If Heather Shaw had a private planet of her own making, it would be called Vita Motus, a dynamo spinning in orbit around the largest of large-scale events with the denizens dropping down to earth to deliver visually compelling experiences. In reality, Vita Motus is Shaw’s multi-disciplinary design studio, based in LA, where it orbits in the worlds of interactive, environmental designs, as well as sets for TV and live theatre, and touring stages.
Founded in 2006, Vita Motus has a client list that ranges from Shakira to Cirque du Soleil. The firm first gained notoriety through its early collaborations with Do LaB, designing elaborate structures that ultimately had a significant impact on the overall aesthetic of such festivals as Coachella, Boom Festival, EDC, Electric Forest, and Lightning in a Bottle.
After four years of designing with Do LaB, Vita Motus went solo, hand-in-hand with Amon Tobin for his 2011 ISAM Tour, designing a cubic, pulsating set that was the first to incorporate video-mapping technology in that format, pushing the boundaries of the live show experience. The international design community took notice, and Shaw and Vita Motus were officially in orbit.
“We just finished designing Shakira’s new El Dorado World Tour, which opens January in Orlando. She wanted something classy, and the overall design ended up being very sophisticated and elegant,” says Shaw, who can’t reveal any of the details until the tour debuts.
Shaw has many projects at Coachella, and one of the repeat clients there is a long-standing collaboration with the Do Lab. “We have co-created an immersive 360° installation inside of Coachella since 2006,” says Shaw. “Be it a festival like Electric Daisy Carnival or a brand like Red Bull, clients and their audiences are looking for something that stands out, offering a unique perspective. For every project, we aim to create something that has never been made before and that extends past reality. In terms of inspiration, it can be based on the theme of the event or the individual brand of the artists. We use technology to exponentially extend our possibilities and constantly remind ourselves that we have the ability to ‘Design the Future.’ Inside our studio, we are inspired by the future and what that world could be. In this temporary space, we can test out those possibilities.”
In creating her CAD files, Shaw takes an unusual approach. “Personally, I use Autodesk Alias; it’s an automotive design software that I learned in design school,” she notes. “It’s not built for this kind of use, but it’s what I used when I started designing. It has more control for cars so I learned to design with a lot of control, more than in architectural software. I learned to think differently, and it helps me to work outside of the grid.”
Her design team uses a wide range of programs including Rhino, Maxon Cinema 4D, and Nemetschek Vectorworks. “We have to bridge the gap from lighting design and share CAD files in so many different areas,” Shaw says, adding that when designing, “I keep thinking about ideas to make it unique. Each project is a challenge, and our business is based on making things extraordinary. We’re constantly pushed to reach further.
We are always trying to innovate, which can be exhausting as well as exciting. Scale is definitely an issue these days, and with the size of audiences in front of these stages at festivals continually growing, the design has to be of epic proportions to make an impact.”
When at the drawing board, Shaw does her homework. “I am inspired by futurists, the scientists that are predicting the future, and we like to research possibilities, and see how we can have a hand in designing that future today. How can we use technology to propel a new experience? How do we take what our client wants and evolve it, move it into the future?” she asks. “I look at the space; I look at festivals and art. As a design team, our experiences inform our decisions. We go to festivals for work but always take the time to see what else is going on, such as at Burning Man.”
In a collaboration that spanned a year and a half, Vita Motus designed the major scenic elements for Cirque du Soleil’s Sép7imo Día—No Descansaré, which premiered in Buenos Aires, Argentina in March, as a tribute to legendary Argentine band Soda Stereo. “This represents Cirque du Soleil’s first tour for Latin America,” notes Shaw. “We designed the stage and set; it was a very exciting project, working with Michel Laprise, who is an inspiring director and creator. He had a concept for how the show would be written and what the story could be, and then I worked from this direction in designing the set. The process was really wonderful, traveling to Montreal a week of every month for a year, collaborating closely with the Cirque team there to create the show, everyone around one table,” she adds.
“The stage is a section of a dome, like a planet. The dome opens to reveal a flat stage area inside,” Shaw explains. “We also ‘grow’ some foliage, mushrooms, and translucent scrims with projections to represent the life and terrain of the planet. A grid of scrim and metal hung from the ceiling creates the atmosphere of the planet with the projections.”
Asked about the hardest project she ever worked on, Shaw says that each has its own challenges for different reasons. “It can be the most challenging when the project is complex but not overly creative. The creativity and innovation propels me to work longer hours,” she says. “It’s hard to go the distance without the creative.”
How big and bold can Shaw go? “It depends on the project,” she admits. “There are always expectations to make it bigger and better than in the past. Our design for Boom Festival in Portugal will be the biggest we have ever done, and each time you do something, you step up. Yet smaller, more intimate projects can be exciting as well, such as one we did for Vice and Absolute on a pier in New York City. We hung a multimedia wall on a shipping crane gantry, and there were only about 1,000 people.” Inspired by the future, creativity clearly reigns on Shaw’s personal planet.