Ambitious by any measure, the total transformation of New York's iconic Radio City Music Hall for this year's Video Music Awards (VMAs) on September 13 was nothing short of breathtaking. With the auditorium floor cleared of seats and replaced with towering structures that flanked the walls, the resulting image was a potent blend of New York brownstone and the wedding cake tiered balconies of Milan's La Scala opera house
"It all starts with the producer, the director, and an idea," explains set designer Ray Winkler from Stufish, the London-based event design studio. "Like all great ideas, at the beginning it's far more expensive and extravagant than would be reasonable, so it gets edited down to a more manageable size— and at the same time keeps in mind the practical aspects of load in and load out. One of the reasons we went with Tait Towers is that speed of fit-up."
With time and manpower arguably the most expensive commodity in event production, veteran MTV VMA coordinating producer Gary Lanvy agreed with Winkler: “Tait's set came in and there was a 'wow' factor right away. The locals and the production people looked at it, laid it down, and it fit. There was no cribbage, no, ‘hey, get ten slip pieces to raise this up.’ It beat our build schedule significantly, saving tens of thousands of dollars, and we've been doing this a few years now."
Art director Tamlyn Wright added. "For me I've never had a show go so smoothly, it just fit beautifully. It's a very unusual situation for me to be in. Coming up to camera time can be a hurried rush, but here we went home at 5:00pm, not working through till ten, that's where the money is saved. And no stress either. Kevin Flagg from Tait Towers is an amazing project manager." Wright's responsibilities place her at the artistic heart of this production. "In terms of set evolution, I work with Ray first of all; he does the production design and takes care of the technical aspects, I take his drawings and work with Taits to maintain the aesthetic as they apply those drawings to construction; it's my job to execute and maintain the artistic integrity," she says.
The towers that flanked the walls of Radio City stood three stories tall, and were festooned in an abundance of lighting and LED video panels. And in between all this technology they also managed to accommodate a large mass of the audience. It's an eagle's eye view on the artists the fans adore, and it's what gives that La Scala perspective, but getting these three facets comfortably integrated is no simple task. "What I do is draw the elements in position in principal," explains Winkler. "These towers are based around the modular scale and width of F-LED panels from XL Video, with the main lighting elements as well. Although I'm not an LD I know where these things need to go to work for LD Tom Kenny. But the finite detail; how they attach, how they're put in position, that's what Tait does, directly with XL Video and all other concerned vendors.”
"Architecturally we had a lot of audience in the structure,” adds Wright. “In the house, up the towers, and in the sunken areas on stage; so from that point of view the work Tait does is not simply scenic, it's engineering to public safety standards. It's exacting, I don't know many stage set companies who could pull off the structural element in a scenic environment so well." Winkler agreed, "Tait Towers dialed that in right from the beginning. I'm very glad to say that what we've ended up with is very close to the original; that's because Tait has a better understanding of what we were trying to achieve."
And as for the saved time, the last word should go to Lanvy, "If you're going to have sets designed by Mark Fisher, the founder of Stufish, or Ray Winkler, then you better get the engineering to match, or you waste your money. The quality of the design has to be matched by the quality of the construction.”
Joe Barry, Stage Supervisor
Gary Lanvy, Coordinating Producer, BigCityInc
Ray Winkler, Designer, Stufish
Tamlyn Wright, Art Director, DesignWright, Inc
Kevin Flagg, Project Manager, Tait Towers