Willie Williams: Creative alchemist and visual director of live experiences


Operating behind the scenes and under the radar Willie Williams has been creating some of the most memorable and talked about experiences and live performances for decades. Josh + Evan caught up with the co-founder of London’s Treatment Studio in Las Vegas, where the firm designed both U2’s epic residency at The Sphere and Weekends With Adele at Caesars Palace. In this episode we hear about Williams’ work with U2 over the last forty years, his creative process, how the modest technical genius integrates cutting-edge innovation into his projects, the power of reading and more. 

Reference Links:



Discover more shows from SURROUND at surroundpodcasts.com.

This episode was produced by Rob Schulte.

Design Tangents is presented by Genesis.

This transcript was generated by an automated service. In some cases it may be incomplete or inaccurate due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

Willie: [00:00:00] My goal really is always to show people something they haven’t seen before or help them imagine something they haven’t imagined before. And as a stand alone venture, that’s fine and that can work, but usually involves a performer or a performance of some kind. And then it becomes something else because you’ve immediately got a relationship at the heart of the project.

Project. And that is the most important thing for me is the relationship between me and the performer. It’s the two halves of the, uh, of creating the whole.

Josh: Welcome to design tangents, a podcast from cool hunting, exploring the creative processes and inspirations that drive change makers. I’m Josh Rubin

Evan: and I’m Evan Ornstein. Josh, you know, much like cool hunting, Willie Williams is not a household name, but for those who know of it, they really do. Know who he is and what he does.

Willie and his team, a treatment studio in London are known for their work, creative directing and designing all kinds of live events. And Willie has been creating U2’s live experiences for the last 40 years.

Josh: And it’s not just U2. He has worked with so many other incredible artists to create visual and experiential narratives.

Bowie, George Michael, Gaga, Sigur Rós. Laurie Anderson and so many more. In this

Evan: episode of design tangents, Willie shares his caution for reading, for integrating new technology into live experiences and for translating his clients desires. Remember Josh, some of his clients are the most famous and successful musicians of all time.

And he translates those into indelible, inspirational memories for their fans.

Josh: We caught up with Willie in Las Vegas after seeing you two’s show at the And we also saw weekends with Adele. Which treatment studio creative directed at Caesar’s palace.

Evan: If you’re new to cool hunting, we’ve been reporting on creativity and [00:02:00] innovation since 2003 visit cool hunting.

com or cool hunting on any social media channel to see what we think is worth sharing. Also, consider sending it to your friends in your text, slack, or social groups. And now here’s Willie.

Josh: Willie, you’re clearly known for your work, creative directing and designing YouTube’s live experiences. And you’ve worked with so many other artists as well to, you know, kind of create not, it’s not just their visual, your, your, it’s experiential, it’s design, it’s, uh, so many modalities of. Narrative, if you will, you know, from Bowie, George Michael, you know, you too, of course, Gaga, Segar Ross, and many others, but we are really here to talk about a little bit of background, a little more present.

And getting into some of the stuff with the sphere and you too, and a lot more kind of future and the future of entertainment and narrative and storytelling.

Evan: So your company is called treatment studio. It is not a household name. It’s something that people within the industry probably know really well, but can you describe to our listeners what treatment studio is?

Willie: It exists to facilitate the work that Sam Pattinson and I do. Uh, the backbone of the studio really is making video. Video material, but it also extends into full production design. Um, but it really is a case by case basis and the core of it is making visual identity for be it a show or for, uh, you know, product or a situation.

Um, and it’s really evolved. At its own pace over the years, Sam had to talk me into it. Sam was a video producer when I met him and he was producing video material I was making for a Rolling Stones tour in 2002. And we got on like a house on fire. [00:04:00] And so I wanted to work with him on everything I did after that, that involved video.

And sometime later, he suggested that we formalize this relationship and Start a company and I could not have been less interested because I’ve always been a bit of a lone I’ve always been a bit of a sort of a solo player and I’m very good at fitting into the environments that I work in each each project is a group of people coming together and generally it’s quite a bespoke situation and then it breaks up afterwards it vaporizes after the project project um and I like that you know I’ve never had an office I just have a laptop and a chair you So that always really suited me.

So the notion of having to deal with a company and everything wasn’t particularly attractive. Anyway, Sam promised he would do everything. And his point, which was very good, was because most people we work with are freelance, if you don’t keep freelancers busy, they disappear. And, uh, He said what if we made a place that they like to hang out and so we know where they are basically So he promised he’d do everything I absolutely held him to that probably to a greater degree than he imagined and it has been great and looking back now It’s it’s remarkable.

There are some of the even some of the freelancers we’ve worked with for 15 years And so I feel on some level we have created this place that people really like to be the culture. There is We really like to give People freedom to kind of fulfill the brief in a way that works for them and to learn from them.

I mean, the fantastic things and it’s thrilling to meet the younger people who just have these other sensibilities. So it’s been really, really creatively interesting for all of us to do that. And as you say, it’s not a household name because we are not the main attraction here. It’s what we do for either these performers or these projects that we work on.

And it’s not really about us. Yeah. And you

Evan: don’t have big egos like it because we’re thinking about like what’s an analogy to this and well, [00:06:00] an architectural firm, for example, where you have you and Sam on occasion collaborate, but you’re typically working and leading your own projects, right? So similar to the structure of an architecture firm where each architect is leading their projects.

But of course, there’s collaboration within the it. You know, the, the group, um, or Pentagram studio, a really famous creative studio, which similarly has different designers who lead their own kind of mini businesses within the context of that

Willie: larger group. Yeah. And although, you know, even though that sounded a little humble, we’re quite bolshy actually, and quite picky about the projects.

That we take on because we only want to work with people that we like and Take on work that’s interesting or stimulating for us So we’re quite Judy and can staying small really facilitates that because we don’t have a huge machine to feed So again, we’re humbled with a little bit of an attitude. I think yeah

Evan: well, I think that’s really important because not all your work, but A good part of it.

If you’re dealing with an artist on tour, for example, you are often there for the duration of that. That’s a big commitment. It’s not just like working on a project, delivering it and saying, thank

Willie: you. See you later. Not at all. But I do think also it really becomes part of the work. And if we create, um, an environment that the creatives love to be in, Uh, and even for ourselves to, to spend time away from home and, and so much energy.

I mean, with the bigger projects, so much of me goes into those and I just don’t want to do it for people that I don’t respect or don’t like being with. And that’s, even though that’s a very, um, it’s a very personal thing. I think for the culture of a studio, it’s really paying dividends because people just want to be there.


Josh: imagine that anyone who’s been working with you for so many years, um, has like, there’s a, there’s a, there’s a shorthand, you know, there’s, there’s, there’s a, every time you do another project, it potentially gets a little bit smoother or easier, [00:08:00] or, um, you know, it just, there’s, there’s more history to leverage, which then makes it desirable to keep working with the same freelancers.

How do you, how do you nurture new people coming into the team? Right? Because there is, I imagine some value to finding that new creative energy, you know, someone who has a crazy sense of color or some other, you know, something that they’re bringing to the bigger picture of learning and inspiration and also needs to be able to move quickly and collaborate well.

Willie: It’s very much personality based. And we don’t try to, you know, nurture a kind of culture, it’s just who we are and what we do. And, uh, we’re both, you know, pretty eccentric. And I have a way and a, a way of working and a kind of a parlance in the way of describing work that either someone will tune into and get or not.

And you can feel it quite quickly with new people that come in. What’s really lovely though is, as people, as young people come in and start to learn and start to develop their skills, they develop instincts, and I can see they don’t even know, but their instincts are my instincts. You’re creating a kind of team that collectively has the same instincts that I have, and, and I see it with, with people who were my, Kind of mentors, you know, you don’t, you just think this is the way it’s done and you don’t realize that this is the way that this particular person does it.

And that’s really threatening. And that also really helps as a group because we all share certain, yeah, certain methods and certain values and just certain instincts of doing things.

Josh: Is it clear right away when you, when you find someone new, if their patterns are matching, if you know, if the frequencies that they’re moving on are compatible with your frequency,

Willie: You can certainly tell.

