The atmosphere seems spooky and almost supernatural, as though we’ve been locked in the throes of a dark dream, like something from ancient Celtic or Eastern European mythology. Yet, this experience isn’t mere fantasy. No. We’re not in Avalon or Elysium, but western Michigan, U.S.A., on a dude ranch (of all places) in Rothbury, called The Double JJ Ranch & Golf Resort — the site of the second annual Electric Forest camping and music festival, which occurred from June 28 through July 1, 2012.
For four days, three separate main stages (i.e. Ranch Arena, Sherwood Court, Tripolee) and two additional ones (Sherwood Forest and the indoor-outdoor Wagon Wheel near Big Wildcat Lake) played host to a variety of artists, such as The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9), Girl Talk, Santigold, Thievery Corporation, Richie Hawtin, Gary Clark, Jr., Robert Rich, Paper Diamond, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, MiM0SA, Ghostland Observatory, The Soul Rebels, Steve Aoki, EOTO, Brothers Past, everyone’s favorite sexy gypsy hippies DumpTruck Butterlips and many others.
As musically and visually exciting as the above acts are, it’s Double JJ’s 14-acre pine preserve called Sherwood Forest, not its lineup, that has set this outdoor live music event apart from many others.
“The forest is one of the headliners of the event,” says Electric Forest producer Jeremy Stein, who also organized the popular Rothbury festival at Double JJ. “There’s a 21st Century exploration of the unknown about the festival. There’s also a connection to the most rudimentary idea of dancing around the fire in Africa with drums and everything in between. Some folks might think that’s esoteric, but I don’t think so at all.”
“A lot of other festivals barely have trees,” adds lighting designer Andy Carroll of Synergy Event Production, Inc., who handled lighting and video duties for the main stage and Sherwood Forest. “There’s something enchanting about the forest and I think that’s part of why we picked this site.”
Interestingly enough, it was a trip to Japan to see the Fuji Rock Festival that provided the spark of inspiration for Electric Forest (and Rothbury). “When I saw the Fuji festival for the first time, it was like, ‘This would be amazing to do closer to home,’” says Carroll. “I think we were trying to apply that concept to this setting.”
Despite, or regardless of, its origins, the value of the western Michigan woods can’t be understated. Says ranch historian Walter “Wally” Wojak, who helped to plant the pines in the early 1950s, the woods averted disaster at least twice in its history. “It almost burned down once, in 1978,” says Wojak, a former co-owner of Double JJ, whose enthralling lectures have been scheduled events of the Electric Forest and Rothbury festivals. “We had a big field fire right next to the forest. The wind was blowing toward the woods and we couldn’t keep the flames contained. As we just about gave up and everyone was nearly exhausted, mysteriously, the winds changed from an easterly direction to a northeasterly direction, which pushed the flames away from the woods.”
Miraculously, Sherwood Forest survived “and now breathes life into the hearts of many kids,” says Wojak, thanks in part to the cowboy storyteller and others at the Double JJ. Against all odds, it seems, Double JJ was meant to become the site of Electric Forest, which, in 2012, drew over 20,000 attendees — an increase over the festival’s inaugural year in 2011. Because tens of thousands of people have attended the festival each year, and because organizers have an immense respect for Mother Nature and Her awesome power, they’ve come prepared: a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer equipped with a Doppler radar is on-site. “The FEMA trailer gives us very detailed information in case severe weather systems are coming through,” says Stein.
Organizers sought a noninvasive production that wouldn’t “harm the forest,” says Stein. Yet, festivals need lighting. So, what are producers to do — particularly producers presenting a festival called Electric Forest? For one thing, art installations featured across the festival site are composed of natural materials, such as wood and pinecones. And, instead of driving nails into numerous pines to rig lighting instruments, the woods are illuminated with uplighting, accomplished via LED fixtures placed in strategic locations along the Sherwood Forest floor. “The foundation lighting for the forest is well over a hundred weather-proof LED ELAR Pars,” says Carroll. “We use those for tree uplighting. Down the walkways, I put one of those every other tree. I can do some really neat chases, running up and down the 500-foot walkways. Then I’ll use a number of truss towers strapped to trees, about a dozen of those, with moving lights like MAC 2000 profiles and MAC 600 washes that … light the canopy.
“Every bit of cabling is buried in the ground, in trenches, and runs back to the lighting console, which is at a front-of-house location in a certain hidden area of the forest,” Carroll continues. “We’ll put a grandMA console running Version 1 software in the middle of the walkway of the forest to do our programming, and then for the festival we’ll move it out of the way, behind the outer fence ... The grandMA works really well for dialing in a lot of fixtures — and we use a ton of fixtures. We program a number of chases or cues and link them together. It takes an hour to run through all of these looks and run through them again. That’s about the time, we figure, it’ll take you to casually walk from one end of the forest to the other.”
