Production Profile: Nine Inch Nails

An article on the stage lighting setup for the With Teeth 2005 tour

By Steve Jennings for Projection, Lights and Staging News on December 8, 2005

Like many artists, Nine Inch Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor is driven. What that means to Martin Phillips as the show designer of Nine Inch Nails’ current tour, With Teeth, is that the lighting has to be done right or not at all. We caught up with Phillips at two Bay Area dates -- in Sacramento and Oakland -- and spoke with him about the tour and working with Reznor. Also in on the conversation was Nick Jackson of PRG, who supplied the lighting gear.

“Nine Inch Nails was one of the first bands I saw live when I moved to the States in 1989,” says Phillips. “Pretty Hate Machine was very much a pivotal album as we moved from the ‘80s to the ‘90s, and I think Trent ended up defining a genre as he progressed.”

When Phillips later began working with the band, he found out something about the frontman and his character: “I found Trent to be one of, if not the most demanding artists that I’ve worked with. He’s very involved in the production process, the ideas and execution and he notices everything. He knows what he wants, but operates from a directorial position in that he pulls together a group of people to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.”

Roy Bennett, who has worked with Nine Inch Nails in the past, is the set and system designer. Phillips describes in simple terms how Bennett approached the system design: “The job at hand was to take what was there and create an arena show without straying too far from what had gone before on the theatre tour. Trent was happy with the rig as designed by Roy for the (both the arena and the) theatre tour.”

As Bennett is prone to do, he employed some real cutting-edge technology, much of it centered around video and LEDs. “The Saco V9 LED video panels were the primary new technology used in the tour. In fact, they were so new that they arrived direct from the manufacturer without even having serial numbers,” Bennett says.

Phillips describes the small modular units as “very bright” and the resolution as “very high.” “Roy had designed a number of individual panels that resembled stalactites or stalagmites to tie in to the album artwork,” he says.

The content was fed to the LEDs by two MBox media servers, one for the flying panels and one floor panels. In all, there were a total of five MBoxes on the show. “Because of the high resolution, we had some issues that prevented us from keeping the MBoxes at the front of house as originally intended, which gave Andre Lear, our MBox guru, and Bill Crooks of Nocturne, our video point man, some headaches,” Phillips says.

The creative use of projection and LEDs led to some interesting effects. The content was developed by Rob Sheridan, who used the unique configuration to his advantage. “Upstage of the LED wall was a rear projection screen lit by three Christie Digital 10K Roadie DLP projectors combined into a single image. These were fed by a single MBox. With the two layers of video afforded by this setup, we were able to run video on all three surfaces (RP and LED) at the same time and have them interact with each other. This was used in the most effective way for ‘The Line Begins To Blur’ where Rob Sheridan rendered two pieces of animation; the RP featuring white lines that traveled across the screen horizontally, and the LEDs with a bloom of blood-red color that would radiate outwards when the white lines passed behind the panels,” Phillips says.

But one of the most effective gags in the show comes during another section. “In the middle of the show, there’s an Austrian curtain made of opera gauze that’s lowered, and as the band performed behind it, we had a 35K DLP projector at the Front of House covering the curtain with custom video synched up to SMPTE from the stage. This was fed by a fourth MBox. At the end of that three-song opera gauze section, we used all of the video layers we had available to us -- the gauze front projection, LEDs and RP for ‘Beside You in Time.’ Again, Rob customized footage of a stylized haze and falling ‘snow’ that built up to a whiteout on all-video surfaces, at which point the Austrian would fly out. Although it was very cool, we all felt, Trent in particular, that a key piece of drama to the curtain fly was missing, to the point that Trent was considering dropping the number. We batted some ideas around until Alastair mentioned a long-standing untried idea of his -- to project a sheet of glass shattering onto a downstage kabuki scrim that would drop as the glass shatters fell. After some excited chattering and some custom rendering, we settled on Trent swinging his guitar at the gauze in whiteout, shattering it, but with all the pieces falling up as the Austrian flew out. It looked bloody fantastic!”

