Two weeks from now, Eric Prydz will stand inside a glowing sphere that’s more than two stories tall as he performs to a crowd of thousands. The world-famous DJ is set to debut his latest Eric Prydz In Concert (EPIC) show — a big and ambitious experience that draws tens of thousands of fans and gets the entire dance world talking. Every EPIC is a limited engagement that pushes the limits of how tech and music interact. This year, Prydz is pulling off the most grandiose performance to date, in the form of a giant transparent LED sphere called EPIC 6.0: Holosphere.
“Ever since we started doing EPIC,” Prydz says, “our goal has always been to try and blow people away, but in a way that they haven’t been blown away before at an electronic dance music event.” The first EPIC was in 2011, and over time the show has grown into one of dance music’s most bombastic multi-sensory events, employing hundreds of laser beams, digital screens larger than a jumbo jet, and colossal holographic effects.
Prydz has set a high bar, but this new show might be his most ambitious. He and his team have been working on the Holosphere for the past two years and will reveal it at Belgium’s Tomorrowland festival on Saturday, July 20th. The centerpiece is an eight-meter-wide sphere, and the whole production is so large the festival had to redesign its grounds in order to accommodate it. While Prydz DJs on a riser inside, millions of pixels and hundreds of lights will flash futuristic scenes around him that tower over the crowd.
On paper, the EPIC shows make little sense. They’re extravagant, complicated, laborious, and expensive, making them jaw-dropping, custom-built spectacles that are almost impossible to tour. Few venues have the space and resources to host EPIC shows, so each one is only performed a handful of times before being shelved. Prydz says he’s lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on EPIC shows. For him, it’s not about profit; it’s about using technology to create an experience no other DJ is offering.
“Huge confetti cannons and flamethrowers are very primitive,” Prydz says of the usual attention-getting tricks. “I thought, we can do better than this. We can do something different and more exciting.”
The EPIC shows have centered around increasingly grand holographic effects in recent years. In one instance, a 44-meter-wide projection was winged out over the audience, making it look like entire scenes appeared out of thin air. In another, a larger than life astronaut “hologram” hovered over the crowd.
EPIC shows are extravagant, complicated, and expensive
The upcoming Holosphere is a complete redesign that does away with projected holographic effects. In their place is the multistory sphere, kitted out with over 2.4 million LEDs. During the performance, the Holosphere will illuminate with swirling galaxies, crackle with darts of electricity, and transform into slowly rotating alien planets. Depending on how much of the sphere lights up and at what intensity, Prydz can be clearly seen inside, or nearly disappear. If you look closely at the show’s lighting map, you’ll get a sense of the Holosphere’s sheer scale. That tiny gray stick figure standing inside? It’s Prydz.
Getting rid of holographic trickery seemed like the next logical step for EPIC, says Prydz’s longtime collaborator Mark Calvert from London-based tech company Realtime Environment Systems (RES). “All these [EPIC] shows have been amazing,” he says, “but at the end of the day they were two-dimensional projections.” Using a physical sphere not only provides actual depth but will let the audience see the Holosphere’s larger-than-life visuals from all sorts of different angles without any distortion.
Seventy-two handmade panels in varying shapes interlock onto a metal skeleton to construct the Holosphere, and they’re laced with LEDs both inside and out. Light Initiative founder Bryn Williams designed the panels to be modular, so if an LED fails, the individual strip can be popped out and replaced within seconds.
At a warehouse in London, Williams has me help assemble a panel: I peel off an LED strip’s backing, stick it into a custom plastic extrusion with raised sides, and then snap the strip in tiny grooves that run along the panel. There are big gaps between each strip, so the sphere has a lower resolution than most traditional LED panels. But that won’t be noticeable from far away. That space is crucial to trick the eye into thinking the sphere is “transparent,” allowing audiences to both see animations displayed on the sphere and Prydz DJing inside of it.
A sphere sounds simple enough, but bringing the Holosphere to life was a difficult endeavor. Any show has to hang or sit on something, and a stage can only handle a certain amount of weight. Temporary structures, like the ones at Tomorrowland, generally support less weight than permanent ones, like an arena or stadium. Williams’ design weighs five tons, but it splits the load in two to deal with this constraint: the weight of the sphere’s upper half is supported by four dumbbell-sized bolts affixed to the roof, while the bottom half is supported by the stage.
Williams says he had two primary goals in designing the Holosphere’s architecture — create something that could withstand being knocked around, and if something fails, keep the failure localized. “It needed to be robust to stop problems from happening,” he says, “and resilient to stop a problem from cascading.” Every LED strip has been stress tested by alternating them between hot and cold temperatures, and the test panel dropped from different heights to see when it will deform or break. “It’s had a proper bashing,” says Williams with a grin.
