Design Crucial in Melding Music, Fashion Worlds for Award Show
For Pink’s performance, production designer Bruce Rodgers used a center staircase for the singer to descend the catwalk to the runway.
There are dozens of awards shows around these days — all flavors and varieties, targeting virtually every possible audience. One of the glitzier ones in recent months was the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. That event required two rather different entities, a music television network and a legendary fashion magazine, to join forces to stage a unique award show that live and TV audiences would both appreciate. The 2002 show, hosted by actress Debra Messing, combined several disparate elements: awards, fashion, celebrities, and music, all wrapped into a complex, high-end production.
Two key players involved with the show — production designer Bruce Rodgers of Tribe Design and lighting designer Simon Miles — are veterans of the 2001 show, and they returned in 2002, this time joining forces with staging supervisor Mo Morrison, among others, to design and execute a new look for the show. The three recently explained to SRO the creative and practical plan for the 2002 show.
The 2001 show, held at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, had a hard, dark, rock 'n' roll feel. For the 2002 show, the mood, the philosophy, and the venue changed.
“We went to a bigger venue,” explains Rodgers. “The Radio City Music Hall is a more glamorous house, and the producers wanted to lift the bar and make the set design more about high fashion, rather than dark, low-tech, rock-and-roll.”
Getting away from the rock style had lighting, as well as set implications. “I think the 2001 show turned out very well, but I felt there was a cleaner, better approach,” says Miles. “The idea I wanted to go into the show with was to make the lighting look much cleaner than we tend to do on television. By cleaner, I mean not being reliant on shafts of light, smoke, and lots of gobos, but instead, to accentuate the set, light the set, and make it look smooth, clean, and less showy.”
When Miles and Rodgers met in preproduction, they found that they were on the same page, at least philosophically.
“In meeting with Bruce, I was really happy when I saw his original renderings, because it allowed for my idea to work on the stage,” Miles reports, adding that the plan also pleased the show's director, Hamish Hamilton.
“Hamish also independently came up with the same comments. He also wanted to see something that was cleaner, smoother, not too beamy, just tasteful,” Miles recalls.
In designing the set, Rodgers started at the most important place for any fashion-based show: the runway.
“I knew from 2001 that Vogue's modeling agency, KCD [New York] has never had a classic runway down the middle for one of these shows,” Rodgers explains. “So that was the first thing we drew. The second thing we drew was a second runway that we called the catwalk, going from left to right as models were walking down center. It was very simple, just a cross.”
Once the layout of the runway and catwalk were determined, Rodgers added a giant light wall.
“The first thing we showed the producers was just a basic, large-scale intersection, and behind that intersection, we knew we wanted a giant light wall that had a million lights in it. We suspected that it might be overbudget, but we just drew it that way to get a sense of scale,” he adds, emphasizing how critical scale is when designing shows at Radio City Music Hall. “I've done a lot of shows there, and the first thing that sneaks up on designers is the scale: a 20ft.-high wall there looks small.”
Indeed, with a 60'×100' proscenium opening, the stage is massive. Hence, the 20'×100' light wall that served as the primary set. “The set was internally illuminated with Kino Flos — there were over 200 of them in the show,” Miles remarks.
The dimmable, fluorescent Kino Flos bathed the set in white, and that light wall became the most obvious display of the show's clean and uncluttered design philosophy. The pieces of the light wall were created with a semi-translucent scenic material called Contra-H, which is manufactured by Gerriets. “It basically looks like someone took miles of Silly String, sprayed the walls with it, then peeled it off,” explains Rodgers. “You can see through it — it's kind of Jackson Pollock-like.”
To facilitate the set changes, Rodgers created a 10'×48' closedown (the device used to hide scenic elements by front masking) that was flown in and out by the house flymen using weighted ropes.
“The closedown was amazing,” Rodgers reports. “I found the material at Solter Plastics in West Los Angeles — it's a plastic mirror surface that's been vacu-formed and has little bubbles in it that are about 6in. in diameter. It comes in sheets 3ft. square at $100 each. We had 48 of them in total.”
For David Bowie’s performance, elements from his current tour were borrowed, including the color scheme.
Mirrored surfaces are not usually a favorite of lighting designers, but this particular surface was a pleasant change of pace, according to Rodgers. “Lighting designers will always tell you the mirrors reflect nothing,” he says. So, to make the mirrored closedown do the opposite, Rodgers designed it to angle at 10 degrees. That approach permitted the closedown to reflect the house, mirroring the copper and gold tones found in the theater.
“Overall, I wanted to use less lights and less visible sources,” Miles explains. “They weren't necessary and weren't required, since we didn't use lights in the same way as we did in 2001.”
Illuminating the set internally was one way that Miles kept the look clean. Aiding this approach was the decision not to use overhead trussing on the stage. “We put everything on stage on a house-system pipe, with no exposed trussing,” he explains. “We did have some weight issues, but again, fortuitously, design and availability of equipment allowed us to execute our plan without any trouble.”
Miles did end up using trussing over the runway that extended into the audience, however. “We did put a large ‘V’ truss, which consisted of two 40ft. trusses that extended out into the house and came to a point over the runway, which was used for down-lighting the runway itself,” he explains. “Its primary purpose was to get light onto the runway from above.”
From an instrument standpoint, Miles had a mix of automated and conventional fixtures from VLPS Lighting Services at his disposal.
