MTV's Video Music Awards (VMAs), which aired live from New York City's Radio City Music Hall on September 13, dazzled millions of fans watching on TV, but it was no less amazing behind the scenes and critically acclaimed for its producers and design team. Tom Kenny used nine truckloads of equipment from Scharff Weisberg Lighting for his lighting design at Radio City, as well as for a live remote featuring Muse from the Walter Kerr Theatre and Taylor Swift's video pre-taped aboard a subway train and outside Radio City.
For the show at Radio City, Kenny and production designer Ray Winkler designed West Side Story-inspired scenic pieces onstage and extending 200' into the house. "The producers wanted it to look as if something was exploding from the center of the stage," Kenny says. "We used a 120'x60' LED screen and had about 100 lights onstage and 130 lights on each piece of the set. We also had approximately 750 moving lights. We lit all the balconies and put festoons all around the theatre. Everyone loved those. I used a big complement of Coemar lights [158 Infinity Wash XLs, 19 Infinity ACL Spots, and 40 Coemar ParLite LEDs], High End's new Showbeam, which was fantastic, Vari-Lite effects, and lots of Martin Atomic Strobes." The main show required 19 400A three-phase power services and 33 universes of DMX.
Among the lighting fixtures provided by Scharff Weisberg were Vari-Lite VL2500 Spots, VL2500 Wash units, VL3000 Spots, VL3500 Framing Spots, VL3500 Wash units, Martin Professional MAC 700 Profiles and Wash units, Little BigLite 3Ks, Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 72s and ColorBlast 12 TRs, ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, an array of PAR64s, ARRI Fresnels, Robert Juliat Aramis 2.5kW HMI followspots, and 10 Lycian M2 2.5kW HMI followspots. Effects included Reel EFX DF-50 hazers, Martin JEM ZR33 Hi-Mass foggers, and Bowens Jetstream wind machines. Three MA Lighting grandMA consoles were deployed for lighting control.
XL Video provided 620 tiles of PixLED 11mm F-11 product mounted in 2x2 configurations on four structures called condos—two stage-left and stage-right; and two audience left and right. There were also 387 Element Labs Versa Tubes in .5m, 1m, and 2m lengths mounted on the condos.
The live remote from the Walter Kerr Theatre, where Muse performed, was synched with the main stage. Kenny sent instructions by text to onsite lighting programmer Dirk Optynde. Showcasing the band's new single, "Uprising," the lighting provided dynamic contrast to the historic Broadway theatre. Muse was bathed in red, white, and blue via Vari-Lite VL500 TD Washes, VL2500 Spots, VL3000 Spots, VL3500 Washes, VL3500 Washes FX units, Barco/High End Show Beam 2.5s, Martin Atomic Strobes with color scrollers, and an array of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs, controlled via a pair of grandMA consoles.
Two weeks prior to the VMAs, Kenny lit Taylor Swift performing her smash single, "You Belong With Me," which was part of the awards telecast. The pre-taped clip begins with Swift singing on a 42nd Street subway platform, but she soon hops aboard the F train, crooning to a car packed with fans. The clip turned live when they arrived at the Radio City Music Hall stop, where she emerged onto the street, jumped atop a yellow cab, and finished her song while her band played on the Radio City marquee.
For the subway shoot, Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12 IWs and TRs were powered by batteries. "We used low-voltage products driving underneath tunnels with the ColorBlasts," Kenny notes. "Taylor was a real star during the shoot." The nighttime exteriors required closing down Sixth Avenue and 50th Street and lighting all the vehicles and buildings. For this, Scharff Weisberg furnished Vari-Lite VL3000 Wash units, Chromlec Jarag PAR30s, ETC Source Four Ellipsoidals, ARRI Fresnels and PARs, Kino Flo 4' two-bank and 2' four-bank fixtures, Barco/High End DataFlash AF1000s, and Martin Atomic Strobes.
At Radio City, Mike Grimes was head gaffer and Mike Appel and Paul Sonnleitner programmers. At the Walter Kerr, Sal Restuccia was gaffer and Dirk Optynde programmer. Ronnie Skopac and Justin Cheatham were the gaffers at Grand Central Station and outside on the Radio City Music Hall Marquis, respectively. Kenny acknowledges that his work on the VMAs wouldn't have been possible without "a great team of people. The Radio City crew was great; they were 100% behind us. The place was glowing with all the talent inside both upstage and downstage."
At Scharff Weisberg, John Healy was account manager, with Ben Rollins as project manager, backed by SWI's Local One staff, run by Tim Scully and Leonie Phillips. "We fully utilized our new 90,000sq-ft. shop and some great industry relationships to make sure all the equipment we supplied was pristine," says Healy. "Tom can create one of the biggest and best looking live shows ever, all while entertaining and accommodating his client and others involved through all the crazy changes. He's a designer who really cares about who he is working for and with, which enables us to work as a successful team."
"Scharff Weisberg was amazing," adds Kenny. "Josh Weisberg, John Healy, and Ben Rollins did an awesome job supplying us with 1,500 lights right up to the very last minute. You build and build looks for weeks before the bands arrive, and you're still building up to an hour before they get there."