Even before the unprecedented delay to the 2020 Summer Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic, NBC and HD Studio knew the sets for Tokyo would take a different approach — channeling a unique combination of environments while still incorporating a sense of global unity through sports — that ended up taking on an even more fitting tone than usual.
“The day we got the call of ‘pencils down’ from NBC was coincidently the same day we delivered files to the fabricator,” said Bryan Higgason, HD Studio’s lead designer and founder, referring to when news began to circulate the Olympics wouldn’t take place in 2020 as planned.
In reality, design and production decisions made months before the word “coronavirus” was ever uttered on TV news heavily drove what viewers would see across TV and streaming in July and August 2021.
Instead, NBC secured the roof of the Hilton Tokyo Odaiba hotel for its signature coverage with Mike Tirico as host. There, HD Studio’s Higgason, along with Sid Wichienkuer and Paul Benson, made plans to install an outdoor “deck” studio.
It’s not hard to see why: The building has stunning, sweeping views of the city skyline, including the iconic Tokyo Tower and Rainbow Bridge — not to mention the floating oversized Olympic rings logo deployed on a barge.
Because of its natural outdoor air circulation, the deck ended up coming in handy as NBC determined how to work within a myriad of COVID guidelines and requirements that evolved as the games drew nearer.
While other broadcasters downsized and removed physical studios from Tokyo, back at the IBC, NBC still took over two large spaces in one of the halls. These spaces, designated Studio A and B, would become the home of coverage on Peacock and Twitter, the two primary streaming avenues NBC leveraged for Tokyo.
While streaming isn’t new to the Olympics, Comcast and NBCUniversal had originally planned to use the games as a springboard to help launch Peacock, but the pandemic ended up seeing the streamer debut without the games. The 5,500 hours of coverage spread over NBCU’s broadcast, cable and streaming outlets meant Studio A and B ended up getting significantly more air time than Olympic sets have gotten in the past with multiple dedicated shows coming from the spaces daily.
The designs at the IBC — and all of NBC’s Tokyo spaces — are centered around a wood-toned “lattice” structure inspired by a blend of traditional and modern Japanese architecture and woodworking elements that were prominent in the city’s presentation during the closing ceremony of the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. Many of the elements are inspired by Chidori, a Japanese toy that is made from wooden rods.
Although real woods couldn’t be used, careful research focused on matching the tones and grains found in traditional native Japanese yew and cyprus.
The lattice also had appealed to Higgason’s team because it has “inherent movement.”
“It looks solid and structural when you’re standing still, but if the camera moves, the layers cause movement from a geometric standpoint,” said Higgason, while also noting he particularly likes the subtly the shifts in perspective bring.
Perspective, Higgason, is especially important during an Olympics held during a pandemic and he’s proud that his team’s work ended up being able to showcase the sportsmanship of the games.
“The Olympics are bigger than just a gold medal. For us to be able to view all of those things, especially at this time, is really, really important,” he said.
Back at the IBC, both spaces were wrapped in these structures while also incorporated seamless LED video walls from Planar and a blend of vertical banners — with parts of the wood grid “skipped” to make room — and internally illuminated boxes filling select spaces.
In other applications, replicas of traditional Japanese lanterns flutter in the breeze, along with furin wind chimes, which traditionally include a slip of paper with well-wishes written on them.
Although the furins on set didn’t have any messages, Higgason noted how the metaphor of positive vibes from around the globe being shared with and from the Olympic family seemed fitting.
Throughout the designs, backlit surfaces with patterns inspired by local art and architecture added in a layer of color — including a vibrant palette that took inspiration from the hues found in aizome (藍染め), an indigo dye that has a rich history in Japan.
Studio A at the IBC for NBC Olympics.
Studio A is capped by a curved halo LED — which draws some interesting juxtapositions to NBC’s former longtime practice of installing a bulky, circular element above its Olympics studios that doubled as a projection surface.
Both IBC studios can be used in a variety of configurations, with talent standing — socially distanced — within the space, seated or presenting from behind “lecterns” fronted with half of a concave curved cutout.
