Lessons from MTV director Paul Caslin during Covid



The entertainment industry has always moved quickly – but in 2020, the entertainment industry has had to evolve faster than ever before!

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the world change beyond recognition and the entertainment industry as a whole has had to change with it. Of course, one of the aspects of entertainment that has been the worst affected is the world of live music. Those involved in running America’s biggest concerts and festivals have been left with no choice but to cancel everything until further notice, with even huge annual events like Coachella being left in the dust until the world can go back to some sense of normality.

However, there are some shows that must go on! On August 31st, the MTV Video Music Awards went ahead in a landmark event that will surely be remembered for years to come, using the best in cutting-edge technology and virtual innovations to pull off one of the biggest parties of the year at a time when parties, for most of us, feel like a distant memory!

“People will pull together to turn a positive into a negative,” said Paul Caslin, a creative director at MTV, “And creativity will always find a way!”

Paul has worked on the MTV Video Music Awards for a number of years, and was the visionary behind the incredible ceremony last month, watched by over 6.4 million viewers across the United States. This year’s show was completely different to any VMAs of the past, but Paul wasn’t always expecting it to be that way…

“At first I wrongly assumed that the industry would be virtually the same, but with everyone in masks… the reality is very different”, Paul explains, “The whole industry has changed. Before Coronavirus, creativity was always the driving force – now it’s safety first, and rightly so.”

Despite having years of experience in putting on exciting live music events with MTV, even Paul wasn’t so sure what was going to happen to the VMAs once the pandemic started to take hold and music events everywhere were forced to cancel. After all, the COVID-19 crisis wasn’t something that anyone could ever have prepared for.

“At first, I felt like a music awards show like the VMAs would be an insurmountable challenge,” Paul said, “How do you recreate the buzz of an awards show without the atmosphere of an audience within the venue?”

However, Paul says that he and his team quickly found a way around it – and a pretty futuristic one, at that.

“The solution is virtual audiences – the idea of painstakingly blending together interactive fans on platforms like Zoom with movie level CGI to add an audience into scenes. It isn’t as good as the real thing, but it’s pretty damn close. You can blend the two in a way that you would never be able to do with real people.”

“For instance, we created a Virtual New York city for the VMAs and had fans on top of each skyscraper, with Zoom fans in each of the windows. The end result was the perfect synergy of the real world and the virtual world.”

It wasn’t just the audience that were given the movie effects treatment, either. Just as in all previous years, viewers were treated throughout the night to a whole host of fantastic live performances – but this year, with a twist. Lady Gaga and Doja Cat were just two of the acts who took to incredible virtual stages using the magic of Extended Reality.

Paul explained a little more about this cutting-edge development which provided the sets for these era-defining performances.

“Extended Reality – or XR, for short – is an innovative technology that I’m utilizing a lot during the pandemic. It allows creatives to take a small physical stage and extend it virtually to create immersive worlds that music artists can perform in.”

The performances which took place here on earth were also a pretty amazing sight! The Weeknd wowed viewers as he performed Blinding Lights against the breathtaking New York skyline with a helicopter circling his stage on top of one of the city’s many skyscrapers, while CNCO took to the drive-in created for the ceremony, where fans were able to watch the show live from their cars.

So, how does Paul feel the show came together in a year where people needed to stay apart?

“Even in a normal year, the show pushes the boundaries, so in COVID-19 times, I was concerned that the fans would be disappointed and the level would drop. Ironically, it was the best yet!” 

“Sometimes, when something breaks apart, what’s revealed underneath is even better than the original. It’s been the most creative show ever, with mind-blowingly immersive performances and a whole lot of creative innovation.”

Having acted quickly to adapt to the pandemic, utilize such innovative technology and pull together what will surely be remembered as one of TV’s most memorable awards shows, you might think that Paul and his team are looking forward to a return to normal for next year’s event. However, Paul isn’t too sure it’s time to take ‘normal’ for granted just yet.

“Nothing is for certain now, and entertainment shows and music tours need to have a plan-B to pivot to when things are looking uncertain in the future,” Paul says, considering what the future of live music could look like in a post-Coronavirus world.

“But the most important lesson that I’ve learned is that the creative industries won’t be beaten by a pandemic. Instead, they will constantly innovate and find solutions to overcome even the most seemingly impossible hurdles.”

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