The physical sphere is only half the story. There’s also the animations, lighting, and visual effects, all of which bring the Holosphere to life. Throughout the course of the show, the sphere’s original animations will include everything from the tiniest of molecules to immense galactic forms. At the RES office, designer and VJ Liam Tomaszewski shows me some of what he’s been working on: there’s a burnt orange Mars-like planet, what can only be described as a sparkling disco Death Star, and a wonderfully grotesque eyeball.
While the sphere is being built, Tomaszewski creates the Holosphere’s mind-bending animations using a mishmash of Cinema 4D, Houdini, Maya, and Adobe After Effects, along with “hundreds of plug-ins and different tools.” Off the bat, many of his animations from previous EPIC shows had to be tossed because they were created for flat surfaces. Wrapping a flat image on a sphere mangles and pinches things, so he learned how to animate with spherical distortion using a method called equirectangular projection. ”It caused a lot of headaches,” Tomaszewski says. “This is a really scary project from a content perspective because I don’t get to fall back on some of the tricks that I know work.”
Holosphere animations are projected on a yoga ball for testing
To demonstrate the difference, Tomaszewski loads up the eyeball on screen. As a sphere, the realism is both amazing and instinctually off-putting. It darts about frenetically, with a slight wetness on its surface, and curls of small, pinkish veins that creep around the sides. He recorded his own pupil for this, tracking its motion in Adobe After Effects to make the animation as lifelike as possible.
Then, he shows me the flat version. It’s the same image, but it’s almost unrecognizable. Fleshy and smooshed, the image is more reminiscent of roadkill than a human eye. “Trying to get my head around creating content within that world was a real challenge,” Tomaszewski says of animating for a sphere.
When I visit in June, there’s no Holosphere for Tomaszewski to see his work on, so to test ideas, he projects animations on a yoga ball. It’s not the real thing, but seeing the work in three dimensions makes a difference. Sometimes what looks great on his screen doesn’t translate once it’s on the yoga ball. Other times, like with the eyeball, it looks even better. “Whether people define it as an actual hologram or not is up to them,” Tomaszewski says, “but we’re just trying to do what we can to create visuals in three dimensions. I don’t know anybody who’s created three-dimensional visuals and displayed them in three dimensions.”
The sphere will be front and center, but it’s only one component of the show. It’s also flanked by two massive video screens that jut out from behind. And when it comes to lighting, designer Ross Chapple has stacked the stage with over 500 fixtures that give him an array of sharp, directional effects including 150 individual laser diodes, lamp beams, and LED bars that spoke out from around the center. The bars are on motors and can move up and down around the sphere, like the curve of a manta ray’s fin. There’s also a lighting rig at the top of the sphere that will lower inside and strobe to look like a “nucleus exploding.”
“Sometimes I wish I was in the crowd.”
What’s even more incredible is that everything during the show is done live. Big shows like this are usually synced with timecode with portions pre-mixed to ensure certain visuals, fireworks, and other effects happen at precise moments in songs. But Prydz insists on improvising during EPIC shows. To make this happen requires a bit of intuition from everyone involved and some additional tech. First, cameras over the crowd feed to video monitors beside Prydz while he performs. All of the lights blur his view from the stage, so this lets him see audience reactions and decide what to play next. “A lot of people don’t realize that with the technology that we’ve been using, it’s very hard for me to see through these sort of things from the inside out,” he says. “One of the worst things about doing these shows is that the one person who this is all done around can’t see the bloody show ... Sometimes I wish I was in the crowd.”
Meanwhile, Tomaszewski and Chapple work in tandem in a front of house booth during the show. They know every Prydz song inside and out but have no idea when any of them will be played. Some songs are always paired with certain animations and effects, and others allow for experimentation. When they hear Prydz mixing in the next track, they immediately cue up animations and lighting schemes in response.
As a result, no two EPIC shows are the same. “I would just be so bored, and I would never get away with it,” says Prydz when I ask why he does EPIC live. “If I even played two or three of the same tracks in a row, someone would say, ‘You did that two years ago at this show in Pennsylvania,’ or ‘You’ve lost it now. You’re getting lazy.’” The audience holds him to a high standard, but more simply, he doesn’t understand why any DJ would plan everything ahead of time. “I can’t see how preparing a full set in a quiet hotel room while eating a club sandwich and having the TV on in the background, is going to resonate with the people at the festival you’re playing, or the club. I don’t believe that exists.”
Prydz and his team have no idea if there will be other Holosphere dates. For now, they’re only concerned about making sure everything is set for the show’s debut. At Tomorrowland, two years of work will result in a two-hour visual extravaganza, setting a new goalpost not just for Prydz, but the entire industry. He’s excited to see their “nearly impossible idea” come to life and hopes the people watching are as wowed by the sphere as he is. “It’s fun to see how far you can push it,” he says with a smile, “how extreme you can make things, and how you can come up with ideas that people haven’t seen or experienced before. Then, the joy of seeing people going absolutely crazy over it is an amazing feeling.”