Studio B at the IBC for NBC Olympics.
Whether used separately or together, the cutouts have numerous visual references, evoking Japan’s iconic flag and its status as “land of the rising sun.” It’s also, of course, indicative of the global nature of the Olympics and their power to unify the world — a visual that’s quite literally visible when two of the units are placed near each other.
Splitting the circular element was a bit of a design risk — the team wondered if it could be interpreted as division instead of unity — but Higgason notes there’s always a chance design elements could be viewed in a different way than the team intended.
Instead, his team took the perspective that even if viewers don’t see the complete globe at once, they still make the visual connection in their minds.
“They are unified even if they are separate,” he noted.
Many of these design elements are featured in the network’s other temporary studio as well, which is located near the Hilton. As part of the Olympics efforts to reduce its footprint, the shipping container-sized structure has been used since the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
This structure is home to a dedicated, windowed studio used mainly for NBCSN that features elements of the backlit latticework found back at the IBC — as well as some new takes, including horizontal bands and sweeping, angular patterns. A duo of the globe-fronted lecterns can be found here as well, as well as options for standup and seated configurations.
When planning indoor spaces such as this, HD Studio and lighting designer The Lighting Design Group provided NBC with guidance on how to best place, block and light talent according to shifting social distancing guidelines, which ultimately ended up being one meter from each other (about three feet) while athletes had to be kept two meters (about six feet) from talent, but the competitors could be within one meter of each other.
Another indoor location, located inside a ballroom of the Hilton, serves as an alternate studio for when the deck can’t be used — something that turned out to be a necessity after a tropical storm bore down on Tokyo.
This space includes three vertical video panels set into a wood-toned screened wall along with a simulated “window” created with LED panels along with several other venues, including an interactive touchscreen and standup position that’s been used heavily by Steve Kornacki.
In addition to traditional standing and chair positions, HD also included “benches” on the rooftop deck for both talent and athletes with the flexibility of being able to accommodate different numbers of people without any set changes.
This unique set was also a ready-made canvas for augmented reality graphics, powered by Ross Video’s Voyager solution with rendering via the Unreal Engine and camera tracking from Stype.
The deck also featured 11 real native Japanese bonsai plants on staggered platforms along the main railing. The plants were purchased locally and are outdoor bonsai that get watered every morning.
“We’ve had a lot of people express both great praise and concern over the bonsai,” said Higgason with a laugh, adding they will also be given to locals after the games wrap.
The custom-built deck, fabricated by longtime collaborator blackwalnut, ended up being one of the project’s biggest challenges.
Stay tuned for the next part of our look behind-the-design as we talk about the unique logistics of moving a set around the world and installing it on the roof of a hotel.
NBC Olympics Mike Sheehan, Coordinating Director, Olympics
Atila Ozkaplan, VP Production Operations – Olympics
Dave Barton, Senior Art Director
Lillian Cereghino, Director, Production Operations & Olympic Engineering Coordination
Set Design – HD Studio Owner & Principal Designer – Bryan Higgason
Designers – Paul Benson & Sid Wichienkuer
Lighting Design – The Lighting Design Group Steve Brill – Senior Lighting Designer
Sheryl Wisniewski – Production Manager
Paul Lohr – Venues Lighting Designer
John Reynolds – Senior Venues Gaffer
Dan Kelley – Primetime Lighting Designer
Jon Goss – Primetime Gaffer
Declan Moore – Primetime Board Operator
Nicole Neuwirth – Primetime Lighting Electrician
Geoff Amoral – IBC Lighting Director
Eric Kasprisin – IBC Gaffer
Jeremy Domenick – IBC Board Operator
William Albertelli – IBC Lighting Director
Greg Goff – IBC Gaffer
Ross Blitz – IBC Board Operator
Dan Rousseau – USA Lighting Designer