“We had predominantly Vari-Lite VL5Bs, which are the lighter colored version of the VL5 — they give you pastel tones and mid tones,” says Miles. “The color signature of the show tended to be less primary and more pastel.”
Working along with the VL5B units was the Vari-Lite VL6C, a hard-edged unit that can project gobos. “We used the VL5Bs and the VL6Cs in the air, and we used clear-lensed VL5 arcs for our floor units,” Miles adds.
The Kino Flos dominated the conventional lighting. Not only were they inside the set, but they were found in other locations as well.
Host Debra Messing stands on the cross-shaped runway. A few hundred seats were removed to allow it to extend out into the audience.
“The Kino Flos were around the edges of the set and they were placed around the edges of the two downstage LED screens, like a frame,” remarks Miles. “I hate to think of how many Kino Flos we had all together,” he adds with a chuckle.
To round out the non-automated part of the lighting rig, Miles used assorted PAR cans, as well as strobes. “We used 30 Diversitronics 3000 strobe units to emulate the flashes of the paparazzi,” he explains.
Along with fashion, music was the other ingredient at the show, and the talent for the 2002 show (David Bowie, Pink, Steven Tyler, and Santana, among others) kept the show rocking. One of the challenges in doing an award show with live music at this level is figuring out how to integrate the performer into the set design.
“You can't just do a cookie-cutter design, because the performers don't want to go on stage unless their ‘vibe’ is absolutely correct,” says Rodgers. “If you understand their vibe, then you can tweak it just slightly, and put their vibe into our set design — then you're successful.”
Sometimes, finding that vibe is simple: ask the artists.
“Santana gave us an example of what not to do,” Rodgers recalls. “They did a TV show a while ago, and the set designer did a Mayan, black-light, ‘Day of the Dead’ kind of look, with these creatures that had outlines of their bodies, but no hearts. Santana didn't like the look, and they basically told me that they didn't want any strange witchcraft symbols or characters with no hearts, and we said ‘no problem.’ ”
Instead, Rodgers designed a large, wheel-like set piece modeled after an ancient work. “I found an optical illusion wheel — someone said it's about 3,000 years old from Turkey. We blew it up and presented that to Santana and they loved it,” he notes.
For David Bowie's performance, Rodgers borrowed the ‘Bowie’ sign from his current tour, and used a particular color scheme during the song “Cactus.” “They had been using green, yellow, and blood red on tour for the song, which we used for the show, creating a very direct and very strong color signature,” Miles notes.
For Pink's performance, a staircase was the central point on the set. “For Pink, we wanted to introduce a center staircase that we could get people down from the catwalk to the runway,” Rodgers recalls. “Her people initially wanted to stay with the setup from her tour, but we managed to get a really good lighting effect [achieved with a blast of MR16 striplights] out of the use of the staircase, and they decided that they liked it.”
Nuts and Bolts
While Rodgers and Miles were designing the show, staging supervisor Mo Morrison was charged with getting the venue ready for the actual performance.
“When I come in, I'm the guy who pulls these various departments, elements, and factions together to try, in preproduction, to get it unraveled enough to make sure that everyone knows what to expect,” Morrison explains.
Morrison's role in preproduction requires him to work out things like timelines and budgets — the nuts and bolts of the actual show.
For the presentation of Ralph Lauren’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the stage included pictures reminiscent of the designer’s ad campaigns.
“Basically, you start talking to the designers, you talk to the art director, the gaffer, audio, and video, and you find out how long they think things are going to take, how many men they may need, how scenic is going to integrate with the system pipes in the theater to determine air conflict, and so on,” Morrison explains.
“If issues arise, sometimes I can solve them internally, other times there are creative or financial issues that require me to contact a producer to make the decision, if need be.”
When the project began, there were some minor issues that needed to be resolved quickly, Morrison recalls.
“There were some issues about where the LED screens were going to hang, how they were going to hang, and whether there were points in front of the proscenium arch that could support that kind of weight,” Morrison recalls. “Those are the issues I have to run through the building, because it's their building and their structural engineers need to sign off on it.”
Ultimately, a ready-made solution was found. “We went through the existing holes, dropped two lines, and hung a truss from those points,” Morrison explains. “We then attached the LED bumper with five wire ropes to the truss to create the trim height we wanted for the wall.”
Although Radio City officials won't permit drilling in the facility's ceiling (the theater is a national landmark) to create special rigging points, the facility does have permanent sound points and a sound beam that greatly simplifies the audio portion of the load-in. “The sound beam just lowers in on house motors, and we hook up the sound system,” Morrison explains.
The traditional fashion-style runway also took a bit of work to set up, according to Morrison. Usually, there are two solutions when fabricating a runway: put it over existing seats or remove the seats. At Radio City, they decided upon the latter approach. “We had the prop department come in the day before and remove a couple of hundred seats, all the way up to row 00,” he says.
The load-in for the show began on Oct. 9, six days before the Oct. 15 show date. “Generally speaking, your garden-variety television show normally will install in 30 to 40 man hours, which can be broken into three or four 10-hour days,” Morrison explains. “I budgeted this show for four 14-hour days, because I thought we might need them to get ahead of the curve. I had the seats pulled the day before, so I could start pre-rigging the truss and motors in the fly loft, while the electric department started to hang the system pipes and the scenic people came out and started building the runway out in front.”
Sharon Stancavage is contributing editor for Lighting Dimensions magazine and has penned articles on a variety of topics for numerous trade publications over the years. Email at email@example.com.