For J Balvin’s big entrance on Saturday night in his concert appearance on the video game Fortnite, the Latin pop star rose through a giant glowing pumpkin, just as he might emerge from the bowels of Madison Square Garden on a lift to meet thousands of screaming fans.
Appearing as a green-haired, yellow-suited Frankenstein’s monster, Balvin strutted and vamped across the pumpkin throughout his opening number — “Reggaeton,” a tribute to his musical roots — while light beams flashed against a sepulchral set. It was pure Vegas stagecraft.
But at the taping of his appearance in California a week before, there was no pumpkin, no riser and no crowd. Just Balvin, surrounded by LED panels on a darkened soundstage that, with some animation wizardry, allowed the virtual jack-o’-lantern — along with a cast of skeletons and goblins — to be digitally added to the performance, a blurring of reality and fantasy well suited to the game.
Balvin’s Halloween-themed appearance was the latest high-profile music event on Fortnite, the hugely popular video game that has taken on a new importance to the entertainment industry during the pandemic.
With concerts shut down, musicians have flocked to virtual platforms to reach their fans. A well-timed Fortnite show in April by the rapper Travis Scott — with eye-popping graphics that placed Scott within the game’s digital realm — became a surprise cultural event, drawing nearly 28 million players and offering proof of concept to performers who had suddenly found themselves homebound.
Balvin’s 13-song, 38-minute set on Halloween was a lighthearted monster mash in Day-Glo colors that resembled a futuristic translation of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” with dancers in costume as ghosts, zombie Cyclopes and jolly animals. All the while, full moons, gravestones and spider webs swirled vividly around them.
The process of creating the show, witnessed over three of the event’s four days of rehearsals and taping, was a cross between old-fashioned Hollywood and cutting-edge virtual reality.
At a nondescript industrial building in Glendale, Calif., dancers lounged backstage waiting for their cues and members of a production crew a few dozen strong watched from a control room. When not thumping with Balvin’s beats, the soundstage was quiet save the whir of an air purifier.
But when the taping started, bright lights danced across the LED screens on the diamond-shaped stage and two walls behind it, while monitors displayed those same scenes enhanced with 3D animation. The concert was being created in “XR,” or extended reality, a blending of real and virtual worlds that allowed Balvin and his dancers’ in-the-flesh performances to be augmented by animated effects.
In another scene, Balvin sang “Que Pretendes” while standing on a giant golden skeleton palm, another studio illusion. But he was soon joined by the Puerto Rican star Bad Bunny, who was not present for Balvin’s taping but had filmed his appearance in front of a green screen — a glimpse of humanity that was actually another wraith. (The Black Eyed Peas were another virtual guest, for the song “Ritmo.”)
Balvin, a 35-year-old star from Colombia, marries sweet and mellow vocals to block-rocking beats, and he has come to epitomize a new kind of global pop, appealing to wide audiences while sticking steadfastly to his native Spanish.
He has collaborated with Beyoncé and Cardi B, and Balvin’s Coachella set last year gave a taste of the aesthetic he would bring to Fortnite: dancers in bulbous costumes bounded around him while giant screens showed smiling, brightly colored anime clouds. (His latest album, released in March, is called “Colores.”) The creative team behind Balvin for Coachella and Fortnite, Antony Ginandjar and Ashley Evans of The Squared Division, also choreographed Britney Spears’s Las Vegas show, “Piece of Me.”
Besides Scott, other Fortnite concerts have featured Marshmello, the D.J. who wears cartoonish headgear; the producer Diplo; the rapper and singer Dominic Fike; and the K-pop sensations BTS. In a phone interview before his second day of rehearsal, Balvin said he had big ambitions for the set, his first virtual performance of the pandemic.
“I really wanted to be the first Latino to make this statement,” Balvin said. “Elevate the culture, elevate the reggaeton movement and elevate my brand as J Balvin, with such amazing technology.”
Fortnite concerts take place within the realm of the game, with players’ avatars visible onscreen as they watch the show taking place in front of them, like viewers of a drive-in movie. That layering of realities can be both disorienting and exhilarating. While I watched Balvin’s performance, I kept an eye on my own dancing avatar and occasionally tracked other characters zipping across my field of vision. Fake crowd noises were piped in throughout the show.
Balvin, who described his own Fortnite gaming habits as voyeuristic — “I basically just look around, check the vibe” — said he prepared for his performance by imagining himself inside Fortnite’s world.
“You’re approaching human beings, of course, but they are in a gamer position; they have their controller in their hands,” he said. “For a lot of people it’s going to be their first reggaeton concert ever, and it’s going to be through Fortnite, so I have to give it all.”
Throughout the pandemic, musicians — and tech companies — have scrambled to find the best platforms to stream concerts as the live music industry has come to a halt, abruptly shutting off many artists’ most important revenue stream.
Instagram, YouTube and the gaming site Twitch have been crowded with performances, and a host of companies have attempted to charge money for virtual tickets and recreate some elements of attending in-person shows, like preferred seats and artist meet-and-greets. While many livestreams began barely above DIY-level production quality, innovations have emerged: Erykah Badu’s series of shows featured a performance seemingly from inside giant bubbles; a summer festival took place in Minecraft, another game with a gigantic audience.
Fortnite has come to be seen as an unusual but promising outlet. It has 350 million users, according to Epic Games, the publisher behind the title, who remain deeply engaged as they play. The company has devoted substantial resources to the concerts, attempting to make each one a special event.
“Fortnite has become more than a game,” said Nate Nanzer, the company’s head of global partnerships.
Epic says it licenses music and pays the artists a fee for their appearances.
Balvin’s show, like all the game’s performances, took place in Party Royale, a combat-free zone within Fortnite’s virtual world. After heading there, players briefly roam through what look like music festival grounds — passing open fields, a fast-food restaurant and a lot of signage — and eventually make their way to the stage.
Since the event with Scott, in which a 3D version of the rapper was integrated into the game, the musical appearances on Fortnite (by BTS, Diplo and others) have been taped in real life and displayed within the game, as if through a window between worlds, drawing some fan complaints that the viewing experience was simply not as engaging. Time and production resources are part of the reason, as Epic has tried to put on shows more frequently.
“What we’re looking to do is create something that is a little more scalable and repeatable,” Nanzer said.
In some ways, the scene in Glendale was like any film production during the pandemic. Everyone on set was given a rapid Covid-19 test. When Balvin arrived for the first day of rehearsal he wore a Lakers hat, a jeans jacket and, like everyone else, a mask. (Over the summer, Balvin came down with a case of Covid-19, and said he was nearly hospitalized. “It’s not a game,” he said of the virus.)
But the set had far more advanced technology than any standard music-video shoot. While Balvin and his dancers performed, images moved around them on the stage and walls, sometimes offering the naked eye only a partial glimpse of the ultimate shot. Animators in the control room, and working in postproduction, filled in the 3D scenery and Halloween creatures.
On the soundstage, three infrared-equipped cameras performed their own choreography around Balvin. They work by triangulating their positions against hundreds of tiny markers on the walls and ceiling. Each time the director, Shelby Cude, changed a shot, the floors and walls automatically realigned their display to the cameras’ new perspective.
“Every time the camera changes, it’s like, Where am I?” said Rudy Garcia, a stand-in for Balvin during rehearsals.
Balvin eventually got the hang of it. Practicing how he would appear on top of the pumpkin, he stood several feet from the edge of the stage but pretended to teeter, and almost topple, over what would be the edge of the glowing squash.
“I love it!” Balvin said afterward. “It’s crazy. I feel like I’m in the game. Like I’m in Fortnite.”
Louis Keene contributed reporting.