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Next-Gen LED

A glowing future

The growing maturity of LED screens and lighting is enabling the creation of increasingly immersive – and sustainable – live music and theatre experiences


Words David Davies


The trajectory of LED lighting and displays in live performance events and venues over the last ten years has been nothing if not eventful.


With the vendors catering to this space maintaining an impressive rate of R&D – and, in particular, working to achieve greater versatility, efficiency and consistency – the result has been a highly dynamic sector and a succession of often dazzling live productions.


Increasingly, these technologies have been pressed into the service of events that actually warrant the sometimes-overused epithet of ‘immersive’.


This trend is especially evident in sports and music, so before moving on to consider the ‘how’ and the ‘why’, let’s examine a notable recent example within each of these domains.


In sports, LED screens’ all-enveloping capabilities are exemplified by the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2023 Opening Ceremony at Lusail Stadium, which actually took place in January 2024 after factors including extreme summer temperatures prompted postponement.


Commissioned by Katara Studios, Creative Technology used a total of 600 Roe Visual BP2V2 LED panels to create a centrepiece of five giant petals.


These were employed to immerse spectators in a musical version of the Kelileh and Demneh fables, allowing them to understand the story’s background and follow the song lyrics, while the screens also displayed unique interpretations of the mascots representing each of the 24 participating national teams.


The ‘excellent’ on-camera behaviour and stable performance of the Roe BP2V2 panels made them an ideal fit for the ceremony. “The show was designed to look beautiful from any viewpoint in the stadium,” says Magrifa Kamiyeva, producer for the event’s video content partner, Sila Sveta. “The five screens enabled a 360° view, corresponding to the number of regional federations that make up the AFC.”


In music, it’s hard to conceive of a larger LED canvas than that provided by Sphere, the much-discussed music and entertainment arena that opened its doors last September with a residency by U2.


As spectacular as that show was, however, its use of the massive 160,000 sq ft 16K x 16K LED screen was arguably eclipsed by US rock group Phish’s four-day residency in April 2024.


In keeping with Phish’s creatively fluid, jam-band ethos, each of the four shows featured completely unique setlists and visuals, with the latter – overseen by artist-designer Abigail Rosen Holmes – featuring images from a venue-high tower of televisions to a stunning effect that immersed the viewer in a massive car wash! No intriguing or unusual idea, it seems, went unexplored.


So in terms of creative possibilities involving LED, the sky is pretty much the limit – which makes it a timely moment to catch up with a handful of leading vendors and suppliers to examine some other significant recent projects, the broader trends informing product design, and the growing scrutiny of everything pertaining to sustainability.


Content & Collaboration

ADI.tv is a company that can certainly attest to the capacity of LED to provide a huge creative canvas, having recently participated in a project that entailed the creation of the ‘largest LED screen in Europe’.


The venue in question is entertainment and leisure complex Printworks, located in Manchester and recently the subject of a £21m refurbishment by owner DTZ Investors that included the provision of a ‘fully immersive and interactive environment’.


Providing the centrepiece is a 1000 sq m LED ceiling developed by ADI.tv which comprises more than 10,720,900 pixels and spans 115m in length.


Integrated with lighting and audio, the ceiling allows the ambience inside Printworks to be adjusted to suit varying audiences and align with different live events and brand activations taking place.


Oliver Brindley, ADI.tv head of marketing, indicates that the project shows what can be done when creative and technical teams are keen to push the envelope.


In the case of ADI.tv, this involved the creation of a new fire-rated product within the wider MT range of lightweight and slimline LED solutions, which are designed specifically with interior architectural applications in mind.


The resulting product, MTF, is believed to be the world’s only LED module to meet the BS EN 13501-1 classification, and complements what Brindley describes as a ‘post-Grenfell increased awareness’ of fire prevention and related safety measures.


ADI.tv is also providing remote production and event broadcast services for Printworks through its Live Venue Network – which connects more than 90 UK stadia and leisure destinations to its centralised production studios in Preston – over dedicated fibre connectivity.


“We worked in partnership with CDA Architects, and as the project progressed it became apparent that there was a real opportunity to do something within the venue, on the ceiling, where there previously wasn’t much going on,” recalls Brindley. “It’s not a space that you could open up to even put lighting in, which made the installation of an LED ceiling an appealing concept. We have been manufacturing LED screens for around 20 years, but with our latest generation of products we have really lightweight, slimline options that can be put into a ceiling with very little extra structural support required.”


The company also worked in partnership with Manchester animation studio Flipbook to produce nearly a hundred pieces of content prior to launch. It proved to be a rewardingly collaborative experience, says Brindley: “No one had a particular ‘angle’ and all ideas were welcomed, which meant we had a really good 18-month period of creating content, which has resulted in a really broad variety of things, from a re-telling of the opera Carmen in an underwater environment, to a lot of generative content that is reactive to external sources such as music or the movement of people within the venue.”


