image is.
AVC: It seems that the production and lighting community is a fairly tight-knit community.
RB: The business I’m in, my job and my colleagues and all the people that work with me—it’s a very small world. You’d be surprised how few people actually do this for the entire world.
AVC: How many?
RB: It depends on what level you’re looking at. At the highest level, probably four or five.
AVC: And you’re in the highest level, I assume.
RB: I don’t place myself anywhere. But it’s a very small world.
AVC: What do you think is coming in the future? What sort of different shows are we going to be seeing?
RB: Technology changes. I’m actually on my way to Miami today because I’m going to see a company called Magic Leap. We’re working on interfacing their system into the live entertainment world. It’s going to change live entertainment greatly.
AVC: What do they do?
RB: They basically blend reality with virtual reality. It’s not Oculus or any of that kind of crap. It involves glasses at the moment—clear lenses—so you’re looking at reality, but then there’s virtual stuff floating within that world. Solid objects, too. Then everybody, if you’re on the same system, and you have a room full of people looking, all on the same system, they can see everything at the same time, but they’re looking at it from their angle, from their perspective.
AVC: So things are going to become more interactive in that sense. You’re not touching Beyoncé, but you’re interacting with her in a different way.
RB: Interactive technology is becoming more accessible and part of a lot more shows now. Interactive stuff’s really weird because the way it is at the moment, people interacting with video content and all of that, it’s hard to tell if it’s really interactive or if it’s really well rehearsed.
AVC: Well, that’s the touring industry as a whole with some of these bigger artists. It feels spontaneous, but it’s not necessarily so spontaneous.
RB: It’s a fine line, what’s spontaneous and what isn’t. You have to actually show the mistakes to prove that it’s real. Every once and a while, you have to show the wizard.