Gothic Cathedral Concept
Stein admits that the pines have posed logistical challenges, from stage set up to obstructed audience sightlines. (For clearer sightlines, the crew set a precise angle for the stage. “It’s not easy to get today’s production gear in there,” says Stein. “A lot of stuff is moved on golf carts and even by hand.”) Yet, instead of making excuses for their chosen location, festival organizers have embraced the site’s natural surroundings. Simply put, they’ve seen the forest for the trees and turned them into something borderline mystical.
“I think one of the things that the trees do is raise people’s attention,” says Tia Christiansen, one of the festival’s artistic coordinators. “Coupled this with the lights and the way Andy [Carroll] has programmed them and the site resembles a grand cathedral.”
“The trees are all the same height and they’re in perfect rows,” points out Bill Kennedy (a.k.a. InflataBill), a San Francisco Bay Area-based senior parachute rigger, who taps his skydiving expertise to create cold-air inflatable art using sewn ripstop nylon (i.e. hot-air balloon fabric). “So it’s kind of this surreal forest.”
Kennedy says that Sherwood Forest’s white pines immediately made him think of high, vaulted ceilings and long narrow hallways of European Gothic churches. “I started making sketches in the fall of 2011 and presented them to Andy [Carroll],” says Kennedy. “Andy, in turn, showed them to Jeremy, who said, ‘I’ve been thinking about that cathedral concept ever since my first visit to the forest.’ So we seemed to come up with the vision of the forest as a cathedral simultaneously.”
In keeping with the cathedral concept, Kennedy’s artwork included a dozen hanging 12-foot-tall “stained glass” panels (“which are more like sails than my typical inflatables,” says Kennedy) composed of swaths of translucent fabric painstakingly taped together with industrial-strength adhesive; black-and-white lanterns; and vinyl chandeliers (which appear to be made of crystal), boasting solar-powered, color-changing LEDs. Kennedy also placed eight-feet-in-diameter medallions, or rose-style cathedral windows, with carbon fiber framing, near the front of Portland, Oregon-based GuildWorks’ Sacred Geometry-inspired stretch fabric art installations.
The two-way hand-dyed flaps of GuildWorks’ fabric art often assumed the shape of stars or diamonds, and these forms radiated, like a giant, illuminated mandala or Flower of Life, when Andy Carroll’s well-placed DMX-controlled color changing LED fixtures lit the installation.
“I like to use sacred geometric proportions, the same types of proportions which were used in the design of European cathedrals,” says Sebastian Collet, lead design and project manager for GuildWorks. “Sacred Geometry is based on the fundamental proportions of all forms of life in the universe, and people naturally resonate with forms that follow these rules. The star shape, triangles and diamonds relate to the natural growth patterns represented in the Flower of Life symbol.”
“When Andy placed several LED fixtures around the entranceway, those windows just glowed,” says Kennedy.
Dynamic lighting occurred all over the festival site. Girl Talk’s eye-popping LED walls, The String Cheese Incident’s pyrotechnics and electronic/jam band veterans STS9’s massive flight simulation video screen design and Mayan-esque step pyramid (on the Sherwood Court stage) spoke to the past, present and apocalyptic future.
While performing on the Sherwood Court stage, the improvisational electronic/dub step band EOTO, featuring multi-instrumentalist Michael Travis and drummer Jason Hann, projected video imagery onto a 17-foot double-layered lotus flower sculpture, composed of Plexiglas and metal framing. A Sanyo 12K projector, rigged on an L-16 crank-up stand, outputs video as EOTO’s video designer, Peter Berdovsky (a.k.a. Zebbler), controlled the sometimes-bizarre imagery (such as very freaky sideways-orientated gigantic eyes, opening and shutting). Zebbler mapped this content to the dimensions of the lotus petals via Resolume Avenue VJ software in conjunction with that program’s IR MAPio editing plug-in.
On the fly, Zebbler fine-tuned visual effects via a Behringer BCR2000 mixer. “That’s helpful because Zebbler can adjust the frequency at which the sound volume is going to react, turning effects off and on,” says Jason Hann, who dropped pop culture references, from Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, in EOTO’s set. “Our whole show is about relying on our instincts and just letting it all unfold in the moment.”
In locations where the forest thinned out, such as in the Tripolee stage area, Thomas Lohman, of Odyssey Lighting, Inc., employed a “bowtie” or “double triangle” design to present fresh and futuristic looks, while washing the crowd in color coats of red, green, blue and yellow.