Sean Linehan – USA Gaffer 1
Patrick Dugan – USA Lighting Electrician
Anna Jones – Daytime Lighting Director
Dave Polato – Daytime Gaffer
Alexis Durso – Daytime Lighting Electrician
Fabrication – Blackwalnut Scenic Shop Supervisors – Frank Bradley, Stephanie Fallone, Jacob Gendelman, Justin Kennedy-Grant, David Krugh, Renato Picinic, Kellie Sgambati, Mike Van Dusen
Project Managers – Christin Donato, Anna Belle Gilbert
Scenic Draftsmen – Jon Arras, Matt Glaze, Anthony Gleason
Scenic Fabricators – Mark Brownsell, Chris Curtin, Gregory A. Dias, Tom Dow, Samantha Fimmano, Andrew Finney, Richard Foresta, Matt Katchmar, Allen Latta, Matt Lauerwald, Tim Martindell, Jose Ronaldo Martinez, Dave Mathason, Frank McCloskey, Don Miller, Daniel Weltler, James Winans, Fallon Ventola
Scenic Field Supervisors – Philip A. Gonzalez, Wyatt Peterson, Rachael Shair
Scenic Field Fabricators – Robbie Sadaka, Ross Sheen, Seb Dobosz, John Pacheco, Ariel “Tiger” Stanley, Luke Wenz, Maria Mae “Panda” Bernal, Edgar Ramos
Display Technology in Studio A – Planar
Planar CarbonLight CLI Flex LED video wall display in a 1.9mm pixel pitch for the halo ring
Planar TVF Series LED video wall in a 1.8mm pixel pitch on the north wall
Planar TVF Series LED video wall in a 1.8 mm pixel pitch on the east wall
2 Planar TVF Series LED video walls in a 1.8mm pixel pitch on the south wall
2 Planar TVF Series LED video walls in a 1.8mm pixel pitch on the west wall
AV Integration – Greg Gerner Inc. Dave “Sparky” Hulings
Just like the city it calls home, the new studio of NBC News‘ “Meet the Press” explores the dichotomy of modern versus classical in a town that still leans heavily on storied traditions while coexisting in a world that’s constantly hitting refresh on the flow of information and conservation.
NBC News Studio N1
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After over 60 years broadcasting from the studios of WRC, the network’s owned station in Washington, D.C., NBC execs made the pivotal decision to move “Meet the Press” and the network’s bureau closer to the heart of the city — paying credence to the mantra of “location, location, location.”
In the district, location is important — but so is “access, access, access” — so the network opted to start exploring ways to expand its downtown presence even before a January 2019 fire that heavily damaged its ancillary studios on the upper floors of an office building.
Once the decision was made to create a new “hub” in the heart of the district and NBC secured the additional space, the network turned to the design team at HD Studio to fill the newly acquired real estate with multiple broadcast and work environments — including this ground-level studio for “Meet the Press.”
“We wanted to create a space … that speaks to NBCU News Group’s commitment to Washington-based coverage. It was important to us to balance the federal-style architecture with the unique modern finishes and latest technologies to break from the generic feel of many modern workspaces. Plus, creating expansive windows across the first floor studios and newsroom also reflects the importance of journalistic transparency,” said Marc Greenstein, SVP of design and production at NBC News and MSNBC.
To facilitate that concept, HD Studio’s team created a bit of a backstory about the new home for “Meet the Press” — it was a “found” space that had been expanded and modernized over time, noted Bryan Higgason.
“We always looked for ways to pit something very modern against something very classical,” he noted in an interview with NewscastStudio.
The ’roundtable’ area — most of the LED video walls in the archways can be moved to reveal real windows. Photos courtesy of Niel Galen and NBC News.
The main roundtable area for “Meet the Press” was enclosed with paneled walls and archways painted in a colonial blue discovered through research into historic architecture dating back to the founding of the country.
This gives it the basic structure of a traditional colonial room — complete with framed pictures and faux marble and wood floors.
In many ways, it’s sort of opposite the “open concept” that’s become all the rage in both home and office designs of today — but also a reflection of the design sensibilities of another era.
Not only does this go a long way in creating a perfect area for pointed questioning and interviews, but it’s a recognizable, consistent space viewers can expect to see each week.