ADI.tv evidently hopes that Printworks will serve as an inspiration for similarly ambitious ‘venue transformations’ in the future, not least in the UK, which he thinks has generally been ‘a little behind the curve’ in pursuing similarly ambitious projects. “It was great to work with people who wanted to provide content that is an attraction to the venue itself, [as opposed to] only looking at space on a wall and thinking of it as advertising money,” says Brindley.



People & Places

The impression that LED screens and lighting are being utilised in increasingly creative and meaningful ways is further reinforced by a conversation with Pete McCrea, an LED screens expert at Production AV, plus Jonathan Haynes and Paul Botham, lighting experts with White Light.


Both enterprises now exist under the D&B Solutions company umbrella, alongside other UK technical production specialists B&H, Congoblue, ELP Broadcast Lighting and SFL.


“We have a mission statement within D&B Solutions about creating spaces that connect people and places, so what we’re looking at in terms of LED screens is how we can facilitate the functionality that helps connect audiences to the performances or events taking place – and then as the technologies develop, how we can start to link spaces together to create those immersive effects,” says McCrea.


Fortuitously, a greater understanding of the tech and its creative possibilities is increasingly commonplace. “The understanding of the requirements around pixels, spaces and things like that is such that it’s part of the everyday language now, and consequently people are more confident in addressing those larger displays,” says Haynes.


“It’s now far less about ‘what do we do with this mass of screen’ and more about bringing visual artists’ incredibly creative content to it. I think a lot of the ideas you are now seeing in live venues started off in light entertainment TV programming, where screens started to become more visible elements and the lighting became almost secondary to the video.”


For White Light, an ‘integrated approach’ to the use of AV in fashioning all-enveloping experiences also includes solutions such as its own Smartstage, described as an ‘immersive video environment which replaces the traditional green-screen element of a virtual studio and allows the presenters and audience to see and interact with the content around them’.


While the more unpredictable fortunes of the theatre world in recent years have meant it can be challenging to know when and how to invest in new kit, the D&B Solutions companies sound an overwhelmingly upbeat tone about the future of LED in live event applications.


But there is one caveat and it’s an important one: the risk that, although LED itself is a power-efficient and sustainability-orientated technology, the broader environmental implications of a product’s development and deployment are not always taken into account.


“Yes, with LED you are reducing your power consumption and your electricity cost is lower,” says Haynes. “But it’s a bit like an electric car in that you have to make sure it’s not just ‘greenwashing’. [It’s not justifiable] if you’re providing a fixture that might have gone around the world three times to be made and involves lots of lithium mined out of the ground that needs to be recycled or reused at the end of the product’s life, which might only be 18 months if it was bought for a specific show.”


McCrea adds: “As companies that put sustainability and ESG at the heart of the business and how we operate, it’s essential that we track all of the metrics regarding environmental impact.” In short, the global sustainability context surrounding LED screens and lighting cannot be overlooked.


Encouragingly, there is now “a lot of pressure to reduce power consumption in environments including festivals and fixed installations, as part of hitting those sustainability targets,” continues Haynes, adding that “we’re also seeing a push for enhanced ruggedisation and reliability, as well as getting the weights down so it’s easy to deploy larger areas of screen more cost-effectively, including in terms of transportation.”


Versatile & Efficient

Creating lighting that is ‘versatile and efficient’, including in terms of workflow and ‘space/weight concerns’, also figures prominently in the list of priorities for remote-controlled LED lighting specialist Astera.


For instance, in February, the company announced the launch of Projection Lens for its Pluto Fresnel battery-powered, wirelessly-operated LED-based light, allowing it to convert quickly into a Profile Spotlight with a range of 16° to 36°.


This development builds upon the existing applications of the Pluto Fresnel, which harnesses the benefits of LED to deliver a lighting style – suitable for applications in events, film and TV – that Astera says could only be achieved previously with ‘cumbersome and expensive tungstens’.


Sebastian Bückle, chief sales officer at Astera, says that the company has two general markets – event and stages, and film and broadcast – but indicates that there has been more crossover among customers since the dawning of the live streaming era.


“During Covid-19, a lot of live event companies decided to get into the film and broadcast market; they had all this equipment and the live events couldn’t happen,” he says. “So they were streaming themselves, or the live event rental companies were helping to stream more shows and other formats.” In which context, an increased requirement for versatility – as well as considerations such as colour quality and accuracy – is not hard to understand.


As a vendor specialising in battery-powered lighting, power efficiency has always been an overarching priority.


But more generally, Bückle believes this is becoming an industry-wide expectation in line with “the trend of reporting CO2 emissions and knowing the resources being used for producing lights and distributing them around the world. I think governments and companies will become more strict about that and want to know how products are shipped and so on. I see a big shift in consciousness when it comes to sustainability.”


It’s a resoundingly positive note to end this overview of a sector whose creativity and responsiveness to constantly evolving customer needs continues to be formidable.


This feature was first published in the Summer 2024 issue of LIVE.




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