Metallica’s Show Director: Dan Braun – The Importance of Collaboration
Dan Braun, Metallica’s Show Director, sat down with Mia Tinari, Global Head of Marketing + Communications at TAIT, and dished on his use of drones for the WorldWired Tour, what James Hetfield’s reaction was to seeing them opening night, why “ego” has no place in this business, and how Michelangelo and Vince Lombardi influence him every day.
Dan, for those who may not know, can you describe what the roles and responsibilities of a Show Director are?
Yes, in fact, this is something I have thought about a lot because if I can’t explain it, then how can I properly execute my roles and responsibilities? In a nutshell, a Show Director builds a team of collaborators that share a common vision and have shared goals. Teamwork is everything in this business.
How long have you been in this business?
For over 40 years, but just over 23 years with Metallica.
What do you consider your keys to success and what makes for a good leader?
That’s an interesting question. To start out with, teamwork and relationships are both invaluable. Secondly, I pay attention, I try to listen, I try to watch what other people are doing, and I try to learn from them. I learn what to do often and I learn what I don’t want to do. I try not to make the same mistake twice. As far as leadership skills, I really believe in assembling the greatest group of ‘A players’ and seeing how they can collaborate. Often, you can create the right environment with the right team.
If you inspire people to believe that what you are trying to create is greater than the individual piece, everyone at the table can start working with each other to make the idea an A+.
You have to be willing to let people make mistakes, put things forward, and be able to know that the quality of your relationships with people in your work environment isn’t defined by when everything is going well. My highest quality relationships with people have been born through the fire of trial and error, tempered by mistakes and put back together through those difficult times.
Those are the relationships, over the years, that you can go back to and you can trust working with those people again knowing that they share your values and have common goals. It takes an entire team of people who are buying into what you’re doing for a show and everyone contributing to making the show better. That’s when the magic happens. I am very fortunate to be on an all-star team. Everybody who is here on this Metallica tour is an all-star player. It’s really a great working environment.
You really honed in on the concept of ‘great working environments’, can you share what your design process entails, who was involved and a bit more on what teamwork means to the overall process of a tour?
It all starts with the band. There is nothing without the band. The process starts with Metallica finishing a musical project. I immerse myself in the music and try to get a feel for what the music is about, what mood they are generating, what energy they are creating and how they intend to make the audience feel.
It starts with their music and talking to the band. Then, I deep dive into ideas. For example, I look at what other people are doing, what Broadway is doing, what other shows are doing, what is happening at auto shows, what is happening in the tech world, what might fit the mood we are trying to set.
For a tour, no one does this kind of stuff on their own. As I said, the team is everything. The WorldWired team includes everyone from management, Q Prime, and of course, Tony DiCioccio, to the production staff, Jon Zajonc, our production manager (he is a rock star), Chad Koehler and the riggers and all of the tour’s vendors. For the design and build process, TAIT was important, specifically Adam Davis, CCO of TAIT and the Navigator operators. Without that kind of great team, making all the pieces come together, all we have is an idea and a sketch. I am fortunate to work with a team of people that share the same vision and have common goals. It has been a lot of fun over the years.
An important part of my working philosophy is to have great relationships with the people I work with. I like to spend time getting to know them and understand their visions. To know the energy and emotional connection they are trying to have with the audience and how we can create a platform together. It excites and inspires me to get to know people and figure out what they are trying to do creatively.
What is one common goal that you would like for your team to have?
Something that is incredibly important to me is to really take the time to appreciate the audience’s viewpoint. I am a kid who went to concerts. I sat in the back of the arena, on the side of the arena and in the front row. I sat everywhere. So, I have never forgotten that connection between artist and audience. That’s what is important to me.
I like working with people who share that connection and find that connection important. A show is not just about standing and playing some songs. There is more to it than that for me. I enjoy working with people who share that understanding. Whether it is corporate clients or whomever, I enjoy working with people who are seeking that sort of intimate relationship with their audience and fan base.
What else does your design process entail and how do you keep inspired to constantly be on the cutting edge?
It’s my job to make sure that what I design and what we put up is familiar enough for the band to step into an arena without a rehearsal and be able to play without any problems. We just finished the outdoor leg of the tour and, we wanted to do something different for the inside leg of the tour because, after 36 years of making music, Metallica is not a legacy band, they are still making relevant music that is exciting and they’re still selling a million CDs which nobody does anymore.
The new concert is 6 tracks with new music and kids are singing along to all the new songs. For a band that has been around for all these years, that is really cool. And given that you only play so many songs a night, and you think about the hits that are in their catalog that they have to play every night and to go six tracks deep into their new stuff is a testament to how strong they are and how bold they are. That’s what the show is about. It’s new, it’s different, it’s exciting.
We wanted to do something that no one would expect. So, the process included a collection of ideas. And, what inspires these ideas is my appreciation for art and architecture. I like lines, I like shapes, and how those things interact and work together. Then, I add color and then video motion and then kinetic energy, and now I can take an inanimate object and make it come alive.
