Silent Partners Studio was invited to handle the broadcast content package for the 2020 MTV VMAs early in the year. But after their work on Katy Perry’s extended reality performance for American Idol in mid-May, creative director Paul Caslin inquired about the xR possibilities for a virtual awards show that could adhere to COVID-19 restrictions. Take an in-depth look at Caslin's vision.
By July, the team began working with production designer Julio Himede, who designed the stage originally meant for Barclays Center in New York. “The main goal was to create a scene as close to the original as possible,” says Janicke Morissette, one of the creative directors for the Silent Partners team, which developed the house looks and virtual doors as well as content for Miley Cyrus, Da Baby, and Black Eyed Peas’ xR performances, facilitated by extended reality specialists XR Studios. “It was super interesting collaborating with the set designer, Julio, to make his normal stage design look natural in the virtual environment. A real stage designer has the knowledge and experience of normal shows, and so collaborating with them on the virtual design is a new aspect of our work but an important one.”
“We wanted to make it feel like we were in a real city, but also twist things to tie in the fact that it is a virtual world, like moving larger-than-life buildings or placing virtual audiences into the scene. Things you couldn’t do at a real show but you sure would want to if you could,” explains J.T. Rooney, Silent Partners screens producer, who worked closely with VMAs screens producer Trevor Burk. Presenters and award winners appeared “on stage” surrounded by buildings topped with individually pre-recorded fans while live Zoom audience members peered through the windows of skyscrapers. “Paul let us play with the city a little, and we turned it into a darker, moody, Gotham-like version of New York City.”
Silent Partners closely collaborated with lighting designers Tom Sutherland and Jon Kusner to properly balance the physical and virtual worlds. “The most difficult part of xR is combining the virtual and the physical,” notes Rooney. “The more physical, real light you add to the environment, makes it harder for us to blend the illusion to connect virtual and real. In the city scene where we presented awards, we added a virtual light inside of our Notch city environment to illuminate the entrance of someone. Because they were entering from this bridge that essentially came out of nowhere, we had to add a virtual light as opposed to a physical one. I really appreciate the honesty with Tom, and later on with Jon Kusner, on how to balance the lights and work together as a team.”
XR Studios utilized the disguise xR workflow, powered by the disguise gx 2c media server, as the central technology hub for the production. “disguise works really well with the stYpe RedSpy cameras to calibrate everything, including color calibration, which is really complex,” states Rooney, who is also a member of the XR Studios team.
Notch VFX was the real-time rendering engine for the awards stage and performances by Miley Cyrus and Black Eyed Peas. “Notch offers a lot of flexibility and stability, especially when it comes to getting input from other feeds, such as the city feed or the Zoom feed of live audience members,” notes Rooney.
Silent Partners and Caslin explored three ideas for Miley Cyrus’ performance and ultimately landed on an empty void filled with colors, a concept which SPS has been wanting to try in an xR performance. “Miley really liked the minimal set and bleeding colors, which created a nice 80s vibe,” says David Fafard, Silent Partners creative lead for Miley Cyrus, Da Baby, and Black Eyed Peas.
“Throughout the show, we’re trying to transport the performances to another universe. The point is to not feel as though the artist is standing on an LED stage. Placing Miley in a huge void really achieved that effect,” adds Rooney.
Confirmed just five days before the end of shooting, Black Eyed Peas was the only performance that was placed in the virtual city scene. “We’ve seen the city for an hour and a half, so we had to transform it into something out of this world,” explains Morissette.
To transform and heighten the city scene, Silent Partners “created video content to fill the billboards and threw in a UFO for a crazy Independence Day feel,” says Fafard.
Da Baby’s performance, featuring police cars, helicopters, and a city in flames, utilized Unreal Engine, developed by Epic Games. “We worked with Epic to make Da Baby’s performance a little more realistic, especially at the end, and we’re really pleased with how it turned out,” states Rooney.
“This was a really interesting project that has catapulted us into the future,” concludes Fafard. “Even without COVID-19, I think people will want to go in the virtual direction moving forward.”
- 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
- 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