It may seem redundant to say that video took top honors when the MTV Video Music Awards were broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on August 31, 2006. But video was indeed one of the major design elements, from LED screens in ornate gilded picture frames creating kinetic décor on stage, to the proscenium arch and the side walls of the world-famous Radio City auditorium literally wrapped in digital wallpaper. Combined with wow-factor lighting designs by Allen Branton, this year's VMAs show took off in new directions, as stars such as Beyoncé, Shakira, and the Black Eyed Peas strutted off the stage and out into the house, in a celebration of hip-hop culture and the bling generation.

They wanted to bring the stars into the middle of the crowd. This lends more energy to the show, and you need a lot of energy for it to come through on TV,” Branton explains. “They brought in a new producer and director this year,” he adds, referring to Hamish Hamilton and his team, who made the show more like the MTV Europe Video Music Awards. This was also the first year that London-based architect/scenic designer Mark Fisher designed the show, although he has worked on numerous other projects for MTV in the past.

From wailing sirens and wildly rotating police beacons for Beyoncé to a bare stage revealing the back wall of Radio City Music Hall for Christina Aguilera, each performer on the show has a unique look. Justin Timberlake opened the show with a big scenic look of his own, with Element Labs Versa Tubes on the front of a giant mirror ball cut in half, with the band sitting inside. After the first song performed in front of the ball, it rotated to reveal the band and a linear array of color changing Versa Tubes. “All of the acts put the lighting in our hands,” says Branton. “I speak to each artist about his or her time slot in the show, what song will be performed, and what the production elements are going to be. Sometimes the artists add props or an orchestra or 30 dancers. It's like a nuclear arms race: they all want to look their best.”

Branton describes Fisher's set as “a Pictures At An Exhibition scenario,” with the video screens inside the floating gold-leaf picture frames. Placed among the frames were concentric half-circles of truss, creating scenic arches increasing in size from downstage to upstage as lighting positions for automated luminaires, along with overhead and front-of-house trusses. “There was so much scenery, the lighting rig was not hung to make a statement,” says Branton. “It was a more utilitarian situation.”

In the auditorium itself, the lighting was two-pronged, with a central “spine” or 60'×40' grid over the center of the room, augmented by low side light positions, and as the artists strutted down the central runway, they were accented with followspots. Branton's color choices were driven by the video content. “I got storyboards from the people who created the video, and we basically tried to compose our cues to be complementary to what would be seen,” he explains. “The light levels had to be bright enough for television yet not wash out the video. We used the Pegasus high-def truck from MTV, and you don't really need all that much light anymore.”

Branton notes that the most difficult element was the video projected on the sidewalls of the auditorium, with images up to 100' wide. “We made tests over the summer to work out how much it would take to make that wall bright enough,” he says. “The lighting was keyed to the brightness of the wall. We base-lined everything to that. With television, we always choose something as the exposure level, then trim the levels from all the camera angles so it looks natural to the viewing audience, although not very natural in real life.”

The lighting package, provided primarily by New York City-based Scharff Weisberg (John Healy, project manager; Chris McMeen, sales), is 95% automated with a range of Vari-Lite luminaries including 62 VL500Bs, 54 VL2500 spots, 51 VL2500 washes, 30 VL3500, 10 VL1000 TS, 40 VL3000 spots, and 41 VL3000 washes, plus 25 Martin Professional Atomic Strobes with color scrollers, 60 Altman SpectraPARs, and 70 Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12s. The conventional side of the package included 36 ETC Source Four ellipsoidal spots, 30 ETC Source Four PARs, and standard 1kW PARs. Syncrolites hung on upstage trusses were used as backlight in certain numbers (including those for Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé) when the scenic arches were not used.

Chris McMeen, director of theatre and special events at Scharff Weisberg, coordinated the lighting package, including 360 custom glass gobos made by Apollo for the VMA show. “These are now in stock, and include specific breakup patterns that Allen Branton requested. Some were used as aerial effects in the VL3000s,” notes McMeen. Some of the images lingered dramatically behind the performers in fog provided by eight Martin/Jem ZR33 Hi-Mass fog machines.

