Backstage at the American Airlines Arena just hours before Paul McCartney is set to arrive for a soundcheck, LeRoy Bennett is previewing the show's special effects before Friday's performance. The unassuming 61-year-old with a shaven head and thick-rimmed glasses wears an all-black ensemble that would fry him in the harsh Florida sun. He walks past the stage, onto the vast arena floor covered in folding chairs, and reaches a platform with computer consoles across from the stage. A technician is turning knobs, pressing buttons, and dragging a pen across touchscreens to test lights and video.
While Bennett provides the technical details, the album cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band appears on an enormous screen behind the stage. Suddenly, one of the figures in the iconic image jumps out of place.
Did that man just move?
"Oh, yeah," Bennett says. "Paul is going to see that for the first time today."
In the world of production design, Bennett is a titan. He designs lights and effects almost exclusively for A-list music stars, including Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Nine Inch Nails, and Bruno Mars. He's worked with Paul McCartney on every show and tour since the former Beatle's halftime performance at Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005. He's also done a few other Super Bowls since then, including this year's with Lady Gaga and a flock of drones (and, no, she didn't actually dive into the stadium; that bit was pretaped). Then there was Beyoncé's halftime show, when the pop star lay on a stage made of LED panels while virtual body doubles surrounded her like synchronized swimmers.
"She was off her mark for that!" Bennett says in jest.
Born in Rhode Island to an opera singer mother and interior designer father, Bennett always knew he wanted to do something in music. While his siblings picked up instruments, however, he shied away from the stage. After high school, he found himself drawn to lighting after a local band asked him to work on the stage setup.
"I just didn't have the balls to be onstage," he recalls. "I realized I loved lighting because I could perform through the lights, without being onstage."
Photo by MJ Kim
He moved on to gigs for the arena-rock band Boston and took a job in Los Angeles for an English production company. After a while, his bosses promoted him from lighting: He would do the overall design for the next artist the company signed. That ended up being none other than Prince.
"He was genius," Bennett says, "but very intense."
The two began working together during the Dirty Mind Tour in 1980. Bennett recalls the immense creative freedom he was given with the rock star. He says they freely shared ideas, but there were stressful moments. Prince, for instance, wanted the band and crew to know every song he'd ever done, despite the fact that he was a new artist.
"He was such a perfectionist," Bennett remembers. "He pushed the band members really hard. Eventually, his manager came by and told him to tone it down."
After that, the two worked together for the rest of Prince's career. Bennett designed live tours, music videos, and even the concert segments in the movie Purple Rain.
In many fields, such celebrity connections are enough to propel someone to the top. But throughout his career, Bennett has also been involved in technical achievements in production design. He was the first to use the semitransparent LED screens known as V-Thru, which he debuted during Nine Inch Nails' Tension Tour in 2013. One of the screens hangs outside the American Airlines Arena. He also found a way to use LEDs in moving lights, which rotate and spin. He's trying to find a way to swap out LED screens with projected images, which reflect light rather than emit it, making it less harsh on the eyes.
Photo by MJ Kim
He's also working with the Plantation, Florida-based startup Magic Leap on a technology called "mixed reality." Combining the best parts of augmented and virtual reality, the tech allows users to wear glasses that let them see and interact with virtually rendered objects in real space. An interior designer could use mixed reality to preview the furniture that might fill a room. A production designer like Bennett could create incredible new visuals for a show. Perhaps an audience member could put on the glasses and see McCartney playing with the reunited Beatles.
It's a tantalizing idea, but for now the one Beatle will have to do, and thanks to Bennett, concertgoers at tonight's McCartney show will be amazed, no maybes. The moving album cover, commissioned to celebrate the album's 50th anniversary, is just one of the many stunning effects on display. Several layers of V-Thru screens hang behind a huge, movie-size main grid, with each single piece measuring about five square feet.
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Along with the video screens, four smoke machines and hundreds of lights will be used in the performance. The most impressive part of the performance, however, will happen when McCartney performs acoustically. As he steps onto the front of the stage, a robotic arm will lift the platform and suspend the singer above the audience.
It's all an incredibly complex display of technical wizardry, but it's all needed for the show to go on. If audience members never forget the moment their favorite rock star flew above them, LeRoy Bennett will have done his job.