If someone is motivated in the right kind of way, and when I look back at my, you know, 18, 19 [00:10:00] year old self, the thing I missed, the thing I didn’t realize at the time was just how driven I was, not in any kind of career arc kind of a way, but basically because I ran away and joined the circus and I was, um, just working with bands and, you know, Pubs and clubs and everything and just the thought for me if you can do this, why would you do anything else?

You know, this is the only place I wanted to be and those kind of people you can spot people who you know Just think this might be a cool thing to do for a while or I’ll do this as a summer job You know, we weed those out immediately It’s the people who just want to be here and we’ll do whatever it takes to do it and that you can spot

Evan: Have you discovered things that you know, you don’t want to do again?

Are there certain kinds of things that you were just like nope? We’re going to pass on this.

Willie: Yeah, there has to be some personal interest in it for me. Geographically too, there are places I’m not keen on going to, um, simply because it takes so much time and it takes so much personal investment. So we’re quite picky.

My goal really is always to show people something they haven’t seen before or help them imagine something they haven’t imagined before. And as a standalone venture, that’s. And that can work. Um, but usually involves a performer or a performance of some kind. And then it becomes something else because you’ve immediately got a relationship at the heart of the project.

And that is the most important thing for me is the relationship between me and the performer. It’s the two halves of the, uh, of creating the whole and that’s crucial. And. You know, sometimes it’s quite surprising. Something that wouldn’t immediately seem like it would be interesting. You meet the person and they’re just great, or it sparks some resonance or something like that.

So that’s, that’s key to it really. Rather than, uh, what the project actually is.

Evan: We hear that you’d love a good prank or Easter egg.

Willie: Look, it’s got to be fun. We were out here and you spend time away from [00:12:00] home and, and it’s, you know, Such hard work, you know, and that’s not a bad thing if you love it, but it’s got to be fun.

I think there really is value and cultural value to what we do. But, uh, you only have to spend two minutes looking at the news and realizing that this is, um, what we do is an absolute luxury. So it has to be fun. And, um, yeah, sometimes you need to burst the bubble a little bit, if it’s getting a bit too serious.

So we’re here in Vegas.

Josh: We are sadly. ’cause you’ve been working here for quite a while now.

Willie: Most of my adult life it feels like on the

Josh: U2 show at the sphere. And I imagine that you don’t have a lot of time to get out and explore. But we also did hear that you recently visited the pinball museum, which is one of our favorite places.

Pinball Hall of Fame, I believe. Pinball Hall of Fame. Yeah.

Willie: Sorry. Yeah. That’s the only thing, not to interrupt, but I did. Um, actually during the. Pandemic. I did, um, an interview. It’s not really the kind of thing I would normally do. And it was 10 questions and they were asking lots of designers, 10 questions.

We’re all, and one of the, it was the same questions. And one of them was, um, which Olympic sport do you think you’d be? Uh, which if you know me at all is the most preposterous question imaginable. Not having a s single sporting gene in my entire DNA. But, my answer was, uh, they’d obviously have to invent a new category, but pinball.

And Discovering the pinball hall of fame in Las Vegas has changed the city for me completely and now Now I can see it has a spiritual center Um, and it’s a lovely place. I mean, it’s kind of it’s just a big warehouse full of pinball machines Nothing fancy about it at all. The drinks machine works sometimes Um, but it is like walking through um a living Archive of my misspent youth.

It’s really wonderful. It’s it’s

Evan: really one of our favorite places and You What a lot of people don’t know is that they both find things, they restore them. The add to their collection, but many of the things are also for [00:14:00] sale. And, or if you find something, you can send it to them and they can fix it for you.

So if you have this, whatever vintage pinball machine, and it’s not just limited to the mechanical devices, although they have all kinds of rock them, sock them boxing things too, and magician talking head things. Um, but they also have a whole archive of digital games from. You know, those arcade games from the 70s, 80s on up any

Willie: favorite machines of yours.

Evan: Oh, there’s so many. Um, we love the right, the racing games. So like the driving games are really fun. And I’m

Josh: not, I’m not remembering, um, specific pinball machine names, but I love the ones where you have a moment where you don’t know where the ball went.

Willie: When it’s like, it’s called a lock. Yeah.

Josh: I love the ones with a lock.

You get into a rhythm. With the machine and then all of a sudden it breaks the rhythm. Yeah,

Willie: there were two or three that were absolutely favorites of mine. The Adams family machine was amazing. And, uh, twilight zone machine was great and they have them both now. Currently, the Adams family machine is not working, but hopefully somebody’s on that.

But I found that I found the twilight zone machine and the physical. Like the muscle memory of playing is remarkable because it’s years. It’s probably 10 years since I touched a pinball machine and I was laughing at myself because within minutes, you know, the sort of the leg action and all the instincts came back.

And, uh, first, Game was a bit of a shambles, but second game to replace on the second game. So, um, still got it. Yeah,

Evan: it’s nice to have an outlet when you’re here, you can go and spend an hour, just not to talk to anyone and play some pinball

Willie: and so cheap. I mean, the RSR is more of an issue than it was when I was younger, but, um, yeah, it’s, uh, Inexpensive entertainment in an expensive town.


Evan: mentioned kind of along with pranks, but this concept of Easter eggs, right? So a lot of us know about Easter eggs in terms of software, but there’s a little bit of quirk in your work often. And if you pay [00:16:00] attention, if you’re just kind of sitting there, maybe like before the show starts, but things are starting to happen, you know, we saw a few.

Things pop up in the sphere of during the you to show, um, that we’re like, Oh, that looks like something’s broken. But then you look and you’re like, Oh, no, no, that’s, that’s very intentional. It’s,

Willie: it’s, it’s art. Where does that come from? Um, well, it’s partly a need for self entertainment. It’s partly honestly, it’s also to do with morale because keeping the team buoyant is really, really important because the you.

Hours that go into these projects and the you know, everyone’s away from their families, etc, etc So part of it is morale and also partly to give People an opportunity to play within this structure and we’ve built this incredible thing I mean the sphere specifically we’ve built this incredible thing and just to let people kind of have a play and the I’m not quite sure where it started, but the the walk in look for the sphere is the pantheon made of concrete basically so you walk into this giant space with a An oculus hole in the middle of the night sky outside and I just thought it would be very funny if you walked in at some point and like In the roof high up of a shopping mall there was a helium balloon just stuck there that some kid had let go So that’s where it started and and again my team is so great I thought would be nice if there was a pigeon up there It’s a bird nesting and that you and I give that to the team and then within two days this pig does a pigeon that Flies around and does various things One of my favorites is there’s a work light that gets stuck on Uh, and it’s up there in the pantheon.

It’s a really ugly little strip light that you just get stuck on and flickers. And, yeah, I’ve had one or two, you know, the technicians wonder if we should go and fix it and this and the other. So it’s really, really fun. And then embedded in the show itself, there are some fun things. There’s one frame of a cow, uh, which is there in honor of Gavin Friday.

I can’t quite remember now, but that, uh, pops in at one point and, and so it goes. And then the fish that comes out of the, um, of the [00:18:00] balloon. Cause it’s always important to get a fish into a show somewhere.

Evan: You mentioned earlier about this sense of like archiving and, um, we understand that you are, you know, very thorough in interested in journaling in archiving, um, maybe even a little bit obsessive. about this. Um, how do those practices help you with your work or create

Josh: your work?

Willie: Well, to be honest, it’s, it’s like asking, how does breathing help the work?

It’s, it’s so innate. And with the, the journaling is interesting. I’ve kept journal since I was 15 years old and Miraculously haven’t lost any of them given I’ve lived all over the world in this thing. I still have them all and Never revisit them because obviously that as anyone who’s ever kept a journal knows it’s mortifying beyond your worst nightmares But there’s something about you can’t throw him away.

I couldn’t possibly throw him away Even though it is 99 percent It’s just irredeemably awful. But and but look if you keep a journal for long enough, it becomes a kind of therapy and And You tend to write more when things are not great than when things are going swimmingly. So I like to think I’ve got 40 years of complaining, but during the pandemic, when we all had more time than we knew what to do with, um, I thought I’d take a look and.

The first task, I guess, was to just see if I could transcribe them. I’ll transcribe them, I thought. And the very early ones are the sort of demented teenage diaries, so they were pretty easy to get going. But once it starts to get more intense, the books get smaller and smaller, and the handwriting gets smaller and smaller.

