From giant tin robots and laser shows to motion capture footage filmed at Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium, The Chemical Brothers‘ latest live show features some spectacular visuals. We spoke to its creators Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall about the set following the band’s performance at this year’s Glastonbury Festival
The new tour, promoting album Born in the Echoes (out this Friday), combines a series of new film sequences and projections with selected footage from the band’s Don’t Think tour, which was co-designed by Lyall and Smith, and documented in Smith’s brilliant film of the same name.
Following headline performances at Primavera, Sonar and Glastonbury (which UK viewers can watch here until July 28), The Chemical Brothers will be taking the show across Europe, the US, Asia and South America throughout this year.
New footage includes a dizzying laser sequence for track Under the Neon Lights, a psychedelic film inspired by the work of experimental director Kenneth Anger, a virtual trip on a fairground ride, a giant glittering disco ball projection. The show was produced by Black Dog Films.
Images and films are displayed on a giant screen behind the band, while a grid of lights on the floor of the stage projects images into the crowd, giving visuals a 3D effect.
Smith, who has been standing in for Ed Simons in this summer’s run of shows, has been working with the Chemical Brothers for 18 years, and has collaborated with Lyall on several visual sequences, videos and live shows for the band. The concept for the latest tour was to create an immersive 3D experience by combining moving image work with impressive projections and physical props, he says.
“The overall concept was for the visuals to really react with the lights. Normally, the lights [at a gig] go on the ceiling and sides of the stage, as no-one wants to put them on the floor if a band are going to be running around, but we designed this grid, and it allowed us to create some incredible lighting.”
“In one sequence, there’s an animation with lots of lions and elephants which plays on the screen, and we also create lions with lights in the 3D space, so it’s trying to bring those images into the audience. We also have another piece for a song called EML Ritual, which involves a load of people on a rotor ride, and we’ve repeated the movement in the film with lights spinning around on people’s faces, again creating an extension of the screen,” he explains.
“We wanted to make the visuals three dimensional in different ways by messing with the idea of a flat screen,” adds Lyall. “We tried to move away from everything film and towards the idea that some of the things are film, some are lights, some are props, and hopefully you don’t know which is which.”
The physical props are two four-metre high tin robots, which are revealed midway through the performance, and fire lasers from their eyes while lip synching vocal samples. They were designed by Lyall and Smith, and inspired by robot animations used in previous live shows.
Image: Alex Nightingale
Sonar 2015 images via @lyallmarcus
“Marcus and I designed those based on a lot of the tin robot toys we’d used in shows before,” explains Smith. “We made movies to go inside their eyes and mouth so they seemingly talk some of the vocal samples, and they march and look at each other.
“It was quite a challenge for the production manager and stage manager and the rigger to figure out how to get them on and reveal them. There’s a whole sequence where some lights come on behind where the band play, then we hide them, their legs are assembled and hooked on to wires, and we distract the audience with some flashing strobes at the right point, until the robots are up and in place,” he adds. “It was tricky, but we work with an amazing crew, including Paul Normandale our lighting designer, who works with Bjork and Grace Jones, and they did a brilliant job.”
Alongside the mechanical robots and light shows, Lyall and Smith say they were keen to add a ‘human element’ to visuals: a performance of the song Elektrobank features a sinister and crazed looking character shouting lyrics down the phone, while the Anger-inspired double exposure sequence for new track I’ll See You There, stars theatre actors Benedict Wong and Liam Walpole and depicts a trance-induced Dionsysian ritual. In the sequence filled with lions, elephants and insects, Smith says animals are designed to look as if they have been “scratched on to film”, rather than created on a computer.
“Most of our ideas start with something human, or an animal, something from the earth. We either abstract the human form or make it into visuals,” says Smith. “In a way, it kind of reflects the music, and what Tom and Ed do with analogue synthesisers, creating a very human element in their music and embracing happy accidents. In the first rehearsals, we did a lot of pre-production, trying to animate lights to go with the visuals, but it was too neat and precise, so we had to mess it up a little.”
