James Blunt - Element of Surprise

James Blunt 2008Millions of people recognize the distinctively sensitive tone of James Blunt’s singing voice, primarily with his mega-hit, “You’re Beautiful.” But most would be surprised to learn that the singer-songwriter, raised as a military brat, got his pilot’s license at age 16. Or that he is an accomplished ski racer. Or that, as captain of a British military unit in 1999, he led the squadron that secured an airport held by Serbian forces in Kosovo, making Blunt the first British officer to enter the Serb-held Kosovan capital of Priština. 

The lighting and set designer for Blunt’s latest tour, Paul Normandale of Lite Alternative Design, has a knack for defying expectations as well, with wildly different visuals to accompany different songs. So does Blunt’s lighting director, Glen Johnson of i-Lite Ltd., who is serving as lighting director for Blunt’s current tour, overseeing the lighting design collaboration. Normandale is now working on Jack Johnson’s tour.

Alternative Roots
Paul Normandale has been taking the alternative approach with their lighting collaborations since Lite Alternative Design got its start in 1990, designing and directing the lighting for shows for such independent or alternative artists as The Sugarcubes, The Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Morrissey and PJ Harvey. Lite Alternative’s distaste for the status quo served them well with more “mainstream” artists as well, including Bjork, Crowded House, Sigur Ros, Coldplay, Depeche Mode, Arcade Fire, Jack Johnson and Paul McCartney.

Visual Surprises
One example of the unique twists Lite Alternative Design achieves for the James Blunt tour is the way that foreground elements and their shadows appear and disappear against background gradations, creating visual interest and a sense of push-and-pull. “We project through the LED web to give a 3D visual of the images as they stand out via the low res web,” Johnson says, noting that Normandale “likes the high res and low res versions,” and also “likes to change things around in the shape and style of the stage, giving visual surprises and altering the look and feel of the stage over the performance.”

Directing the Show
Lite Alternative provides the control, media systems and LED web for Blunt’s world tour, packed in Lite Alt’s custom-made FOH cases. “Control wise, I’m using a (Flying Pig Systems) Wholehog III console, which is flawless day after day,” Johnson says. “It works perfectly with the Catalyst system and PixelMAD, and with its multiple slots for the video and colors effects, it’s very quick and simple to program. I have two consoles running over the same network along with a separate network for the ArtNet for the PixelMAD system to transfer the 13 DMX universes down to the (Chroma-Q) Color Web. The rest of the show runs over six DMX lines for the lights and media servers. All the networks are run via Luminex switch systems.

A Bigger Canvas 
“The Hog III controls both media servers and all the mini cameras on the show,” Johnson says. “The first media system is the Catalyst V4.0 HD with eight composite camera inputs, which mixes all the cameras and provides media content to the two Barco FLM 18HD projectors via SDI from two Folsom HD Image Pros.” The main projection, he adds, started with a 16-foot-by-9-foot surface to one that now measures 56 feet by 30 feet, using a custom gauze system from Lite Alternative. For different songs, this surface is also covered with 108 meters of Color Web low res LED display, which is driven by the second media server using PixelMAD custom software with SDI in from the Catalyst HD Server. 

Live Video
Mini video cameras capture images of Blunt and his band as they perform. “They are placed about the stage in various places, one next to James’ mic, and they are fed to the front of house via eight BNC lines and mixed, then sent back to the front truss via two BNC SDI feeds,” Johnson says. “The video account is via XL Video UK. They are fantastic in their support and helpful direction,” he adds.

Moving Lights
The moving lights are all Martin, a brand “Paul and I have high regard for,” Johnson says, citing also “support and friendship we have with Mark Ravenhill from Denmark.” Johnson calls the MAC 700 Spots the “work horses” of the rig, “whose reliability is always 100 percent. In fact,” he adds, “there are no generic lights on the arena version as we use Martin’s new Tungsten Wash TW1s for key lighting, and the 250 Wash to cover the floor.”

High Marks for Upstaging 
Lite Alternative’s relationship with Upstaging, Inc. has been a long one. “They were the first vendor I ever used in the U.S., nearly 20 years ago,” Normandale says. “Upstaging’s John Bahnick, along with an array of great crew, great service and support, have looked after me faultlessly, despite my poor designs, and limitations!” Johnson also gives the Upstaging crew high marks. “The service we get from the likes of John is a very important factor, and the equipment is always perfect, never a compromise. If they don’t have it, they buy it for us.”