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The Design Process: Vita Motus

PLSN Staff • Focus on Design • October 15, 2015

It’s too bad the name Industrial Light & Magic had already been taken by some obscure film producer named George Lucas. Otherwise, the terms would perfectly capture the work of Heather Shaw and her firm Vita Motus Design Studio. As she defines it, Vita Motus (vee-ta moe-tus) is Latin for “life vibration,” loosely connoting being attuned to and going with the flow. She describes her company’s designs as futuristic, with a focus on conceptual experience and immersive multimedia sculptures. Vita Motus fuses cutting-edge technology and pop culture into an entirely new world of its own.

Electric Daisy Carnival BassPod stage, 2015. Photo courtesy Inaomniac Events.To get a taste of the studio’s otherworldly work, one need look no further than the stunning Basspod Stage at this year’s Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas last summer. “It was great working with Forrest Hunt from Insomniac, the festival production company,” says Shaw. “Basspod was his baby from the beginning, so we really wanted to make the design particularly special for him. He was a fun and inspirational person to work with.” Seven huge, brightly lit robots, tarnished as if they’d just returned from a punishing, years-long space journey, highlighted it.

Deliberately non-humanoid, the aluminum automatons had hexagonal bodies and four cylindrical appendages that we humans might identify as arms and legs, the top two of which shot fire and fog. Their blank faces made of 7mm LED, changed expressions according to the character of the music (the custom media content for the faces came from VT Pro Design). To involve the audience, the robots were arrayed around it in a circle, with four 32-foot robots along the edges and a 38-foot version on each side of the 54-foot center stage robot, under which the DJ performed. The stage robots launched additional pyrotechnics. Each had a 50-watt RGB laser it could use for playing space tag with its cohorts across the audience. The creatures’ edges were lined with Versa Tubes from Element Labs that pulsed with colors and patterns, while their fronts and sides were LED surfaces. All the lights and effects could be synchronized or run independently. Visions Lighting was Vita Motus’s partner in lighting, media panels, rentals, production and installation. It’s no wonder that L.A. Weekly newspaper called Basspod the best stage of the event.

Heather Shaw, founder of Vita Motus Design StudioShaw’s route to production design was more circuitous than most. She started college in the fine arts program at the University of Southern California, doing mostly painting and sculpture. Her interests changed and she found herself driven to automotive design, so she matriculated about 20 miles northeast across town at Pasadena’s famed Art Center College of Design. There, she earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial and transportation design and was the only female graduate of her class. Almost immediately, in 2004, she was hired by Volkswagen/Audi AG to focus predominantly on “blue sky” projects, essentially designing concept cars of the future and exploring alternative energy products for Audi in their Santa Monica facility. “That work helped me to learn a lot about what would move me as a designer,” she says. In 2009, when the economy collapsed like a bad soufflé, she and many others at the car company lost their jobs.

Luckily, she’d been moonlighting in the studio she founded in 2006, Vita Motus Design Studio, applying her industrial design chops to production projects for concert and festival programs. Going fulltime in her firm was the next logical step. Though not working in electronic dance music exclusively, she has been drawn to the world of EDM, especially its early DIY ethos. “I feel like there’s an overall core value that has come from the EDM community,” she explains. “Most of EDM started from an underground universe where anything was possible, rules were broken, and people were thinking big and willing to be adventurous. All these core values really helped shape what we try to do creatively, even though EDM is definitely no longer underground. We’re trying to create adventures, break the norms and do things that are out of the ordinary in unique places. That has definitely shaped our company.”

At the same time, Shaw has undertaken projects for The Do Lab, co-designing large-scale art and entertainment installations for the past five years. She has become known for her 360-degree interactive designs that have premiered globally.

What process does Vita Motus go through when a customer comes calling? “Because I’ve come from the industrial design world,” she says, “our process is a lot about researching and finding out what makes certain projects or brands unique. We start by discussing what the client or creative director is looking for, where their brand is at, what is the product and who is it for, what kind of energy they want and so forth. Although this method will vary for different clients and projects, it always requires an avant-garde approach and discovery exercises to guide our research.

“Next, we focus on design inspiration and revealing the story and passion behind a creation. This crucial moment shapes the difference between mere convention and true innovation. At Vita Motus, we like to analyze a project in unique ways that allow its functional aspects to reveal extraordinary design opportunities. Fusing artistic inspiration and passion with industrial design’s rational methods has helped us to overcome challenges and paved the way to discovering new approaches. Once a series of concepts exists, the story is chosen and the sketch phase can begin. This ‘sketch and review’ phase incorporates rough design illustrations and renderings, usually two or three broad-strokes concepts for an overall look and feel. They can either all be based on one look or each on a completely different direction. The client gives feedback on those and we settle on a favorite.”

At this point, the design solution is refined. Shaw explains, “We create CAD files to lead into the development of the product. Prototypes can be built, tested and refined from these files. They are used to push toward tangible evidence at every stage of the innovation journey and have become increasingly valuable as we tackle more abstract design concepts. Following that, we detail out the design, getting into the nuts and bolts, like fabrication documents and gear budgets. We speak with vendors and create a team based on who the best creatives are for that particular concept. It’s so important to collaborate with the right teams for fabrication, technology, manufacturing and production. Next come onsite installation, rehearsals, show design and execution. Depending on the project and the team, I’ll usually go to the first and second shows just to make sure everything clicks.”

