[Exclusive] U2's Tour Visuals, and the Astrophotographer Who Made Them at CERN

What happens when the biggest machine in the world meets the biggest rock band on the planet?

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Jul 24 2015, 1:50pm

Exclusive images courtesy the artist, unless otherwise marked

What happens when arguably the biggest rock band in the world asks you to make visuals for their world tour? Well, if you're astrophotographer, timelapse artist, and photography world satirist Jeff Frost, whose jaw-dropping footage of wildfires and riots appeared on our site last year, and that band happens to be U2, you say yes.

Regardless of your thoughts on finding last year's Songs of Innocence (Island Records) magically appear on your iPhone, or the irony of watching The Edge fall off the edge of a stage, there's no question now that the visuals for their iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour are out of this world. As the story goes, Bono and the gang had seen Frost's photos—“Jeff, we’ve become fans of your work," Frost tells The Creators Project about first meeting the musicians—and liked it enough to enlist him in their tour design process, alongside show director Willie Williams, set designer Es Devlin, and choreographer Morleigh Steinberg. They sent Frost to CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland so that he could capture footage to evoke the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour's theme: the "neural net of humanity."

For Frost, incorporating images from CERN, a server farm, and his past work in timelapse and astrophotography, had him reconnecting with the band's music in a way he hadn't felt since he was a kid. "When I was contacted for this gig I started to listen to all the old records again, and I found myself amazed that I had ever lost touch," he says. He shares one particular favorite with filmmaker Aoife McArdle, whose U2-inspired masterpiece debuted on The Creators Project back in February: "'Every Breaking Wave' has become my favorite U2 song," Frost confesses. "It’s beautiful, it’s heartbreaking and it’s me."

Since the tour kicked off in May, Frost has gotten to capture his work the it was meant to be seen, i.e. in a massive stadium in front of thousands of people. On Saturday night, U2 came to New York City, beginning a three-week-long stint at Madison Square Garden, so we decided to check in with Frost, and told us about making art with the Large Hadron Collider, his rebellious adolescence, and shooting footage from the edge of The Edge's balcony.

The Creators Project: How long have you been listening to U2?

Jeff Frost: I grew up listening to U2, REM, Depeche Mode, etc. I remember acquiring the entirety of U2’s back catalogue on CD up to Rattle and Hum by signing up to Columbia House several times in the early 90s. Eventually the post office itself caught on to my little scheme, and told me I could no longer receive mail under my first, middle and nicknames as separate people. They told me they were going to send all the mail received under those names back. By then I had already amassed some 50 CDs. Sorry about that one, Columbia House; I was young and I got in over my head. Postal service retribution was swift and mild mannered. What could I do?

When I was contacted for this gig I started to listen to all the old records again, and I found myself amazed that I had ever lost touch. The music is just as relevant as the day it came out. Even their new work was really getting through. Every Breaking Wave has become my favorite U2 song. It’s beautiful, it’s heartbreaking and it’s me.

How did you get in contact with U2's and CERN's people?

The director of the show, Willie Williams came to me and said he was trying to figure out a way to represent the ‘neural net of humanity.’ I said, “Great! Send me to CERN and a server farm.” I didn’t think they’d really do it, but U2 has a history of being very pro-science. Their last tour featured a live link to astronauts on the International Space Station who spoke to the audience; this one has a recorded message from Stephen Hawking. Turns out people in the U2 camp know people (thanks, Smasher!), so off I went to Switzerland and France. I still can’t believe it happened.

What was it like making art at CERN?

[The Large Hadron Collider], for those who don’t know, is the biggest machine mankind has ever created. It’s a 22 mile ring of magnets 100 meters underground that smashes particles together at nearly the speed of light. The pieces of the particles go flying into gigantic particle “cameras” (detectors) the largest of which is seven stories tall. There are thousands of scientists from countries that are normally mortal enemies such as India, Pakistan, Israel and Iran all working together trying to figure out what the Universe is made of at a very small scale. It is a real life manifestation of the best traits of mankind on a grand scale.

