VMA Set Designer Explains Futuristic Inspiration, Remixed Architecture [Interview]

The 2012 VMA stage.
Photo: John Shearer/Invision for MTV

It’s eerily quiet in the Staples Center the day before the 2012 Video Music Awards. We’ve got rehearsals all day but it’s lunchtime and the countless crew members and producers that just moments ago milled in clusters in front of screens and cameras have dispersed for a bite. It’s freezing because the ACs are cranked to a billion–as is the wont of such cavernous spaces where burly dudes lift things–but I gotta say, it’s beautiful in here.

The main stage features three monstrous LED screens that create a curved landscape, not unlike an IMAX screen, and the projected images change from a hyper saturated mountain vista to futuristic videogame terrains. In front is a crystalline canopy that glows in various colors and to its right (as in stage right) there’s another set of angular shards. On the left, to switch it up, is a series of thin, long, LED cylinders upon which you can project other images and colors. Inspired by kid’s string art (the yarn version of macaroni art where you thread colored string to nails on a wood panel), it looks sorta like a really big harp that juts out towards you like some cubist Sydney Opera House. The whole thing reminds me of a rave flyer version of Superman’s fortress of solitude. Except that it’s not Kal-El’s quiet place so much as it is the MUSIC PARTY EVENT OF THE YEAR.

The 2012 VMA stage lights.
Photo: MTV

The man responsible for the set design is none other than the German-born Florian Wieder who also designed the sets for last year’s VMAs as well as the year before. The 2010 event garnered Wieder an Emmy Award about which he is delightfully (and Teutonically) nonplussed. “It’s good,” he says. “But to be honest I would rather a live event go well than get an award.” Wearing a pair of worn jeans, thick-rimmed black glasses and a snug, twill military jacket with a thin lapel turned up, Wieder walks me through the thought process and the design language of the set. “This year is challenging because we had a much bigger space and it’s always an issue to bring the talent as close to the audience as possible so they feel engaged.” The solution? To create multiple performance areas to elicit an intimate and vibrant “event feel” for viewers seated in all areas of the stadium. On the other end of a main runway, there’s another large scale set piece that follows what Wieder dubs the “broken glass design” that houses our DJ for the night, Calvin Harris. I can only describe the thing as looking like a Meobius-Strip-deconstructed pyramid because it really just looks like bangles of diamond shapes interlinked in such a way that you cannot tell where each one ends and the next begins.

The LED screens make set changes a little easier given that you can project images that complement the divergent acts. Taylor Swift’s background would not necessarily work with 2 Chainz’s but Wieder is not satisfied to simply alter backdrops. “It’s important to create a new environment not just change the images.” He does this by placing IRL 3D sculpted set pieces that are changed out for each performing artist. It grounds the artist and counters whatever synthetic feel that a 100% digital experience might add, especially when you’re watching from home.

Wieder and the executive producers of the show had been working almost for a full year to create a design language for this year’s more “modern” and “angular” design. Numerous inspirations were drawn from sculpture and architecture and so much remixing took place that the pieces don’t borrow too heavily from one artist or architect (very meta given this year’s EDM vibe). That said, Wieder does give a hat tip and notes that the futuristic elements were partly inspired by the Dubai skyline.

The 2012 VMA stage lights.
Photo: MTV

One really cool thing about the set—which I’m sure is a headache to consider in the planning stages—is that this badboy has to look awesome on-camera from every angle. The rad thing about that when you’re in here, walking around and looking from the different monitor views, is that the DJ structure almost nests into the canopy. Your eye-line stacks them together without any of the angles colliding together discordantly. “Even if you’re looking from the top,” says Wieder, “it follows the same design language. Every view does.” Nothing muddies anything else and there’s no bad view in the house. It’s both super impressive and a total trip.

Wieder studied design in Munich but before that he also studied music and actually began his career as a session musician. When he was 18 or 19, he was absolutely blown away when on a fateful night he attended a Prince concert during his “Sign of the Times” tour and his face was melted clean off by the set design. It’s the marriage between his music background and his design background that makes Florian uniquely qualified to create an atmosphere as futuristic yet intimate in a space like this behemoth. And it’s also why he’s in high demand with clients like Simon Cowell and Beyonce. There are untold hands that go into making something so big so very pretty and it makes it all that much more exciting sitting in here with all the free snacks in the world but no real food watching constellations of lights twinkling and glowing in tandem.


Watch the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Thursday, Sept. 6, at 8 p.m. ET/PT. Catch the live preshow at 7 p.m. ET/PT and cast your votes for Best New Artist and Most Share-Worthy Video into the show!

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