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Say It With Flowers

The dramatic, graffiti-based artwork that supports Coldplay’s new album, Mylo Xyloto is a gift for any designer tasked with transferring thematic symbolism from artwork to a three-dimensional, touring set design. Even so, when Misty Buckley, Art designer for Coldplay first conceptualised the image of huge circular flowers behind the band on stage, the thorny questions of ‘What?’ ‘How?’ and ‘Who?’ still remained.

To augment rather than overpower Paul Normandale’s lighting design, the idea of using electroluminescent wire to create the shapes was suggested. But how do you turn an idea into reality? As ‘Wob’ Roberts, Production Manager for Coldplay remarks, it was Misty herself who answered the ‘Who?’ and ‘How?’ questions: “After time spent at the Millennium Studios developing ideas for an ART input on stage we decided on using the flower symbols outlined in bright neon. Time was against us and we needed expertise; Misty’s immediate response was – ‘Specialz can do this for us.’”

Dave Smith, Sales Director at Specialz fills in the technical – the ‘What?’ - details. “Electroluminescent (or EL) wire is a very delicate construction that creates fluorescent light from copper wire coated with phosphor. The spectrum of colours can be expanded by using additional dyes in the inner of the two PVC sleeves. EL wire is extremely efficient; a few hundred feet of the stuff can be driven by AA batteries for several hours.” Despite the delicate nature of the light source Roberts, Buckley and Smith were confident that a unit could be constructed to withstand the rigours of touring. Smith continues, “As the wire is so flexible it was fitted to the frame using translucent tape. In order to maintain the shape the wire was fitted to a steel wire template. The shape of the petals was obtained by using 2mm glass fibre rod that mimicked the shape of the petals perfectly. Each flower has two sub-frames and the circular support is equipped with a locking hinge across the horizontal diameter.”

The initial order was for four flowers ranging from 1.4 to 2.5 metres in diameter. They are designed to stand at various heights dependant on the stage dimensions; this allows for anything from the largest stadium shows, quick changeovers and odd roof contours at festivals and even for stages as cosy as UEA (University of East Anglia)! As Roberts remarks, “At their tallest, the flowers can be as much as four metres high but they are simple to deploy – simply plug in and go.”

Roberts continues, “We were looking for an idea that was explicitly linked to the band’s very specific visual theme in Mylo Xyloto. The EL Flowers fitted exactly with the graffiti design of the album and the concept of the circular, spiderweb icons that underpins the musicality of the album. Even unlit, the frames still create ambient circles and shadows that complement the set. The flowers worked so well that we ordered two more for touring work as well as two specifically built for using on T.V. shoots.”

Roberts has had to work hard on occasion to sell the Flowers to reticent T.V. directors but once seen in operation, the Flowers sell themselves. As Smith explains, “The way that EL works is very conducive for cameras; whilst it looks quite subdued to the eye it really comes alive on camera. It provides some great camera candy which doesn’t turn in to heavy backlight. Instead, you get depth and movement without burning out the camera as other light sources can do.”

Specialz have proven commitment of after sales service. As Production Manager, Roberts understands the value of such support: “Despite EL being such a potentially unreliable item in a touring environment, the only malfunctions have been down to the source manufacturers of the EL wire.” Smith elaborates, “Responding in a rapid and positive fashion is a vital key to the nature of our clients’ business so, when a shorting problem was identified within a particular batch of EL wire, we were happy to replace all the faulty wire free of charge. The flexible nature of the wire makes maintenance or replacement on site a simple and speedy process.” With the help of the distributors for Europe, Mats Larson of Thinlite in Sweden, Specialz traced the problem back to excess moisture contamination of stored materials prior to manufacture. The manufacturer has now taken steps to rectify the issue.

The EL Flowers are now an integral part of the Coldplay visual. To date, nine have been supplied by Specialz complete with custom built Dimmable DMX EL Controllers, an amalgam of fittings to allow for flexibility on site, specially designed dollies for road transport and a commitment of continual service and support.

©Graham Feast
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