And, uh, It’s a lot to try and transcribe it and I wasn’t letting myself edit at all because I figured horrifying though it is it. I’ve just got to get the raw material down there and just see what’s there going at it fairly full [00:20:00] time. It was taking me about a month to transcribe a full year. At which point I worked out that just to transcribe them was going to take four years as a full time job.

So obviously that’s not going to happen. So I was a little bit more. And I realized there was an eight year period between leaving school, leaving high school and meeting you too. Uh, and that period of time was spent, um, you know, let’s say running away with punk bands in transit vans and playing every hell hole in the UK.

But what was, what’s rather nice about that is somewhere in there, there is a portrait of. Punk and post punk UK touring and Really really innocent thing things that were so ordinary at the time Become the most charming and there was a thing where because nobody had any money and the van usually broke down etc Etc.

So the this the social centers became the motorway service stations like the British equivalent of a 80s equivalent of a truck stop in Britain and And at four in the morning when three of you were sharing a breakfast special, you know, you would meet, you’d see this other group of colorful looking characters and someone would go and come over and say, who are you then?

And say, well, we’re the snots. And they say, well, who are you? And even though there was a rivalry and everything, it was, you know, we were all on the same team, ultimately just trying to find a way to, um, stay part of this culture and be part of this musical community. Punk happening in Britain was seismic, because the country is so small.

And I was 17 when punk happened, so it was just perfect. And the ethos, the message in the air was that anybody can do anything. And so we kind of did. And, um, and to see it I mean, it is very weird to read a first hand account In your own voice of events that you don’t remember, uh, that’s quite an odd [00:22:00] experience, but, uh, it, part of it is quite charming.

So there’s a value there. And then, you know, in later life too, um, I’m still figuring out what What is in there and what, if anything, they’re useful for. I mean, there’s absolutely no notion of publication per se, because why not though, because I had to kill myself before I published them, but, and probably several other people too.

But, um, But we’ll see, we’ll see what’s there. I mean, I think it’s really valuable raw material. And, and they’re also kind of scrapbooks, you know, they’re artifacts. And, I didn’t think I had a particularly good archive, because I didn’t go to art school, I don’t have endless wonderful fascinating drawings from, you know, early life, etc.

Um, but, there are things I’ve found, which I, I was really startled to, you know, Rediscover because I’m terribly organ boringly organized. And so there was like a just a folder for each Project or tour and I found I’m just in the I have a little room at treatment a cupboard which is my office And I found a set list In David Bowie’s handwriting on yellow legal paper from the sound of vision tour and there’s his handwriting and my handwriting because we were figuring something out and somehow that piece of paper has managed to survive through space and time and there it is so those kind of things are quite shocking and in a in a kind of written narrative sort of way the journals have those surprises too because looking back because it’s a Journal rather than a memoir.

Of course at the time you never write down the things that you You never know what’s going to be interesting in the future. And there’s sometimes, often actually on that Bowie tour, where I think, why didn’t you write more about that? You know, went to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg with David. And what in depth conversations did you have [00:24:00] about, you know, but you never know, uh, what is coming.

But as I say, the, the, uh, the joy of it is the surprises. And there are some, uh, there are some artifacts, but I think there are written ones too, which is the thing I’m most interested in. I think so. It’s really interesting.

Evan: You mentioned boy, because from what I understand, he also was quite an archivist and really was very meticulous in capturing kind of his journey and experience and the props and, you know,

Willie: the things.

One of the things I passed on to you too, was cause sound of vision. I did, I did the two tin machine tours and the sound of vision tour and Tim machine, of course, Grunge club band that everybody hated was absolutely fantastic to be part of playing these tiny places and then sound the vision was the big Retrospective where he played everything you could ever want and it was the big immersive film technique by Edward Luck from la la la human steps in Canada and So I felt like in many ways I got I really got The great extremes of working with him.

Interestingly, it’s a period which is pretty much been erased from all the histories. Even the film, the Moon Age Daydream film barely references that part of his career, but going into sound and vision, which obviously was retrospective, they said, Oh, come and look at the archive. And it was jaw dropping.

This is 1989 and it was jaw dropping then where there’s it’s, there are catalogs. Telling you where to find things and says, Oh, the original slides from the diamond dogs album cover shoot that’s in drawer 42. And you go and find it. And it’s really, really amazing. And so I did say to the two guys, you might want to take note here because, um, this stuff doesn’t look after itself.

And, um, yeah, so there’s definitely, uh, I definitely understand that urge to, to just catalog things. And again, like that, like with the Bowie archive, they haven’t done anything with it. It’s not like it’s. But the Smithsonian or something, it’s just there. And I feel a little bit the same way. It’s a desire to [00:26:00] kind of observe and organize rather than necessarily publish or do anything.

You just want to leave the place tidy, basically.

Evan: Willie, you’re a really avid reader. Tell us about what you’re reading. What inspires you? What do you keep going back to? How does reading play in your creative

Willie: process? One of the best things I’ve done in the past few years is I’ve joined the London Library.

Uh, which is not the, not to be confused with the British Library, the London Library is a private library. Um, in Mayfair. And you walk in and it looks like a gentleman’s club. But the further and further you get into the building, you get into the back stacks and everything and it gets more and more utilitarian.

And of course there are just There’s thousands, millions of books in there and what’s lovely about that is you can go in and You know if I read a Review or just come across something whilst reading about an author or if there’s some reference you can go in and find the book Take it to the rather nice, you know reading room and just sit and spend some reading So I’ve been able to dip into a lot more Things that I would have done if I’d just been going ordering things online or this that and the other and also sort of skim, skim more things just to get a sense of what’s going on.

But I tend to run a kind of dual path really because I find fiction really helpful when working on a project because it can just take me somewhere else and let me stop thinking about it. Whereas fact based things. Have an appeal because you feel like you’re learning something. I mean, the greatest thing I read recently was the column to been, um, the master, which is his interpretation of Henry James.

And my partner is a, is a great reader. And, you know, thinking about that, I have, you know, I’ve barely skimmed the surface, but he recommended this and the. The genius of Colin Tobin is he writes a book about the life of Henry James, pretty much in the voice of Henry James or in the style of Henry James.[00:28:00]

And I was completely captivated by it and therefore started a Henry James Odyssey. So that’s been, that’s been really wonderful. And, um, Are magazines

Josh: part of the, the kind of

Willie: canon of reference? Not so much for me, actually. I never thought I’d be an e reader. Yeah. Kind of person until I got one. Um, and there are some magazines that work digitally and some that don’t, but again, because of my partner who gets world of interiors, uh, he’s a horticulturist, so there are garden magazines.

We get the New York review of books. We get London review of books. So that even though I said I’m not a magazine person, there are always magazines around New Yorker. Actually, New York has been, um, the one consistent for a long time. I’ve never really contemplated whether the fiction I read feeds directly into the work.

Because actually, on reflection, I enjoy really bleak fiction. Muriel Spark I love, and some of the Eastern European characters, Stefan Zweig, uh, who wrote incredibly bleak short stories, and Arthur Schnitzler, and there’s a whole crowd of them, many of whom were dead. Dragged off and murdered by the Nazis.

But there’s something about the tone of that. And I’ll tell you actually who has really picked up on that. The, uh, theatre company Complicite, which is, uh, Simon McBurney, has done stage interpretations of some Eastern European fiction, which you wouldn’t think was possibly stageable. The incredibly memory Street of Crocodiles, he did, which is Bruno Schultz.

And, uh, So perhaps that’s partly where it came from. It’s a level of escapism, I think. And it sort of speaks to a time where it was so dangerous what they were doing. It was only worth doing if it was really important. And maybe there’s a little bit of that that I find inspiring, but, or maybe I’m just generally, um, a bleak person, but, uh, but yeah, but how that feeds into the work, I’m not sure, but, uh, it’s a part of the.

Yeah, an [00:30:00] overall mindset, I suppose, back in the London library, I was looking at Robert Louis Stevenson and he. There’s a whole range of books of his that we don’t know, and there’s one called Ebtide, which is a kind of swashbuckling thing, which I sat in the comfy chair in the library and read in an afternoon, and it was kind of great.

