In January 2020, Paul Caslin, creative director for the MTV Video Music Awards since 2018, began brainstorming how to expand from last year’s foray into the world of augmented reality. However, the team could not have predicted just how far into the world of AR and VR they would have to delve to bring the 2020 MTV VMAs to life.
When COVID-19 hit in March, the team expected that all would be well by the time of the show on August 30. “Once we entered June, it became clear that COVID-19 wasn’t going anywhere. We began developing parallel options: running the live visuals from Barclays Center as well as pivoting into no-audience,” says Caslin, who determined that the challenge to bring the buzz and energy of a live awards show with no in-house audience would have to be overcome through advanced technology. “By July, we realized that Barclays wasn’t going to happen, and that we needed to go 100% into extended reality or xR for short.”
The resulting awards show was a complex collection of creative spaces and performances across both the physical and virtual worlds. Multiple creative teams were charged with their own location and task: the xR stage in California, the New York drive-in, The Weeknd performance atop the Edge, and the BTS performance in Seoul. “The main challenge was making a coherent show,” says Caslin, who never wants “to see another Zoom window in my entire life.” Together with the producer team, they decided upon the concept of “New York rising, rising out of COVID-19, rising out of a difficult year” as the theme to weave together the various elements.
With the help of Silent Partners Studio and XR Studios, the world’s largest xR stage was built in Los Angeles. XR Studios then worked closely with production designer Julio Himede to convert his cityscape set design into a virtual world that acted as the epicenter of the show and threaded the different scenes together. The hyper-realization of New York City featured the Empire State Building alongside the Chrysler Building, as well as a giant Moonman statue to symbolize what MTV brings to NYC. “It is a mash-up of the best bits of New York in one frame,” notes Caslin. Presenters and award winners appeared “on stage” atop buildings while live Zoom audiences peered through the windows of skyscrapers.
“In each of the windows, there was a fan Zooming into the live show so that we could get their reaction for the moments when Gaga accepts an award or the Black Eyed Peas are on stage and a UFO flies in. We wanted to capture that awe unfolding before our eyes,” explains Caslin. “We tried to incorporate Zoom audiences in a way that didn’t feel like an afterthought. We curated Zoom backdrops to make it feel like those were their actual homes, that they were looking out their windows onto the stage.”
The team quickly realized that the 500 Zoom fans would not be enough to generate the full force of the show’s usual energy. “People are used to tuning into the VMAs and seeing 20,000 people,” remarks Caslin, “so how do we create the sense of mosh pits of people during social distancing?” Their solution was to separately film masked individuals in front of green screens and then edit them together into a crowd atop the buildings to generate that “mosh pit,” all while keeping everyone safe and reinforcing the importance of face coverings. “The one thing we really wanted to portray at the VMAs was the sense of escapism to take people out of the moment of staying at home and have a great time at the show.”
Distanced at the Drive-in
While the xR stage was evenly paced with performances shot ahead of time, the drive-in was done all in one night. Crews worked in three- to four-person “bubbles” to quickly build the stage and operate the drive-in. Viacom brought in a task force to manage the health and safety procedures. All crew were regularly tested, wore masks, and remained as distanced as possible. “We tried to mitigate the risks as much as possible where everyone did not go out or socialize and stayed very professional to protect each other,” Caslin states.
The drive-in fans also had strict rules to follow. “The cars needed to be at least 10 feet apart, and they had to bring their own cars,” describes the creative director. Open-top cars, such as convertibles and sunroofs, were encouraged; fan engagement agency 1iota oversaw the audience casting. “We wanted them to be able to attend a live show and feel like they weren’t contained in their cars.”
Caslin’s favorite moment of the impressive awards show was The Weeknd’s powerful performance of “Blinding Lights,” filmed atop the Edge via cameras in two helicopters and accompanied by a massive barrage of brilliant fireworks set off from barges in the Hudson River below. “It was the perfect storm of all the creative elements of a great performance but done in a way that played to the strict rules of social distancing, and was ultimately better because of it,” praises Caslin.
Lady Gaga, the big winner of the night with five awards, also respected and reinforced COVID-19 rules. She donned an LED-based mask that heightened the set’s derelict future feel. “You never once in that performance thought that COVID-19 was making the show worse. The performance’s limitations were transformed intro strengths,” he compliments. “It felt like the performance was always meant to be that way because of creativity rather than because of a pandemic.”
Caslin foresees more virtual sets in forthcoming award shows. “It is going to be difficult to go back to the way things were. I think the future of these shows will be a mix of augmented and extended reality as well as physical elements,” he concludes. “I think in 2021, we will combine what we did in 2019 with what we did in 2020 to make something that has that life and energy of a live show but also those mind-blowing virtual moments.”
- VMAs Creative Director: Paul Caslin
- Extended Reality Producers: XR Studios
- Content Creation Studio for Awards Stage, Miley Cyrus, Da Baby, and Black Eyed Peas: Silent Partners Studio
- Lady Gaga Content Creation: Possible Productions
- Doja Cat Content Creation: Blink INC
- Technical Equipment Partner: Fuse
- Camera Tracking: stYpe
- Realtime Rendering for Awards Stage, Miley Cyrus, Black Eyed Peas, and Doja Cat: Notch VFX
- Realtime Rendering for Lady Gaga and Da Baby: Unreal Engine
- XR Studios Technical Director: Scott Millar
- XR Studios Technical Integrator: Smasher Desmedt
- Disguise programmer: Ben Ryle
- VMA Screen Producer: Trevor Burk, Visual Noise Creative
- VMA Screens disguise Programmer: Kirk Miller