Creating 360 Degree Views for Concert Stages

Jonas Brothers World Tour Stage

SOURCE: Entertainment Engineering · PUBLISHED: Volume VI, Issue 10 · AUTHOR: William B. Gorlin, PE

Maintaining the artistic expectations of concert-goers while maintaining safety and functionality for construction can be a complex and rewarding job even when 100 pounds can significantly affect a mechanism and structure.

Stage assemblies for concert tours are never simple to engineer. There is no instruction manual on how to take ideas and concepts and shape them into a stage that is not only structurally and mechanically sound but aesthetically pleasing as well. The engineer, working in conjunction with the staging and rigging contractors, is tasked with simplifying a complicated system so the audience’s appreciation for the artistry and special effects is not diminished by the technical aspects of the operation.

Two recent concert tours illustrate some of the challenges involved in pushing technical limits in stage assembly while maintaining the “wow” factor for concert-goers. The Jonas Brothers’ World Concert Tour and U2’s “360-degree” tour provide 360-degree views and feature a variety of unique stage configurations and mechanical effects deigned to enhance the audience experience.

The Jonas Brothers stage assembly encompasses a main stage with a pair of lifts that can elevate the performers in a variety of ways, as well as four other lifts for accompanying musicians. The main stage is flanked by two smaller “B” stages that enable the performers to interact more personally with the audience.

One challenge for the engineer is to collaborate with the staging and rigging contractors to achieve a compact and lightweight design that facilitates its transport between venues while ensuring safety and reliability. Key assembly components such as cable winches must be designed for maximum functionality while occupying minimal space.

Many loading factors are considered in determining the appropriate design, including the weight of the performers – an increase of even 100 pounds can significantly affect a mechanism and structure – and their level of movement on stage. Since he Jonas trio’s high-energy act features plenty of dancing and quick shifting of positions, engineers must factor in that movement in the loading equations.

U2’s “360-Degree” stadium tour has been called the largest rock & roll touring stage production ever assembled. The stage consists of a center stage connected to an outer-ring stage by a pair of 54-foot arching bridges made of steel clad with Plexiglas. Prime audience seats are located between the two stages and under the transparent and movable bridges, providing a close-up view of Bono and his fellow U2 performers. All audience views are unobstructed.

Because much of the stage is within reach of the audience, however, appropriate safeguards must be in place to prevent spectators from grabbing hold of or getting their hands caught in any moving parts. In addition, outdoor stadium tours such as U2’s face ground surface and weather-related issues. Since stadium stages typically sit on soil as opposed to the concrete of indoor venues, the load must be properly distributed so the stage does not settle too much or damage the lawn.

The U2 stage assembly includes telescoping shade structures, a piano lift, a revolving drummer turntable and other production components that create a dazzling effect for concert-goers. The entire assembly is topped by a massive overhead roof structure featuring a 360-degree video screen, flowing silk screens, and spectacular lighting displays.

Outdoor stadium shows also are subject to unfavorable weather conditions such as rain or excessive wind, which can present unavoidable choices. For example, a wind that exceeds a minimum threshold can lead to a decision to dismantle or cancel use of certain set pieces, such as towers or moving screens to prevent potential damage, or on the other hand, to make the tower heavier and more stable, thus driving up costs. Either way, the engineer must apply his professional judgment to anticipate an unlikely but possible scenario.

Engineers perform failure analyses of concert stages to envision worst-case scenarios. They must build in a fail-safe system to anticipate extraordinary circumstances. If, for instance, one of four cables supporting a stage were to fail, the system must be capable of supporting itself until appropriate corrective action can be taken.

In another example, if the show’s operator detects a potentially dangerous situation and must press the emergency stop button, the abrupt braking can create an impact several times the force of gravity. Because that sudden deceleration could result in serious injury to a performer and damage to the structure, engineers much be able to quantify the deceleration and the amplified force it exerts. They must build in safeguards to address the additional dynamic impacts and/or design the emergency braking system to limit the impact forces.

Engineers also perform periodic inspections to check for wear and tear on the system of other problems that could jeopardize safety. In the Jonas Brothers’ show, an engineer’s inspection at its performance site in Dallas resulted in improving the safety and reliability of structural supports for stage machinery.

Engineers for concert stages are regularly tasked with devising such solutions to ensure the safety of all participants. The engineer’s professional judgment is honed by exposure to a wide array of challenges for which no “playbook” is written.