Janelle Monae was Los Angeles; M.I.A. was in New York City. The two artists conceptually traveled through the three-dimensional tunnel to the other’s stage to create the world’s first bicoastal holographic duet. Photo by Joshua BrottThe Tunnel at the End of the Light

Perhaps one of the most “magical” effects created by Vita Motus was for the launch of the 2015 Audi. Working with creative director Peter Martin, the company designed a tunnel-like 3-D mapped structure with holographic representations of two singers, Janelle Monae and M.I.A. Monae was Los Angeles; M.I.A. was in New York City. The two artists conceptually traveled through the three-dimensional tunnel to the other’s stage to create the world’s first bicoastal holographic duet. With the help of Obscura Digital, Monae “appeared” and sang with M.I.A. on her song “Bad Girls” and M.I.A. “appeared” and sang with Monae on her tune “Queen.”

Kaskade at Coachella, photo by Daniel ZetterstromVita Motus has also created projects for Pharrell Williams, VICE, Red Bull, Absolut, ASAP Rocky, Steve Angelo, Marquee Nightclubs, the television show American Idol, and several for the annual Coachella Music Festivals. The festivals offer the special challenge of having daytime acts, while EDM seems to be a “nightlife” kind of music. Counters Shaw, “We do tons of EDM-focused festivals that start during the day and go into the night. So instead of lighting and media effects, we might do things with structure, sculpture, color and fabric.”

An example of a successful daytime stage was the Woogie stage at the Lightning in a Bottle festival in 2006 that was an actual tree house up in a tree. The festival was moving the location of its house music stage, so the design team had to change the design. “When we were out at the site, we saw this really awesome tree and decided to build a tree house for the DJs to work from,” says Shaw. “It was one of those childhood fun, bright fantasy things that was a nice surprise for the DJs when they learned they’d be roosting up in a tree. In subsequent years, when there were live musicians, decks could be added below or inside the main structure for the players to stand on.”

For American Idol, the firm designed a projection-mapped modernist set, which offered its own chunk of challenges. “We had to make sure to avoid creating shadows when people were on the set, and we worked closely with the lighting designer to ensure that the lights were not blowing out the media on the walls. And because it was TV, the lighting had to be a certain way for the cameras.”

When PLSN spoke with her in early August, the peripatetic Shaw had just returned from Reykjavik, Iceland. “We donated a piece to a group called The Best Peace Solutions,” she explained; “They grant funds to programs in Iceland that propose solutions for peace. One of the projects is a living art museum that exhibits and collects the work of living artists. We contributed a bright, colorful metal and fabric grid-like sculpture that also acts as a rain shelter where visitors to the museum line up. After the two-month exhibit is finished, we’ll leave it there for the museum to use for displaying other artists’ work.”

Red Bull Cube photo by Siouxzen KangIt’s too bad another obscure Hollywood type named Steven Spielberg used the name Dreamworks, because Shaw’s piece for Red Bull was her dream work. She was selected as the first artist to participate in the launch of Red Bull at Night and given complete freedom from concept to completion. Her exhibition was called “The Circuitry of Life,” an immersive four-story cube that, through visual and sound art and performances by acts as diverse as the Zadonu African Dance Company, the UCLA String Chamber Music Ensemble and the Reflections, charted the evolution of technology from analog to digital and its resultant effect on human connections. It involved the collaboration of at least two dozen creative producers, artists and firms.

With design technology now offering so many heretofore unimaginable possibilities, is there a danger that the music can be overwhelmed or lost in the spectacle? “I think that’s been happening a little bit in a way,” the designer suggests. “There are a lot of designs that are super big in comparison to the music. It is challenging to keep things connected and not overdo it just because you can. It has to have a purpose specific to that music or that event or that festival. Purpose and authenticity are the key elements we focus on when designing, so it’s not overpowering for no reason.” She considers projection mapping and 3-D CAD software the technological advances that have had the most impact on her work. “They’ve blurred the boundaries between the second and third dimensions and allowed us to be sculptural and media-heavy at the same time. They’re great tools for storytelling.”

Another advance she has noticed has been the ascendancy of women in the industry. “The automotive industry had been very male-dominated, but it’s changed a lot in the past 15 years [e.g., the CEO of GM is a woman]. The lighting and production world had been similar, with traditionally feminine and masculine roles, but it’s definitely changing. There are a lot of new opportunities that hadn’t been available earlier for women to learn and use the techniques and tools.” [See the article “Women Lighting Designers” and its spirited comments section in the June 2014 issue of PLSN.]

True to the “go with the flow” connotations of its name, as Vita Motus becomes more visible via social media and online, it hopes to focus on projects that have purpose and meaning. Says its designer-in-chief, “We like creating events that can present unique perspectives while inspiring and opening minds. If we had to define our style, it would be that we’re constantly trying to change, because we don’t necessarily want one style. We try to keep it fresh and different and not look like we’re doing the same thing all the time. I consider the ideal firm one that can balance creativity and pushing the limits with professionalism and sophistication.” That might just be Vita Motus.

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