50's Cannons, Kelly's Showers, VMA Winners' Water Walkway: How'd They Do That?

WET Design drenched the VMAs, from the 55-foot waterfall to Clarkson's mobile rain.

MIAMI — Though 90 degree temperatures outside forced many a celebrity to reapply makeup and nearly melted Young Jeezy (he is the Snowman, after all), things were crisp and cool inside the American Airlines Arena — thanks in part to the high-powered air conditioning, but also because of the gallons of water that flowed onstage, turning the 2005 Video Music Awards into a futuristic, ultra-cool island oasis.

From the massive waterfall on the main stage to the delicately arcing streams that framed the winners' walkway, the VMAs were definitely wet and wild, with water flying skyward, trickling downward and flowing everywhere else. Performers took advantage of the wet stuff too, as 50 Cent soaked the crowd with massive floor-to-ceiling water cannons and Kelly Clarkson summoned the rain during the chorus of "Since U Been Gone" (see "Green Day Clean Up, Kelly Clarkson Gets Wet, 50 Rips Into Fat Joe At VMAs").

It was an eye-popping, body-drenching show, and whether you caught it on TV or were on the floor at the American Airlines Arena, the question begged to be asked: Just how did they do that?

Well, the answer can't be found in Miami — or anywhere on the East Coast, for that matter. It lies some 3,000 miles away, in Sun Valley, California, a city just north of Los Angeles. It's the home of WET Design, a high-tech water design company responsible for some of the world's most famous waterworks, including the 1,000-foot choreographed fountains outside the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

When MTV first decided that water would be the theme for this year's VMAs, they reached out to WET, looking for an indoor display unlike anything that'd ever been seen before. And for a company that mostly works in fountains, it was a welcome challenge.

"Nobody's ever tried something like this before, so that was really exciting," WET director of research and development Jim Doyle laughed. "We had 3,000 gallons of water under the stage in tanks, a couple thousand feet of tubes running under there, thousands of feet of wiring, and only eight people to build it all and make it work."

WET took all that and created a water wonderland that featured a 55-foot cascading waterfall, a rapidly filling lake and a water walkway. But the main attractions, Doyle said, were the elements that added to the live performances — the 12 "mini-shooter" cannons that 50 Cent blasted into the audience during his performance of "Disco Inferno," for example.

"Those shooters launched six-to-eight gallons of water 45 feet in the air. We've got them in the fountains at Bellagio, but obviously those ones don't move. So we had to develop a whole new, totally portable model just for the VMAs," Doyle said. "Of course, at the Bellagio, we also had one year to build the whole thing. Here, we only had one week to build it."

And 50's shooters weren't the only new piece of hardware WET had to design for the VMAS. In order to make it rain indoors for Clarkson's show-closing performance, they had to create a whole new series of "rain curtains," basically a massive sprinkler system with plumbing running from below the floor of the American Airlines Arena all the way to the roof. Oh, and that plumbing had to move.

"We were faced with the problem of having the rain follow her during her song. So we developed two 20-by-20 [foot] rain curtains with the plumbing coming from the floor and a motion control on the ceiling," Doyle said. "We had never done anything like that before — I don't think anyone has for a live event. So when they went off, that was probably my favorite moment of the night."

To the naked eye, the waterworks at the VMAs went off without a hitch. And for the most part, Doyle would agree. But for a guy who works hard at trying to control the minutiae of water molecules, even the slightest imperfection is incredibly glaring.

"Water's weird; it needs to be tuned. And the slightest disturbance — like loud music — can take it out of tune," Doyle said. "And so when Kelly Clarkson came up to accept an award, one of the jets in the water arc was shooting a bit low. But she just ducked under it and kept on going. And that's kind of what we did. I mean, this isn't the Academy Awards; it's the VMAs. It's more of a fumble-and-run type of thing."