The music scene’s big festival return has come to a close as Coachella wrapped up last weekend. io9 was able to attend through a media pass to catch all the sights and sounds (read our Danny Elfman report here)—which included not only music but also creative sets and installations. Through technology and physical sets, performers really brought out a taste of their worlds, in particular Brazilian singer Anitta, who collaborated with Disney Imagineering legend Joe Rohde to build a hometown realm in the middle of the desert to drive her propulsive setlist.
In an interview with Nylon magazine, Anitta, a Latin Grammy-nominated and MTV Europe Music Award-winning artist, explained how she connected with the Pandora: The World of Avatar creative executive. “I was watching this documentary of Disney World and I saw this guy Joe [Rohde], he built the Animal Kingdom park,” she said. “There is so much fantasy—nature and magic. I managed to bring him to this stage. Walt Disney was a dreamer, and that’s how I am… I’ve got to bring my country [to Coachella]. Somehow.”
Anitta brought her culture to her daytime set—along with guests Snoop Dogg, Saweetie, and a digital Cardi B—through an AR wall-esque use of screens that enveloped the stage and practical sets to encompass the Brazilian favela neighborhood where she grew up.
Rohde, who led the charge with teams to bring authentic cultural representation to Disney Parks at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, shared the following in an Instagram post: “One of the functions that a set brings to a performance is to make abstract ideas concrete. Anitta comes from the favela, which is a place people have many preconceptions about. A place many people never leave, yet a place of life. How do you convey three ideas at once? 1. The vitality of the favela. Despite being “poor” it is dynamic and full of life. Life creates texture, age, evidence of life and living. So dimensionality is important. 2. A hard concept…the favela set seems so solid, so real, that this must be all there is. The favela is all there is, the only place. But it isn’t. People like Anitta transform and expand the place and the idea of the place…so the set must appear unchangeable, but actually change. To show change is possible. 3. To convey emotion to a huge space and crowd. So the set which is limited in size must merge with the media in a kind of collage. So that it’s hard to tell which reality one is seeing on the screen. Guest CardiB appears like some goddess not just on a screen but in a world. The second to last image is not digital media but live feed of the stage. Everything becomes big, transcending the limitations of the favela. Like a biography of Anitta in set transformation.”
Rohde’s retirement from Disney Imagineering was a momentous occasion and his impeccable touch on experiences has been noticeable since his departure. When you walk through or see a Rohde environment, you know it. Seeing a favela on stage in the middle of a polo field in California transported the audience to Brazil in the way that visiting an immersive Disney park can take you to the imaginative world of Avatar in its Pandora-themed land. It is to date the most believable land based on modern IP, with a distinct signature even the Star Wars-related areas are missing.
In a Disney Parks special, director James Cameron, who worked very closely with Rohde, described the immersive experience by saying, “You could come here 50 times and have 50 different stories.” (He even asked Imagineering, “Could we come down here and shoot some scenes?”) I wish I loved the Avatar movies as much as I love Pandora because it feels more real and true to its universe (enough to get me to care) than the Batuu of Galaxy’s Edge does to Star Wars. Seeing Rohde play in other mediums like music sets for a top global artist was really incredible. And while he’s no longer at Disney, he’s off to bigger and further out-there projects with his new gig, working with Virgin Galactic as a strategic advisor.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.