And, uh, it was probably a, a New Yorker thing, but the, um, Killers of the Flower Moon author, whose name I won’t remember, has a book called The Wager, Which is, I read, it’s a similar, it’s true, it’s um, again like Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s um, you know, based on a true story. And it’s very similar, they mentioned this Robert Louis Stevenson book, which I just happened to have read.

So, so I brought that with me, and also the new Michael Cunningham. Uh, because The Hours is one of the greatest. Triumphs is a really really wonderful books. I’ve got that but apparently that’s pretty bleak as well. So I should probably fit right in Yeah, so there’s a hard but I’ve now found a balance.

Those are hard copy and then on the e reader you know a stash of things I can dip into if You know, I’m traveling light

Evan: Fiction’s important because it does take you outside of That reality. Right? It puts you into a different place. Yeah. Just like a lot of the work that you create, right? It’s taking you, lifting you out of where you are and where you’ve kind of entered from to being in that moment and having that experience.

Willie: Yeah. A a and it’s limitless, um, as in my partner David Kelly, who is a horticulturist and bassoonist that, uh, that old combo , um, is also a, a, a, his life is about books really, and reads. More than it’s I can imagine it’s possible for any human being to read and so our life is completely full of books and We moved house recently and the by far the largest, you know More than the furniture the largest thing to move is books and there are hundreds and hundreds of books But it’s kind of amazing again during the pandemic To be able to just walk into, you know, [00:32:00] effectively our own library and just pick something, you know, Simone de Beauvoir.

Now, what was she on about? So, and it’s really been amazing, actually. So, I’m so used to being Surrounded by books and just the, uh, the feel of them and, you know, what they do to a space.

Evan: We’re going to take a quick break. We’ll be right back.

Josh: When you’re thinking about the narrative or the arc of the experience that you’re designing, how visual is that? Process from the beginning. Is it, you know, is it, is it more of a narrative? Is it immediately somewhat visual in your head? Like how does its first, what, what, you know, when it, when it’s first kind of coming to life, what does it look like?


Willie: good question. I think it’s visual. I think there are, there are moments, you know, there are scenes. What if we could create something that looked like this? Um, and you get those milestones. The task of the show is how you move between these extraordinary moments and the degree to which it’s narrative driven really is to do with the conversations with the performer.

You know, a performer can think in a very kind of linear narrative way, or it can be much more abstract. And so, you know, so I respond to that, uh, but no, it’s pictures really, even at something as as the sphere, there were some touchstone moments that Really seemed like, um, yeah, it would be, it seemed like a huge opportunity or it’d be a shame not to do this thing.

Now they don’t always survive. And of course, an early idea often suffers from coming along too early. Um, and so even if it’s a good idea, if it’s just around for too long, sometimes it dies a death, but, um, no, it’s definitely pictures. I think to begin with. The other piece

Josh: of that question for me, at least [00:34:00] is the technology, right?

There’s, there is. So much tech that goes into delivering the. Experience, right? Whether it’s video, whether it’s rendering, whether it’s real time rendering, whether it’s, you know, CGI commissions, um, the, the way lighting is used, the way camera feeds are used, like all of that stuff. Um, and then you also have the venue and what is the venue capable of?

And then now you have this venue, like the sphere, which is completely different from everything else. How. How much are you thinking about the tech in the, in the creative process? Like, is it part of your palette or is the experience in as you’re again, in this early phase of coming up with something is the, are you imagining without the constraints of how you can build it, or are you always aware of what, uh, parameters you need to operate within

Willie: the answer somewhere in between?

Even though I say it’s about pictures, I will often do a written sort of transcript of a show, not least because I can write in much more detail than I can draw. When you have a sense of, you know, the beats of a show or where you’re going, the next task, obviously, is how you create that. And I think I’d never, you never start with the equipment.

You know, that’s absolutely just completely the wrong way around. But at the same time, I think my instincts now after so long, I think I instinctively know if something should be possible in a year’s time or not. And I think So to say, we’ll start the show when the performer arrives on stage, materializes like Star Trek, you know, you know, that’s just never going to happen.

So, um, but I think that’s an instinctive thing rather than a, uh, checking out what technology is available, but no, that’s, I think is the process that the written, uh, the script, if you like, uh, can often describe [00:36:00] images better than they can be drawn. And also what’s nice about it is I’ve learned certainly in working with a performer or a collaborator.

The downside of CAD models and even VR and things like that is it’s too precise. If you’re showing an idea to somebody, to leave some room for interpretation is really helpful. Because at that stage you’re never going to be able to render exactly what it is you want to do anyway. A great illustration of that was for YouTube’s 2015 outing, which should have originally been their 2014 outing, Myself, Ez Devlin and Rick Lipson.

designed a whole show and it was very narrative driven through conversations with the band and their, um, sort of extended group. And we always, when we start a project, we like to have a weekend where we can just get together, absolutely brainstorm. We probably haven’t seen each other for a while.

Evan: Your, your team, not

Willie: with the, no, with, no, no, with you to say specifically with you two, uh, we’ll start with a weekend and we’ll all get together and really just, you know, brainstorm and blue sky it.

And if there’s new music. That’s really helpful and just find out what they’re interested in now and what everybody else has been up to. And we get together and just, just put it out there. Um, probably have a very pleasant evening somewhere and then wake up the following day and say, okay, what are we actually going to do?

Um, and this one tour, which became the innocence and experience tour was really narrative driven. The album was about their growing up in Dublin and it seemed like a really rare opportunity to do something, um, that had a. Tangible kind of storyline to it and we designed this whole show and for various reasons the the tour was postponed for a year During which time, Rick and Ez and I kind of went off the idea a bit, and also saw, you begin to see the flaws in it.

And when we regrouped, um, we were going to present something new to the band. And the three of us, Rick and Ez and I, we were so sick of CAD drawings and models and all this stuff. We made a scrapbook. I mean, we [00:38:00] actually made a scrapbook. The three of us sat there, got a walloping great A3, nice art book, and Cut things out of magazines and found things on the web and printed things and it’s actually in the Smithsonian now It’s in as Devlin’s show in New York as kind of an artifact and it was so successful Because it allowed Interpretation from the view it was really getting the idea across rather than the physical parameters of how it would be done and I really really learned from that And of course there comes a point where you have to make the CAD model so it can be built, but some looseness in the, um, in the presentations is really, really helpful.

Uh, helpful for me as much as it is for them, because you don’t lock yourself into a particular, uh, thought or particular idea in a, in a strictly tangible way.

Evan: Willie, you’ve been working with U2 for give or take some 40 years, four decades. It’s a lot of time together, a lot of shows together. The band is of course known for their music, but also for their presentation, right?

For their concerts for a long time. And not just this new wave of, Oh, Hey, to make money, we need to go on tour. But for decades and decades wanting to go on tour, wanting to have these big and fairly elaborate presentations of their work was always a hallmark of that band. So for us, we think it’s kind of fitting that you’re, that you too is the first resident into this brand new facility called The Sphere here in Las Vegas.

And there’s such a strong association between And the sphere. So we just want to be really clear to people who are listening, really with the differences, right? The sphere is simply a location. The sphere is like a concert hall or an arena that happens to have some very specific. Built in infrastructure that can be leveraged, um, both on the external skin, the part that’s viewable from the outside, as well as on the inside of it.

You’re, you’re used to designing an experience, traveling with [00:40:00] it, loading and unloading it and installing it, but really being kind of independent from. This space. And here we are with the sphere, which is really a very different and much more elaborate, uh, design. Tool to use as part of that concert experience.

Willie: Yes, very much so. And initially that was, I was really wary of that to begin with because you’re going into a space where the main feature of any show is a given. It’s a given to you by somebody else. And for me, what I’ve really done with one branch of my work is. Found a way of understanding how you can combine human being You know human being sized people with big pictures, you know make it how you can make a performance work with large pictures and actual size human beings and Even though many of the shows are very visual and have an enormous amount of film the video the visual surface if you like Always comes from the idea And here we’re walking into a space where the only given is this gigantic screen, which is clearly way out of proportion for any human being.

