How J Balvin Made His Trippy, Eye-Popping Halloween Concert in Fortnite


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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.


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