Dance

How Marshmello Altered Reality for His UEFA Champions League Final Performance

Courtesy Photo

"If there’s a chance to do something that’s like, 'Wow, I’ve never seen something like that before,'" the producer says, "those are the opportunities I like to take.”

This past March, a fleet of engineers, dancers, drummers, virtual and extended reality wizards, choreographers, designers and one electronic music superstar congregated at a soundstage in an industrial area of Long Beach, Calif.

Over three days of shooting, this sprawling crew used every tool at their disposal to make it appear as though that superstar producer, Marshmello, was performing inside a European soccer stadium thousands of miles away. To make the magic happen, even 'Mello needed to expand his skillset.

"I had to practice dance moves," says the producer, born Chris Comstock. "Choreography is something I’d never done."

The massive effort -- two years in the making -- was all for Marshmello's six-minute opening ceremony performance for the UEFA Champions League Final, happening today (May 29) in Porto, Portugal. Watch the complete performance below.

The producer was originally scheduled to play the prestigious event -- headlined by Dua Lipa in 2018 and Imagine Dragons in 2019 -- in 2020, although that performance was ultimately canceled due to COVID-19. In the run-up to the show, the pandemic would create a significant last-minute scramble that made it so everyone involved in the performance was working on it until just days ago.

But that curveball was yet to come when the production team first pivoted to 2021, initially gathering to determine if the performance would happening virtually or in person in Istanbul, where the match was first scheduled to be played.

"It was summertime last year, it was like, 'Are we planning for another physical performance or do we completely go digital?'" says Krista Carnegie, COO of Marshmello's management company The Shalizi Group. "Then I saw this creative come in and I kind of forced their hand like, 'We’re doing digital. This is going to be next level.'"

"If there’s a chance to do something that’s like, 'Wow, I’ve never seen something like that before,'" Comstock adds, "those are the opportunities I like to take.”

Conceptualized by creative director Es Devlin, known for her work with artists like Beyoncé, Lorde and The Weeknd (including the latter artist's 2021 Super Bowl halftime show), the opening ceremony was designed to bend reality and make viewers at home question whether or not Marshmello was in the stadium -- and if so, how the things they were seeing onscreen were actually happening.

"This one was a bit hard to get everyone to understand, because there’s quite literally no reference for it," Carnegie says of the creative concept. "There’s going to be points where we’re filling the stadium with sky and water." While such effects could never happen IRL, via mixed reality technology, anything and everything became possible.

To get started, a production team first flew to Istanbul capture images of every inch of the stadium -- from the seat cushions to the cracks in the walls -- so the digital teams could make their virtual renderings as realistic as possible. Meanwhile, 'Mello and his team assembled a setlist of hits to appeal the already global star to an even larger worldwide audience, while the show's sponsor Pepsi helped enlist guest stars Selena Gomez and Khalid.

"For us and for UEFA, it’s really important that the performer resonates around the world, and you also have to have an appeal to football fans," Ellen Healy, PepsiCo's senior marketing director of music and entertainment, says of choosing the right artist for the gig. "It’s finding the right balance between the type of music, who they are, what the performance looks like and how you create that connection. Each year the list of potential artists is not very long."

This year in particular, Pepsi was looking for a highly digital act, aiming to drive awareness around the event via digital content. 'Mello, with nearly 30 million Instagram followers, a worldwide audience spanning age groups and an arsenal of genre-spanning global hits, was an obvious choice. All he had to do was assemble the playlist.

"I wanted to choose songs of mine that people know,"  Comstock says of the show's six-song setlist, which includes "Come & Go," "Wolves," "Happier," "Alone," "Silence," and Friends." "Maybe you knew the singer and didn’t know it was me. This is my opportunity to say, 'These are all of my little children that I’ve made over the years.'”

For Comstock and his team, the massive streaming potential of the show wasn't unfamiliar, with more than 10 million virtual attendees tuning in for Marshmello's 2019 virtual performance inside Fortnite, an event considered a major evolution for how artists can connect to fans. For the Marshmello team, it was crucial that any subsequent virtual performance would expand on that milestone.

"We’ve been asked to do so many of these concerts since Fortnite," Carnegie says. "We don’t feel like we can ever take a step back from it. If we don’t feel like we can elevate again, it's not really fitting for us."

The UEFA opportunity was this chance to elevate. Not only had this type of technology never been used before, in terms of exposure Comstock agrees that playing opening the ceremony is akin to doing the Super Bowl halftime show. Both are sponsored by Pepsi; both reach a massive global audience (particularly as soccer, or football as it's referred to everywhere else in the world, is consistently ranked the world's most popular sport) and both shows all but ensure a significant post-show sales and streaming streaming boost.

Back in Long Beach, Khalid came through to perform his part in "Silence" and Gomez dropped in to do her vocals for "Wolves." (While the team tried to get Anne-Marie to SoCal to perform part on "Friends," U.K. quarantine protocols made the timeline impossible.)

Meanwhile 15 dancers, a number kept limited due to safety protocols, was through the magic of technology expanded into a fleet of 100 performers. At the edge of the stage, choreographer JaQuel Knight, known for his work with Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion, coached 'Mello through his moves.

Initially, the production team hadn't planned to announce that the show was happening virtually, intending to create something so realistic that viewers wouldn't be able to tell if 'Mello was performing digitally or from the actual stadium. ("I feel like I’m shooting an Avengers movie," Comstock says of the reality-bending production process.)

But the plan changed just weeks before today's match, when the Champions League Final was moved from Istanbul to Portugal. With two U.K. teams competing and  Istanbul on the country's "red list" of COVID-19 travel destinations, moving the event to Portugal made it possible for more U.K. fans to attend.

The location change threw a sizable wrench into the production, with the creative teams scrambling to replace imagery of the Istanbul stadium with visuals from the Portugal venue. Luckily, because Porto's Estádio do Dragão is a relatively new facility, the team was able to redo wide shots of the stadium based on pre-existing technical drawings. And because crews knew exactly what stadium shots they needed to replace, a complete digital rendering of the new stadium wasn't necessary.

Navigating the curveballs of a global pandemic was, ultimately, just another solution to solve for in a performance that ultimately hit all the benchmarks the creative team had envisioned. Over the course of six minutes, Marshmello danced amongst an army of fellow Marshmellos; he strutted through a cityscape amalgamating the tournament's 16 finalist cities, he played guitar while fireworks went off behind him and his music blasted while the Estádio do Dragão filled up with water. Really, the only thing 'Mello didn't do was take to the field for the actual match.

"I think I made a travel team when I was like, 8," Comstock says of his own soccer career. "Then I realized I was a bit better at music."

Watch Marshmello's complete performance below.