And I was very wary of it, because nothing about it seemed conducive to, certainly my normal way of thinking. Creating a show and literally sometimes we’ll go into show Not knowing whether there’s going to be any Video at all, you know I’d really like to be wide open when you go in and just see what the ideas are and see how that Conversation develops.

So this is the absolute opposite but The real breakthrough came for me Spending a bit of time at the, there’s a quarter scale model of the place in Burbank that, that you can run pictures in, which confusingly is called Big Dome, even though it’s a small one. And we went [00:42:00] there and they show you all the demo films and their nature films, and it’s all very immersive and wonderful.

Again, absolutely nothing to do with rock and roll, rock and roll and nature being pretty much incompatible. So, you know, I really wasn’t sure, but I wondered if How would simple graphics work in a place like that on that sort of surround screen? And so on a return visit, I’d made some very simple material.

And when I saw that on the screen, particularly the shape shifting capabilities of the space. Yeah, that’s special. Because we as humans, we navigate space by corners. You know how big the room is that you’re in because you can see the corners and that space not only doesn’t have any corners, but realizing that we could create our own corners and the extent to which the brain just buys it is really astonishing.

So at that point I got quite excited because also another another thing about the this show was. We knew that they wanted to perform the whole of the acting baby album. And the great joy of having done that with Joshua tree a few years ago was just seeing them look at this record. They looked at the Joshua tree record and of course you two don’t listen to you two albums.

So their material is much more familiar to their audience than it is to them. And they looked at this thing and they presented that record that presented the music. With no hint of nostalgia at all. They just presented it like it was their new record. They kind of figured out how to play the songs that they hadn’t played before.

And, and there was a real joy in that rather than, Oh, let’s show movies of the guys back in the day and all the stuff you’d expect. So when we started off, I wasn’t assuming that any of the zoo TV style presentation would be relevant at all. Maybe it would be more about. Acting baby or whatever. But clearly given the [00:44:00] venue and given that it’s made for giant pictures, um, uh, it became apparent that, um, as he styled things would make an appearance and did they ever, and, and almost to the opposite extreme, I thought, well, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it and let’s open the show.

And the first seven, seven or eight songs, it’s the same running order from the Zoo TV tour. And the first couple, it’s a similar kind of visuals, but absolutely on steroids. And the degree to which Your perception, just your brain just believes what it’s saying. And the fact that we could change the shape of the room, we can make it infinitely tall.

You can send the horizon line way off into the distance. And at that point I got quite excited because the, the potential for just messing with people’s minds was really. Too tempting. Josh

Evan: felt for it.

Josh: Totally. I was not falling for it. I, I mean, I, I knew what was going on, but I, but like, I, I was just delighted by it.

It was incredible. But you’re like, are we moving? Are we moving? It was just so impressive. No, no, no. I was like, I knew we weren’t moving. But, but, it’s like, But still, it’s like, wow, it really, like, it really, you know, at the end of the Brambilla thing, it, like, it feels like the stage is, the stage is moving.

Like is moving, but it is not. And the, you know, and the, the shape shifting, I mean, there’s so many mind bending moments in that first, you know, several presentations, the first several songs, it’s, it is, uh, nice that you then. Kind of get into a little calmer moment, kind of let us let us recover from that, uh, mindfuck a little bit delightful

Willie: mindfuck, all the things like when you’re sitting on a train and the train next to you moves and you think you’re moving, you know, that’s what’s that’s what’s happening.

But just on this massive scale. And it was absolutely thrilling. I had a guest last night who actually had to go for a little lie down just from not even from the seasickness because it’s it’s not [00:46:00] as It’s not as disorient physically disorientating as I’d feared it might be Lateral movement is a bit tricky But generally it’s not too bad, but just the sentry overload sometimes, you know people just I

Evan: think you manage that really well because it’s You just kind of throw it out there.

You’re like, this is what this space can do and what we’re doing in this space. And it’s like, bam, bam, bam. It’s like these huge moments. And then you pull it back. Yeah. And then you get people some time to

Willie: digest it. The equipment itself had been publicized so much because a great joy, not just with YouTube, but a great joy for me is when you disguise the tech, um, and an audience coming into the space wouldn’t necessarily.

Know what this thing is going to do whereas there everybody knew this was about gigantic pictures. So we figured okay Let’s just let’s just get that over with and do it in a way that I Think would surprise it. That’s what that’s the lovely thing. People have said to me that There are no spoilers for the show.

You can watch it on YouTube. You can do all stuff, but nothing prepares you for actually being in that space. Yeah. I think

Evan: one of the exciting things for us was the, your friends that you bring into work, you know, sometimes really often right, you know, John Gerard, Marco Brambilla as Devlin. Industrial light and magic, um, favorites of ours as well that we’ve covered a lot over time in, in cool hunting.

And it’s so great to see their work be part of this experience. Again, separate from the sphere. It’s in the sphere, but this is you two content that’s been created for this experience.

Willie: Yeah. Yeah. And what a joy. Um, and Marco, I didn’t know actually, I met him. I saw a piece of his work, uh, when we were. And it was just in time because he normally likes a year or so to make a piece.

And we’re like, Marco, could you do it in Elvis in six months? Um, but absolute joy. And of course, when they come, uh, they all came to big dome and to sort of [00:48:00] get a handle on the parameters and. in seeing what it can be, uh, it was really exciting just to see their enthusiasm. And as, um, as his piece come home again, which was in London, it was that, uh, take modern in London was a, um, space Kanko dome full of endangered species.

And the thought of doing that on gigantic scale was irresistible. So no, it’s really been, it’s really been wonderful. And similarly with industrial like magic, who the notion of, you know, the timescale and the budget that we had. We wondered if they would just snort politely and turn away, but they’re so excited about being part of this.

And I’ll tell you what it is. What’s fantastic for these visual artists, people who, who are immersed in the art world, et cetera, et cetera. Uh, the thing that summed it up best for me was some years ago was for the Vertigo tour, 2006. I worked with Julian Opie and we wanted one of his walking figures There were going to be several and again, we paired it down to just this one Lonely walking figure and I really I loved his response because he really understood that This was part of a greater whole.

So there has to be some flexibility, but he wasn’t afraid to say, we did take a couple of liberties with the work. And he wasn’t afraid to say, tell us what he liked and what he didn’t like. But he understood that we were all contributing to something that was bigger than all of us. But what was so great, and I thanked him for his generosity, because obviously a lot of fine artists very rightly, uh, are not born collaborators.

Um, and he just said, the thing is he said, nobody applauds in an art gallery. Yeah. And for people like that who are even super high profile people who used to having their work all over the world to see that instant response, you know, your work comes up that scale and 10, 000 50, 000 people. all throw their arms in the air and cheer.

It’s pretty compelling. And it’s thrilling for the collaborators on this show to see people. I mean, [00:50:00] Marco had never seen 18, 000 people losing their minds in his work. It’s wonderful. It’s really, really wonderful. It really

Josh: is. Are there lessons learned from Creating a production at the sphere that are applicable to future work that might not be in an immersive environment like the sphere.

I imagine that every project you do There’s, there’s new things that you’re learning that you’re trying that somehow might come into your palette. Are there things from, from this one that carry

Willie: forward? It’s such a bespoke space. I mean, I’ve learned ever so many things about how to do a show in the sphere.

Uh, but whether they’re transferable, I’ve no idea. It’s hard to imagine they would be because it’s such a bespoke space. And the difference, I mean, I suppose the real, the really interesting thing is. Comparing it to VR because it is like VR without a headset on and much of the work we did We did in VR because I actually found that I found VR to be a closer representation of of the space than Big Dome, because even though it’s obviously in VR, the resolution’s super, super low, Big Dome is misleading because you, the viewer, are four times the size you would be in the real space.

And it just feels very different. Whereas in VR, at least you’ve got the actual space, you can move around without climbing the stairs, which is great. And just in terms of how big things needed to be, where to place them, I found that much more useful. And so in a funny way, I’ve learned more about VR Work than I ever thought I would in a lifetime, but I don’t think it’s transferable because it’s such a different experience.

Uh, when you’ve got the headset on and when you haven’t, and to be in a space with thousands of people, all hallucinating together, you, it’s sort of the best of both worlds. Actually, you get that magical freedom that you get with VR, but you also have the communal thing. Cause that’s really what it’s about.

