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Chris Kuroda: Visual Vocabularies

Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman and their new screens at Great Woods. Photo by Dean Budnick

Chris Kuroda has been Phish’s lighting designer since 1989 and, though his rig has evolved and expanded as the Vermont Quartet has grown, he’s remained true to his “purist philosophy” throughout his tenure with the band. So more than a few fans were surprised when Phish introduced video screens into their lighting design at the start of their summer tour this past June. As Kuroda explains, the decision to add video screens to their show was the result of months of discussions between the members of Phish and their management—and part of an overall drive to update their stage presentation. During a quick break between Phish’s gigs in Syracuse, N.Y. and George, Wash., Kuroda walked us through the band’s decision to incorporate video screens for the first time, his new setup and how The 1975 and The Cure helped influence his new look. Kuroda—who has worked with Justin Bieber, Santana, Gov’t Mule, The Black Crowes, Ariana Grande and others—also discusses his recent venture into the sports lighting world with the Knicks and Rangers.

So far one of this summer’s big stories has been that for the first time in the 30 years you have been with Phish, you have started incorporating video in your lighting design. Can you start by giving us a little background on the decision to add videos to your setup and how those screens work within your usual setup?

CK: Over time, philosophies change. For many years, we referred to our approach in presenting the lighting of Phish as having a “purist philosophy,” meaning just having lighting be the visual vocabulary for our shows—without having gimmicks and different visual elements, however at the end of last year, everybody—the band, the management, myself—all got together and at the same time and globally said that it was time for a very, very big change. Everybody had a different opinion on why and how we should change our presentation, but we all agreed that we wanted something that was very different than anything we’ve done in the past. We felt that we had set a really good example up there for years, but started feeling like we were sharing a similar presentation style to some other acts on our genre. We wanted to take a step or two to try some new unique concept approaches and see where they took us.

The other thing was they wanted to stay current—stay cutting-edge—with technology, and we felt that today’s current technologies were becoming based in the video world. The lighting world hasn’t changed that much as far as technology goes—they change colors, they pan, they tilt, they have their little tricks, but they haven’t changed all that much beyond being better and better at what they do. Granted LED technology has influenced the world of lighting in a huge way, however it is still just lighting at the end of the day. When we decided video was the way we wanted to go, we also knew that we had to be really careful with how we did it, because we didn’t want to look like a pop show—we didn’t want to have a bunch of screen-saver-looking stuff out there. My mantra was, “If we’re going to go down the video road, we should really try to make video that doesn’t look like video.” We didn’t want to do the big IMAG stuff, we didn’t want to have anything pictorial in the video. You don’t see any pictures of trees and you don’t see pictures of cats during “My Pet Cat.” We didn’t want to look cheesy if we could help it.

Once you decided that video was the way to go, what were your next steps to incorporate those videos into your design?

I sat down and realized that I didn’t trust myself to incorporate these new elements by myself. My knowledge of video just wasn’t there, and I knew the end result wouldn’t be as good as I saw it in my mind. So I started doing a lot of research on other designers that I would ask to collaborate with, who had expertise in video, but who also had an artistic history of using video elements in a creative way, that was different from the norm. After investigating several great and talented folks, I came up with a very short list of three people who I would ask to collaborate on this project with me. The first one I chose to speak to was Abigail Holmes, who had done a lot of work with Talking Heads, The Cure, Roger Waters. I needed to find someone who was very creative in a different way than myself, who could help guide me into a new artistic vision that I couldn’t come up with by myself. After speaking with Abigail, I quickly realized that we were on the same page right from the first moment. She didn’t know a lot about Phish, but she understood how different it was—she understood what a unique presentation it was. Phish obviously is not “cue 1, cue 2, cue 3.” You’ve got cue 4 to cue 6 to cue 93 to cue 7. It’s all on the fly, and video cuing doesn’t really work that way inherently. She understood this and was completely on board to take a few risks and try an unorthodox approach to incorporating this element into our show with me.

