Step Into the Light: An Interview With Radiohead's Stage Designer Andi Watson

As a lighting and stage designer, Andi Watson is unrivaled. I first witnessed his work on the Radiohead tour for “Kid A” 10 years ago. Since then, every time I’ve seen Radiohead perform live, I’ve looked forward to the muted yet intoxicating stage show theatrics as much as the music itself. Watson’s sets seem to meld with the band’s musical aesthetic on every level, no matter who the act is.

His ideas may be homages to Jean Cocteau films or the psychedelic movement of the 60s and 70s (the Velvets, Soft Machine, Pink Floyd), but Watson’s clients have been remarkably mainstream over his quarter century career. He earned his stripes working with the likes of The Cure and Prince, but as a solo artist, most notably with Radiohead, Watson has truly re-defined what is possible in lighting and stage design with artists as diverse as Artic Monkeys, Vanessa Paradis, Lenny Kravitz, Counting Crows, Oasis and Dido.

A few weeks back, Chronicle Books released Watson’s first monograph, the aptly titled Bulletproof… I Wish I Was, which documents his work through the first decade of the 21st century. Like Hungarian Constructivist painter and photographer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Watson uses technology as a bridge to new ideas and ways of thinking about lighting, video and sound. He wrestles with new-fangled machinery to come up with his stage tour opuses. Upon first meeting Watson, ThomYorke, Radiohead’s frontman—who wrote the forward to the book—remembers him “all goth and smiley.” “Like us,” he writes, “Andi likes to grab hold of new or different technology. His fighting with it to get it to do what he wants and in that process and adaptation—where it forces you to end up—is his excitement or art.”

Mr. Watson was gracious enough to lend me some of his time to answer some questions about his oeuvre to date. The following is a portion of those conversations.

How important has your background in engineering been when it comes to creating your stage lighting and video?
My background in engineering has influenced my career in many different ways. I was originally offered a job as a Vari*Lite technician, partly because of my previous lighting experience and partly because of my familiarity with the processor chips used in the system. In those days things were much less modular than they are today, and a lot of the time now and we had to diagnose faults and repair circuitry down to component and chip level on a daily basis.

As a designer I have found my engineering training incredibly helpful not only to understand the materials, technology, physical properties, etc, but simply to design systems that are going to actually work on a practical and real basis. Understanding the principles behind how light itself “works” as well as how physics affects objects, structures and systems has allowed me to see a design from multiple perspectives and make changes that are critical even though they may not be perceived by the audience.

What was your first tour like? And with whom?
My first tour was actually with the “Nationwide Building Society,” a bank here in the UK. I was operator/tech for a system of VL2s. I had only worked on one offs or festivals prior to that and it was also my first corporate job. It was a bizarre and slightly surreal experience and I’m not sure it really prepared me for my next job which was as Vari*Lite crew chief on Prince’s Sign O’ the Times tour. That was my first “band” tour, and at the time Prince was a huge artist. It was incredibly hard work, but the rewards were massive and I learned so much about how small details can make a huge difference to the end result.

You’ve been working with Radiohead since their club days. The band and you have an affinity for one another. Have they been your most challenging clients?
From very early on Radiohead gave me the freedom to be creative and to develop my own ideas and style. I had spent several years working on a number of big world tours before I took over as their designer and to go back to doing tiny shows with the experience I had gained. It was a really good way of putting techniques I had learnt into use and trying out new ones. I have always tried to push my own boundaries when it comes to designing for Radiohead, and these days there is a general expectation that the visual element of their shows will be something special. That in itself is very challenging but in a really exciting and rewarding way. It is always a pleasure to collaborate with them and they are an amazing group of people who make it easy to feel inspired. I think we found each other somehow as we do seem to have an almost telepathic understanding on occasions.

However some other clients have been much harder work due to politics or attitude. I have in the past worked for artists and management who have made my job much more difficult that it needed to be for almost no apparent reason other the fact that they could. That is a challenge. To stay focused and creative when there is a lack of inspiration and you don’t really want to be there.

Of all the theatrical lighting pioneers… who are your favorite and what did you learn from them?
Josef Svoboda… Absolutely… His boundless creativity and determination is inspiring and the way he accepted new technologies (such as projection and low voltage lighting) and joined in with their continued development was incredible. His understanding of light and its interaction with the world has been a constant encouragement to my own development as a designer. To me he understood form in its purest sense and his use of color was mesmerizing.

If you could go back in time to witness one live show, which one would it be? And why?
Probably Radiohead at Glastonbury in 1997. My recollection of the Radiohead show is somewhat different to most people. It is often mentioned as one of the greatest gigs of all time but I had an utter nightmare on my hands. The desk dumped chunks of its memory as the band walked on stage; a lot of the lights were not working properly and it was an incredibly stressful experience. However, everyone I spoke to thought it looked amazing. I thought it was awful. I’d quite like to go back and watch that gig from the audience, although I’m not sure I would want to ever relive that original evening.