It’s [00:52:00] sharing this sense of wonder being in this space and everybody seeing it together. And that’s what makes it emotionally powerful. Yeah.

Josh: I love, I love that comparison. And, you know, of course it was also thinking similarly about, you know, the, the analog between the sphere and a virtual world that’s rendered around you on this, you know, this kind of new era of spatial computing that we’re just

Willie: entering.

And also one of the thing, cause it’s not like, you know, Wernher Wenger and those sorts of visions of the future where we can all make up our own, even when we’ve, when we’ve done away with. The headsets and you know, it’s a chip or we’re just seeing it or even if there’s no gear and we’re all physically together It’s a different thing When everyone’s just making up their own world because you’re still in a sense The sphere is kind of old fashioned as an experience because we’re all there together experiencing the same thing and That I think is is a very different proposition to The other visions of the future where we can just, you know, we can make our own virtual worlds around us.

Evan: Speaking of being experts in The sphere. Um, and also by the way, the only people who’ve really done something other than the content that the sphere has created has been publicly announced that dead and co is going to be there pretty soon. And that treatment studio is also going to be creating that

Willie: experience.

Yes. That’s where Sam goes to do his tour of duty. And, uh, I wish him all the best. All the best with that. What, what, what advice are you gonna

Josh: give him? What lessons learned are you bring

Willie: your own tea ? Um, well the thing is, Sam has obviously been part of the, the U2 sphere journey, right? So he knows what to expect.

Um, I mean, the technical lessons, I think. Absolutely. We’ll carry on into the future. And actually to answer your previous question about what have we learned, certainly technically we’ve learned things that will accompany accompany us into the future. Simple. They’d really dull things like [00:54:00] designing, designing visual sequences to minimize the render times because with files that big, I’m reliably informed by my producer that the YouTube content is 1.

13 petabytes of data. And I believe that’s a million gigabytes, but, um, And so the render times were absurd. I mean, completely absurd. A minute of video was going to take two weeks to render. So that’s obviously not going to happen. Um, and so the, certainly the tech team’s, uh, uh, treatment managed to figure out how to reduce those times.

So all of that stuff is super useful, and all of that will play into Dead Co. Um, but, no, there’s a lot of, uh, There’s a lot to negotiate at the Sphere, not least that it’s also a cinema. And so it’s the only residency where you have to load out after every show. Um, so the, a lot of that, a lot of the design parameters are quite pragmatic, I think.

But no, I will be, and of course fish are in before the dead and co. So, um, yeah, I’ll be fascinated to see what anybody else does with it. I mean, treatment is not doing fish. No, no, they’re in

Evan: next. They’re probably going to call you though. I have

Willie: a feeling. There have been conversations. Yeah, we’ve had conversations.

Actually, the other, the other, the only thing I have seen, and I haven’t seen a proper showing of it, but I saw loads of the test showings, is the Darren Aronofsky movie, which is sort of the house attraction. And what I found really interesting about that was I could see in the work, obviously you can, you can sort of read the mind of the creator and I could see a director who was figuring out what might work in this building that doesn’t exist yet.

And of course, that was exactly my frame of mind in my journey going into it. So I rather like that, even though it’s a completely different proposition. It was this leap into the unknown and and second guessing how things might be and that’s quite exciting So there’s

Evan: [00:56:00] one other component of the show. I think we have to talk about Which really doesn’t have anything to do with this sphere.

It’s infrastructure It’s really Brian, you know and the stage that you created because there’s no stage in the sphere There’s no there’s no

Willie: stage in the sphere

Evan: walking into a movie cinema with a screen.

Willie: Yes, exactly exactly and there’s no You The wing space that you know, it is it’s not a theater so which actually is is that’s in a fairly comfortable territory for Concert touring because often you working in sports facilities and etc, etc.

So we were looking at the Potential for Staging ideas and went through quite a few and the feeling that maybe the stage should rise to be near the people at the top and all this kind of thing. But when you’re actually in the space, because it’s an amphitheater and amphitheaters are an ancient form of, um, performance space and the sight lines are really good.

The, in terms of the focus, you know, where your eye rests and I realized quite quickly that. Whether you’re down at the front or whether you’re way, way up high, the, the kind of sweet spot for where your attention naturally rests is pretty consistent. And that’s where the stage is, which is good. So it also made a bit of a nonsense of putting in the traditional, you know, runways and B stages and that kind of thing, because, um, there isn’t really anywhere to go.

And if you push forward into the house, it means people up top can’t see you anymore. So the notion of a simple stage. Was appealing. And even though for a performer, it’s like Mick Jagger always used to say, give me something to do, you know, performer likes to have places to go and, but it’s felt like this was appropriate.

And also having done Bono’s one man show, his solo show on. Regular theater stages and really made that work, you know, we made different places for him to Perform and inhabit [00:58:00] that the thought of a smaller space felt really appealing But I think we all assumed that there would be some kind it would be more than just a square, you know And I’m not quite sure how the conversation went But Bono has one of Brian’s turntables and so we were kind of using it as an example and by turntables you mean Yes, it’s it’s Brian Eno has made a, well it is, it’s a record player turntable, but it’s also one of his light sculptures.

So it’s a white perspex box that the round part, the turntable part, and the box itself light up in, they’re two separate colors, and he designed an algorithm so the colors just run themselves randomly. And. It sort of started off as a joke, we could just make an exact replica of Brian’s turntable, but huge, and then that’s what we did.

It was such a great idea, there’s no arm, there’s no, um, there’s no record player arm, but the proportions and everything are exactly the same, but scaled up enormously. And I know him quite well, and so I went to chat to him about it, A, saying, would this be okay? And also. To ask if we could use the algorithm and I’d said to him What I’d like to ask is if we can just use the algorithm It would be so thrilling for me to have a 20 minute portion of the show where the stage is just Doing what it wants to do The reason I wouldn’t ask For exactly that is what if the stage decides to sit on green for 20 minutes Which is I speak from personal experience not great as a person Lighting state for a gentleman of a certain age.

Um, so he said, funny, you should mention that. His coder, Peter Chilvers. Uh, for some reason they had had a conversation after 20 years of making these sculptures where they wanted to be able to add a few more controls. Because they write rules about what the colors are allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do.

And so they wrote us an additional rule that [01:00:00] the green wasn’t allowed to go it alone. Basically green could only go to a certain level by itself. So that all seemed fine. And then, uh, we, we, we get in the shop and running and rather remarkably and rather wonderfully during that period, I managed to, I now own one of Brian’s original turntables, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

And so over the Christmas break, I was home with this thing and watching it and just seeing the real turntable. The range of color and the subtlety and everything was way more than we’re getting out of the stage. So I thought, okay, so I had a chat to him and to Peter Chilvers and we thought, well, okay, let’s Let’s just try it.

So we basically unleashed the green more or less, but what’s wrong the wonderful now I’ve been sending them pictures because the stage now is doing really really beautiful things But it’s doing things that they don’t think it should be able to do Brian has a theory that the stage is evolving its own consciousness Yeah I have a theory that in its time off the stage is looking at the internet and is worried that there aren’t any more shows after March 3rd And so perhaps Brian has a theory that the stage will go on tour by itself.

Um, yeah, so, um, but no, it’s been, it was, it’s been wonderful. And the contrast of a show, which parts of that show are so tightly controlled because everything is running in such sync to have this time when the band also, they can play whatever they want and they’re varying the set from night to night.

And the stage after 40 years of me. Designing shows and stressing over whether something should be red or blue to just let Brian’s algorithm take charge. It’s really wonderful. It’s very liberating. I also want to mention

Evan: that in addition to the turntable doing that and having its own colorway, it also is a screen, right?

Or a display. So it does participate in the video content and the camera content that’s happening that you’re seeing on the screen of the sphere as well.

Willie: And I’m very happy [01:02:00] that. It doesn’t it because one choice we nearly made because I was being a bit of a purist I was thinking we should only use it as Brian’s turntable We shouldn’t use it as a video floor because video floors have been seen.

