One iconic venue, 1,500 square feet, two stages, and 10 performances. These are the numbers that comprise the set design for the 2018 VMAs, as crafted by Julio Himede and his team.
The massive square footage is the largest amount of space ever tackled for a production at Radio City Music Hall, where the VMAs will be held on Monday night, featuring performances from Ariana Grande, Panic! at the Disco, Travis Scott, Shawn Mendes, Logic, Post Malone, and Jennifer Lopez, who will receive the vanguard award.
Here, Himede, who has been planning his VMA set design debut for about eight months, tells Variety about the challenges and rewards of creating the visual landscape for MTV’s televised music extravaganza.
Was there a particular theme or inspiration that drove this year’s VMA set design?
Absolutely. The inspiration came from the iconic, circular architecture of Radio City, inside the house. The VMAs have had such a history with Radio City since the first show back in 1984, so we really wanted to celebrate the circular proscenium of the house, and that inspired us to create our own set based on all these curves and circular motions of the theater. A lot of the language for the set plays on that into a modern interpretation of the proscenium, so we have created this curved, circular sculpture that hangs and floats beyond the proscenium, into the audience, that breaks the proscenium and takes away the fourth wall, if you will, of a typical proscenium.
How did you aim to make this set stand out from previous years?
One of the specific different points of view from the show is that we’ve divided the stage into — or we can divide the stage into — two areas, the upstage and the downstage, in order to allow these performances to be set up. That’s one of the points of differences. We also made it more immersive than other years by having audiences not only inside of the house, but also on the stage. Throughout the whole stage and out into the audience, we have pockets of mosh pit audiences that really give a great energy for the overall production.
What goes into designing a set for a pop star like Ariana Grande versus a performer like Panic! at the Disco or Travis Scott?
The principal element that we have to allow — no matter how intricate our set, or complicated our set is — we have to design a landscape and a visual language world that can accommodate all of the performances, from a tiny performance with a piano to a large scale, scenery-based performance like what Ariana Grande will be.
Are there any aspects of the design that will be a staple throughout all of the performances?
There’s a few surprises with technology that we are including in the performances and some of our house looks for the show. That is the theme, so we are relying on that technology to sort of bring it all together — which I can’t really mention, but it’s a surprise that you will see.
What went into making the set for the vanguard award?
It’s certainly a lot more of an involved process with Jennifer [Lopez]. Her performance is obviously a lot longer, and it highlights a lot of her wonderful hits from her career. We are certainly using a lot of the elements that the house has to offer, so we’re using all three elevators of Radio City. We’re using our wonderful [stage addition] that we have created. We also, again, are using some of the surprise technology that we have, and there’s one particular trick that works specifically on camera that we are very excited about. We have done weeks and weeks of rehearsal, not only obviously with the artist, but also with the technology around it.
How does designing a show like the VMAs compare to designing a show like the Kids’ Choice Awards?
First of all, it’s my first time designing the VMAs, and in the history of the VMAs, especially over the last 10, 12 years, those are big shoes to fill from a design standpoint, so that’s one of the most exciting challenges for me in the design process. But also, the biggest challenge is when you have up to nine, 10 performances in this one stage. And even when we have split the stage into two, and different areas, we still have to accommodate for all the creatives and all 10 performances all in one small venue. So it’s an exciting challenge for us, but we have successfully managed to fit everybody in.
What was the most challenging piece to design and why?
The most challenging piece to design would be in our current design, and that is the floating sculpture that the design is all about, and you will see what I mean when you watch the show. It’s a sculpture that hangs beyond the proscenium, and it’s full of technology, and it follows all these wonderful curves, again, from Radio City. But the most challenging part is that nobody has ever done anything of this scale at Radio City beyond the proscenium. There’s only a few rigging points to hang from, so we will certainly push the limit in a very successful way by hanging this sculpture. And it took months and months and months of planning with Radio City and with our team … to successfully achieve this.
What else can you divulge about what the inside of the VMAs will look like this year?
From a set point of view, we are excited about the fact that the VMAs is back in New York City. There’s always something iconic when the show comes to New York, and this year, we are celebrating that factor by creating our own moon person by combining the moon person, which is such an iconic VMA visual identity, with the Statue of Liberty. So the moon person is carrying a torch to signify Lady Liberty. That’s one of the most exciting things that we have so far, and that creates the backdrop for our set.