ON AUGUST 25 IT WAS HARD TO imagine that Miami could get any wetter. That evening, Hurricane Katrina came ashore, flooding streets, toppling trees, and leaving many without power. Inside the American Airlines Arena, things weren't much drier. Rehearsals were in progress for the MTV Video Music Awards, and the theme of the show was water itself.
A giant WaterWall©, spinning rain, Shooters® that blasted to the ceiling and arching water walkways were just some of the effects that turned the 2005 VMAs into a fantasy water world. It was an ambitious venture; this was the first time that an awards show, held indoors, was to be themed completely around water.
Earlier this year, MTV producers Garrett English and Justin Currie contacted WET Design to explore turning a vision of a water-themed VMA set into a reality; WET Design is a 22 year-old firm headquartered in Los Angeles that designs and develops custom water and fire features all over the world. WET is perhaps best known for creating the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Cauldron for the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Most of WET's work has been permanent water feature installations, and the opportunity to create a major theatrical installation was a different challenge. WET also recently launched its events division, which focuses on the custom design, fabrication, installation, and operation of non-permanent water and fire effects. This division of WET was responsible for the creation of the special water and fire finale at the Hollywood Bowl's Opening Gala this past June.
After visiting WET's research and development center, WET Labs, MTV commissioned WET for the job. Over the next several months, WET collaborated with MTV's producers, scenic designers, and vendors to bring all elements of the set together. “MTV's absolute commitment to producing a water-themed show is really what made this all possible,” says Jim Doyle, WET's director of technical resources. “Everyone, especially the producers and production designers, was bound and determined to make it work. Probably the most challenging aspect of the show was creating something so large scale and technically complex in such a short period of time.”
To get an idea of how big the set was, about 7000 gallons of water were running underneath the stage, along with nearly 2000' of piping and 8000' of electrical wire. MTV had already planned to construct a 4'- to 8'-high deck on top of the arena floor to allow for lifts and performer reveals, which also allowed room for plumbing and wiring. During installation, the WET crew laid on furniture dollies to maneuver around under the stage to make adjustments to plumbing and connections.
With all of this electricity and water potentially being mixed together, safety was a concern. MTV hired the Bender Company to do the life safety ground faulting for the show. “We had to assume that everything on and below deck level would get wet. This was the first time ever that an entire arena show was GFI'd [ground fault interrupter],” Doyle explained. MTV also hired safety advisor, Laurence Dunnett. In the end, the entire show ran perfectly without a single nuisance trip.
With a load-in date of August 15, WET had less than two weeks to unload all of their equipment (enough to fill a 50' semi), install and integrate that equipment with the scenic elements, then test and adjust everything to be ready for show time. Hurricane Katrina cut the crew's time even shorter. Three days before the show, everyone in the AA Arena was evacuated by six o'clock in the evening and could not return until the next morning. “We lost over ten hours. Rehearsals were rescheduled. This also changed our schedule since we had to test our equipment between acts,” Doyle explains. The hurricane contributed to additional complications, from being unable to get supplies (such as liquid nitrogen) from local vendors to shipments being delayed.
Because all of the water feature equipment and the surrounding set was designed for the show, constant communication between WET and set vendors Tait Towers, PRG New York, and ID3 was a necessity. Each piece of equipment became part of the set design. Once WET knew what effect production designers Anne Brahic and Roy Bennett were trying to achieve, they were able to suggest specific equipment that would work well for them. “From there, we kept exchanging drawings, descriptions, and dimensions of equipment with MTV's vendors. It was a negotiation between all of us to come up with something that was artistically impressive, mechanically sound, and within budget,” Doyle comments. For instance, what started as a 50' waterfall was eventually transformed into a waterwall of about the same size due to considerations of sound, splash, and potential construction complications.
When WET finally met the set vendors in Miami for installation, it was the first time that either team actually got to see each other's equipment. As head carpenter Terry Taylor installed each scenic element, piece-by-piece, WET would set their equipment within it. Afterwards, Taylor came back in with additional parts of the set, completely integrating the water feature into the stage. Meanwhile, staging supervisor Joe Barry made sure that everything functioned properly above and below deck. Barring minor on-site modifications, everything fit together perfectly, maintaining the overall vision and integrity of the design. “Barry, Taylor, and I would bump heads over a problem, figure out what needed to be done, and then we'd all go away and make everything happen for each other. This was the first time they'd done a show with so much water and they were great about it,” says Doyle.