Yeah, that’s a known thing But actually it’s been a great gift to be able to use it in different ways throughout the show not least because as a black object There was a part of me that in an ideal world it the stage would have done nothing other than light up for the Brian, you know, section, but actually not only in bono’s words, not only was did the stage in its um, ’cause the stage is black when it’s off, as opposed to Brian’s turntable, which is white.

And he said not only does it have any energy, it is sucking energy out of the room. And it was actually, it was a completely dead space. And so now in very subtle ways and in less subtle ways, we now use it quite a lot more. So I think we’re going to throw

Josh: to a break and when we come back, dig into a little more of the future of live experience.

Well, you push the evolution of entertainment through storytelling at the crossroads of technology and live performance. And you’ve been doing it for a while, you know, thinking back to one of the first, if not the first multi screen video live experience at a performance in, in 92, the first. Large scale led screen in 97, uh, the first 360 degree viewable, 360 degree viewable screen

Evan: that also shapeshifted

Josh: that also shapeshifted in 2009, um, bringing augmented reality to live performance in 2020.

Like they’re all, they’re all these firsts and they’re all of these uses of creativity and of technology and these advancements of innovation. You. Seem to always have this dance between spectacle and simplicity. [01:04:00] And I’d love to just hear a little bit more about how you approach it and how that carries through into the future.

It’s a good

Willie: way of looking at it because the question of, you know, what does the future of entertainment look like? I mean, if anybody knew, then they’d be buying stock furiously. So you can only learn from the journey so far and. At the time, it wouldn’t have been possible to tell what was really going to work and longer term what wasn’t, um, some things, I mean, a good one is the AR experience that we did, uh, at the top of the, uh, U2 experience, an Innocence show, and I was very proud of that because, I mean, not least that we had an avatar singing in lip sync with a live vocal on people’s own phones, but, um, It was a sort of seamless way of bringing people from a pre show experience into the show with no instructions because the last thing I was going to have was like on the screen press the red button now and the flow of that was really good there was a whole pre show experience on The phone where you looked at the arena through your own phone and it became something else entirely.

And then that really taught the audience what to do. And it was lovely because you would see members of the audience, people that hadn’t got the app. Would be showing it to other people and then people that did have it they’d be showing them what to do So it was self educating. I was super super proud of all of that and then the show begins and literally there is this Abasar Roboto singing on your phone in lip sync to the live vocal Because it wasn’t difficult enough as it was But you know what when we sat and really analyzed that moment It was a cerebral technical triumph that really didn’t add any emotional connection to the show.

And, you know, that was hard to [01:06:00] realize after the fact because I really felt this was, I really thought this had potential. A way of making even simple small shows, you could add this other dimension to it. And also, frankly, people are going to be staring at their phones for the entire time. You may as well give them something that’s integrated into the show to look at.

But it just didn’t. So those are the lessons that We learn going forward and then other things. I mean, let’s see when we did Zoo TV in 1992, it was such an outsider thing. I mean, people were, the response was a little like to the sphere. People were saying, I don’t know what this is, but you have to go and see it.

But for me, it wasn’t at all. So I thought maybe we were done with video. Then maybe, maybe we wouldn’t bother with another one until a few years later when with the L. A. D. Technology, myself and Mark Fisher developed the screen that could be the size of the end of a stadium, which no one had seen before.

And then we were very interested in video again. So at the time you don’t really know what long term contributions are being made, but always, always, it has to be in service of the emotional connection between the performer and the audience. Cause if that doesn’t work, then like I say, it is just a sort of cerebral exercise.

And my feeling is. I mean, look at what’s happened post pandemic when we all sat at home wondering, I mean, I really thought I really had to face the possibility that I was done, that my entire work situation may never come back again, and, you know, make peace with that, and that was okay, uh, and then now, you look at the number of tours, I mean, Arthur Fogel, who’s the head of Live Nation Global Touring, and Yeah, he’s even he is amazed at he’s a busy guy.

He’s a busy guy. And the just the number of tickets that Can be sold and what people will pay for them. There just doesn’t seem to be a cap on it I mean his observation, which I think is also a big part of it. He said there’s a whole new generation of concert goers now [01:08:00] With you know, the Harry Tyler Harry Styles Swifty generation before the older generation before the Rolling Stones generation have died so the the Demographic is wider now, but we’ve never seen this kind of thing where you have three or four stadium tours out You At the same time, each one of which is doing multiple, multiple nights in stadiums.

I mean, that’s absolutely never happened before. So that’s, that’s for me, uh, as big a clue as the fact that the AR app was clever, but emotionally dry as to where we’re going now, what that looks like. I don’t know, but I think it has to be this thing about actual community, uh, because it also, and I know it’s tough here, but.

I know that politically you two’s audience is really broad, but they’re all there and they’re all having the shared experience. The, the entertainment of the future will need to serve that, uh, that end, I think. Of bringing people together. Yeah. Yeah. Well, I

Josh: have another future question, but before that you were talking about the AR app and how it brought people together when one person was using it and someone wasn’t.

And they were looking at it through the same screen or helping each other figure out how to use it was, did you anticipate that

Willie: or was that kind of a happy accident? Not at all. No, not at all. I mean, I really thought that you’d have to read the instructions and then it would work on the night and, uh, and the take up again, we had no idea the level of take up and, and it was just enough.

It was just satisfying enough to think it was worth doing. But actually that is a good point because it did create. Social groups. There was another idea we had for a piece of tech that would make your phone ring. It would pick two phones in the room. It would make them both ring and then would connect them.

So you would find yourself speaking to a stranger and all you knew about this person was that they were at the same gig you were at. [01:10:00] So it’s actually, it’s sort of like the Telephones at the Cochran Club, I mean, um, more high tech and that never came to pass. But, you know, we had had thoughts about how can you make the technology serve the audience, audience interaction basically with each other rather than with a performer.

And I think maybe the error was successful in the audience interaction, but it certainly didn’t help with the connection with the performance per se. I

Evan: love that you are, um, You’re working with the highest of high tech, right? Like the newest, latest, all these things, but it’s not what drives you. No, you personally are, you are coming at this from a storytelling really quite simply as a storytelling point of view.

And as how do we deliver an experience that’s engaging, that’s fun for the band or the performer and engaging for the audience. And of course the team needs to then. Deliver that in the best way possible. That’s often leveraging state of the art tech, but that’s not where you start

Willie: from. Not at all. It’s, it’s the two things that we, I mean, I really do want to create something.

That people have never seen before and just creates a sense of wonder, but it’s got to be fun. You know, it’s got to be fun. It’s and a lot of the tech that we have is so dull, but there are things. I mean, you see all the time with simple apps and things that go viral, things that are just fun. And to find a context within live entertainment for that kind of thing is incredibly compelling and people love it.

Is there

Josh: fun in AI? What are your thoughts on how AI might come into this realm of live experience?

Willie: I mean, I’m with Nick Cave, really, and I’m sure in the world of things that really matter, the potential for how AI can speed the development of things that are useful to our species. I mean, I absolutely believe I’m not a Luddite in that way, but I think when it comes to, I don’t think AI is very whimsical.

I mean again, all I can do is quote Nick Cave, really, [01:12:00] who, his response to somebody sending him a chat GPT version of a song by Nick Cave was absolutely hilarious and well worth finding on the red hand files, but basically saying it’s just a, you know, a shallow parody of, um, of, uh, human emotion and spirituality, but we’ll see, I mean, you know, who knows, uh, who knows where this stuff is going, but I, I love the fact that in, uh, The YouTube sphere show that Marco was there generating AI generated Elvis’s.

I mean, that just tickled me. Deeply, but that wasn’t the point of that piece. The point of that piece is just this absurdly overwhelming mass of stuff in the way that he does. Um, whereas I think if we’d said, Oh, we’ve got an AI generator, I think that would have been, uh, far less interesting in the same way that the quote holograms of, you know, Michael Jackson, whoever, um, they’re fine, but there’s There’s not much to it, you know?

So I think, I think, and there are a couple of other AI things in the show, and, and to an extent, you know, Brian’s turntable algorithm. Mm-Hmm. . Mm-Hmm. , uh, you know, that’s doing its own thing. Um, especially

Josh: as it wakes up and realizes it needs to find a new venue.