As I mentioned previously, I am also inspired by what people are doing on Broadway, because the opportunity to build a show into a facility that is going to be there for years affords you different capabilities than for a show that is portable and on the road. What is going on in Broadway is the crème de la crème. So, I start using all of these influences and incorporate photography. I take pictures. I look at art installations, how they use the installations, why they used it, and I come up with a couple of ideas for tour.
Ultimately, the WordWired tour was inspired by an art installation I saw in New York – it was a beautiful, large chandelier with clean lines. And, thus, the kinetic cube installation was born!
As a Show Director, how do you balance all of the technology in the show while giving the audience an artistic experience without smacking them in the face with technology?
We never want to create something that looks great to us but has no relationship to the band on stage. It’s not about the design team and our friends, it’s about the band and the audience. For example, no one should see the sound system. No one should know why that was the best sounding concert they ever heard, they should just know that it was the best sounding concert they ever heard.
I think this show was meant to be a bit artsy, like in Broadway, when you go to a show it is an emotional psychology. You experience the environment they are creating but you don’t look at how they create it.
That is exactly what I wanted to do with Metallica on this show. I wanted to create a platform that was contextually relevant to their music but wasn’t a technology show; so, that we could alter the mood in the room without fans knowing we were doing it. To a large degree, I think we were able to do that with the kinetic cubes.
I was at a venue in Paris before we started, and I was looking across at the show as it hung in the roof thinking that the kids in the building were probably thinking ‘where’s all the stuff?’ I know it sounds like a broken record, but when you have a team of people who share the same vision, you have the upper hand. The average lighting director doesn’t want someone telling them they can’t have lighting trusses on a show. The average lighting director would say ‘ok cool, I can’t light the show.’
For this tour, Rob Koenig winced and said ‘OK I’ll find a way to make that happen,’ we certainly have lights but they don’t stand out as lights. They stand out as part of the show, they are automated fixtures. That’s not by accident. Your comment is a compliment to our entire team who did this. We have taken the PA and rearranged it. Big Mick Hughes, our front of house engineer, jumped on board with the caveat that he had the tools to make the show sound incredible.
The latter part of what you said about highlighting the band, having seen the show, you definitely get that feeling that the audience is 100% connected to the band and the show.
That’s why the audience is lit for half of the show. It’s about the exchange of energy between the audience and the band, and the audience brings that energy back to the band, and the band returns it back to the audience and that’s when we have a Metallica show…when we can get that environment going. Having technology for the sake of technology tends to get in the way.
Moving things just to move them is not something that interests us.
That seems like the most boring thing in the world to me – ‘look, I have an element here and I am going to move it over here.’ It doesn’t really matter that we moved it. We just moved it to move it. That doesn’t ring authentic to me. So, I avoided doing that for years, and now with the brilliance that TAIT have provided through the Navigator Platform and the vision of their programmers, we are able to use kinetic movement with the video cubes and the lights. The motion of the video displayed on the cubes ties in with the band and creates a movement that is timed to music. It is a dance and it is incredibly effective.
Was this the first design iteration presented to the band or were there others?
To be honest, this design was version 1 of 1. I showed them a concept that was similar, but this one was hands down the one we went with. So, as long as we could accomplish what we showed them, the band was in agreement. And, we did it! Because I have been with the band for a while, I have a good understanding of how they like to perform. Each show that we create, we push ourselves to outdo the last one. And, Metallica is always pushing the boundaries of creativity.
There is something pretty epic to be said about a band who continues to make new music and perform live for over three decades. So, when you are that passionate and dedicated to the art form of music and performance, every detail matters.
For this first iteration, when we put pen to paper, I referenced the chandelier art installation, and I studied the way the shapes interacted. It is something that I wanted to do for a long time but I didn’t think the technology existed. But, I brought it to Adam and the tech wizards there made it work so that we could have a three-dimensional moving video that was on multiple planes and every viewpoint displayed something different. Every seat in the arena has a completely different view. If you move five seats over, you have a different view.
I have had some fun with showing the cubes to people and having people look at them. I’ll say “look at this cube and how it sticks out like that, isn’t it interesting that they move at an angle,” and then I will say, “now walk with me,” and when you walk over to get a flat plane view, you realize that none of the cubes area sticking out, but they are actually in a flat line. People lose their minds! Plus, the fact that it looks like a massive chandelier covering the width of the stage, is just epic!
As for audience perspective, for those who have not seen the show yet, can you describe the kinetic cube installation and what inspired the dimensional aspect?
Sure, and hopefully, this can put it into perspective for those who are art lovers like myself. I am a big fan of paintings. I like a ton of Michelangelo-type paintings where there is foreshortening use and the images become three dimensional not two dimensional. And, I am also a big fan of the two-dimensional shadow-less paintings of Toulouse Lautrec which is an interesting distortion where there appears to be no depth.