Once the teams for the various different experiments got wind that some guy was coming around shooting for the U2 tour they got very competitive trying to outdo each other to accommodate my crazy requests. I’d go into an experiment and basically say, “Hello, could you please halt the scientific progress of humankind and turn off the lights for four hours so I can make some pretty pictures?” At one experiment (Aegis) housed in the Antimatter Factory (yes, really) a young physicist named Ruggero made lasers for us from scratch because he thought they would make the photos look better (he was right, they did). The site photographer, Max lent me his expensive camera setup for the entire week without a second thought. They even called a certified electrician to unscrew a pesky emergency light that couldn’t be shut off.

At one point I was talking with the physicist who made this awesome metal song out of data acquired by the experiment. I mentioned being allowed to go UNDER the largest detector, ATLAS. He told me that they won’t even let him go under there. They really pulled out all the stops, and I can’t thank them enough. The uninitiated should watch the fantastic Particle Fever documentary for an introduction to the madness and magic of CERN.

Jeff Frost and the U2 team shooting at CERN, © 2015 CERN

How involved was U2 in the whole process?

I’m really not the type to get star struck, but when Bono came up to me in my first creative meeting with the band and said (in front of everyone), “Jeff, we’ve become fans of your work.” I heard myself say in awkward slow motion, “I’ve been listening to you since I was a kid!” I probably sounded like a kid. Bono didn’t miss a beat and replied, “Well, my how you’ve grown.” Another great moment happened in rehearsal where Bono paused to remark, “Beautiful Jeff Frost, beautiful,” from the stage. Too bad I missed it. I was out shooting! I also did several shots from the balcony of The Edge’s hotel room on the 67th floor. All of this is to say, the band were very present and involved.

The team of people working in various roles was brilliant from top to bottom and included Willie Williams (show director), Es Devlin (set designer), Morleigh Steinberg (choreographer), Sam Pattinson, Gavin Friday and a phenomenal team of video editors and graphic designers: Ben Nicholson, Casey Hupke, Chris Shone, Luke Halls and Dave Shepherd.

Willie would come to me with songs that needed content, give me notes on what might possibly work, and then leave me to my own devices to sketch in the building blocks. After a working copy was created the visuals were road tested in rehearsals. Then notes were given, directions changed (sometimes radically) and refinements made. This process was repeated nearly every single day for weeks on end. It was a great environment because everyone left their ego at the door and we all just helped each other out.

How do the photos interact with the music?

"Where the Streets Have No Name"—there’s some kind of strange energy at work in the desert. It permeates the work I’ve done there just as it permeates the entire Joshua Tree album. The visuals consist of desert scenes and optical illusions I painted on abandoned houses. Most of the paintings were done in the same general area as the Joshua Tree album cover. The song ends with a timelapse clip of concentric circles created by light painting with the stars in the sky. It matches perfectly with the hypnotic echoing guitar outro of the song. I think this is the shot that Bono remarked on in rehearsals.

For "City of Blinding Lights," I’ve been working on a technique I call ‘reverse light painting’ for the last couple years for a new short film, Circuit Board Species. Instead of waving lights around in front of a camera, you wave a camera around in front of lights. Simple idea, but the execution can be incredibly difficult. I’m not just creating a single image; I’m creating a time lapse out of thousands of images. The band saw a preview of this uncompleted film, which featured abstractions of Los Angeles, and it seemed like an obvious fit. This is the song that features the shots I did on The Edge’s hotel balcony.

Did you see connections between the structure and U2 while you were taking pictures, or were they put together afterword?

Both. Some of the content was adapted from my art films, which have been passed around a bit. In fact, this is how the band found me: purely by word of mouth. So don’t let someone tell you it’s all about who you know. Who you know trails behind what you do. Other work was shot by request or to fit certain songs ("City of Blinding Lights," "Miracle Drug"). The beauty of all of this is that I’ll be able to use that same content along with a mountain of material that didn’t wind up being used for the tour to complete my own film.

What else are you working on? How are you planning on topping this?

I’ve been working on two new films simultaneously for the past year and a half. I mentioned the first, Circuit Board Species, which is a celebration of man and technology through the eyes of an alien in a meat-suit. The second is a film focused on timelapsing wildfires at night. It’s a tacit condemnation of the abuses man has heaped on nature (and himself) through consumerism. I set out to make two films at once that are fundamentally at odds with each other. 

Take an exclusive look at Frost's visuals for U2's iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour in the images below:

Check out more of Jeff Frost's work on his website. Find U2's iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour dates here.

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