Learn how live production for the likes of ZHU, Skrillex and The Chainsmokers are made behind the scenes.

Visuals have become almost as important to DJ sets as the music itself. Many artists are dumping their money into bigger, better and more advanced tech to create a show that will leave a lasting impact on the attendee. Building these sets is no easy task and something that can take months to put together. LA-based studio Production Club is one of these places where artists can get their live set up created. They have made the set up for Skrillex’s Mothership Tour, The Chainsmokers - Memories Do Not Open tour and Zhu's DUNE tour. They also work with companies for private events and do installs for Intel, Riot Games, Notch, Game Awards, Factory93 and more. In 2019, they will work with Dog Blood and The Chainsmokers again.

Miguel Risueño, aka Mike808, Creative Director and lead Stage Designer at Production Club is a key part of the brain trust that builds these set ups. He oversees the production on a creative and technical level for all of their clients. He got his start in Barcelona, DJing and creative visual mapping for shows. Then in 2012, he moved to LA to start Production Club with a few friends once he got the nudge to do so after he was getting work from other DJs to build their shows.

We talk with Mike808 to learn more about the process of creating these massive set ups, how they work with artists on them, how they build them to be portable and adaptable and much more.

Miguel G. Risueño

1. How did you get into creating visuals and stages for musicians?

I got into creating stages by experimenting first on my own shows. I used to be a DJ in Barcelona and at some point I needed a show, so I made my own stage design, lights, visuals, etc. Then, when people saw the result I started to get hit up to design other people’s shows.

If we talk about more relevant shows the first big tour I worked on was Skrillex Mothership in 2011, which I designed from Barcelona with my business partner at that time, Roboto. After that tour ended Sonny told me I should move to LA to design his others shows, so I did :).

All this interest came first when I was around 11 y/o and somehow I ended up at Kraftwerk and Iron Maiden shows. Kraftwerk’s was synthetic and calculated. Iron Maiden was analog and raw as hell, with a giant Eddie animatronic getting electrocuted during “Iron Maiden.” That brutal cue got stuck in my head for years. After that, I kept drawing creatures and environments for what, in my brain, was going to be a movie or a video game when I grow up. However, by the time I grew up I became a DJ, so I designed a show instead.

2. Take us through from start to finish, in as much detail as you can, into the process of developing and creating these live shows.

The process of developing a show is a bit different each time. There are as many different processes as artists you work with. Some artists might demand a very organized meeting to get started, at a very specific time and place where you show up with a bunch of pre-done material that needs to be presented in a room full of people, while some others call you suddenly at 2am and ask you to come brainstorm with them while they are making music in the studio. The latter is usually successful and ends up with us watching weird youtube videos until the sun comes out.

Regarding my own internal process, I mostly start with the music. I first ask the artist for whatever they are working on: like a half baked bounce of the set or new tracks. Then, I play it loud on repeat in a dark room. This always sparks ideas or emotions that I use as a starting point. Sometimes the outcome of this process is a very clear vision with lots of details, so I can start concept designing straight away using Blender (3D software) or a sketchpad. If I don’t see something that clearly - or what I see is not feasible - I take a bit of a more procedural route. First, I try to come up with a broader, strong concept or theme that fits the music. 

Then, based on that, I gather references from disciplines other than stage design in order to create a “visual universe” which will serve as the foundation for all the future creative development: from scenic, to visuals, to lighting, to choreography, to show arc, etc. Once the concept is defined and the visual universe is in place, I can start the actual design using conventional mediums like 3D, sketching or blocking physical volumes with clay, paper or Lego blocks. I always try to involve my team at this point so we can evaluate risks, come up with more or better ideas or just have an open chat about what we want to achieve.

Production Club Concept Dog Blood

Dog Blood concept

Once I have a few ideas for the stage, there’s usually a meeting with the artist to show the progress and discuss which ideas are his/her favorites. From here, the process is a more typical design process based on DO WORK, CHECK WORK, IMPROVE WORK…

As a summary, we could conclude that a simplified creative pipeline would be something like:

  1. Listen to new music, feel its energy, find its emotions.
  2. Brainstorm concept for the show. Gather visual references.
  3. Create numerous quick concept designs in form of sketched thumbnails or 3D volumes.
  4. Meet with Artist, discuss the options and pick favorite idea/concept. Share with the rest of the team.
  5. Keep working until the selected concept becomes a fleshed out design, then create renders.
  6. Do the same for all the other areas of the design that require parallel work (i.e. visuals, show moments, color scripts, etc.)
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until everything looks sick or we run out of time, money (lol), or patience
  8. Rehearse with the show and FOH team (previz/programming)
  9. Rehearse with the artist
  10. Show! Kill it out there.

3. How long does it take to create the average live show for an artist?

The full design process can take from 3 or 4 days to 3 or 4 months, but it depends on several things: complexity of fabrication, size, budget, available team, one off vs tour, just stage design or full show design + direction, etc. Let’s say that as a rule of thumb anything that requires a custom stage and planning should happen with at least 1 month of heads up, so certain creative process can exist. Otherwise, it’s kind of “Autopilot”, and the project outcome suffers from the rush. Every design gets broken down into several sub-projects that all need to work together (lighting, video, visuals, scenic, logistics, automation, SFX, choreography, art direction, identity, cues, etc). I try to make sure everything belongs to the same universe, and is faithful to a specific vision and aesthetic despite of the available time.

Dog Blood Buku Fest 2019

Dog Blood show at Buku

4. Do you have to make visuals adaptive and flexible to sets that can change on the fly?

Yes! This is a great question, and we do exactly that. We make visuals that are generative (adaptive in real time) or flexible so the VJ can tweak them. This is especially important working with DJs, since they change their sets all the time. Also, pretty much any standard visual has a reasonable margin of adaptation if made properly. Color, speed, crop and a few more things can be tweaked if needed without too much hassle.

