Baz Halpin: the Irishman who made the biggest show on US television

Baz Halpin is the creative director behind some of the world’s biggest tours, and his last job was on Katy Perry’s Super Bowl spectacular. He describes the months of planning that went into its 12½ minutes, and how it was nearly scuppered by one star

 

February 1st was a good day for quite a few people who happened to find themselves in Arizona. It was a good day for fans of the New England Patriots, who saw their team win Super Bowl XLIX. It was a good day for Tom Brady, who was named most valuable player after bringing his team back from the brink to steal the cup. It was also a good day for Katy Perry, who put on a spectacular half-time performance that nearly stole the show – and has become the most-watched piece of TV in US history. It involved her riding into the stadium atop a giant lion, dancing with some very popular sharks, then rolling with Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliott before flying around the stadium on a giant firework.

It was also a day to remember for Baz Halpin, the 36-year-old Irishman who, with Perry, planned and executed her half-time performance with something close to perfection.

Halpin grew up in a family of classical musicians in Rathmines and Dublin 8, and got his first live gig, setting up events at the National Concert Hall, when he was 16. He began working in lighting; then, “one very rainy evening in Cork, hanging lights off lamp posts for Guinness”, he was offered a touring gig with Jethro Tull. A succession of tours, including a 2001 stint with Westlife, led to his first major tour as a lighting artist, on Christina Aguilera’s Stripped shows, in 2003.

By this stage Halpin had been working closely with Mark Fisher. “He’s the grandfather of the rock’n’roll spectacle. He’s the creative genius behind every Rolling Stones tour, Pink Floyd, U2” – particularly their 360° tour, which put a giant claw around the stage. “He became my mentor, and he pushed me into directing shows.”

In 2006 Pink was looking for a show director, and Fisher (who died in 2013) put him up for the job. “He called the manager and had the authority to say, ‘You should use this guy who’s never done it before, because I think he’ll be good.’ ” That tour was one of the live-music highlights of 2006-7.

Halpin moved to Los Angeles full time and set up Silent House Productions, which also counts Britney Spears, Usher, Taylor Swift, Pink, Tina Turner, George Michael, Black Sabbath and Queen among its clients. (The name Silent House is not accidental; the company has a reputation for being tight-lipped about its clients, and Halpin rarely gives interviews.)

Planning for the Super Bowl show began five months ago, and Halpin approached it like any other tour, with what sounds like a combination of military precision and a terrifying attention to detail.

“The way I work, I leave nothing to chance,” says Halpin, his accent stretched broad by his years living and working in LA. “I spend more time on the paperwork and at the front of the project, making sure everything is going to work. No stone is left unturned, down to exposure levels of cameras and how bright projectors need to be, making sure we have enough carts . . .”

The first job was to establish the show’s framework, so Perry and Halpin spent the first six weeks “discussing what kind of show we wanted, what songs, who is the audience”, while establishing all the parameters.

“You have so many restrictions. It’s not an unlimited amount of equipment or money. Everything has to be able to roll on or roll off in eight minutes. You’re humping in this huge amount of equipment in five and a half minutes; then it’s plugged in, turned on and calibrated. And there’s no margin for error on the Super Bowl.”

From there Halpin and Perry began work on the set list, which would dictate every other creative decision in the show. “We started putting together lists of songs, Katy and I texting back and forth,” he says. “Everything has to be approved by NFL. It’s a big committee for a show that scale.

“We put together an unlockable set list. We didn’t want to spend time working on something that wasn’t going to make it. We probably came up with the basic concepts – everything except for Dark Horse – in an afternoon, in an hour’s conversation.”

Those concepts develop more logically than people might think. “There’s only a couple of ways you can make an entrance in the Super Bowl. You can build a stage and come out of it, or you can walk in on something. Madonna had had the procession of guys, Beyoncé had appeared, and Black Eyed Peas had flown in, which wasn’t an option in this stadium. So when you know Roar is the first song it sort of becomes logical. Let’s just have you ride in on a giant lion.”

Working on stadium scale The giant part is the trick. “Mark Fisher invented stadium scale. So you already know the lion has to be as big as it can possibly be. And you know in that stadium, to get something in on the pitch, it’s got to be a maximum of 16ft tall.”

The lion, a beautiful object in itself, was created by Michael Curry and Charles Babbage, puppetmakers who have also built the big cat at the heart of the Lion King theatre show, a Trojan horse for Cher and an Egyptian horse for Perry.

Once the creative plan was in place the show moved into rehearsals, which meant finding a suitably large space to practise in. “We hired an arena where we just had our dancers and the lion. Simultaneously we had a football stadium in Arizona where we were rehearsing all the field-cast choreography,” says Halpin.

“I discussed it with Katy, and we said, ‘We need to have run that show 50 times.’ It’s not a particularly difficult show to perform compared to her tour. It’s only 12½ minutes, but it’s 12½ minutes to 120 million TVs on the most stressful show in the world.

“Katy and I said this is the kind of show you need to almost be on autopilot for. Katy learns so quick. She’s able to rehearse for a day and have it learned. You need to have this in your body, so that if something happens, and your brain goes somewhere else, your body keeps moving in the same direction. It’s complete muscle memory.” Shark attack After three days and three nights of solid rehearsals, Halpin says, he had “no doubts about the quality of the performance”, although he admits that he “didn’t think the sharks would get quite as big as they did. It wasn’t until the morning of the Super Bowl that I started to get nervous and think, Jesus Christ, there are so many things that could go wrong.”

A thousand and one things could have scuppered the show, and Halpin says probably the most impressive part of Perry’s performance went unseen: the dismount from that 16ft lion. “Two guys run on with a 20ft pole that they stand up vertical, and she jumps on to it and slides down like a fireman, fearlessly. She’s got 14 seconds to get down the pole, take off her gloves, walk 15ft to get on the projection surface and not be out of breath at the start of Dark Horse.”

With minutes left before the performance, the half-time show was nearly unhinged by an even bigger star than Perry. “With five minutes to go in the second quarter I’m standing outside the broadcast truck and I’m looking at the sun, which is all the way up in the sky, not down behind the mountains. It doesn’t look like it’s near sunset in the stadium. And I have this incredible wave of fear and panic: it’s not going to be dark. Without a projection it just looks like you’ve got a bunch of people in weird costumes dancing on a bed sheet.

“The first quarter had been one of the quickest in Super Bowl history, and the second quarter was on track to be just as quick. I’m sitting in the truck thinking, We’re doomed; we’re screwed.”

Just as Halpin was considering staging his own pitch invasion to run the clock down, the on-field drama crackled into life. With two minutes left on the clock the Seattle Seahawks scored a touchdown, to level the scores at 7-7. “So we cut to commercial. That buys us two to three minutes. They call a time-out, which scrapes us another few minutes.”

The New England Patriots responded with a two-minute drill that drove them up the pitch to a touchdown. But, with 30 seconds left to play, Seattle punched back, leaving the scores at 14-14 with two seconds to play in the first half.

“The last two minutes took 25 minutes to play. And we made darkness by about 20 seconds. It’s live entertainment; we couldn’t believe it. It was one of those days that just went right. But it was that close. It was terrifying.”

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