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The mechanics of stage design: Tom McPhillips Q&A

Pennsylvania-based creative company Atomic has designed stages and sets for live events including Global Citizen festival, Electric Forest festival, the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball, the MTV Music Awards, Sam Smith’s Grammy Awards performance and ISY Music Festival, enhancing the visual aspect of typically audio-focused experiences.

IQ speaks to Atomic’s chief creative officer and founder, Tom McPhillips, about the process from sketches to stages, his recent project designing the main stage for China’s ISY Festival,  and the difficulties of marrying EDM with romance.

What drew you to production design and continues to retain your interest there?
I started by thinking of myself as a regular painter and sculptor and I went to art school in London to start that career. However, I soon discovered that I prefer to do work that lots of people can enjoy, not just a small gallery art scene.

I was lucky to find my way into working in the theatre after art school and to become part of an environment that seemed to perfectly match my talents of painting and creating three dimensionally. Although I’m fundamentally an artist, the design part – by which I mean projects that one is hired to work on rather than being totally self-directed – is the part I enjoy most.

I also feel very comfortable being part of a team where everyone works together to create something none of us could do on our own – it’s our combined talents that make what we do possible. Plus, I enjoy creating a spectacle and seeing an audience thrilled and excited by what we all do.

I’m still completely amazed by the fact that the small sketch I’ve drawn in a few moments eventually becomes something that takes months to complete and ends up filling the entire 360-degree vision of a festivalgoer. That’s certainly something I’ll never get tired of!

I enjoy creating a spectacle and seeing an audience thrilled and excited by what we all do

Can you tell me about the process behind designing the ISY stage?
To be honest, when Fay Haixuan Wang from China Minsheng Cultural Media, the company that produces the ISY festival, first contacted us, I had no idea that there was a large island to the south of the Chinese mainland called Hainan. Research revealed that Hainan is, after Taiwan, China’s second largest island and it’s kind of China’s version of Florida, a destination where a lot of Northern Chinese snowbirds travel south to escape the winter.

They gave us a fairly simple brief – to create something that incorporated deer and flowers, in accordance with a Hainan island folkloric love story – but they added the provision that the set still needed a full-on EDM festival vibe, despite that seemingly romantic theme.

What turned out to be rather remarkable about this project was that my very first sketch pretty much encapsulated all the elements of the final design as built. That’s fairly unusual for a project like this!

I began to build on the initial idea with Charlie Cook, my co-designer. I felt we’d hit on something that would be very iconic and specific to this particular festival.

The set was built in Guangzhou, transported by truck and ferry to the festival site in Sanya and assembled onsite. Often there are cuts and changes during the construction phase – as reality begins to kick in – but the production team and the constructors managed to keep the concept intact. I’m still overwhelmed by how well everything went and by how beautifully the end result proved to be!

What unique opportunities does the Chinese live event market bring for a designer?
That’s a difficult question to answer – I think we’re right at the beginning of this wave and that this is a growing industry.

I think at the moment Chinese promoters are certainly looking to Europe and the United States to bring knowledge, talent and expertise to help them set up their local market, but production skills are growing quickly in the Chinese market.

“I felt we’d hit on something that would be very iconic and specific to this particular festival”

It’s possible this window will only be open for a while, and in the future international designers will only be called upon on occasion. The resources they have in China, plus the level of craft I witnessed in Guangzhou where the set was built, are phenomenal.

It’s also very encouraging to hear that Arcadia, who were also onsite at ISY with their Spider Stage, has signed a ten-year deal with Shanghai-based production company Split Works. The company will continue to work Arcadia’s stages in China over the coming years.

What challenges do you face as a production designer, particularly when designing for music festivals?
“Budget” is usually the first word that comes to mind, and while that’s universal for any project, festivals are definitely even more of a challenge.

In order to make any impression in a festival environment, you need to come up with something of a certain size, so you’re constantly trying to find ways to invent things that are really big but that won’t end up being too expensive.

I draw on a lifetime in the business of doing more with less and having the experience of knowing where to put the resources available in order to create the most impact. My theatrical background in tromp l’oeil (fooling the eye) certainly helps – also a working knowledge of building sets that can incorporate the talents of lighting designers and video content creators so they have the greatest opportunity to excel in what they do.

How has the production design scene changed in recent years?
That’s an easy question to answer: video!

There are some clients who are determined that video will never be a component in a set I design for them, but they are few and far between. For most of us it’s a fact of life and while it might overwhelm our designs from time to time, essentially, it’s another tool in the toolbox.

“The resources they have in China, plus the level of craft I witnessed in Guangzhou where the set was built, are phenomenal”

I think the other thing that’s changed somewhat is that clients tend to assemble teams rather than just calling on a single designer nowadays. Projects have become bigger and have more moving parts, so it’s more difficult for one person to get his or her hands around a whole project – plus projects are more technically intricate than they used to be.

What does the future hold for you and for Atomic?
We’ve come a long way in the twenty five years that Atomic has been in existence and I don’t expect that trajectory to slow down anytime soon. We design, build, produce and rent to thousands of clients every year and as long as we’re moving forward learning and embracing new technologies, and always aiming to do better at every opportunity, I see a very bright future.

Of course, we always need to stay on the cutting edge – the market is always changing, and we need to change with it. I’ve done work regularly in Japan for over twenty years, it’s a place and a culture I’m very familiar with, so I have kind of comfort zone there. Working in China is a whole new market for me to learn and to become acquainted with, but it definitely presents some very attractive and enticing opportunities, as well as a lot of possibilities for the future.

Just doing the ISY project we’ve met some amazing people. One of those people is our client Fay [Haixuan Wang] – she harbours a vision to transform her home island into an international tourist and cultural destination and she certainly seems to have the talent and abilities to turn that vision into reality. I’m hoping this is the start of a long and productive relationship, both with China Minsheng Cultural Media and with the Chinese scene in general!


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