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A vast wall of swirling static dances on a giant screen as Trent Reznor and
his band launch into their song, "Only." Initially obscured by this
sea of visual white noise, the Nine Inch Nails front man intermittently appears
to push through the particles of snow with his hands and body, popping in and
out of view and opening up random tunnels in the chaos.
"Sometimes, I think I can see right through myself," he sings.
Nine Inch Nails fans are accustomed to such sonic and visual feasts
whenever Reznor and company go out on tour. But this time around, NIN has
pulled out all the stops, creating a groundbreaking, fully interactive visual
display that is as much a part of the show as the band's instruments.
"I'm not really a purist," admits Reznor. "If I'm in the
studio working on an album, I try to only please myself. But when it's a tour,
it feels a bit more like I have a responsibility to some degree to entertain
For the band's current Lights in the Sky tour, Reznor has not only raised
the bar for what's possible in an arena tour, but has also produced what could
arguably be one of the most technologically ambitious rock productions ever
conceived. Unlike most rock shows, the visuals for about 40 percent of the show
(including "Only") aren't pre-rendered. There's no staging, no
pantomiming by band members: It's all interactive, live and rendered on the
With more than 40 tons of lighting and stage rigging, hundreds of LED
lights, a daunting array of professional and custom-built machinery running
both archaic and standard commercial VJ software, three different video systems
and an array of sensors and cameras, the tour is nothing if not a lavish
display of techno wizardry.
According to Reznor, it all started with a relatively simple idea.
"I wanted to see how I could use video as an instrument," he
says, "and try to really make the stage feel like it's organic -- like
it's part of the overall set."
Judging from initial reactions to the show, the band has done just that.
Reviews have called LiTS everything from a "vision of splendor"
to "the pinnacle of video art," and nowhere is Reznor's showmanship
and willingness to tinker with new technologies more apparent than in the
band's current tour.
The core of the show is a sophisticated trio of transparent
"stealth" screens, which are raised and lowered during the
Using one high-resolution (1024 x 288) Barco D7 screen -- basically, an
opaque, computer-controlled screen comprised of a tiny LED system on modular panels
-- and two lower-resolution semitransparent screens up front, Reznor and other
band members are able to trigger and control various video loops and effects
directly from the stage. The musicians can also interact directly with those
visuals onscreen during the show, thanks to a sophisticated array of sensors
For the most part, those visuals come from Reznor and Rob Sheridan,
Reznor's creative partner and the art director for NIN. But the two had
considerable help from a few outside parties in putting together the
Roy Bennet, a veteran lighting designer who worked with Reznor on the
Downward Spiral and Fragile tours, designed and put together the LiTS set
according to Trent's initial specs.
It was also Bennet who suggested bringing in the other key part to the
show, a company called Moment Factory.
Responsible for the technology driving most of the interactive tech
elements, Moment Factory is a boutique Canadian outfit that's worked on a
number of Cirque du Soleil shows and has produced other industrial visual
For the interactive portions of the show, all the onscreen video is
rendered by Moment Factory's custom rig, a trio of Linux-based devices
collectively known as "the brain."
"They build what they call games," Reznor explains. "Each
[interactive] song might have two or three settings ... or games. It's
basically particle-based animation."
Those particles can interact with any of the various inputs Reznor and the
band have selected.
With the song "Only," for instance, the front, convex screen
starts out as solid static. On Reznor's side of the display, a laser above him
detects whenever he crosses a vertical plane paralleling the screen. On the
floor, a piece of tape and two tiny LED lights let him know exactly where that
As Reznor intersects that plane with his hand or body, the laser tracks his
X and Y coordinates. The "brain" box then tells the particles to
spread out to a predetermined dispersal pattern. Reznor says: "Then it
follows me around. If I leave the plane, it fills back in. If I push through,
it comes back out."
The band uses the same tech for another song later in the show called
"Echoplex," from The Slip album.
Like many other NIN songs, it's based around a drum machine beat. After
rehearsing live a few times with real drums, Reznor realized it sounded better
sounded with a machine
"We recreated a grid drum sequencer," he says. "[Drummer
Josh Freese] is actually touching and turning them on and off. But he's not
really touching the screen. He's crossing the same laser on the back screen,
which gets calibrated at sound check."
The end effect is so seamless, most people assume the band is simply
pantomiming to a pre-rendered video, or has actually somehow installed a
gigantic touchscreen sequencer on a backstage wall.
"We went through so much effort to make this stuff interactive and
people still think it's all staged," jokes Sheridan.
Problems With the Hippotizer
As with any production of this magnitude, there are also the inevitable
glitches and hiccups. According to Reznor and Sheridan, many of those can be
traced back to an archaic Windows machine known as the Hippotizer, as well as
an antiquated lightning console that it interacts with called the Grand Ma.
At one point, during the band's recent Red Rocks, Colorado, performance the
Hippotizer choked and spit out some text from the machine's video-labeling
system. NIN fans immediately began dissecting still shots from a video someone
had taken, and a three-page discussion ensued on NIN forums trying to decipher
what the secret text meant.
"It was all just that stupid fucking Hippotizer getting the wrong
trigger ... something from the lighting desk just misfired," Sheridan
But Reznor, who is an unabashed Mac fan, is also playful about having to
partially rely on Windows boxes for some of the show's visuals.
"We purposefully put one frame of the Blue Screen of Death in this
collage of static that comes up at the end of 'Great Destroyer,' and right away
people caught it," he says.
For the next leg of the tour, Sheridan is working to permanently move the
entire lighting and visual system over to a Mac rig running ArKaos VJ software.
Tying Everything Together
While work on the arena show didn't officially begin until last fall,
Reznor says the bones of the tour date back to his 2005 With Teeth tour.
"A trap I realized with NIN was that I could go out and play
aggressive music where everyone jumps up and down. But if I wanted to try to
bring in some of the other stuff I've been doing -- whether it be electronic or
something ambient sounding -- it's tough to take an audience that's been
trained to bang their heads to then sit back and think for a minute," he
So with the help of Sheridan, Reznor stumbled on the idea of using
transparent screens. That system allowed him to augment his wide-ranging portfolio
of music with visuals he and Sheridan created. In turn, those visuals helped
tie everything together -- or at least kept people from whipping out their
cellphones or walking off to grab a beer during the "slow songs."
Currently, Reznor and the band are on a brief two-week hiatus, before
taking the Lights in the Sky tour down to South America and then weaving back
up through the States, where they'll finish up the American portion in
There are also talks between NIN and director James Cameron to film the
show in 3-D ("to at least have proof when U2 rips us off next year that we
did it first," Reznor says), and the band also has been in ongoing
discussions with HBO for a Year Zero miniseries which would launch in
conjunction with a second album and an alternate-reality game.
When asked about his future plans for touring, after the Lights in the Sky
wraps up, Reznor says the next series of shows may be a different beast
"Next time might just be white lights in a club and it's about the
music," he says. "Because I'll be broke and that's all I'll have."