“Another major challenge was bringing all of the installations together because everything was connected. Each water effect impacted the others,” comments Doyle. “When one effect was running, it would change the water pressure of all the other effects, so we were constantly re-adjusting.” In fact, WET's water and/or fire effects were involved in four of the five stages in the arena. Equipment installed by WET included: a 50' WaterWall™, 12 MiniShooters™, 20 LeapFrogs™, 12 JellyFish™, two rotating rain curtains, a circular rain curtain, six Water on Fire™ fountains, a weir cascade, and 12 bubblers.
Each set was focused around a different water effect and each had its own environment. For example, the center stage, called “The Splat,” was shaped like a splat of water and surrounded by ‘droplets’ that were actually glowing pods housing the 12 MiniShooters. These Shooters established the theme of the show for host Diddy's entrance and were choreographed into 50 Cent's performance of “Disco Inferno,” launching six to eight gallons of water 45. into the air and then soaking the audience below as it landed.
On “The Barcode” stage, fog rolled down a clear, acrylic backdrop for Green Day's opening act. In the next act, water rushed down its surface at 250 gallons per minute, transforming into a 50' WaterWall, which dominated the arena. The flow of this WaterWall was also varied to present different effects. During Coldplay's performance, the water trickled down gently in long ribbons, but the music by Kelly Clarkson and Shakira demanded the dramatic high-flow effect with water gushing down the surface. MTV also devised an entry mechanism called “The Straw,” which was basically an acrylic tube 8' in diameter that passed through the base of the video wall and WaterWall. This allowed performers to enter the stage without getting wet. Later in the show on the same stage, during Shakira's performance of “La Tortura,” six frothy water plumes suddenly erupted into flames, engulfing the water itself in fire.
There was even “The Pond,” where bubbling water flowed over and down the sides of a seemingly submerged stairwell. Performers and presenters would enter the stage as if emerging from underwater. Next to The Pond stood “The Scales” stage, where a circular rain curtain surrounded the edge of a platform. Presenters would be revealed by a lift from within the circle of delicate rain.
However, one water effect that didn't belong to an individual stage was the rain. Producer Michael Dempsey proposed the idea for rain to fall on Kelly Clarkson as she sang “Since U Been Gone” for the closing act among the audience. To achieve this, WET devised two 20' rotating rain curtains that showered upon Kelly and on the audience on the floor. Part of the goal with rotating the rain curtains was to create kinetic rain that followed Kelly as she performed. MTV had the AA Arena plumb water from the 400-level bathrooms to the catwalk where the rain curtain was attached to a motion control device that allowed the curtain to turn.
WET also created celebratory water effects along the winners' walkways and stairways. As winners approached the various stages to accept their awards, they were congratulated with either glassy, arching water (LeapFrogs) or bouncing, glassy canopies of water, aptly named JellyFish. These effects allowed for non-performing celebrities and guests to interact with the water while adding to the excitement of a nominee receiving an award.
The interaction between the water, the set, and the performers is what set this show apart. Doyle complemented coordinating producer Gary Lanvy, “He made sure that all aspects of the show worked together seamlessly. Not easy to do considering we told them that everything was going to get wet! And artists who chose to participate with the water effects were real troopers, especially Shakira and Kelly Clarkson,” Doyle added. “Shakira actually asked if we could make the opening fire effect for her performance even bigger. She was professional as a performer and stayed on her mark despite having giant flames burst 15' in front of her. Clarkson was great too. She was enthusiastic about the rain gag and wanted to get wet along with the audience.”
In addition to the AA Arena, WET Design installed water features for Mariah Carey's remote location at the National Hotel in South Beach. WET installed two fan nozzle devices on either side of the pool, creating a misty backdrop. They also included six MiniShooters at the end of the pool that were programmed to Mariah's performance. Although the remote location was much smaller than the main venue, installation outside during a hurricane was a challenge. The WET crew loaded-in during the storm and was forced to stop midway through the day. The next morning, after Katrina had passed, many of the crates had been reduced to timber and equipment was scattered all over the venue.
Despite the technical challenges of the show and the setbacks delivered by Hurricane Katrina, the final show went smoothly. The water effects performed on cue and the audience was thrilled. Meanwhile, the VMAs were able to accomplish something beyond what been done before. “It was a testament to the professionalism of everyone involved that everything came together, and worked in just two weeks,” Doyle concludes. “I don't think any show has pushed the envelope like this before and we're proud that WET Events could be a part of it.”