Ironically, the first few ideas we came up with got shot down because of the fact that they weren’t “different” enough—that those initial design concepts still looked too much like Phish of old. We had to really think outside the box. The interesting conundrum presented to me was that we really wanted this to be very, very different like I’ve said, but at the same time I needed to leave enough room where I could still be me, because the video wasn’t going to change the way they, the band, play, and because the powers that be, didn’t want to take my style out of the equation. We had to come up with an idea to use all of these new technologies, but still allowed me the freedom to continue to light them in the style that I always have. It was a tough world to figure out, and finally the idea that we presented that the band and management all loved was the “exploding video wall.” It’s actually a few concepts: One is the exploding video wall, and the second was that instead of the usual black hole that is the stage, we wanted to place the band within their own environment. This concept is why we have the video walls on the stage decking there. It encompasses and puts them in a space that they’re very comfortable playing in. The third thing was we wanted to give the show some kind of evolution that we haven’t had before. Since the band is not changing the way they want to play, the evolution all has to be visual. Until now, visually it’s been the same from the time the band walks onstage for the first set to the time they walk offstage at the end of the second set. It always ebbs and flows of course, but now additionally we have our lighting trusses down at a much lower trim than usual, and we keep the wall closed trying to create a very intimate environment for the first set. Then, it evolves in a way where when we start the second set, the lighting trusses rise much higher in the air, the wall expands, and we’ve now created a much bigger look for that set. We went through a bunch of iterations of these moves, and finally decided what we wanted to do was just one big move in the second set, where the whole thing grows and changes the way it looks dramatically between set one and set two, thus creating a bit of an evolution during the show.

It took a lot of forward thinking and a lot of experimenting to finally come to a place where we could present this new visual vocabulary that we wanted for Phish, with this new technology, while trying to stay organic. A few folks out there wish we still lived in the past concerning our production, but the main point of this year was that we as an organization wanted something very different, and this is where we ended up. We’re pretty into it, and although some people out there have different feelings about it, globally this is where we as a group wanted to be. I respect everyone’s opinion of course, however I’m hoping those folks find it in their heart to bear with us as we try something new. This is something that we are all doing together. We all as a team are chipping in with ideas and concepts, and it’s still very much a work in progress. Every day is different for me, and I try to use it in different ways. I used it a lot in the first few shows while I was just getting used to it, and now I’m sort of backing off on it and using it here and there—letting the lights express sometimes, getting the video to express sometimes, getting them to express in tandem sometimes. It still takes all of us a while to figure out just how much of each element is used every night, but we’re getting there and feeling it through. That’s where we are.

Most of this summer’s shows so far have been in amphitheaters. Do you have a different setup designed for when Phish returns to bigger indoor arenas?

It’s flexible. The wall onstage is in a semicircle, but we can move things depending on what our limits are for the roof height and things like that. In arenas, we have to find a way to get it up high enough so that we’re not blocking sight lines, especially when we do the 360 degree sold shows with people behind the stage. It’s very important to us that every single seat in the entire house can see the four band members. We don’t believe in the obstructed view, and that’s always been our mindset for 30 years. So we’re working on that, and when that time comes, we’ll find a way to use it so it’s not blocking anybody’s view, or we might have to move things around to find a new way to get it up there. The production is a very, very important part of a Phish concert, but at the same time, people seeing the band is most important. That’s just the way Phish operates. They don’t believe in a bad seat. If there is such a thing as a bad seat, we don’t want to be the ones to create it.

You mentioned earlier that one of the ideas going into this was that you didn’t want to have images correspond to specific songs, for instance a cat with “My Pet Cat,” and you have definitely avoided that. With that said, are there certain atmospheric video concepts that you trigger when the band moves into certain songs like “Tweezer” or “Run Like an Antelope,” or is that still on the fly?

It’s organized in two ways. It’s broken up into “first set part one,” “first set part two,” “first set part three,” and then the second set has its own pages on content designed in a similar way. We don’t use video mapped content for the closed configuration of the wall while its in its open configuration—it just doesn’t look good. So like i mentioned before, we try to organize it with the concept of evolution—certain stuff is designed for set one, certain stuff is designed for set two. And then beyond that, there’s another sub-organization with the static clips that don’t have animation within in that content. We then also have slow moving stuff and then more sprinkly, twinkly stuff, as well as more impactful, punchier things. I just choose what I want when I feel the moment is right more than anything else. To us, it’s just another layer of the lighting that can stand alone if it needs to, but we’re not trying to say anything with it. We’re just trying to create a nice organic layer around those guys and are treating it as another lighting fixture more than video.

Last year, video screens were used at two major events in the Phish world: Fare Thee Well, which incorporated retrospective images and Dead iconography, and Magnaball, where Phish performed behind a video screen as part of a drive-in movie set. Though you were not directly involved in creating video for either, did those events impact your vision when Phish added videos this summer?

It’s interesting. In many, ways both those events were examples of approaches we wanted to steer away from. For Fare Thee Well, the video content they created was great and perfect for that event—for that place and purpose. For Magnaball, the company that did that drive-in—and also the hourglass [gag] this past New Year’s—is a company called Moment Factory out of Canada. They had free reign to design the video and the content and everything, and there wasn’t really much involvement from us in any way. We just presented the concept as they created it. They’re a wonderful company, and what they did for those events worked wonderfully—they do great work, but my own opinion is they didn’t really get a chance to embrace Phish. The content they created was very pictorial, which worked for that project, but what we are trying to do here is get away from those types of artistic concepts.

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