The artwork of Michelangelo, and that whole time period, where they use drastic foreshortening is incredible. You look at the image and you would swear that the hand is sticking out. You would put money on the fact that the knee is sticking out from the wall and, of course, it is not. It is just a painting effect. The forced perspective and the odd angles are what we were really looking for with the cubes. I think probably one of the most exciting parts for me was when we actually had the mother grid up and live, and I realized that it was going to work. That when the cubes begin to move and the content is displayed, your eyes are seeing something that may or may not be real.
Adam and the entire team really made this happen. When others said it couldn’t be done, Adam said otherwise. We sat in his office, and drew all over the whiteboard, and came up with exactly how the tech team would make this a reality. TAIT has a strong team working together. It’s really an extraordinary experience to work with TAIT.
Before we finish up here, there is an element that is quite special and unique on this tour. Can you talk a bit about the drones and how that idea came about for the WorldWired Tour?
James Hetfield has been interested in drones for a while. Of course, part of my job is risk management and I was never really interested in having these high flown, 4-propeller drone things with cameras on the bottom and flying them over crowds. I was very averse to having someone piloting a drone over a crowd where the chance for injury was too high for me to consider acceptable. Because James has been interested in trying to use drone technology for a while, we decided this tour would be a good time to investigate it further.
So, I consulted with Adam (Adam Davis) about the drone concept because I know he is always on the cutting edge of technology. Adam suggested doing a drone swarm and we decided it should be done during the song ‘Moth into Flame.’ With this type of visual effect, the song would have the opportunity to really invent itself. It was the marriage of drone technology combined with an artistic vision of a visual effect that we wanted to create.
It was the only way we could create the visual drone element; so, Adam introduced us to one of TAIT’s live event partners, a drone company called Verity Studios, and, in typical Metallica fashion, we dove into the deep end.
So for people who may only be able to see the drones on social media or in a video, how would you describe the difference between physically being there and seeing the drones on social media?
I think after the first night that we successfully did the drones in Copenhagen (which when you do something like this there is a lot of holding your breath when you try to do it live because we have all seen Spinal Tap and we have all heard the horror stories about Spinal Tap opening nights and we certainly had more than a few elements that could have done us in like that) and they finished the song ‘Moth into Flame,’ James walked over to a microphone and just said “That was f—ing cool!” And, honestly, I don’t know a better way to describe them. It’s pretty magnificent what they are doing. Whether you see it live or on social media, it’s pretty amazing.
The guys who programmed the drones did a great job. The drone element essentially disappears with the song. With ‘Moth into Flame,’ the little light source is the moth and the band is the flame. But it takes a minute to figure out that analogy and what we’re doing with this effect. It’s pretty cool.
Can you share with us the types of challenges you faced on this tour and how you overcame those challenges?
You bet. And, I imagine everyone in this business will probably say the same thing. There is never enough time. I always wish we had an extra month. We have never been in the position to have an extra month. Generally, though, we are always up against a calendar challenge. It becomes very frustrating but you always find a way to make things work. When you get robbed of time, you get robbed of the ability to thrive not survive. So, it’s always a challenge to us.
Secondly, figuring out how to balance the vision with real-life weight, dynamic loading, all of the technical elements, all of the artistic desires of the show and finding that pathway was very challenging.
I am very fortunate that the show’s production staff has a great rigging team pushing through to the umpteenth degree and trying to make everything work for the show.
Surprisingly, with the amount of technology on this show, technology wasn’t that big of a challenge. It takes some time to get the show programmed to work and function properly, but all of that pretty much went as I had expected. Everything ran very, very well and for that, I was really fortunate programming wasn’t more of an issue.
Do you have any memorable moments from the design and creative process that you can share with us?
Oh. It was emotional. Because, I thought that this had a chance to be very special from the beginning, but I didn’t think there was a way to make it all work with the cubes being 3D and see-through and moving. But, I showed a very bad sketch of this to Adam and he immediately saw what I was doing. That was the emotional part for me. That he understood what I was trying to create when I really didn’t think it was technologically possible. Yet, lo and behold, TAIT had the technology to make it all happen.
Crazy how ideas can manifest into something magically tangible once you start sharing them with other people and getting input from others.
What was cool, was once we knew we could do it, we came up with an animation for me to show to the band. And, one night when I showed it to Lars, our drummer, who is very, very involved in all of this, and I saw the look on his face of “Hell Yeah!”….that right there was a special moment. Showing it first to Lars, and then James, and having them immediately see the vision, that was a very fun moment.
After 23 years working with Metallica and after 40 years in the business, are you still as inspired and as passionate about your job?
Even more so! I have learned how to do a couple of things and I have learned what not to do by making a lot of mistakes. It’s more interesting to see what you can do after some of the doors you have been working so hard for have finally been opened. Things that used to be a mystery, aren’t so much a mystery now. Now, we’re always having fun.
Published in Collaboration With TAIT Talks
Also on TheatreArtLife: