This year, the American Music Awards got a new set design, created by Los Angeles firm Shaffner & Stewart in Los Angeles. The venue — L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium — provided production designer Joe Stewart a large canvas on which to design a new, modern look.


“The stage is 100ft. wide and 80ft. deep,” Stewart says. “It literally is the largest stage west of the Mississippi.”

That size also allowed Stewart, who has been a stage production designer since 1987 with partner Joe Shaffner, the room to experiment with new design approaches. Among them: the use of Airstar lighting balloons, which were used as a design element, not just a lighting source, during a musical segment featuring Elton John and Tim McGraw performing John's Tiny Dancer.

Stewart wanted to create a look of saturated colors, lighting, and bubbles. Working with art director Tina Miller, he created a stage design that incorporated the balloons — provided by France-based Airstar's Los Angeles office.

At the back of the stage, behind the balloons, Stewart set up a 30'×40' projection screen, tipped for the presentation at an 8-degree angle to make the look unique. The display team masked and framed the images to project a 16×9 aspect ratio onscreen, displaying rear-projected images designed by Ron Andreassen (along with all the other images used at the show) of bubbles moving toward and away from the screen. They were projected using Digital Projection 15sx DLP units, supplied by Norm Levin & Company, Hermosa Beach, Calif.

“We were trying to get modern with the 16×9, but the tipping posed a heat problem,” Stewart says, referring to the need to better cool the projector's lamp, because the unit was placed at an 8-degree angle. “That was fixed with additional exhaust fans, mainly as a precaution to prevent the lamp from overheating, and even possibly exploding.”

He adds that the rear-projection also posed a challenge because of the short focal length. “We couldn't move downstage any further, or we would run into the electric. So we dealt with it and ran a black line around the screen, like a matte on a painting.”

The Airstar units were theatrically lit from the outside and glowed from within using their own light source. The units, which are normally used on the other side of the cameras as production lighting, functioned solidly as a design element, requiring no special rigging.

“They were floated straight up from the floor, measured at different heights, then connected to the dimmer board to control the intensity,” says Todd Wimett, general manager of Airstar, Los Angeles.

The main technical challenge of the show, Stewart adds, was the Shania Twain segment.

“Shania wanted to make an entrance on stage and conclude in the balcony with the audience around her,” Stewart explains. “I had to design and engineer a stairway that could be set on a commercial break, rise up from the orchestra to the balcony, and wouldn't break or sway. We worked with a manufacturer in Pennsylvania [Tate Towers] to create the stairway, with the artist, her management, and the Los Angeles Fire Department to make it happen.”

Send potential submissions for the CenterStage column to Michael Goldman, SRO senior editor, at mgoldman@primediabusiness.com.