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Big screen stars

Sector Focus
7 August 2018
The rise of LED technology has seen screens become a ubiquitous element of concert and festival productions, both behind the artiste and either side of the stage at larger events, with specialist companies providing additional content as well as social media interaction.  Christopher Barrett reports

Everyone knows that LED screens have opened up a whole world of creativity for artiste and festival organisers.

Prior to LED screens, imagery was projected on to surfaces and that created a major challenge — how to make the images overcome the stage lighting and stand out.

With LED screens, the stage lighting – often also using LED technology these days – can be as bright as desired with no negative impact on the video images.

The versatility of the technology has also seen new shapes, sizes and positioning of screens, and as it evolves and more manufacturers appear, screens have also become cheaper and
lighter, making them more affordable and easier to install.

Nick Robinson

With offices in the UK and US, Colonel Tom Touring (CTT) has been supplying cutting-edge LED equipment for the past decade for clients such as Ed Sheeran, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Aerosmith, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.

For Sheeran’s Divide Tour, CTT supplied ROE CB5 LED Screens that towered over the stage in custom frames and set pieces.

“Ed’s tour involved a tremendous amount of creativity in the usage of LED screens and the content they created for them,” says CTT chief technology officer Barry Otto.

“The size, placement, shape and use of the screens was unique and the results stunning.”

ROE CB5 screens have a 5mm pixel pitch, which Otto says provides a great viewing experience for concert audiences. Pixel pitch refers to the density of pixels on the screens and the smaller the pixel pitch, the higher the pixel density and so the higher the resolution.

“If you are 35 feet back from a screen, you cannot see the difference between a 5mm and 7mm pixel pitch, so to go to a higher resolution would not be beneficial, but designers are going to 3mm because of a propensity to want to always have the best,” he says.

Graham Miller

With an increasing number of LED screen manufacturers entering the market, prices have dropped considerably, says Otto, and there has been a race for higher resolution screens. But he says the importance of high quality image processing is sometimes forgotten. CTT has made processing a priority, with its screens configured to use Brompton Tessera advanced LED processing.

“A lot of the LED screen producers rely on separate manufacturers to build processors, which convert the video signals into data the LED can use to display the images,” he explains. “Often manufacturers rely on inexpensive processes because it is a hard sell to get purchasers to spend more money on high quality processors, but a good processor will make a mediocre LED wall look good and a great wall look stunning.”

Creative touch

Crawley-based Creative Technology (CT) has been at the forefront of LED screen technology for more than three decades, having started out with Jumbotron screens in stadiums.

Head of music and entertainment Graham Miller says CT’s clients are increasingly looking for new and interesting ways to use LED technology, rather than just having huge flat screens.

For Adele’s stadium tour, CT created a vast LED drum that was hung above the in-the-round stage.

Complex and mesmerizing display for Bastille by Creative Technology

“In the past couple of years, we have been helping designers and production managers to deliver things that people haven’t seen before,” he says. “On the Queen + Adam Lambert Tour we provided a curved semi-transparent screen, as the header screen, that plays with the transparency of one of our LED products and wraps around the stage with a custom-built curved structure.”

Other recent CT projects include providing transparent screens for The xx tour.

“We are providing two screens, deployed in a large V shape, that must be built onstage in the half-hour changeover on festival stages,” he says.

Miller has found the demand for LED is now coming from up-and-coming bands that are playing smaller venues but want to add an extra dimension to their shows.

“The audiences are getting more sophisticated and often expect these things,” he says.

With offices in London and Birmingham, PRG XL Video is one of the UK’s biggest operators and has created bespoke LED concert products including frames, ceiling, floors and panels.

The company has supplied an array of LED screen set-ups for concerts such as U2’s 2017 Joshua Tree tour, for which it supplied a large screen packaged with integrated wind-bracing and a bespoke shader that, when off, replicated the album cover in gold and grey.

For Nine Inch Nails, it supplied a V-Thru LED video screen system that allows up to 70 per cent transparency, and saw the band performing within layers of video images.

Proms in the Park by ADI

PRG XL video systems designer James Morden says the demand for LED screens continues to rise and production designers are looking to cover ever more surfaces in LED screens. Despite the advantages of LED screens, he believes projection still has an important role to play.

“Compared to using projection, LED screens, while heavier and more power hungry, are quicker to deploy, have fewer sightline issues, are brighter and overall do present the production design with a better solution.

“Projection is still king for complicated shapes, tracking objects and floor coverage,” he says.

Going mobile

Based in Preston, ADI has supplied LED screens to major music events for more than two decades, with its screens gracing the stage wings of events such as Glastonbury (cap. 140,000).

It also runs a content production business with more than 50 full-time producers, directors and editors.

Director of screen rentals Nick Robinson says the company has seen a change in the quantity of screens required by live shows, and the way in which they are being used.