Lyall and Smith also experimented with a mix of digital and analogue techniques: the sequence with lions and elephants is based on classic Edward Muybridge imagery painted on to film, explains Lyall. “That’s very much the style of the show, it is kind of about a bit of sampling and using very traditional films effects and multiple exposure. Using the kind of film effects you could have achieved in the 1940s.”
The Anger-esque sequence was filmed at Bow Studios, and uses double exposure and deep saturated colours to evoke a psychedelic feel. “The song has a kind of nod to 70s psychedelia, so we wanted to do something in that world but for it not to be clichéd – you can end up going a bit Austin powers,” says Smith. “We looked at films of the time and trip sequences from films like Easy Rider, but then we came across Anger’s work, from when we were at college, and we decided to make it a kind of tribute to his work. We wanted to give it a very theatrical look lighting wise, and used experienced theatre actors.”
Motion capture footage starring dancer Akram Khan, filmed at Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium studio (pictured below) also adds to the visuals’ human element: during a performance of Galvanise, a gigantic figure appears trapped behind bars and struggling to set himself free. The bars eventually come crashing down, appearing to fall away in to the audience.
“Akram had never done any motion capture work and neither had I, so it was really exciting,” says Smith. “It’s kind of amazing as a director, as you’re really focused on the performance and nothing else. You’re not thinking about the camera, the lighting, or anything other than capturing the performance from every conceivable angle,” says Smith.
Rather than choreograph the sequence beforehand, Smith says he and Lyall came up with a loose narrative for the track, which Khan then interpreted at the studios. “We had this idea for a dance that would reflect the song, the idea of a man trapped and trying to break free, trying to push bars down with physical force, and Akram came up with a dance which I interpreted as kind of weaving a spell, which eventually breaks them,” he explains. “It wasn’t really a planned routine, Akram would just try some different things and we’d say this works, or that doesn’t, or maybe we need some more of this,” he adds.
While there is no overarching narrative for the show, Smith says he hopes it will take viewers “on an emotional journey”: emotions associated with clips range from euphoria to fear, and Lyall says the aim was to create a compelling experience, while avoiding any explicit storyline or concept.
“If you ask an audience to follow the narrative with the visuals, they’re going to get pulled away from being at a concert and towards being in a cinema. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve,” says Lyall. “We’re trying to amplify the feeling of being there with the music, so the idea is that with film you’re trying to set a scene and tell a story, with visuals it’s about trying to simplify it. You can’t rely on the audience following every image on the screen like you would with a traditional film,” he adds.
“There’s not much room for subtlety in the visuals,” agrees Smith. “You need bold images that people can read quickly, or see from the back of a crowd of 60,000 people.”
As editor Mark Whelan explains, editing the show was a complex process, and one which took around two months. “There was an initial five week stretch of editing, then a pause while the show was assembled for rehearsals, which also gave time for the 3D renders to arrive for Galvanise…Once rehearsals started with the full light show, hybrid screen and everything else that goes into it, there were a number of tweaks that needed doing to the visuals we’d prepared beforehand. The main challenge is making sure you think about how the film element will fit in to the show as a whole. It’s very tempting to cut together what would essentially be a music video, but that’s forgetting that it’s a live show.”
While there are certain creative restrictions to contend with when designing for a live show (visuals need to be compelling when viewed from afar, or for fans looking over someone’s shoulder), Smith describes it as “a liberating medium,” and says he and Lyall are left largely to their own devices when making visuals for The Chemical Brothers.
“Tom and Ed will make notes, and say if they don’t feel something’s working, but Marcus and I pretty much answer to ourselves…It’s nice to work in an environment where you show people an idea and they say, ‘that’s great, crack on’. After Don’t Think, I wondered if I would still do this, and whether I would have new ideas for the shows, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop. It’s an amazing experience, and that level of creative freedom is a real gift.”
Born in the Echoes, featuring the singles Go and Sometimes I Feel So Deserted, is released on July 24 on Universal Music. Pre-order a copy here. Artwork by Tom Hingston