The show was programmed and run on a pair of MA Lighting grandMA consoles, with eight grandMA Network Signal Processor units (see full list on page 38). The lighting directors/programmers were Kevin Lawson and Felix Peralta. “The biggest challenges to the lighting were the restrictions created by all the projection in the house,” says Lawson. “We had to be careful about ambient light levels and where we could position the lights. We wanted the grid in the top center of the room to be as far out of the main picture as possible.”

With the stage runway jutting out into the house, the audience on each side had to be lit as they were often seen on camera. VL5000B incandescent wash lights were used to light these VIP seating areas. “It was like a giant mosh-pit environment on the floor,” notes Lawson. “The lighting challenge was to create a separation between the beautiful people and the fans. The audience lighting was darker, less about faces and more about bodies and energy. It was almost more like a rock concert than an awards show.”

A SEA OF VIDEO

“You were surrounded by video anywhere you looked,” says Mark Fisher, who notes that the basic theme of the show was “fame, luxury, and wealth as seen through the eyes of these musicians. There is a whole language of luxury that is part of the pop MTV generation, and for them, fame means having your photograph everywhere, and wealth means extravagant jewelry, clothes, and shoes. It's a celebration of a culture that believes that happiness can be bought.”

To cover the stage with the video “photos” of the rich and famous, Fisher created a flown array of 16 LED video screens of various sizes, each mounted in a classical ornate gilt picture frame (built by Global Scenic in Los Angeles) and flown from CyberHoist CH1000 one-ton motors and CH500 half-ton motors. The screens, nine of which were constantly in motion throughout the show, were used to show a combination of IMAG footage, specially created graphics, captions, and visual effects. Kish Rigging, main rigging contractor to the MTV Video Music Awards, used a CyberHoist/InMotion 3D motion control system to accomplish complex, multi-cue movements with straightforward, user-friendly programming, near-silent operation, and millimeter accuracy. “It provided the MTV VMAs' design team with flexibility and precision of movement that no other system could come close to,” says Kish Rigging's project manager JR Cassidy. The system was supplied to Kish Rigging by Flashlight in Holland, along with senior programmer Jim Allison and technician Pieter Jaap Visser.

As if the video screens in the frames and the large video images on the sidewalls were not enough, Fisher engaged the talents of Tait Towers in Lititz, PA to design thousands of ingenious custom brackets that could attach additional screens to the balcony fronts and choral stairs on each side of the stage, without causing any damage to the auditorium. Additional gold frames were used behind the presenter positions as well, adding video to just about every shot of the show and creating an interesting contrast between the cutting-edge video “pictures” and their ornate gold frames. Tait Towers also created the runway and a special stage lift for Beyoncé.

“We worked closely with Allen Branton to determine the lighting positions,” says Fisher, whose concepts were coordinated by NYC-based art director Anne Brahic. In this case, the lighting and video worked hand-in-hand to create an eye-popping environment for each star, such as Shakira dancing barefoot dressed as the star of a Bollywood movie or Beyoncé in thigh-high black boots and a trench coat in a simulated jail breakout scene. The video content was implemented by a team including producer Lee Lodge and director Richard Turner.

The video screens and projectors were provided by the DeKalb, IL-based Nocturne Productions, who also had a playback trailer parked outside. To project the 100'-wide × 30'-high images along the side walls, Nocturne opted for nine 20K Barco FLM R20 projectors per side of the auditorium, in three triple stacks, with Synergix edge-blending software to create a seamless image. Six additional projectors of the same model were placed at back of the balcony to project on an act curtain, or light gray scrim, hanging just in front of the first electric, and four more projected the images on the eyebrow around the proscenium arch.

The gold frames were filled with a total of 553 Barco ILite 6 LED tiles creating images of varying sizes, with a total of 512 Barco ILite 10 LED tiles serving as “zippers,” or long narrow screens on the balcony fronts and just under the large images on the walls. “The designers wanted to create an all encompassing video fill for every possible camera angle and really tie the room together,” says Dave Panscik, project manager for Nocturne. To drive the images, a total of 21 Barco D320 LED Processors were located behind each screen. “I was teasing Michael Tait,” Panscik adds. “They provided such great functional design; everything was incredibly accurate, as always.”

