Willie Williams talks about 360

The footprint of the structure is approximately 58 meters by 47 meters (190 feet by 154 feet). The tip of the spire comes in at 50 meters (164 feet) tall.

It looks very unique and interesting. Can you describe how you arrived at this design? Who did you work with — Fisher, the band, or both? How many design iterations did you go through?

I had the idea for this production during the last part of U2’s Vertigo tour in 2006. It was the result of my having spent several years thinking around the “problem” of video and how we get ourselves out of the cul-de-sac of big screen media server backdrops, which have swamped every other idea in live performance. Or to put it more simply, how does the pioneering U2 respond to a world where every show out there looks like a cross between ZooTV and PopMart?

Getting rid of the big video backdrop — willfully throwing away the most powerful visual tool you have — is brave and dangerous, but it occurred to me that with this band, perhaps a more powerful backdrop would be a stadium full of people. U2 have spent 20 years playing indoor venues using this ‘in-the-round-at-one-end’ configuration, so the challenge was to see how we might be able to do it outdoors, with no building roof. Such structures exist of course, but they always end up looking rather apologetic, like a bandstand, rather than having any real power or aesthetic. Also, there’s the issue of the truss legs and sightlines and so on. The breakthrough for me was the moment of reverse logic when I realized that instead of trying to make this structure as small and discreet and possible, what if it was so big that it became part of the stadium? What if the structure was completely disconnected from the performing area so that the legs were so far from the stage they wouldn’t be in the way?

I emailed Mark Fisher, enclosing an image of the ‘theme building’ at LAX as an aesthetic jumping off point. Mark got it in one and emailed back some early sketches, which I presented to the band. We have been through many, many permutations since then, but the central idea has been in place for 2 1/2 years prior to them setting foot on stage.

Looking at the animated rendering on the U2 360° Tour Web site (360.u2.com), it looks like there’s a lot of projection surfaces draping the legs. Is that the intended purpose of the design?

No, they’re not projection surfaces. I’m sure I’ll light them up, but the ‘skin’ is simply an interesting and unusual way of giving amorphous form to the structure. We looked at a sleek, solid fiberglass cladding, but it looked too much like PopMart and was eye-wateringly expensive. This rather organic, undulating surface feels much more original. It’s very important to me that the audience walks into the stadium to be greeted by something unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.

It looks as if there are a lot of down lights but it doesn’t show much other lighting. Is there lighting positions concealed in the legs or are there other FOH trusses? How much will you depend on followspots for front light?

There are indeed lights — and followspots — in the legs, which will provide the main positions for keylight. The overhead positions are quite severely compromised by the video screen, but will have good shots to the outer runway. ’Front light’ is a fairly meaningless concept with this set up, but there are followspots in the house and around the perimeter of the stadium to give 360° coverage. Having no backdrop opens up a whole slew of potential new positions around the building, which I’m enjoying.

Are you involved in developing the video content as well? If not, who?

I’m very excited to be working with Tom Krueger who was the director of photography on the U23D movie. He’s actually going to come on tour with us to act as video director, in tandem with Stefaan Desmedt, who has been head of video for the past couple of U2 tours. Tom’s ‘inexperience’ in touring means he arrives with no pre-conceived notions and doesn’t have the same instinct to be compromised by what is merely a convenient way of doing things. Most importantly, he has the complete trust of the band to ensure that they look great on screen at all times. Having had to look after that myself for so many years, I can’t tell you what a relief it is to pass that responsibility on to a professional.

Given that the artist is U2, how much was the carbon footprint a consideration in this design? Are there many LEDs or other energy efficient lighting?

U2 are buying carbon offsets in relation to the tour, but other than that I don’t want to speak for them regarding green issues. For myself though, I have spent much time considering the issue and wondering what possible justification there can be in such a carbon hungry enterprise. Radiohead are friends of mine and I have talked to Thom Yorke at length about greener touring. I really admire what they have achieved and Thom is exceptionally sensible about the whole thing. However, with a tour of this magnitude it might appear abundantly clear that the greenest thing would be to just not do it at all. In our defense, even the most massive rock tours are extremely short-lived compared with, say, the life-span of a car factory in China. More importantly, though, on another level, a tour like this has value in another way. Even though eco-issues are becoming more crucial by the day, it would be cultural and spiritual suicide to declare that humankind should cease any and every activity, which is not utterly necessary or practical. I’ve been designing shows for a long time and quite regularly I will be approached by a total stranger who is burning to tell me that some show that I vaguely remember doing was “the high point of my life.” I’m not exaggerating; these shows affect people’s lives in a deeply significant way and somehow provide meaning. That being the case, I really believe that at least some of what we do as an industry has value that is worth a short-term carbon spend.