How Phish turned Las Vegas’ Sphere into the ultimate music visualizer

Phish at the Sphere was always going to be wildly different compared to U2’s opening residency at Las Vegas’ immersive venue. Both bands are known to push the boundaries of live performances. But they’ve rarely approached it the same way. U2’s 40-show Sphere run was a polished, extravagant rock show with (nearly) identical set lists the whole way through. The Sphere was a perfect canvas for making rock stars like Bono and The Edge appear not just larger than life but supersized.

By contrast, Phish is only doing four performances and has no plans of repeating even a single song. And judging by recent interviews, Abigail Rosen Holmes, the show’s co-creative director, didn’t want to risk overdoing the visuals; her goal was always to keep the focus on Phish and the music, while using the Sphere’s 160,000-square-foot LED screen to enhance the tunes — not distract from them. “We wanted to absolutely make the most out of the room and also support Phish doing what Phish does best,” she told The Washington Post. And what Phish does best are jams, improvisation, and showcasing the group’s next-level musicality.

Phish’s Trey Anastasio during one of the band’s December performances at Madison Square Garden.
Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

But that was before night one, back when Holmes and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio were keeping mum about what the show would entail beyond saying all four nights would be linked by a particular theme. Now, the first show is in the books, and it went off without a hitch. Fans in attendance seemed enamored by the experience, and those livestreaming from home praised night one as among the best-sounding Phish shows they’ve ever heard — even if they didn’t get to live through all the immersion firsthand. The visuals spanning the Sphere’s humongous screen were suitably trippy but never went overboard.

This morning, as Phish’s legions in Vegas were resting up for round two tonight, I chatted with the show’s other co-creative director, Jean-Baptiste Hardoin, and producer Daniel Jean. Both work at the Montreal-based Moment Factory. Skim through the company’s projects, and it’s immediately clear that Hardoin and Co. are comfortable working in one-of-a-kind venue spaces. They’ve done domes before. But four nights of Phish at the Sphere called for a lot of preparation and visualizations that would be flexible enough to keep up if a 10-minute song suddenly stretched to 25 minutes.

“It was pretty clear, the dos and donts, with the band,” Hardoin said. “Phish was working more than ever with visual creation. It was interesting to pave this road together and explore.” Four completely different shows made for a daunting challenge — U2 ran the same playbook every night — and there wasn’t a ton of time between when the Sphere run was announced in the fall and this week’s performances. “We had to kind of reinvent our production pipeline,” Jean told me. “So we went to our innovation team to see how we can hijack some technologies to create content at a more fast pace.”

“We started with the idea of doing 70 percent pre-rendered scenes, which is done more in a traditional way with CG and all, and 30 percent real time using Unreal Engine and Notch and some AI,” Jean said. By the time the shows rolled around, that balance ended up looking more like 50/50. This is Phish, after all, and jams don’t exactly lend themselves to pre-rendered video. “In fact, we’re now playing real time content in 16K by 16K, which we believe has never been done before,” Jean said.

Some moments last night felt like you were seeing enormous versions of the old visualizers from Winamp or iTunes. Others brought the crowd into intricate, dazzling scenes. “This place is very theatrical,” Hardoin said. “Sometimes you just put a nice environment in the space, and people are surrounded by this environment. You don’t need to be so hectic about movements and stuff happening. You just need to leave them for awhile to enjoy the music.” There are always going to be people who expect more. But you’ve also got to consider that a fair percentage of these audiences will be under the influence of something, and you can only push their senses so far. The Sphere is IMAX on steroids. It can be a lot, even when you’re stone-cold sober.

A dome filled with Winamp visualizations? I want to go to there.
Image: Alive Coverage

Co-creative director Jean-Baptiste Hardoin says sometimes it’s just about setting a scene and letting people enjoy the music.
Image: Alive Coverage

The team got a chance to preview how the show would look at the Sphere in March. But their in-person collaboration began much earlier: Anastasio told The Associated Press that he first met with Holmes for early planning back in June. According to Hardoin, there were also get-togethers in Montreal and New York City. Even when apart, Holmes, Hardoin, and Anastasio touched base constantly (often daily) to discuss art direction, stage / lighting design, potential set lists for each night, and so on.

There’s only one full-size Sphere. But a miniature version was built for the purpose of nailing the hyper-directional audio mix, which is handled by Phish’s soundman, Garry Brown. He told The Washington Post that Phish would have “a soundscape that is a lot wider than what U2 did.”

Phish fans get three more nights of this.
Image: Alive Coverage

Moment Factory used Unreal Engine and Notch software for many animations.
Image: Alive Coverage

Moment Factory also built a mini-dome for test viewings at its Montreal home base. When not there, the company’s artists and designers spent many hours in virtual reality, working with a digital representation of the Sphere to sample how their visualizations and CGI set pieces would look from every angle in the place. “As much as we can prepare for a show like this, there’s no way we can see the outcome before it’s happening in real time,” Jean said. Reading that vibe and responding to it is where the Unreal and Notch-powered animations can prove valuable. The team can dial things up or down at will. “We knew that we could adapt to what we feel in the room at this specific moment.”

So far, the Sphere has only had two bands grace its stage. Dead and Company will become the third next month. I asked Hardoin what his advice is for anyone lucky enough to dream up a future event there. His answer was simple. “Try stuff,” he said. “It’s a new paradigm for live experiences, music shows, and so on. Some things have been challenges in the creative process. We’re not used to such environments [and considered things like] would people experience motion sickness? Is it too fast? Is it not immersive enough? My advice would be to try stuff.”

Phish’s remaining three nights at the Sphere can be livestreamed from the band’s website. If you’re only interested in the audio side, SiriusXM is broadcasting each show the following day on Phish’s station and will go live for the final performance on Sunday.

I’ll end by passing along a request to Phish’s video production crew from many of those who watched from home last night. Just stick with the wide shots, y’all. This is the Sphere we’re talking about. Let the people take it all in — even if it’s never going to be the same as having a ticket.

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