When you start conceptualizing a set, do you always start the same way? If so, what is your realization process like?
My design process always starts with listening to the music over and over and over again until it is in my head to the point where following songs becomes an almost subconscious task. That way I can concentrate on the dynamics, the feel and the emotion of the music and the lyrics. At the same time I always have a meeting with the artists themselves to discuss how they want to be perceived and to determine if there is any particular aesthetic that they are interested in. I see my primary role as creating an environment for the band’s live performance and that is determined but a combination of physical objects (lights, trusses, video screens, risers, complex sets, etc) and soft components such as video content, lighting programming, etc. To envisage that… I keep listening to the music and literally imagine the combination of elements necessary to create that onstage world. I then move on to drawing sketches and finally building models using a 3D design package on my computer. By the time I send out drawings to the band/management for approval the design is usually fairly complete in my head in terms of physical structure. Obviously the system then has to be programmed, content has to be created and the environment brought to life.

Do you always compose on computers? Or do you prefer to sketch things out first on paper?
I always start with sketches on paper. I end up with notebooks filled with sketches and piles of sheets with variations of the design on them. The 3D modeling world inside my computer is far too slow for me to begin anything there. Initially designs can be purely a shape or a texture and only on paper can I build on that to make it physically realizable. On paper there are no rules or limits and that is a very good way to start looking at a new project.

In Christopher Scoates essay “The Future of Light,” he references The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Weine and Jean Cocteau’s surrealist film, Blood of a Poet. Is early film an influence you find yourself going back to time and again?
Yes it is. I am a huge fan of early cinema and film. Jean Cocteau’s work has definitely been a major influence, as has the early work of pioneers such as Oskar Fischinger and Len Lye. The Prelinger Archives in particular are a constant source of inspiration.

I thought it was touching when you first got started in the business, you were instructed “not to forget the people in the cheap seats.” Has that dictum been easy to abide by as venues change and modernize?
It has always been incredibly important to me that everyone at a performance feels involved and that they are part of something as opposed to simply acting as a voyeur. To that end I always attempt to extend the performance environment to the entire audience, not a select few. It always saddens me when I go to see shows where lights sweep out from the stage straight forward, bathing a section of the audience in light and texture but ignoring all those people who may be at the sides or high up. Invariably those shows look spectacular from the front of house position, but only a tiny fraction of the audience is there and those outside of that zone become merely spectators to something being experienced by a few. I just don’t really understand that way of thinking.

Tell me how you came to design the first LED set for Radiohead?
The first time we used LEDs on Radiohead was in 2003 on the Hail to the Thief tour. For a while I had been following how a few companies were introducing lights with large numbers of 5mm LEDs in them and I was researching new technologies and fixtures and I came across the Thomas Pixelline. This was a 4-foot-long batten with 18 individually controllable R/G/B cells. I immediately fell in love with the colors, the way the LEDs felt and the possibilities for internal modulation. I had been toying with using large LED video panels on stage but had run on to big problems due to weights, power, etc. I talked myself into believing that I could effectively create a large 48′ wide by 8′ (and subsequently 12′) video screen by only using 24 vertical strips of the Pixelline units spaced 2′ apart. By programming hundreds of patterns across the individual elements I could fool the audience into filling in the gaps that weren’t there.

Along the way I was saved from an eternity of programming thousands of groups by Richard Bleasdale, the software developer behind the Catalyst media server software. He proposed that we could use his video server to map individual R/G/B levels of on screen pixels to R/G/B DMX values at the Pixellines. Fortunately for me, Radiohead creatively and financially backed this utterly untried approach and I got the go ahead. When we finally assembled the system it was more beautiful that anything I had imagined. By using the software Richard developed for the tour we were able to create the most beautiful images across the screens, even though only a tiny fraction of that 48′ width was really there. It was one of those amazing moments when you look at something and wonder quite how you got there.

In the back of your book is a graphic library. How important is this library to your craft?
The images in the back of the book represent only a tiny subset of the files that are in my Catalyst library. As projects develop, new content is created or commissioned that is particular to that production. In addition there are often layers of texture in video that are created from files that are probably unrecognizable to anyone apart from myself and perhaps Pip Rhodes, my long time video content collaborator and After Effects specialist.

The files shown in the book are a combination of custom content that is only ever used once; more generic library files are used to build those texture layers. Being familiar with a constant library of image and movie files enables me to always have a starting point or reference for custom pieces, and enables me to quickly combine files to create video content that perfectly fits the tempo, dynamic and mood of a particular piece. As video has become more and more a part of live performance design, my library been built up over several years has become a very important tool.

*All images credited to Andi Watson

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