Desert bloom: how COUR designed Suki Waterhouse’s magical Coachella set

America’s most important music festival makes everyone up their game, both musically and visually. Jonny Kingsbury of COUR Design explained how they brought singer-songwriter Suki Waterhouse’s vision of an enchanted forest to life on stage.

Founded in 1999, Coachella has grown in size and stature to become America’s answer to the Glastonbury Festival in the UK. It’s held every spring in the California Desert and is known for delivering mesmerising shows that transcend the boundaries of traditional concerts and are live-streamed around the world. That makes it a huge influence on popular culture and the music industry worldwide and creates a unique experience for everyone lucky enough to attend.

With the stakes so high, every artist at Coachella seeks to make a big splash. And English singer-songwriter Suki Waterhouse – best known for her viral hit Good Looking – was no exception.

Consequently, she turned to COUR Design and asked them to craft a visual design that would grab the world’s attention by bringing an enchanted forest to life on stage.

Based in Nashville, COUR is a consortium of experienced designers and creative producers who work on live entertainment events and installations. Focusing on creative problem-solving techniques and a technology-forward design process, they strive to provide clients with unique solutions for executing live visual experiences.

We were keen to hear how they did this for Suki, who’s also known as a successful model and actress. So we sat down with creative director Jonny Kingsbury to discover the secrets of their design and build of this spectacular show.

Theme park inspiration

The process began in a whirlwind back in February, with a tight timeline because Suki was pregnant with her and her partner Robert Pattinson’s first child. “It was kind of a mad dash to try and get some version of the show finished, put together and rendered out before she had her baby,” Jonny recalls.

The initial design inspiration struck when Jonny and Suki’s creative director realised they were both drawn to the immersive wooded environment featured in the queue for the E.T. ride at Universal Studios Orlando.

“So we took that and ran with it,” says Jonny. “The designs needed to be immersive, replicating the vibe that a theme park creates with their environment and rides.”

Renderings from reality

Translating this enchanting vision to the Coachella stage was an intricate undertaking that blurred the lines between the digital and physical realms.

Jonny prioritised sourcing realistic flora to serve as the basis for the fantastical forest. He enlisted art director Payton Newcomer to scour movie prop houses across Los Angeles in search of specific trees, flowers, ferns and other vegetation inspired by his detailed references.

“I’d be like, ‘Hey, I like this tree, this flower, this willow tree, this cherry tree, these ferns,'” explains Jonny. “Payton would go to prop houses and find things close to the references, send me photos, and we started narrowing it down.”

Once they secured the botanical pieces, animators recreated them as hyper-realistic 3D models. Jonny notes the irony in this. Usually, the stage design process is the other way around: first, visualise in 3D, then build the physical models. “But I didn’t want to render up something that I couldn’t find in real life,” he explains.

The resulting 3D render deck captured the whimsical forest environment with astounding realism. “Maybe two or three weeks after the initial concept, I put together a deck of the 3D images and showed it to Suki,” he recalls. “She was like, ‘Wow, yeah, I love this. This is amazing.'”

When Suki arrived for rehearsals five weeks later, she was stunned to discover the physical set mirrored the renders to an uncanny degree.

“She walked in and said, ‘This looks exactly like the renders. Fantastic!'” recounts Jonny. “That’s kind of the goal – when you deliver a render, you want it to be true to life and accurate to what you’re putting on the stage.”

Technical wizardry elevates the magic

While the props formed the lush foundation of the forest, COUR Design’s technical prowess amplified the enchantment with lighting artistry and dazzling video landscapes.

“The approach we took with video content was pretty unusual,” notes Jonny. Rather than crafting different visuals for each song, they constructed an evolving and continuous forest scene that expanded the physical set into a living, breathing environment. Housing the Coachella performance in a 3D Unreal Engine environment, they animated the digital forest using the same 3D assets as the physical build.

“We essentially took all the same props – the trees, flowers – and put them into this 3D environment to look like the forest on stage, with a river, moon and stars,” he explains. Environmental elements such as luminescent trees and celestial effects ebbed and flowed dynamically with the music’s energy.

“We had to work on those two elements – the lighting programming and 3D video – to make it all cohesive,” says Jonny. The video content’s fluidity seamlessly melded the physical and virtual realms into a dreamlike woodland realm under the warm glow of that distinctive desert moon.

Backstage at the ‘Super Bowl’ of festivals

For a creative director, the relentless work doesn’t cease until the final note rings out. As Jonny puts it, “The job doesn’t end after rehearsals – there’s a lot of work to be done on-site as well.” So, two days before Suki’s performance, the team descended on the hallowed Coachella grounds to construct their forest oasis.

Jonny likens Coachella’s stature to “the Super Bowl of festival productions,” an unparalleled platform where the world’s most iconic acts vie to deliver their boldest creative spectacles. “An artist can’t just go up on stage – there’s an expectation to have the best production of the year at Coachella,” he points out.

The COUR Design crew spent Thursday meticulously installing the Enchanted Forest, making real-time adjustments to optimise sightlines, account for spatial quirks of the actual stage, and ensure the set translated flawlessly to the live-stream camera angles.

“Even during the actual show, it’s this mad dash to put it all on in 30 minutes or less,” says Jonny. “You’ve got stagehands rebuilding it how you set it up on Thursday, but there’s always something that gets lost in the dash.”

Jonny staffed the front-of-house operations throughout Suki’s performance, making any necessary lighting and video tweaks to keep the forest glistening in its full splendour. “We also have a video feed to see what it looks like on the livestream,” he notes, “so we’re adjusting stuff on the fly to make it look better.”

A moment to remember

Within their Imaginarium of make-believe, COUR Design had helped Suki translate her artistic vision into a living, breathing reality: a whimsical woodland escape for artists and audiences to inhabit.

A forest-like backdrop filled with trees and plants breathing life into the stage. A symphony of lights choreographed to perfection. Fireflies danced among the branches, casting an enchanting glow onto the audience. Bespoke video content that seamlessly extended Suki’s woodland realm beyond the stage.

And just for a moment, Coachella goers were whisked away to a magical realm: just the sort of festival memory that lasts a lifetime.

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