“We’re seeing a greater demand for a much broader range of screens, not just on stage, but at every step of the customer journey,” he says. “From mobile screens outside the venue, welcoming fans and delivering live social media content, to screen trucks/modular signage guiding fans around the venue and very high resolution modular screens in VIP areas – LED displays are being used to deliver a completely immersive experience.”

ADI supplies a range of high resolution 1.5mm modular screens, as well as mobile screens which generally feature 10mm resolution display. Its mobile screens range in size from 12 square metres up to 120 square metres.

“Each event has its own unique set of criteria which will dictate whether a mobile screen or modular display are best suited to the job,” Robinson explains. “If a very high resolution screen is required for an event, than modular/flown screens are available at a much higher resolution than mobile trucks.

“The key advantages of mobile screens is that, because they are truck mounted, the set-up time is very quick, they can be operated by a single technician/driver and they provide a self-contained solution that is able to run off the onboard generator.”

Greater transparency

With its head office in Langley, 80six was co-founded by directors Jack James and Dan Hamill in 2015. The company has grown to become a key operator in the live music business while its corporate work has included supplying the LED screens for the Tarzan European Movie Premiere in Leicester Square.

Among acts 80six has supplied are Dizzee Rascal and Enter Shikari.

“We started by purchasing 50 square metres of LED screens and built the business from there,” says Hamill. “So many shows are dominated by LED screens now, it was a natural area to invest in but we are not just an LED screen company, we get involved in areas such as content creation and real time motion graphics – if it involves pixels we want to be a part of it.”

Over the past 18 months Hamill has seen an increase in demand for higher resolution screens and a misplaced focus on pixel pitch size.

“We are trying to educate people that it is not always wise to go for the highest resolution screen they can afford,” he says. “A year or two ago everyone was happy with the pixel pitch and the concert requirements haven’t changed — it is not as if our eyes have got any better.  For concerts, 5mm is more than adequate.”

With higher resolution screens comes the need to create compatible content, which means more costly production equipment and processes.

“Just getting those few extra pixels on screen pushes all the other content production prices up. The money spent on higher resolution LED screens could be better spent on other areas
of the stage production,” suggests Hamill, who has also seen growing demand for transparent LED screens.

“These can be put to great use, such as having a transparent screen in front of a non transparent one, with the artiste in between the two,” he says.

Evolving benefits 

Yorkshire-based Lightmedia Displays has supplied mobile and modular LED screens for the last 21 years to an array of events including the multi-venue Mouth of Tyne Festival, Bingley Music Live (cap. 16,000), MTV and NME awards events and landmark sporting events such Wimbledon and the Tour De France.

Its stock of mobile LED screens range from 12 square metres to 45 square metres, some of which can rotate 360 degrees.

“We have more than 200 square metres of 4.8 mm pixel pitch modular LED screens which can be built to any size required,” says business development manager Julie Salter.

She says the fact LED screens are a near ubiquitous presence at major concerts and festivals is due to a number of factors, not least that they have reduced sharply in cost and weight in recent years.

“When we bought the first LED panels in the 1990s they cost more than 10 times what they cost now, they also weighed 10 times more,” she says.

With the rise of social media, has come the need for the screens to be interactive.

“The screens can be linked to almost all forms of social media, almost every event is now interactive with social media and the audience expect it,” she says.

With the rise in use of LED screens has come a flood of poorly manufactured products from China, something Salter says is a real concern. She says that as well as them presenting a safety risk, the processing is so slow significant delays can be seen when they are used for live events.

“There is a vast amount of cheap, sub-standard quality screens coming out of China at the moment, and the majority have no CE mark and have never been tested to European standards, and there is no EMC certificates so they are cheap but also dangerous,” says Salter.

Founded in 2010 by co-directors David Llewellyn and Neal Anderson, Screen Activation has helped festivals and tours reduce the financial burden of fitting productions with state-of-the-art LED screens.

The company, which is working with festivals such as Isle of Wight (45,000), Download (105,000) and Reading (90,000) this year, provides and sells carefully selected and approved spot advertising and screen branding.

“We have to be careful not to oversaturate the screen with commercial content at events otherwise the crowd can get restless, so we limit it and make sure it is suitable,” says Llewellyn.

The company also creates bespoke content for LED screens used at events including the Capital Radio’s Jingle Bell Ball and Summertime Ball events at Wembly Stadium (80,000).

“We create everything that goes on the screens in the downtime and when the artistes are on stage,” says Llewellyn. “Often an artiste will have content they have been using on tour, we then take that footage and completely reconfigure it to work at the events, because the screen size and configuration is different.”

Bristol-based SHOP specialises in supplying video content for artistes including the Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry.

Co-founder and creative director Tom Hodgkinson says content is usually driven by the artiste and their creative director, but they are not always looking for high-tech imagery to be shown on the high tech screens.

“Trends come and go, we’ve been working on a lot of content that has a handmade feel, rather than glossy looking 3D, and we recently created content for Gorillaz with the visuals based
around experimental animations from the 1930 and 1940s.”

It’s a fast-moving sector in which the leading companies need to stay closely tuned to both technological advances and creative trends.

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