The triangular design of the trussing for the Tripolee stage, coupled with two swathes of stretch fabric, supplied by Transformit, measuring 25 feet by 15 feet each, recalled Sherwood Forest’s connection to Sacred Geometry. “The design [of the trussing] was based on the need to put up something dynamic and versatile on a roof with very limited points and limited weight ratings,” says Lohman, lighting designer for both the Tripolee and Wagon Wheel stages. “So, I began spreading trusses and fixtures around the roof to hit different pre-defined points, and the rig started to take the shape of an ‘X.’ Then it occurred to me that … [I could] create two triangles joined at their center and fill the triangle with [stretch fabric], which I could use as a projection surface. The double triangle design allowed me to hang ten Martin MAC 550s, sixteen Martin MAC 101s, and six Martin Atomic 3000 strobes in an interesting configuration on five points, with a load capacity of under seven-hundred pounds per rigging point.”
Lohman says the shows were mostly “run on the fly, using palettes and pre-loaded shapes. Me and my team — crew chief Larry Wardino, head electrician Glen Gould, Wagon Wheel lighting director Andrew Gras and production assistant Gary Megarity — spent nearly six hours programming the night before the festival.”
A Light in the Forest
One of the more theatrical acts, Kansas City-based Quixotic Fusion, used aerial acrobatics and custom lighting to alter audience perception. Because of the layout of the venue (i.e. the Forest Stage), Quixotic re-imagined certain aspects of their show specifically for the Electric Forest festival. “We took elements of the show and spread them out beyond the stage,” says Mica Thomas, associate artistic director for Quixotic Fusion. “Our performance stage was the forest, so it was fun to be immersed in that environment. For instance, performers entered through the crowd to start the show.”
A customized battery-powered search-and-rescue light (dubbed the “Light Ball”), which featured a melted clear-plastic gobo/fixture envelope, added to the mystical atmosphere of the troupe’s shows while helping to provide multiple perspective points for the audience. “The Light Ball is a HID Xenon lamp,” explains Daniel Parks, lighting designer for Quixotic Fusion. “It came from a high-power handheld search light, of the caliber you would use to find someone in the woods. I cut up the housing for the light and restructured it with a very wide reflector of foil so the filament was completely exposed. We got really lucky that a single prop could produce enough lumens — 3,500 — to provide all the light we need to make a scene look interesting.”
Other lighting props included costume pieces, such as theatrical wings with pulsating white LEDs sewn into the fabric, and LED “reeds.” “The custom LED reeds can be pixel mapped, so content can be sent through them,” adds Thomas. “They are all RGBs and also DMX controlled, operated through Magic Cue software.”
“Magic Cue is integral to our LED scenery, since it has a pixel mapper and media server built into the software,” says Parks.
Parks explains that Quixotic downscaled the volume of their lighting fixtures for the Electric Forest performances (i.e. over 20 generic LED fixtures, three Wildfire Effects Energy Series four-foot blacklight fixtures, four American DJ Accu Spot 250s, an Atomic 3000 strobe, eight Color Kinetics Color Blasts, seven 300-watt PAR56 WFLs, four ETC Source Four 50° and two Source Four PAR WFLs). “It’s a pretty modest list, especially considering that half of our performance areas were spread beyond the stage,” says Parks.
Ultimately, perhaps it’s not the amount, or what kind, of lights one brings into the forest, but what’s being illuminated because of them. Maybe by projecting meaning onto nature we map not only the exterior environs of the physical forest but also the uncharted wilds of our own mind.
“We consider the stage, any stage at Electric Forest, to be a little bit less of a standard concert presentation than a ‘zone of experience,’” says Stein. “There’s a sense of mystery, where lighting unveils different parts of the forest at different times to you. Remember: the forest is 14 acres. There’s a lot to explore in there.”
Electric Forest Festival
Main Stage (Ranch Arena)
18 Vari*Lite VL3000 Spots
16 Vari*Lite VL3500 Washes
40 Martin MAC 101s
24 Clay Paky Sharpy
4 Mole Richardson 10k Fresnel w/5K Lamps
10 Martin Atomic 3000 strobes
8 PixelRange PixelLine 1044 LEDs
4 Martin Stagebar 54 LEDs
8 Thomas linear four lights
9 1000-watt bulbs on wire
4 Elation ELAR 108 LED PAR RGBWs
16 High End Systems Studio Color 575s
4 Nocturne Blacklites
56 Elation EVLED 1024 20MM panels
204 Barco VersaTube 1Ms
12 Martin MAC 2000 Profiles
4 Martin MAC III Profiles
18 Martin MAC 600 Wash fixtures
152 Elation ELAR LED PARs
1 40W RGB laser with 40 bounce mirrors
2 20W RGB lasers