The Otherworldly Set Design of Vita Motus: How One Artist Shifted From Cars to Live Music

by Rich Thomas
- Dec 1 2014 - 5 min read
Coachella Do Lab Set

The phrase “use as directed” may be of paramount significance in the pharmaceutical world, but when it comes to software, bending the rules oftentimes leads to the greatest achievements.

Meet Heather Shaw, CEO and founder of Vita Motus, one of the entertainment world’s most in-demand, multidisciplinary design firms, and the go-to choice for electronic-music artists looking to develop groundbreaking live experiences for their fans. Since forming the company in 2006, Shaw has done set design for the likes of Amon Tobin, Infected Mushroom, Pharrell Williams, Audion (Matthew Dear), and A$AP ROCKY, and in conjunction with L.A.-based experience creators The Do LaB, has built 360-degree, fully immersive art installations that have appeared at music festivals such as Coachella, Lightning in a Bottle, and the Boom Festival in Portugal.

While every environment is unique in its concept and construction, they all have one thing in common: Alias. A graduate of Art Center College of Design, Shaw mastered the program while working on concept-vehicle designs and future-energy products for Audi, but a fortuitous parting of ways led to a creative shift that challenged her to use the application in new ways. Now the program serves as the foundation of her workflow, which, as you’ll read below, can become quite complex.

Amon Tobin ISAM set design
Amon Tobin ISAM set

How did you get started doing this type of design?
I went to school for automotive design and was working with Audi, and in school we learned Alias. This was before Rhinoceros and Maya were out; there were very few 3D software programs back then. We learned Alias for automotive stuff because you have a lot of really detailed control over things like how to make the perfect reflection in the body of a car. The surface needs to be perfectly sculpted, and you have tons of detail. With other 3D software programs that generate things for you, you end up with shapes that are a lot more digital. With this particular software, you have a lot more control over how to make it organic and shape things in different ways.

How did you go from designing cars to set design?
When I graduated, I was brought on to Audi right away as a contract worker. I started Vita Motus right around then, and I did that for five years, but the automotive industry turned into something very rigid and inside the box for me for a while. I needed an outlet, so I started designing stuff on the side for my friends and peers in our little community and making stuff for parties and festivals. I started doing a lot of stuff with the Do LaB and co-designing projects with [Do LaB founder] Josh [Flemming]. He’s a really brilliant artist, and I brought the 3D industrial design stuff into it, so together we’ve been co-designing stuff for a really long time and building all these Coachella structures.

At a certain point—when the [electronic-music] market exploded in 2008 and 2009 and the auto industry went to shit—they let all their contract workers go at Audi, so I had to pull up the bootstraps on the design firm and really figure it out. I just did everything and anything I could.

Infected Mushroom set design
Infected Mushroom set

What were you using to design those first structures?
I was using Alias, which is not architectural and doesn’t really spit out architecture drawings. It’s not AutoCAD. It’s not meant to do what I did with it, but it made it so that I had a lot more control over some of these surfaces and was able to create really organic shapes and get a little bit crazier. It gave us more opportunities to be outside the box because we weren’t using conventional software for that particular project. On the other hand, we also did a lot of stuff with Alias that we probably shouldn’t have, so it was challenging to have to figure everything out.

How so?
I can twist around a piece of plywood in my 3D software, but when it comes down to it, real plywood won’t twist that way. There were a lot of things we had to figure out—what the software was meant for, what I was using it for, and how to really make it correct—but making all those mistakes gave us the opportunity to make crazier things.

set designer Heather Shaw
Vita Motus set designer Heather Shaw

Your work on Amon Tobin’s ISAM live show really changed the game for live electronic-music performance. How did that project come about, and how did you approach it?
The way I was taught to think about a project, especially regarding the automotive industry, I was focused on a lot of advanced platforms and future product lines—starting in 2020 and 2030 and working our way back to what we would do today. With Do LaB, the structures and 360-degree festival environments were a little bit more organic.

When it came to working with a client like Amon Tobin, I started thinking about it like an industrial-design project—thinking about the future of things I hadn’t seen yet and how to get shapes that we hadn’t really explored. This was also the first time I had ever made something for a tour, so I had to figure out how it would all pack and “Tetris” into four large cases, fit into one 53-foot semi, set up in three hours and break down in one.

Was it a similar process for Infected Mushroom’s Fungusamongus tour setup?
After ISAM, everyone started asking for projection-mapped stages. [Infected Mushroom] wanted to be inside of spheres, but if you just project on a sphere, it starts to look really flat, so I had to explode the sphere and give it some negative space and add anti-gravitational-looking things so it would be a sculpture that was recognized as three dimensional when we mapped it.

How do you integrate into the rest of your team’s workflow?
There are also lighting designers, lighting programmers, and riggers, and everyone is using their own thing. I’m using Alias, lighting designers are using VectorWorks, and riggers are using AutoCAD. I’ll create a design and send it to one of my lighting designers, then he’ll insert a bunch of lights and send me back a file and I’ll render from that. Alias helps me get out what everything is supposed to look like and communicate to the client what they’re getting. It’s a sketch tool, an activation tool, and a sculptural tool. I don’t even sketch on paper anymore because I sketch in 3D in Alias. It’s so easy to have that control.

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