Production Designers for Halsey, Chainsmokers & More Explain 'Sculptural' Lighting & Their Field's Future as Fest Culture Shifts

Halsey 2016
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

Halsey performs onstage during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 2 at the Empire Polo Club on April 23, 2016 in Indio, Calif.

Production designers have always been an essential force in putting on live concerts, but in the past five years or so, their behind-the-scenes work has taken on a more visible role in the public sphere.

The rise of EDM may be partly responsible for people starting to embrace the term "designer" instead of "technician." Given the lighting and media extravaganza an EDM show requires, designers' roles have taken on a greater importance. Whereas pop stars employ backup dancers, rappers have hype men and rock/R&B bands are a show unto themselves, a DJ set is typically centered around one person -- which means the complementary production better make up the difference in visual interest. 

Another element is the rise of festival culture. The 21st century has seen music festival crowds grow more massive by the year, which means artists need a spectacular light-and-media show simply to reach fest-goers watching from the far back. (It's not a coincidence that rock bands suddenly became interested in intricate light shows when they started playing football stadiums in the '70s.)

Aside from the ascendance of EDM and expansion of festivals, this transition in perception is also a long time coming. For decades we've recognized that lighting in film requires a distinct artistic voice, so why wouldn't its role in live music also be esteemed? Obviously some shows are more involved than others, but as Daft Punk demonstrated during their game-changing Coachella set in 2006, production design can end up the most-talked about part of a show the next day (hell, even years later in that case).  

With all that in mind, Billboard took some time to chat with Vita Motus founder Heather Shaw and executive producer Elliott Dunwody, two of the minds behind the 10-year-old production design company, about their 2016 projects (they* did Halsey's Coachella sets and continue to work on her current tour), how the field has changed and what's next for production designers as fest culture landscape shifts.

*Heather Shaw - Show designer, Creative Director; Elliott Dunwody - Producer; Michael Smalley - Lighting Designer

So you worked with Halsey, Chainsmokers and Run the Jewels at Coachella 2016. How does that conversation start? Do they give you a lot of details or just say, "Do what you did for this other artist, but for us"?

Heather Shaw: With Coachella it's one thing because it's a fest where everyone wants to bring it. We'll get emails from so many people. With Halsey it was, "We're launching our tour at Coachella and we want to do something really interesting." Either they'll have an idea already and we'll need to pimp it up, or they'll put it in our hands and say, "what's the next evolution of this brand?" But it starts with an email or a phone call.

And then they give you videos or sketches to go off?

HS: For lighting at a festival setting, particularly Coachella, there's a lot of work done already. There's a big rig that's there for the artists to share. But yes, it starts with research, concepts, drawing, redesign and presenting a few ideas and seeing what resonates.

How involved are artists?

HS: It depends on the artist. With Halsey we had creative conversations and lot of communication with what she wants [in order] to make something really great for her tour kickoff. There were a lot of phone calls and Skypes. The Chainsmokers had a concept of what they wanted and we basically pimped out their concept. A lot of what we try to work on is making something sculptural. The rental world is a lot of truss and LED and everything fits inside of these grids -- it's not necessarily sculptural. We like to use that stuff in ways that are less expected -- we'll make a sculpture out of LED that the Chainsmokers are on top of, or make something fabricated and add media to it. We try to change that grid. 

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Elliott Dunwody: There's a relatively small group of people doing this. Everyone has a similar starting point, which is the lighting fixtures available to you. But you come to Vita Motus to expand on that and stand out with structural and sculptural things, which is what we did for Kaskade last year at Coachella and Halsey this year. We're giving them these really beautiful shapes with lighting and video to complement their show. Versus those designers who just use rented-out puzzle pieces.

Heather, you founded your own company 10 years ago. Were you working for someone else's company before then?

HS: Before that I was actually working for Audi in the automotive industry -- I went to design school for automotive design. I started using [those skills] on the side for my friends in our little music world, and it started to take over. It grew out of passion because it was fun to do and I loved it. There's a big community of artists, musicians, producers and people who make things happen we've met along the way. There's a global community of festival people. Ten years ago was my first year working with Do Lab at Coachella [one of the fest's signature dance parties in a smaller, art-filled enclave]. That was one of the first things I built in the music industry.

Has much changed since then?

HS: It's changed a lot, for sure. A lot of people have been able to make careers out of their passion. It's amazing and fun to see friends you knew ten years ago with hundreds and thousands of people in front of them while they're making music. Or friends who have businesses they're owning and flourishing at these festivals. Back then we were just kids doing fun things. Now it's professional. There are so many people involved in festival production, it's an intense thing on the backside.

ED: I was an artist manager before. I was at C3 Presents managing Bassnectar for a bunch of years. When I got out of artist management, I decided I wanted to do the thing that was most inspiring to me, which is the experience of a concert. And that's essentially what we're doing -- setting up the experience of it.

Do you think the rise of EDM changed a lot for production design, since it's often just one or two people on a stage as opposed to a full show?

HS: EDM has been a launch pad for a lot of things. It was an underground thing for years, and happening where things weren't permitted or legal, so people had to do new things. That core value of doing new things has continued, even though we're not underground anymore.

ED: The stakes keep getting higher. There's a headliner limit to an extent with musicians. Coachella does an amazing job getting great headliners, while the successful [smaller fests] popping up seem to be more about vibe and experience overall. It's about art to complement music. You're going to start seeing the art being more highlighted... As festival culture grows out of itself, designers and digital artists will become more recognized and a bigger part of it. It's like movies -- on top of stars, people see movies because of directors and cinematographers and production companies. I can see that happening a little more.

What do you see happening next for festivals?

ED: There's a pendulum swing. Right now we're at 100,000 person festivals. I think it will swing into smaller, more intimate experiences that will be ramped up to 11. They will be immersive events. You already see that with one-off experiences and brands, like Red Bull, who want those experiences. That's where I see it heading. Smaller, more tailored and more collaborative. Teaming up with artists and starting with more of a blank slate. And it'll be interesting to see what happens after EDM. And how do these companies express themselves [after that]? I see pretty green pastures in that world.