How Porter Robinson & The Team Behind ‘The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ Built a Universe for Robinson’s Second Sky Festival

When the Oasis Tree emerges, it brings worlds together. This surreal intersection of realms provides a transcendental place to rave to futuristic music. Cartoons come to life in speakeasies. Cuddly animated DJs stand proudly as statues.

No, these aren’t plot points to a far-out science fiction novel. They’re real things to be found at Porter Robinson’s ambitious Second Sky festival, happening this Saturday (October 29) at the Oakland Arena Grounds in Oakland, California.

Founded in 2019 in tandem with Goldenvoice — the promoter behind events like Coachella and Stagecoach — Second Sky provides a space for prominent electronic artists across myriad strains of electronic music to share a stage.

This year’s Second Sky features performances from artists including RL Grime, Bladee and Hudson Mohawke, on top of a full band live set from Robinson, who will also perform as his alter ego Virtual Self during a b2b with G Jones. Skrillex was also added to the lineup on October 14, after Fred Again.. dropped off the bill.

But the stacked lineup is far from the only selling point. For the second time, Robinson and Goldenvoice called upon theme park industry veterans Nassal to transform Second Sky into an immersive experience, essentially building a Porter-themed theme park that comes to life for a single day.

Second Sky 2021
Second Sky 2021

The Orlando-based design company is behind endeavors like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios locations in Florida, Los Angeles, and Japan, and Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland. The Nassal team initially got involved with Second Sky in 2021 after Robinson’s manager, Aaron Greene, hit them up out of nowhere through their website to ask if they were behind the aforementioned theme park work. Greene felt there was a bigger story to tell with Second Sky than just a bunch of artists on a stage, and he and Robinson had a hunch that Nassal could help manifest their vision in a meaningful way. That instinct proved wildly correct.

Nassal’s work leading up to this weekend has taken 11 months to design and six months to build in myriad warehouse spaces. Installing Second Sky on site has taken 28 specialists 11 days, in addition to two days of teardown. The production is so ornate that it takes six days for three people to just sort and prep all of the flowers used.

Both the Nassal team and a representative for Robinson declined to comment on Second Sky costs, although a source close to the event notes that festival and touring costs are 30-40% above pre pandemic numbers across the board and that the team “knows how to stretch a dollar the most we can,” adding that “Porter’s production team is incredible, and Nassal are some of the best creatives I’ve ever worked with.”

“Everything has to be story-driven first,” Nassal’s Vice President of Global Development Melissa Ruminot tells Billboard. “A guest doesn’t actually need to know the details of the story, but they have to get it inherently the second they walk in… You need to enfold somebody into it. You need them to feel like they weren’t just involved in it, they were actually part of creating it.”

Last year, Nassal executed this mission by using elements like synthetic nature and statues of Robinson’s quasi-mascot Potaro to subtly establish the cartoonish whimsy that the Nassal team frequently refers to as “The Porterverse.” This year, they’re adding even more of these elements to build on what they previously explored.

The two teams collaborated over Pinterest to integrate the physical infrastructure of the event site into a narrative experience that would guide what Morrow describes as the “eco-brutalist” aesthetics of its design. There is a lot of intentionally mysterious depth to the story, but the primary theme is that once a year Second Sky materializes; it can go wherever it wants, and it’s anchored by the Oasis Tree, which brings worlds together. After Second Sky appears and draws people to it, it then quickly disappears, leaving no trace. In the year between festivals, this elusiveness allows new lands to emerge.

B Morrow Industries’ Creative Director of Theming Brian Morrow teases that this year will include a new realm and new characters from the video for Robinson and Mat Zo’s 2013 collaboration “Easy.” There are also gathering spaces for fans to rest, pulling focus away from the stage to further establish the festival’s universe. The Robinson and Nassal teams even worked together to devise a made-up language that appears in lieu of English everywhere except for essential spaces like restrooms.

The team listened to Robinson’s music while they designed, with this soundtrack helping Second Sky’s designers, creators, and builders connect with the brand and visual language Robinson uses in his work.

Second Sky 2021
Second Sky 2021

But when the Nassal team started lifting ideas from Robinson’s videos and album covers, Robinson was quick to steer them in a different direction. They were pushed to create a nuanced world that feels welcoming for all of his colleagues and friends, with Second Sky tethered to a utopian feeling that considers every artist on the lineup. With the exception of a few elements lifted from the “Easy” video, its world is agnostic to individual creative identity, focusing more on nestling each artist’s set against a cohesive backdrop.

“As theme park designers, we’re, like, ‘Let’s crack open the movie and figure out how to manifest it in the real world,’” says Morrow.

This year, the production team also worked to create a VIP-only experience that includes access to an exclusive space called the Easy/Speak lounge, a speakeasy with custom refreshments and other exclusive offerings that’s intended to add context to the “Easy” video. Next year, the team plans to move this VIP lounge into the GA area, while creating a new world for 2023 VIPs to explore.

“Porter is really breaking a mold when it comes to a festival experience for a guest,” Ruminot says when asked if there were festivals Nassal turned to for inspiration. The team intentionally avoided taking cues from other music-centric events, instead drawing from story-driven architecture at theme parks like Disney and Universal to make Second Sky unlike any other festival production out there. Ruminot cites the general feeling of Wizarding World as key sources of inspiration for Second Sky.

Such care proved effective at last year’s Second Sky, a homespun, wholesome affair during which Robinson’s parents roamed the site in matching blue vests that announced “I’m Porter’s mom/dad, say hi!”

Adds Morrow of the family feel: “We were nervous that people were going to climb things or take things. What we found is that the fans and the guests of Second Sky treat the space with this love and respect that we’ve never seen before.”

Nassal’s admiration for their audience seems to have impacted their willingness to put such a concentrated effort into a short event. Morrow says Goldenvoice recognizes that the festival is more than a spectacle, and rather that the promoter is invested in its heart and meaning, identifying a loyal fanbase looking for a loving, soft environment.

And while Morrow and Ruminot aren’t able to give away too many specifics about the surprises in store, they’re quick to assert that they believe their work is truly one-of-a-kind. They recommend fans try to translate the language and stay on the lookout for a Halloween-centric Potaro — and that VIPs should hang out inside Easy/Speak Lounge for at least 30 minutes to see how things unfold, noting that attendees will find the answers to their questions slowly over the course of the festival.

“It’s what you would expect from last year,” says Ruminot, “plus so much more.”

Katie Bain