Lighting Designer Tom Kenny puts the VLX front-and-center at the VMA’s
Published Wednesday, October 6, 2010 6:00 am
by Bryan Matthews

When the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards aired live on September 12th from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, a worldwide audience was treated to one of the most interesting and visually spectacular set and lighting designs ever seen at the annual ceremony. Working with set designer Florian Weider, lighting designer Tom Kenny faced a number of obstacles, but none were as challenging as the massive and ultra-modern white canvas structure that would tower over portions of the stage and audience. Knowing what would be needed to creatively light the event and overcome all obstacles, Kenny turned to Illumination Dynamics and 391 luminaires from Philips Vari-Lite.

“When I first saw the plans for the set design, I was in awe of the pure size of the canvas structure, but knew at the same time it would look great once we brought it together with the lighting elements. With this year’s ceremony we all wanted to try and bring something new to the table. Florien definitely had a one-of-a-kind set design which was fantastic because this gave us the canvas to create a complementary and equally unique lighting design.”

A 30-year lighting veteran, Kenny has worked with the MTV Video Music Awards for several years while serving as the LD for the last three becoming very involved with the creative process along with the producers and director. Each year the show has grown creating new and interesting challenges. As a designer, he always tries to think “left-of-field” and enjoys using the latest products and technologies available in all his designs. Once the production team solidified all the design elements for this particular show, Kenny then began his search for those products and technologies that would help him take this design to another level, but he didn’t have to look very far.

“The producers, Jesse Ignatovich and MTV Networks, have an idea of how they would like the show to look, and then the director, Hamish Hamilton, also has a certain vision. My job is to take the two and create a design that satisfies both and then take it a little bit farther. Coming from a concert lighting background, I try to emulate the same feel for TV which has a few challenges that crop up along the way, but not like music where you are always lighting for the inevitable. With TV though, you always have to be thinking outside the realm of normalcy in order to keep your designs fresh. To me, it seems the most unique lighting designs often come from concerts or theatre and you can basically find VARI*LITE fixtures in any theatre or at any concert around the world because they provide the best in color, power, and performance capabilities.”

Inside the Nokia Theatre, with a ceiling height of 60 feet, the stage canopy reached a height of 50 feet. Because of this, it would be the bottom portions of the white canvas that would be seen by the audience and cameras, and subsequently needed to be lit. With such a large coverage area, and since the only way to light the structure would be from the stage floor, Kenny had to identify which wash light combined the best in technology and performance with a physical appearance that wouldn’t stand-out against the ultra-modern set design. He immediately thought of the VARI*LITE VLX Wash which he had seen on VH1 “Storytellers” with Christina Aquilera.

“I fell in love with the VLX the first time I saw it and I knew it could be the workhorse wash fixture for this design. It is the first useable LED wash light that gives you fantastic, deep and rich colors, an incredible zoom, and phenomenal beam width. Because of their LED source we were able to easily color-match the entire canopy with the HD video screens onstage and it really made the entire set come to life as never before. We used 48 total, but since I would need to place almost all of them onstage to light the canopy, we were thrilled that their modern appearance blended easily with the set. Plus, because the lights would be in close proximity to both artists and audience members, the fact that the LED engine emits no heat made them the absolute perfect choice to be our feature light. But to be honest, I was still a little surprised by their power coming from the LED source. It’s a great wash light.”

After lighting the canopy structure, Kenny would also need to assemble a multitude of lights to fill the Nokia Theatre in order to create the full design he envisioned. Wanting to stay true to his personal mandate to only use the best technology available, he worked with Illumination Dynamics, with a sub-rental from VER, to fill his rig with as many VARI*LITE luminaires as he could including 120 VL3000 Spot, 40 VL3500 Wash FX, 52 VL3500 Wash, 69 VL3500 Spot, 32 VL2500 Spot, and 30 VL500 Wash Arc luminaires.

“During the show we have several performances by artists with varying looks and expectations from the lighting rig so we have to make sure the gear we choose has the ability to accomplish many design looks. I choose VARI*LITE fixtures because of their consistent power, color, optics and reliability. So in addition to the VLX Wash fixtures, we have VL3000 Spots for their strong color with fantastic beams. We use the VL3500 Wash FX fixtures because of the enormity of the venue and I needed a powerful light that could also create FX patterns from a long throw distance. Then we have the VL3500 Wash fixtures, again because of the enormity of the venue, but with these I focused more on the strong and solid beams of color that could fill the room from any distance. Next we had the VL3500 Spots for their precise shutter capabilities which we needed for the extremely tight corners created by the set. I used the VL2500 Spots for their gobo breakups with great color, and finally the VL500 Arc fixtures were needed to shoot through the tight window in the center of the structure onstage to give us a nice front face wash.”

At the conclusion of the awards ceremony, music lovers around the world were left with a fantastic evening filled with unforgettable memories of their favorite artists’ performances and acceptance speeches, but behind the scenes Kenny was left with an overwhelming appreciation for his crew and the lighting fixtures which helped bring his vision to life.

“I was very fortunate to work with Mark Rudge at Illumination Dynamics as well as Susan Tesh and Dave Osesky at VER. We also had a great crew which included Mike Grimes, Ronnie Skopac, Mike Appel, Dan Boland, Jason Livingston, and John Ellar. They all worked tirelessly to help me create the final design and without them or the VARI*LITE fixtures the design would not have been the same. This event is meant to be MTV’s primary celebration of musical artistry and the design elements have to hold true to this identity. With the VLX Wash as our feature light for the canopy which we could now snap between any color desired, and with the additional VARI*LITE luminaires hanging throughout the house, we were able to not only match those expectations, but we took it a little further, which is exactly where we wanted to go.”

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