by Riya PatelMar 31, 2023
Tom Sutherland, CEO & Head of Creative, DX7 Design, is the award-winning lighting designer behind the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), which held it's 2023 edition on September 12. Having just wrapped up his fourth year working on the VMAs, Sutherland sat down with STIR to discuss his journey with MTV so far, and to provide us with insights into what it takes to put together the evening. In the video above, the lighting designer explores the logistical challenges that come with organising an event of this scale, the interplay he enjoys from working with a different set designer each year, noteworthy lighting technologies he had the pleasure to utilise on this year's set, and more. Coming to the 2023 MTV VMAs, the night was pure pop culture extravaganza; something very much on brand for the VMAs, and delivered its usual blend of visual and musical spectacle packed with unexpected moments, which according to Sutherland, is one of the major factors that has led to the event's mass appeal globally.
Sutherland is CEO and Head of Creative at DX7 DESIGN, which is a leading name in lighting and production design, and creative direction. The British designer started his creative journey young, when he found inspiration in school shows, along with the theatre productions he was exposed to in the West End of his native London, United Kingdom, which is famed for its patronage of the performing arts.
Over the course of a career that has spanned more than two decades, Sutherland has worked on shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor, American Idol, Dancing With The Stars and The MTV European Music Awards. He is the youngest lighting designer to have been nominated for a Knight of Illumination award, which recognises outstanding lighting design.
Sutherland’s journey with MTV has been an eventful one: 2020, his first year undertaking lighting design duties for the award show was early in the COVID-19 pandemic and necessitated specific precautionary measures. The lighting designer coordinated his work with multiple crews all over New York City in the United States, in order to help pull off a night that speaks volumes regarding the ingenuity and resilience of the entertainment industry. “The show must go on,” as it is said, and indeed it did.
In his words, “Every year I’ve been lucky enough to work with different set designers on the VMA’s, so that’s always kind of kept me on my toes because different people design in different ways and do different things.” The lighting designer’s work for last year’s edition of the VMAs complemented it’s sleek and angular set design, along with the massive retro MTV logo design installation that it featured in the centre of the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. However, it is the 2023 edition that Sutherland regards as having been one of the “prettiest” in the VMAs’ history, which incorporated many curves in its set design. Lighting at the event has also had a distinctly sensual quality this year, amplifying some of the performances, such as Nicki Minaj’s disarmingly intimate new single Last Time I Saw You. That is not to say, however, that Sutherland’s vision for lighting at the 2023 MTV VMAs was one-note, far from it in fact. Måneskin’s performance of HONEY (ARE U COMING?) saw particularly intense lighting work, as did other high-energy sets by acts such as Karol G and Shakira. Some performances even featured pyrotechnics, which the event’s lighting work integrated perfectly with.
Much of the dynamism in lighting design at the 2023 MTV VMAs may be attributed to cutting-edge mapping strip lights called PIXEL LINE IPs. Discussing these, Sutherland tells STIR that they were “to the left and right of the screens, and just really brought the visual content of the screens out into the room.” He also mentions that technological developments in the industry occur very rapidly, and one needs necessarily keep abreast of them in order to tap into the latest and greatest that lighting design has to offer.
When asked about what comes next for lighting design at the MTV VMAs, Sutherland responds with a touch of humour, saying that he does not believe any major mistakes were made at this year’s edition, and that he is hopeful that his company will be booked for the 2024 edition. He cannot mention any particulars but looks forward to pushing the boundaries of his craft further than ever before.
The MTV VMAs 2023 had 16 acts, which is the awards show’s largest number to date. The list of performers included A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, Anitta, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Demi Lovato, Diddy, DMC, Doja Cat, Doug E. Fresh, Fall Out Boy, Future, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kaliii, KAROL G, Kelsea Ballerini, Lil Wayne, LL COOL J, Måneskin, Metro Boomin, NAV, Nicki Minaj, NLE Choppa, Olivia Rodrigo, Peso Pluma, Reneé Rapp, Sabrina Carpenter, Shakira, Stray Kids, Swae Lee, The Warning and TOMORROW X TOGETHER.