It’s the most stressful non-football-related 15 minutes of the Super Bowl. But ask the visual effects team behind Justin Timberlake‘s eye-popping halftime show on Sunday (Feb. 4) what the hardest part of putting together a hits-packed blitz that played out over 9 different stages (plus all of downtown Minneapolis) was, and their answer is simple: all of it, really.
“JT is always pushing us to move in new directions and explore new tech so that we can create moments that extend the musicality of what we do and create unique visual moments,” Fireplay’s Nick Whitehouse tells Billboard in an email interview. “That’s very exciting for me specially to have the trust of an artist to be able to do that.”
Fireplay was the visual creative lead for the halftime show, as part of a massive crew involved in the production, which also included Timberlake’s creative team and his choreography squad (Marty Kudelka and AJ Harpold), musical director Adam Blackstone, halftime producer Ricky Kirshner’s Touchdown Entertainment team, director Hamish Hamilton, production designer Bruce Rodgers, lighting designer Bob Barnhart and Mass Cast Choreographer Kristen Terry.
With so many different stages and environments packed into the performance, Whitehouse says there wasn’t an overall theme, per se, other than just trying to use as much space inside U.S. Bank Stadium as possible in a new and interesting way, and to “establish a landscape which would showcase choreography, musicianship and old school showmanship.” While Whitehouse says Timberlake was “very involved” in coming up with the show, and offered up some “genius concepts,” it really took a village to pull it all off.
“[He] surrounds himself with very talented people and is a master of inspiring the development of those ideas within his team and in this case the Superbowl producers and designers who we worked alongside,” he says. “So whilst the overall concept came directly from JT, the way it came to life and the final design has evolved over the past months through a real solid collaborate between all of us as one.”
Aside from Justin’s Stella McCartney-designed woodsy-themed outfit, Whitehouse says the overall idea was not to necessarily ape the rustic Man of the Woods vibe, but to come up with a performance that could stand on its own. There was, of course, one moment that had a very specific theme, though, the tribute to Minneapolis’ favorite son, Prince.
Contrary to a report that surfaced after the big game, Whitehouse says there was never a plan to use a hologram to beam the late rock icon into the stadium for the “I Would Die 4 U” virtual duet. “There was no hologram,” he says. “It’s impossible to create a hologram in a 360˚ stadium environment. We never contemplated the idea. We were, however, lucky enough that Bruce [Rogers] and Bob [Barnhart] from the halftime team were the creatives who worked with Prince to make the famous silhouette moment happen in Prince’s own  halftime performance.”
As the planning started months ago, Timberlake asked for that iconic image as part of the show, and Whitehouse says the process leading up to the big day was firmly focused on honoring and being respectful of one of the greatest halftime performances of all time.
“To make it happen, the halftime team, JT team and Prince estate all worked together to design and facilitate this beautiful tribute,” he says. “When it finally came together back in January, we knew that it would be one of the standout moments in the show. The biggest technical challenge was balancing airflow and merging multiple projectors, a silk with projection that large and bright in any stadium is tough, each night at rehearsals it would improve, and finally on game day Bruce and his team nailed it!”
He also pulled back the curtain on one of the most stirring images: what appeared to be most of downtown Minneapolis, bathed in purple lights, with Prince’s famous glyph wrapping around the stadium.
“This came from one of those JT genius ideas,” he says. “He said to us ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could light up all of Minneapolis Purple’ as we discussed ideas of how to pay a fitting tribute to the city and it evolved from there. As for how we did it, all I’m going to say is it took an amazing amount of effort and co-ordination over many months by Ricky, Hamish, [director] Bruce and Bob in bringing this idea to life and I think they pulled it off in a way far better than we had ever imagined.”