Video content playback was via seven high-definition Grass Valley Turbo iDDR (Intelligent Digital Disk Recorder) units with images routed through Vista Spyder video processors for the high-definition feeds to the side walls, eyebrow and zippers, and through Barco's Encore video processing system for the standard definition LED images in the picture frames. “Projecting right onto large off-white walls presented quite a challenge,” says Dave Lemmick, director of engineering for Nocturne. “The Barco 20K had just been released and it was big enough and bright enough. It was so cutting-edge we called it bleeding-edge.”

MTV's Video Music Awards are not traditional in terms of televised awards show, and this year's high-concept production raised the bar even higher. Lemmick sums it up: “The designers wanted to take you out of Radio City Music Hall and into a sphere of imagery that was not just eye-candy, but footage in tune with each artist and each award, including graphics and words.” As a result, the venerable 74-year old Art Deco venue was transformed into a veritable temple of pop culture and digital imagery.

MTV 2006 Video Music Awards Equipment and Crew Lists

Lighting (Scharff Weisberg, Syncrolite Inc., TriCity Photon Research)

62 Vari-Lite VL500B

54 Vari-Lite VL2500 Spot

51 Vari-Lite VL2500 Wash

30 Vari-Lite VL3500 Spot

40 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spot

41 Vari-Lite VL3000 Wash

10 Vari-Lite VL1000 TS

32 Morpheus PanaBeam XR2 Wash Light

20 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash

10 Syncrolite SX3K

10 Syncrolite MX1000

120 Element Labs Versa Tube

60 Altman SpectraPAR w/MFL Lens

70 Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12

36 ETC Source 4 Ellipsoidal

30 ETC Source 4 PARs WFL

30 PAR64 Black, 1kW

3 6-Lamp PAR Bar, VNSP

4 2kW Fresnels w/ Screens and Barn Doors

12 1kW Mini-Broad as Footlight

24 Silver Birdie

5 ETC 48 channel Sensor Dimmer Rack

2 ETC 24 channel Sensor Dimmer Rack

3 Strong Super Trouper Followspot

3 Strong Short Throw Super Trouper

5 Lycian Stark Lite 1271

2 MA Lighting grandMA Console

8 MA Lighting Network Signal Processor

Effects

25 Martin Atomic Strobe w/Color Scroller

4 Reel Efx DF-50 Hazer

2 Martin/Jem ZR33 Hi-Mass Fog Machine

2 Reel EFX Fan (plus 6 Box Fan, 2 Snail Fan)

Projection Equipment (Nocturne)

553 Barco ILite 6 LED Tile

512 Barco ILite 10 LED Tile

21 Barco D320 LED Processor

28 Barco FLM R20 Video Projector

6 Vista Systems Video Processor (3 353s and 1 each 364, 344, and 240)

6 Barco Encore Video Processor

7 Thomas Grass Valley Turbo iDDR High Def Digital Disk Recorder

2 Sierra 16×16 HDSDI Router

1 Sierra 32×32 SDI Router

1 Sierra 18×18 DVI Router

Production Credits

Production/scenic designer: Mark Fisher

Lighting designer: Allen Branton

Lighting directors: Tom Beck, Kevin Lawson, Felix Peralta

Head gaffer: David Oakes

Gaffer: Brad Hafer

Crew: Russel Keitel, Brett Pulwalksi, David Hunkins, McClain Moss

Lighting coordinator: Liberty Bock

Lighting assistant: Brian Tylke

Nocturne Video Crew

Screen playback engineering: David Lemmink

Assist screen engineer: Bob Larkin

Project managers: David Panscik, Robert Cooper

Screen playback: Marcia Kapustin

Spyder operator: Mike Taylor

Projectionists: Brian Alexander, Tom Marconi, Chip Thorp, Karl Mehrer

LED/projection: Carlos Gutierrez, Troy Baccheschi

LED techs: Carson Austin, Brett Thierbach, Adam Dragosin, Steven Burkholder

Playback utility: Jay Strasser