Willie: It will, it will kill us die. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. So, as I say, I, I think it’ll be, um, for us to watch what develops.

But obviously my role is very responsive. Often it’s very reactive. Position particularly when working with a performer and at those, uh, uh, those moments, uh, sometimes the dots join and you think, oh, yes, this would be the very thing or we could do this. It’s quite spontaneous. The process is quite spontaneous, even though the application has to be obviously very measured and, um, with ever so much, um, preparation.

Josh: We had the opportunity to see the U2 show at the sphere.

Evan: From multiple vantage points to from multiple vantage

Josh: points. Yes. Yes. We were, we were zipping around between the floor and, uh, other, other spots within [01:14:00] the space to the control booth. Yes. Yes. To see, you know, kind of the best vantage points for the best moments.

And that was absolutely incredible. And that was the night when consumers. Who bought the Apple vision pro received their devices. So it was launch day of Apple vision pro. And that was also very much on our minds when we were, you know, on our way from New York to Vegas to come see you and to come see the show.

This was touched on earlier in our conversation, this idea of virtual reality or spatial computing or immersive experience. And it was very clear and a little bit profound in the moment of, of seeing the show that it wasn’t that different from putting on the headset, obviously. There’s no community.

There’s no audience. You know, there’s the, there’s the, the, the luxury of being in a large space and being able to run around to different vantage points. And yes, in that it was very, very different. And at the same time, it felt like we were seeing the spectrum of what an immersive experience could be today.

I could also really imagine watching the show in a headset. Do you think that there? Is a place for creating a concert like experience that’s dedicated to what someone would watch in a headset, or do we want to keep them live experiences that then are recorded in spatial video to be able to play back in something like Apple vision pro.


Willie: think as long as you don’t mistake it for a substitute for the actual experience, I think it’s fine. It’s really interesting how, despite. Concert touring being such a huge [01:16:00] business. For so many years live concerts on Television have never really worked There was a brief moment again in the 18th century whenever it was when they were doing the pay per view I remember zoo TV actually was a pay per view So that would that would time it and around that time sort of late 80s early 90s There’d be these pay per view on a HB where you could watch the concert and I guess there was a novelty To that that worked to a certain extent and And then it became home video and DVDs and they would just never sell very well.

And now you absolutely can’t get arrested. I mean, most shows aren’t released because they’re so expensive to record and it’s just not, it’s just not a way that it works. Now, obviously a headset or some kind of spatial recording would work much better. Um, but you’d have to see it as exactly that it’s a recording of the event rather Replicating the experience of being there.

U2 made a 3D concert movie many moons ago. And I remember going to see that. In fact, we took the studio to see it at the IMAX in Waterloo in London. And we’re all sitting there with the glasses on and this, that and the other. And the technology really worked. And I was laughing because there was a moment with a camera on the edge of the stage.

So it was like you were standing on the edge of the stage watching U2 perform, which I’ve done many times. Many times at sound checks and Bonner turned around and looked at the camera and I felt like I needed to look busy. So the technology really worked, but nobody, you know, people don’t. Applaud or engage the same way.

I mean, I suppose one exception is ABBA, which is a triumph for the, the, the ABBA voyage show in London. The virtual show is a triumph. And I love watching the audience there because some people are at a party. They’re coming to a gig. Other people are definitely at a movie. And so somewhere between those two extremes, everybody finds their response, but it’s such a different response.

Um, but look as a record of a show It could really work the I think the The [01:18:00] notion that they can be interactive I think is probably not going anywhere. And with some of the early experiments we’ve seen over the past decade, where there are cameras you can move and you can change your perspective, it just never seems to work in a way, because that’s not how, that’s not how we look at things, that’s not how we absorb any kind of live concert.

Um, but look, who knows, we’ll see if the, if the, uh, If the technology works well enough, it’ll be wonderful to at least be able to record these things because of course I work in a medium that’s impossible to record, but that’s just the way it is, you know, doesn’t

Evan: it’s something we’ve been talking a lot about this weekend, Josh is, you know, imagine a space where, yes, you can have this great experience in real life if you’re physically able to be there and be present for it, but also to be able to access it in a different, but yeah, Similar version where it’s maybe live coming into your headset.

Um, but you’re able to be there remotely and maybe have many more people because you can’t, everyone can physically be in that space. It’s interesting to think about.

Willie: I like many people I was involved in, uh, during the pandemic of developing a, uh, virtual audience, uh, technology and it went very well. Uh, lots of interest from lots of companies, et cetera.

And cracking the audio was the. The, the, the key thing and we built and trialed, um, this way where a performer could see a whole sea of people and they could see him and interact and all that kind of thing that was going on. And it was quite exciting. And as I say, we had interest and, uh, companies sniffing around and talk of money and this than the other.

And the minute the pandemic ended, nobody ever mentioned it again. Cause people just want to get back. So I think that could be a bit of an Achilles heel. Uh, cause you don’t go, I mean, imagine going to a concert alone. It’s like the silent disco. Yeah. You go by yourself with no one, you know, and. You watch it.

It’s just not the way we do this. You know, we, for some reason we [01:20:00] need, you need sort of affirmation or acknowledgement that you’re there. And I think one of the early on, one of the things I learned about turning on the house lights is you have this moment where you see the performance, but you can also see yourself.

You see yourself in the same airspace as these people who can do something you can’t do. And if they’re very recognizable, that’s a part of it. And you’re, you’re, It’s not the same experience when it’s virtual, when it’s to remove, which is not to say that there isn’t an application, but I just don’t think that’s it.


Evan: there were two really nice moments in the Adele show. I was just going to go there where. The lights come on and so she’s able to engage and see the audience But then there’s also the moment when that happens in the end and the cameras are turned towards the audience And so you have the entire audience that everybody can see um, just like you see on a

Josh: stadium on the screens of the stage and Shown in a way that feels like a continuation Of the seating so all of a sudden it’s like looking across the stadium.

Yeah, exactly like looking across the stadium Yeah, that was a

Evan: really great

Willie: moment. Yeah Yeah. And that’s what we need from those live music moments. It is a communal thing. Yeah. Well, look, if, if the technology can work that out somehow, we’ll be fine, but, uh, we’ll see. Willie,

Evan: you’ve been really generous with your time and we’ve had a lot of fun here today.

I’m super grateful for the experiences you’ve created and that we’ve been able to experience and, uh, for this very private and intimate one that we can now share.

Josh: Yeah. Grateful and inspired. Thank

Willie: you. Thank you. I love you. very much indeed

If you’re

Josh: new to cool hunting, we’ve been reporting on creativity and innovation since 2003 visit cool hunting. com or Cool hunting on social media channels to see what we think is worth sharing And consider sending it to your friends in text, slack, email, or social groups.

Evan: If you enjoy Design Tangents, please follow our pod wherever you listen.

Every positive [01:22:00] review you leave is very much appreciated.

Josh: Thank you to Master Dynamic, the official headphones of the Surround network. And thank you to Matthew Deer, who created our original music. Design

Evan: Tangents is produced by Surround, part of the Sandhau Design Group. Discover more shows from Surround.

at surroundpodcasts. com. We’re in great company there. This episode was produced and edited by Rob Schulte.

Josh: At surroundpodcasts. com, you will also find transcripts, show notes, and links for each episode of Design Tangents. Those are also available on coolhunting. com, of course.

Evan: Thanks for listening.

Design Tangents

Design Tangents

Hosted by COOL HUNTING founders Evan Orensten and Josh Rubin, Design Tangents takes listeners on a journey into the minds of artists, designers, musicians, tech pioneers and visionaries.

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Evan Orensten Host photo

Evan Orensten

Evan Orensten is interested in the intersections of COOL HUNTING’s content categories, an accomplished cook, serviceable photographer and enthusiastic storyteller and globetrotter. He’s the co-founder and Executive Editor of COOL HUNTING.

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Josh Rubin Host photo

Josh Rubin

Josh Rubin is COOL HUNTING’s founder, editor and executive creative director. He brings his background as a photographer and expertise as a user experience designer to his point of view on what makes a good story for CH—this most often include some kind of intersectionality between art, culture, technology and design. Josh is a bit of an urban hippie, obsessed with most things Japanese, a Sealyham Terrier lover and very food motivated.

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