TREATMENT | Two Creative Minds, One Creative Studio

A conversation on Treatment's recent work with John Mayer

Written by

Mecca Woodson

Photographed by

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Set design is merely a blanket term for the type of work that creative agency, Treatment Studio renders. Logistics, inventiveness, and more importantly, the element of surprise, are all factors that go into what the agency seems to execute so seamlessly. Whether they are conceptualizing sets for an intimate gig or an elaborate production for a sold-out tour, Treatment Studio has transfigured stages, designing serpentine setups attuned to any given artist and their work. The delicate art of set design is something that Treatment is dexterous in, alchemizing a euphoric, live experience for concertgoers and music junkies alike. 

Founded by industry pioneers, Willie Williams and Sam Pattinson, the award-winning studio’s endeavors integrate multidisciplinary design and production practices in the art and entertainment universe, producing some deeply revered results. Having worked with megastars from The Rolling Stones to Elton John for his remarkable yellow-brick road tour, Treatment has earned acclaim for being maestros of their craft, perfecting the technical details and artistic nature of their given projects. 

More recently, Treatment worked with Grammy-award-winning singer-songwriter, John Mayer on his solo tour, fashioning over 25 pieces of content into a showpiece of projection and LED screens. Vast landscapes and architecture, to sprightly paintings and lighting pieces accompany the singer; the after-effect being an impressionistic lo-fi aesthetic show for Mayer’s most personal show thus far. Mayer’s U.S. solo tour will be conclude on November 10th at the Kia Forum in LA and will takeoff for the Europe leg next year.

We spoke with the clever minds behind Treatment about working with John Mayer, their creative process, and the intent behind their work. 

What do you feel is state of the art about the Creative Direction for this tour ?

Working on a Solo show with John was a really refreshing challenge. The prospect of a stripped back and less technically complicated show was exciting.  It meant we had to rethink some of the givens when working with a band. Everything from the interaction with screen content, lighting, IMAG [camera work] and stage position needed to be reimagined to focus on John alone. We soon learned that there were clear creative advantages when focusing on a single performer. 

Our video Creative Directors Noah Campeau and Damian Hale designed content that didn’t overwhelm theperformance, we used the content sparingly with an emphasis on cameras. 

As the cameras don’t need to cover multiple performers, our Director Mike Duque was able to layer the camera work around John’s performance. So we could sit on one shot of John for longer, this meant we could focus on framing and composition as opposed to a busy cut. The same applies to our Lighting Designer, Ethan Webber. In order to focus on the performance he simplified the programming, starting with subtle and sometimes static lighting looks building into more intense and frenetic states toward the end of the show. 

The projection on John at the top of the show felt very strong to us and is a bold and atmospheric way to start a show, especially a solo performance. We also used a new live key effect to great effect from Notch, giving us some startingly original looks.

So we feel that this combination and approach created an original, contemporary and unique experience.

What do you feel is classic?

I think this is not what most people would expect for an acoustic show. The choice of video content, the subtle lighting and camera work create a sophisticated environment for John’s astonishing performances. John has three positions on stage. Seated, standing and piano. Simple and strong. Each space used in a different and distinct way. 

Our TD Brandon Kraemer created several grades for the cameras, combined with Mike Duque’s camera work, gives us some really classy shots of John. With less people and equipment on stage we get clearer backdrops and cleaner looks, we could bring the jib arm closer in and get more intimate shots of John. Looks like the projection on John at the top of the show were more achievable.  Notch’s background deletion was easier to apply due to the cleaner backdrops.

So overall the cleaner stage design and stripped back approach creates a sophisticated and elegant show.

What challenges were faced in bringing this to life ?

Part of the brief was to come up with a simpler stage design. Let’s see if we can produce a beautiful environment for less money and in less time than usual. We also needed to get as much out of the physical and video assets we had at our disposal. Shedding the burden of an expensive and overly complicated production was cathartic for our entire team and inspired some great results. 

Whereas the design process of other tours usually starts with a visual theme, based on an album campaign for instance, the design process for this tour was focused on John’s performance. So the client gave us carte blanche to come up with interesting ideas and looks. Whatever looked and felt good. 

I designed a 10 foot high and 40 foot wide curved light wall that sits upstage, in response to Johns direction, to make the performance space intimate whilst the show feels big. The wall is made of vertical slats with LED strips embedded on the back edge throwing light on to the adjacent slat, the effect has a beautiful quality to it, a good contrast to LED. This gave us a clean backdrop to frame John which really helped the camera work. 

The show gradually evolves throughout the set, which echoes the diversity of John’s music and performance. The light wall is hidden by the LED wall at the top of the show to focus everything on to John. As the show evolves and builds we reveal the light wall, additional lighting fixtures and bigger content looks.

The artist requires the flexibility to change the set list every show so we have devised a system where we can allocate a single video or lighting look to several different songs. Whatever he decides to play we can match it visually, another challenge we really enjoyed.

What sort of references or source materials were used to drive the process ?

While John always has a really strong vision for his shows, he is one of those artists that doesn’t need to be propped up by the production design and the visual aspect of the show. He could deliver an enthralling performance in a single spotlight. That’s a great starting point for us, it means we could be confident and look for interesting and original ideas so the references were intentionally atypical choices for this kind of a show. The advantage for us is twofold. It means there is no pressure to over design the show; and while the show is very full from an aesthetic perspective we could really focus on design and develop our ideas. Quality over quantity. 

Describe your process with Mr Mayer ? How do you arrive at concepts ? What the execution like ?

John is a great patron. We have designed his shows since the Born and Raised tour in 2013. He has exceptionally good visual reference due to his broad knowledge of contemporary art and design, so his reference is always fresh and unexpected. Over the years the reference has been everything from Monument Valley road trips to ancient Chinese ceramic design to contemporary opera design. So we start with a solid outline of what he’s trying to achieve. We then focus on the stage design and concepts. This usually takes a few rounds before we find the solution. At the same time we put together boards that expand on his ideas for screen content and suggest new ideas in response to his overall direction. He then lets us get on with it, working to a loose approvals structure, so there’s a lot of trust involved. The creative team responds really well to this trust and structure so we end up with a lot of solid ideas to work with.

Noah Campeau, Video Content Co Creative Director adds: My immediate impression was that we needed to offer a raw and intimate experience for the live audience. Consequently, we aimed to create video content that delivered authenticity and emotional depth.  The overall video design needed to feel like a considered body of work, while accommodating a diverse range of visual styles and ideas. As a team, we drew inspiration from the realms of cinema and art, ultimately resulting in a low-fi, authentic ambience for the video design.

What is a feeling you hope participants come away with ? 

What we do enhances the audiences experience, but our greatest achievement is finding harmony with John’s performance. It’s extraordinary how he can capture an arena audience with a solo and acoustic performance. There just aren’t that many artists that can do that. So I hope the audience are able to immerse themselves in John’s music and performance and appreciate his extraordinary musicianship and repertoire while not being distracted by an overbearing and unnecessary stage production.

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Treatment Studio, John Mayer, Willie Williams, Sam Pattinson