NIN Dazzles With Lasers, LEDs and Stealth Screens

By Bryan Gardiner for Wired on September 13, 2008

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 people."

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 fly.

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.

Transparent Screens

The core of the show is a sophisticated trio of transparent "stealth" screens, which are raised and lowered during the performance.

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 and cameras.

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 production.

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 installations.

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.

Interactive Lasers

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 plane is.

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 says.

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 says.

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 mid-December.

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 altogether.

"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."