Madonna: Behind the video
“Every night, Jason Harvey pushes Madonna’s buttons” – John Boudreau writes on the Mercury News. “No, he’s not the pop diva’s latest boy toy. He’s ”the video guy.”
Backstage, the 36-year-old engineer from Milton Keynes, England, works multiple keyboards in a booth that is a virtual traveling TV station. This is where he pushes her buttons. Using software from San Jose’s Adobe Systems, he sets in motion multiple video streams that fill giant screens hovering over, around and beneath one-inch plexiglass stages the preening Madonna dances on.
”. You mess up and the show wouldn’t end properly. That’s the one I always worry about,” Harvey said hours before Madonna’s second San Jose performance Wednesday night at the HP Pavilion, and minutes before the 47-year-old cultural icon breezed by for a sound check. (her arrival followed a quick security sweep: Everyone was asked to clear the walkway to the stage.)
Harvey, with spiky, red-tinged hair and sporting a ”The Who” T-shirt, would slip unnoticed through any fan gauntlet. But he is much more than a tech roadie. In this multimedia age, Harvey is someone Madonna would not want to miss the bus – or jumbo jet. With ‘‘Confessions” tour ticket prices that start over $100 – stage-hugging seats to Madonna’s shows go for $350 – fans expect an experience more akin to a Broadway extravaganza than a pop singer strumming a guitar on a stage.
And in this video-everywhere world, where 9-year-olds are posting their own cinema vérité on Web sites like YouTube, a performer, especially of Madonna’s stature, who doesn’t offer a seamless and sophisticated big-screen experience is like a singer out of tune.
”The audience expects a multimedia artist because they are multimedia consumers,” observed Tom Randolph, president of FrameFree, which makes digital imaging software used by bands, DJs and club owners. ”The new bands, the Indies, have to do it or else they won’t stand out.”
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The Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View recently updated its sound and screen system, and put new screens over plaza restrooms and dining areas, on the lawn and on stage.
”It’s theater,” Harvey observed.
Video accompanies 21 of Madonna’s 22-song concert and includes a montage of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Saddam Hussein and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, a sketch of the New York skyline that appears to be drawn real-time as she sings, ”I Love New York,” and a rider falling off a horse, referencing her 2005 accident. (There are also X-ray and MRI images of her bones taken after the accident, an inside Madonna joke, Harvey said.)
Harvey’s operation includes a nine-person crew, 22 hard drives, six digital video cameras and two miles of video cable. He manages and manipulates images and video using Adobe Production Studio ($1,699), a suite of software including Adobe’s After Effects, Premiere Pro and Photoshop programs.
”It’s the savior,” Harvey said of the software. ”Without it I’d be dead in the water. We would not be able to do our jobs.”
The video setup for Madonna’s shows was created during a 12-week development process, which included creating and selecting video produced by independent studios, choreographing the images with Madonna and her 22 dancers and last minute ”tweaks and twiddles.” For each show, Harvey runs three identical versions of the video performance; should there be any glitch, he can switch to a backup in a mouse-click.
”There is no room for failure,” he said. ”The show has to go on.”
A simple text change in Los Angeles required reworking an entire section of video, which is made up of multiple video streams and images that flow from one giant screen to another. ”Those streams had to be changed because they all segue into each other,” he said.
Harvey, who once did TV and corporate production work, became a video rocker 10 years ago, a time when most of what he did was beam the image of performers on giant screens at large venues.
”Ten years ago, we were very limited by the technology available to us. Digital was very, very expensive. You couldn’t really take it on the road. Most of the playback was controlled by VCR machines and laser disc machines,” he recalled.
Harvey, whose business is called Short & Spikey has since worked with numerous pop artists, including Cher, Paul McCartney, Pink and Elton John.
He calls his 60-performance tour with Madonna ‘‘a walk in the park” compared with Cher’s marathon 325-show ”Farewell Tour.”
”It just went on and on and on,” Harvey said.
Still, the hours can be grueling on any tour. A day off is often a travel day, and when the performers wrap up a city, Harvey is frequently working until 3 a.m. to make sure everything is packed and ready to be transported to the next venue.
Each artist sets a different back-stage tone. The singer Pink, for instance, ”gives everyone a hug before the show,” Harvey said.
Madonna’s journey to the stage is like a trip to the office: She’s all business. Before the San Jose show, she made small changes to the routine.
”The lady is a perfectionist,” he said. ”She works 110 percent, and that’s what she expects from all of her people.”
Shortly before showtime, Madonna, sporting her trademark designer track suit, dropped by the video crew. ”She said ‘hi’ to everybody and ‘have a good show.’ We were all quite shocked,” said Harvey, who noted the queen of pop tends to keep to herself. ”It was lovely to hear.”
All artists, though, have one thing in common: They want control, and can sometimes have an uneasy relationship with technology, approaching streaming images to a Web site or mobile phone very cautiously. They also demand complete artistic control of what happens on stage, or above it on the big screen.
”They are normally pretty outspoken about what they want – and don’t want,” said Harvey, who likes to fiddle with different video effects, sometimes to the chagrin of the pop stars.
He’s been told, ”If you ever show that again, you are going to die – or something unprintable,” he added. ”Some days you have to step over the line to be told never to do that again. That’s part of being creative.”
Other days, artists realize how important it is to have Harvey around. He became Cher’s traveling tech support guru, for example.
”I’d be out there fixing her VCR on her private tour bus,” Harvey said.