20 years on, the set design for Britney Spears’ MTV show remains iconic

“Britney Spears was heavily involved in the creative process and used her experience as a world-class entertainer to deliver one of the greatest live performances in music history,” says Ray Winkler on the anniversary of the I’m A Slave 4 U performance.

6 September 2021

Just in case you haven’t had your fill of Britney news this year, today marks the 20 year anniversary of the singer’s iconic I’m A Slave 4 U show on the 6 September 2001 at the MTV VMA Awards. You know, the one with the Burmese python. 20 years later, Stufish Entertainment Architects have told It’s Nice That about the design of the show.

The Stufish team began work three weeks before the show at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. It was based upon Britney’s new single at the time I’m A Slave 4 U: the concept of the performance included themes of captivity, temptation, and sexuality. There were revolving cages within which Spears appeared alongside a live tiger, representing the idea of entrapment, while the association of the snake and tree symbolised temptation in the story of Adam and Eve, “where Britney was presented as an Amazonian, Eve-like figure,” says the design team.

Ray Winkler, CEO of Stufish Entertainment Architects, says that “looking back at the importance of the event now 20 years later, it seems like there was a lot of pressure, but at the time it felt natural as all parties were working together to deliver a performance under tight restraints.”

“There was an element of provocation in the performance, with the innuendo to Adam and Eve, original sin, the snake, and the environment it was set in was very raw,” says Winkler. Stufish intended to deliver “the best show possible” within the tiny three-minute constraint.

With a live performance, there is almost no room for error as with a pre-recorded show. “The VMAs are live, meaning you can’t mess up.” Winkler tells It's Nice That that “there was certainly the added complexity of having live animals in the performance, particularly a well-fed tiger in a cage.”


(Copyright © Stufish, 2001)

The design team’s favourite part of the show was seeing it all come together and Britney’s main introduction at the beginning. “As ever,” continues Winkler, “the choreography was beautiful: it was very contemporary and up to the narrative of the visual theme of the performance. It was one of those rare moments where all the parts came together – there were times when you couldn’t see that happening as there were so many overlays and conflicting demands.” Lighting, explains the design CEO, couldn’t do in those days what lighting does now, “you couldn’t pre-program lighting cues the way you can do now. It took a lot of imagination and experience to make it all come together.”

Every detail was considered, from the bars of the cage being designed to not cast shadows onto her face whilst framing her, to the stairs onto the main stage from the cage designed with Britney’s shoes in mind, “to allow the pop-star to descend whilst concentrating on the camera and not where her next foot went.”

The show involved a lot of abstraction – instead of mimicking the natural world, Stufish innovated “a natural world rendered in a highly stylised fashion, using the dominant colours gold, silver and bronze, which reflected the light beautifully across the stage.” Because of the limited technological capacity of video screens at that time, no video content could be played across screens in the background. So a black velvet star cloth with lights was used to give audiences the illusion that they were staring “into infinity”. Stufish created two stages for the event including a mock-up version for Britney to rehearse separately in a studio prior to the VMAs.

The flawlessness of the resulting show was apparently down to the professionalism of the artist herself, says Winkler, as if we needed reminding. “Britney is at the top of her game,” he claims. “Additionally, seeing the whole creative team coming together to pull it off and everything weaving together to deliver this performance was very special.” Stufish Entertainment Architects have been responsible for creating some of the most recognisable pop moments from the zeitgeist of the millennium, like Beyonce & Jay-Z’s OTR II and U2’s 360 tour.


Britney Spears, I'm A Slave 4 U: Courtesy of STUFISH


(Copyright © Stufish, 2001)


(Copyright © Stufish, 2001)


(Copyright © STUFISH, 2001)


Courtesy of Kevin Kane (Copyright © WireImage, 2001)


Britney Spears, I'm A Slave 4 U: Courtesy of Getty Images, 2001

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(Copyright © STUFISH, 2001)

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About the Author

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia joined It’s Nice That as a news writer in July 2021 after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh. She's written for various indie publications such as Azeema and Notion, and ran her own magazine and newsletter platforming marginalised creativity.


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