The most memorable moment of Sunday night's Billboard Music Awards -- one of the most striking moments of any awards show this century, really -- came when Beyoncé took the stage to perform her 4 single "Run the World (Girls)." Standing before a simple white screen that displayed an eye-popping array of projections, Beyoncé interacted with globes, dancers, and even an army of synchronized Beyoncé clones that weren't really there. The expertly executed performance was more awe-inspiring and innovative that anything on the Grammys or MTV VMAs, and definitely trumped any acrobatic stage show Katy, Rihanna, Britney, or even Gaga have fashioned in recent memory.
For new media artist and film director Kenzo Digital, the performance was the culmination of a month of near-sleepless nights. While his colleagues at advertising company Wieden-Kennedy went home at night, he attended intense meetings with Beyoncé and put in grueling hours on the computer concocting the performance's incredible graphics. "I literally haven't slept in five days," Digital tells The Amp, fresh off a plane back from the Awards in Las Vegas. "It's been a very hands-on, intense process."
Kenzo's work has been featured everywhere from the Tribeca Film Festival to the Guggenheim and MOMA. He studied under "the father of video art" Nam June Paik and his latest film, City of God's Son, is an experimental hip-hop opera that was lauded by Kanye West. Beyoncé's team approached Digital about a collaboration, and after meeting, "She really liked where my head was at," Digital says. "They had this idea to do something interactive and projection-based, so I concepted it with Beyoncé. We worked intensely with her choreographer Frank Gatson, who was also super incredible. Together, we fleshed out how the video would interact with the choreography and went back and forth several times on the look and style. My whole thing was to create this futuristic origami jungle world with elephants and lions."
In just one month, Kenzo, Beyoncé, creative studio Breathe (the geniuses behind the graphics at Roger Waters' amazing The Wall live shows), and animation team Dirt Empire conceptualized and executed the "Girls" performance. "Beyoncé has such an incredible work ethic and vision, and you really couldn't ask for a better collaborator in terms of the performing side of things as well. She killed it," Digital says. "When I saw that thing come out live, I was absolutely and completely blown away. As many times as she had rehearsed, as many times as she mocked it up just in the video room to get a reference of where we're at with the animation, to see that come together with her and her 100 percent energy and all the pyro effects, it was insane."
Perhaps most impressive, Beyoncé did the entire performance without the help of a reference screen, like the ones a weatherman uses to pinpoint where it's raining. "She is an absolute monster, she nailed all of her walks -- she just knows it," Kenzo says. "Her muscle memory, her performance, she doesn't need guides. She just needs to practice it a couple times and it's done. There was no visual guide. Her eye line was straight into the crowd, engaging the crowd. That's just her amazing abilities as a performer."
Kenzo admits that Beyoncé's team was initially inspired by a similar performance by Italian singer Lorella Cuccarini. "[The Cuccarini artists] are awesome and do incredible work as well, but there are a lot of different inspirations for where our piece came from," he said. "That's the thing, it's very simplistic. If anything, it's a great example of how great of a performer Beyoncé is. It's just a bare white screen. It's a technique in video art since the '80s in terms of frontal projection and interactive things. That's really nothing new. It's not even a new technology. It's just an incredibly simple, awesome storytelling device, and with a performer like Beyoncé it becomes incredibly powerful."
Kenzo hopes the "Girls" performance lives on as a centerpiece for Beyoncé's inevitable tour in support of 4. "It would be awesome if it would be," he says, "but I don't know what's in store exactly." Digital's phone has been ringing constantly since Beyoncé's world-stopping performance -- "I literally have 50 new messages on my answering machine and so many emails" -- so expect some more revolutionary performances in the near-future.