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The Year’s Top 5 Concert Special Effects: Fiery Pianos, Floating Dolphins and Flaming Cannons

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It was a year in which Rammstein blasted plumes of fire from a backpack, The Weeknd destroyed a miniature city in a hurricane of black smoke, Pepe Aguilar sang on horseback amid Aztec warriors and equestrian acrobats and Elton John gave a “Rocketman” tour of space from a video screen that bled into the stage. artists provided fans with endless stadium explosions and other over-the-top spectacles. Even though Inflation and supply-chain issues considerably jacked up expenses for 2022’s biggest tours, cutting corners was not an option. “It’s really important that we don’t short-change anybody,” David Furnish, John’s husband and manager, told Billboard in November, just before the singer’s final U.S. farewell tour show.

And in 2023, stars who continue or return to stadiums after emerging from COVID-19 quarantine are unlikely to scale down. “Our show is evolving,” Aguilar says from his Mexico City home. “Once I experimented with it, it’s hard to go back.”

Here are the stories behind five other ground-breaking concert special effects in 2022:

Bad Bunny’s floating dolphins and live-video merry-go-rounds

Befitting the year’s highest grossing tour, Bad Bunny went big with stadium special effects. The giant dolphins floating above the crowds were the most instantly eye-catching, but Bunny also integrated video into the shows in new ways. During “Callaíta,” he built on the merry-go-round imagery of his 2019 video and projected a 3-D live feed of his performance, as well as captured shots of individual fans and other elements of the show, into the frames of the rotating structure on stage. “There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye,” says Adrian Martinez, creative director for Sturdy, the production company that created much of the tour’s visual imagery. “A lot of shows just use loops and clips here and there and kind of just repeat. We wanted to make sure people were looking at something new pretty constantly.”

Coldplay’s LED spheres

After Coldplay‘s designer approached Frederic Opsomer with the idea for a new effect— hovering spheres festooned with LED strips— his staff at PRG Projects began two months of problem-solving. First, they considered “hardshell with a trussing system inside.” But that could have required seven or eight trucks with a crew of more than 60, which was unsustainable given the band’s mandate to be environmentally conscious. “We have to come up with another way,” Opsomer, PRG’s vp of global scenic, told the staff. So they concocted inflatable spheres, tested lightweight fabric coatings and determined they could fit in a fractional portion of a truck with just one crew member for maintenance. After accounting for rainy and windy stadium conditions, they built structures for the tour that began in March and tested them in factory settings, but didn’t feel fully comfortable until they lit up in bright colors on the first date. “How did we celebrate?” Opsomer asks. “I think we had a big smile on our face.”

Kendrick Lamar’s shadow play

During Kendrick Lamar‘s The Big Steppers tour, which ran from June to December, the rapper hunched over with his microphone, creating a big-screen shadow during “Count Me Out” with arrows wedged into Shadow Kendrick’s back when they did not actually appear in Real Kendrick’s back. “It’s this little photogenic moment that plays with reality,” says Mike Carson, one of the tour’s show designers and show directors, who helped coordinate choreographers, directors, lighting designers and video programmers to make it work. “It’s like a magic track. I read reviews and people describe what it is and still can’t pinpoint how he did it.” (Watch the whole show here.)

Adele’s piano on fire

It was Adele‘s idea last May to light her piano aflame during “Set Fire to the Rain.” That prompted five months of designers and crew members plotting and building a faux white Yamaha grand piano that bursts into flames while Adele sings during a manufactured rainstorm at her Caesars Palace residency in Las Vegas. Those flames spread more than 100 feet across the stage, part of an effect that involves a high-tech fire suppressant and huge troughs of water. The piano, says Paul English, Adele’s production manager, is “like a bath. It contains a load of water, so there’s a moment where [the piano] falls over and the water spills out. Then it sets itself on fire.” The flames heat up to 300 degrees, which means everything around it is at risk of melting or burning – which requires an elaborate rain “curtain” to keep in check. “So, yeah, it’s been challenging,” English adds.

Lady Gaga’s flaming cannons

For her Chromatica Ball stadium tour that kicked off this summer, Lady Gaga contrasted a brutalist-architecture set design inspired by 1920s German expressionism with non-stop explosions. Her “cold, very stark feel” in the set created a gray landscape that allowed her longtime production designer, LeRoy Bennett, to go crazy with orange-and-yellow pyro, aided by Rammstein’s special-effects company, FFP. (The flaming cannons are technically known in the special-effects industry as “liquid flame giga,” or LFGs.) “We’ve always had some pyro here and there, but never really went full-on big metal or Rammstein-style flames,” Bennett says. “She loves those kinds of effects. She’s a big fan of fire and the power and drama of it.”

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