5. How involved generally are these artists and are there any disagreements over direction?

It depends a lot on the artist. Now that you are asking, I realize we pretty much only work with artists that are VERY hands on, so they are definitely involved in the process, sometimes even more than in the outcome, which makes sense I guess. I think this is an inherent feature on very creative people, they need to see how things are born and evolve, making sure the visual side of their show has been conceived in an analogous way and comes from the right place. The final product is actually less of a concern; they know you already know how to do that, and that’s why they came to us in the 1st place.

Regarding disagreements over direction… yes, we also have those. Thanks for asking the not easy to answer questions. Our work is creative and very subjective in nature, so if there weren’t disagreements during the process, it would probably mean that we are not thinking creatively enough. I like the tension that disagreements bring, and I embrace it. Luckily, there aren’t any shows I design where I am being asked to simply “follow orders.” It’s always a creative collaboration where the artist is open to hearing different opinions.

6. What was the most challenging tour to work on?

I can’t only point one. I often feel that the most challenging show you worked on is the one you are working on right now, which sounds counterintuitive. I think this might also be part of the nature of designing shows. You always want to do more, do it differently, do it better, innovate here or there so you will likely end up in some kind of trouble: creative trouble, logistics trouble, technological trouble, time trouble, social trouble. So to answer the question, I’d say that the most challenging tour is always the last one, and if it’s not you might be doing something wrong.

Skrillex Mothership Tour Coachella

7. How do you create these tours and visuals so they can be mobile and shipped around the world? How much do logistical concerns weigh on your mind?

We weigh everything. Creative always needs to be balanced with all the rest (technical, budgetary, logistical, political…). Tour/show design is an entangled process that has to be addressed as a whole.

That being said, my personal approach is “Creative Comes First” and I always start with an unconstrained internal first step that is all about creative. Naysayers are not allowed in the convo. My team and me brainstorm, without limitations or prejudice of any kind, in order to make sure that even if our ideas are outrageous or unfeasible, at least we have ideas.

After this step, we keep it real for the rest of the project. Our company - Production Club - is a creative studio disguised as a production company because we understand the value of materializing our own ideas. We have an amazing team of creative people, production people and everything in between, so we know what looks cool but also how much it costs, how much it weighs and if it’s going to fit in the semi truck.

8. What are a few technologies that you think will really start to break through in the next few years on a broader scale and what are some that are really on the cutting edge for rich, top tier artists?

I would like to see neural networks, deep learning and in general machine learning become a part of the show industry. I would also like the industry to use more generative, parametric and real-time interactive tools, but that’s already in the works. Throughout these years, we have developed a lot of tools in house using VR, AR, computer vision, 3D printing and video game engines because they are really fun but not that common in our industry, so I’d also like for those to become broader.

Regarding what the rich can get that nobody else can… I think it’s mainly on the mechanic side: toys like robots, drones, high-speed winches, automated lifts, platforms or kinetic screens and sculptures. These are expensive because they need certified operators and installers and are not mass-produced. I think the future goes towards that direction.

Obviously the rich can also always get more quantity of product - instead of renting 30 lights you rent 300- but that’s a very unoriginal way of making your show stand out. I just came from Coachella and the most compelling shows were not the ones with the biggest production or the newest toys. Production and show design is an art, and money is only one of the necessary parts. Concept needs to come first, then we can figure out the tech side to make that concept happen. As Miyazaki said on his last movie, “Inspiration unlocks the future. Technology eventually catches up.”

9. Who are some artists you aren’t working with that you think are doing crazy stage designs?

U2, The Weeknd, Drake, Katy Perry, Gaga, Justice, Travis Scott, Muse, Roger Waters, Beyonce’s, Kanye, Metallica, NIИ, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, to name a few that have been doing crazy stage designs for a bit. However, I usually get more haunted by a lot of disciplines other than stage design. Creative coding, dance, architecture, street art, interactive installations, immersive theater, civil engineering or fashion design are a few of them.

An artist who is doing crazy and different stuff herself is Rosalia - that would be a very fun show to design.

10. How can someone else get into your field?

Option 1: Hit me up! We are hiring.

Option 2: There are a lot of possible paths, but the reality is that anyone with imagination and passion for music, design and live shows has already 50% of the work done. The other 50% comes - in my case - from not sleeping at night and spending that time researching and creating things, whatever things, not necessarily stages.

There are certain programs you can study like theater, scenic or production design - which is nice - but those are not in reach for most people due to geographic, economic or cultural reasons. My background is in music technology, 3D Design, creative coding and interactive installation design, but I grew up in dance, music and street art. Somehow all those convoluted into stage design, and I decided to design a stage, then another, and another pretty much until today.

11. What do you look for at Production Club in prospective employees?

We are some kind of weird multidisciplinary shapeshifting creative studio for the entertainment and tech industries. We make artists shine on stage, and companies have the most impactful, innovative, out of the box experiences and events. However each person working in Production Club describes what we do in a different way: design studio, production company, think tank, experiential agency, creative club, research lab and that’s something we embrace to the maximum. When hiring we look for passionate, multidisciplinary, multicultural creative people that have a set of skills that can be applied to one of the 100 different fields we use in our everyday work.

We dislike conventions and type-casting because they limit us too much on our everyday… it seems that you need to be either THIS or THAT, either one or the other, so we enjoy not having a complete or official description of what do we look for in future employees. In this way, we can morph as needed, as a business and as artists individually. 

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