But not all of the new gear on the show was high-tech. “We also had the new Lycian followspots that were marvelous,” says Phillips. Nick Jackson was approached by Bennett in the early stages of the design when he was deciding on fixtures. Jackson suggested some new gear from Wybron. “The Wybron BP-2 Beam Projectors were perfect for the look Roy was after,” Jackson says.

And not all of the high-tech gear was new. “Almost the entire show was run off of SMPTE time code fed to the Front of House from the stage. Though not a new thing to us, it did present us some programming issues and operating headaches initially that Alastair has since resolved,” Jackson says.

PRG was involved in both the European and U.S. legs of the tour. According to Jackson, “The Euro system was the original small design for smaller venues with Kino Flows mounted in carts rather than Pixelines, which were used on the U.S. arena system. PRG supplied some of the Pixelines, but the other 60 were supplied by Nocturne.”

The lighting director is Alastair Bramall-Watson. Bramhall-Watson and programmer Chad Smith used a one of the new Hog consoles from High End Systems. Phillips says it worked out well. “I’m very happy with the Hog iPC console that we were using,” he says. “We had master and backup consoles hooked together through a DMX A/B switch running concurrently via MIDI hookup.”

Of working with Reznor, Phillips is somewhat philosophical. “One of my favorite points in creating the show was that Trent was very ready to try things, tweak them or bin them if we felt that it didn’t work. He’ll give you enough rope to either tie it up securely or hang yourself. He and Rob Sheridan had suggestions constantly during the design and rehearsal period, and out on the road. It was very much a work in progress up until I left, and it continues to be so now with Alastair Watson handling all show operation and additional programming duties. The whole thing was very much a collaborative effort and especially rewarding for that reason.”

And what designer would fail to mention his crew? Not Phillips. “Stefan Michaels was Nocturne’s crew chief, who worked his nuts off with a large video workload to deal with each day. Production manager Richard Young and the whole production team were great to work with; very easy, understated, but always on the ball. The job was always done with the minimum drama. It was always impressive and amusing to watch him fi eld a dozen ‘crises’ in a dozen different departments all at the same time and be completely unfazed by it.

“I have a solid relationship with Nick Jackson and all at PRG L.A. if only because most all of my vendors ended up merging when PRG bought them out. Marty Langley was our lighting crew chief, and this was the first time we’d worked together in about 10 years.”


Lighting Supplier: PRG, Nick Jackson, account rep
Set/System Designer: Roy Bennett
Show Designer: Martin Phillips
Lighting Director: Alastair Bramall-Watson
Additional Programming and Consulting: Chad Smith
Crew Chief: Marty Langley
Lighting Techs: Josh Levin, Drew Sanchez, Tom Bider
Nocturne Crew Chief: Stefan Michaels
Video: Carlos Gutierrez, Tom Braslin
Production Manager: Richard Young
Tour Manager: Jerome Crooks
Content Provider: Rob Sheridan


  • 34 Martin MAC 2000 Profi les
  • 22 Martin MAC 2000 Wash lights
  • 17 Wybron 800-W Beam Projector
  • 24 4-Cell Molestrips
  • 6 MR 16 PARs
  • 6 MR 36 PARs
  • 41 Martin Atomic 3000 Strobes
  • 4 Lycian M2 Medium Throw Spots
  • 2 Flying Pig Systems Hog iPC console
  • 1 SMPTE Control System
  • 1 ETC 72-way Dimmer Rack
  • 1 ETC 12-Way Dimmer Rack
  • 8 One-ton High Speed electric chain hoist
  • 32 One-ton Electric Chain hoist
  • 1 24-way computer motor control system
  • 1 Motor Control System
  • 24 James Thomas Engineering Pixeline LED Fixtures
  • 1 Artnet DMX Hubs
  • 5 M-Box Media Server Units
  • 2 Reel EFX DF-50 haze machines
  • 2 High End Systems F-100 Fog Machines

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