These chats take place around a simple circular table with flared based sits on a circular custom carpet with the “Meet the Press” logo ringing it — somewhat reminiscent of another famous (albeit oval-shaped) area rug found elsewhere in the city.
Though the pandemic will likely mean “MTP” has to rely on social distancing and remote interviews for the time being, the table is designed to sit up to four guests in addition to Chuck Todd and can be shot in the round.
HD Studio nixed the idea of using traditional hidden “camera ports” (disguised through open-backed bookshelves or dark corners of the studio) that are often mainstays of roundtable setups and instead paid close attention to blocking the camera positions as well as the evolving nature of the show’s format.
Cameras will still show up on air from time to time, but that’s also a nod to the connection to be old and new — and the flow of conversation from around that table out into the world, noted Higgason.
Meanwhile, the gently curving archways that box in this area are decidedly traditional but have the very modern option to be filled with seamless 1.56mm UHD LED panels from Neoti that can be used to showcase stylized imagery of D.C. landmarks or be used for remote interviews.
What’s not immediately visible, according to Higgason, is that all of these panels can be moved around behind the blue walls to reveal the real glass windows beyond as well as combined with an oversized, gold web-like sculptural gold map of Washington’s highly recognizable “spoke” street layout.
This configuration was inspired by Studio 1A in Rockefeller Center, which has its home base between two perpendicular walls of glass, giving the network a high profile “billboard” of its presence while also giving passersby a peek into the process of newsgathering.
Just off this area is a more open, modern feeling “glass box” space with two perpendicular walls of glass overlooking the 45-workstation newsroom beyond, perhaps another nod to 1A.
The main desk in this space is another blend of old and new — its basic shape is that of a colonial or federalist style desk — with its gracefully bowed legs and other “carved” details.
However, it’s been finished in a bold bright red that’s found throughout the new D.C. facility as well as the network’s New York headquarters (and decidedly not very traditional).
It also includes integrated glass panels with color-changing LED edge lighting effects and frosted bars — another motif common found, for example, in the header element in the seventh-floor newsroom and throughout Studio N5 on eight.
While a truly antique piece could be emblazoned with a gold seal and leafing, this desk has custom, internal lit reveal lines and an NBC peacock in the center.
Shooting the red desk through one wall of windows gives viewers a dramatic view of an intricate barrel-vaulted ceiling with dark coffers that runs down the center of the newsroom, also inspired by neoclassical and federal architecture — a shot that started to show up during NBC and MSNBC coverage of the inauguration.
The rear wall of the newsroom is finished in the same bright red as the desk and equipped, directly behind the studio window, a 2×2 video panel array that provides a prominent digital canvas for branded or topical graphics on both one and multi-shot setups from the desk.
Interestingly, the designers didn’t set out with a red, white and blue color palette in mind for the space, said Higgason.
The team initially was more focused on integrating visual continuity to other NBC studios, but quickly discovered red went a long way in warming up the look — and it ended up being a great way to blend in a bit of that modern take on design with otherwise traditional looks.
A more traditional anchor desk layout situated with glass on both sides and a dramatic barrel vault above.
Meanwhile, on either side of the central barrel vault is a more modern interpretation of that architectural element — suspended, internally lit rectangular frames arranged in grids, another example Higgason points out as a bridge between old and new.
The team also tucked thousands of LEDs in the coffers, cornices of columns and in other architectural details throughout the space, giving NBC the ability to create a multitude of moods and looks that spreads beyond just studio lighting cues.
Getting these ceiling elements installed involved detailed work with HVAC and electrical contractors to get all of these systems as close to the structural ceiling as possible — giving the space the most possible using ceiling height (about 14 feet), said Higgason.
HD Studio also had to work around numerous structural columns that hold the building up — spaced about every 20 feet or so in a grid pattern throughout the space. One also, located in the studio area, also had to be relocated to create a larger footprint.
Of course, columns are no stranger to neoclassical, federal-style architecture, so they were ultimately worked into the design.
To refine the look, however, the columns were clad with a stone-like finish and “etched” with symbolic words such as “Honesty,” “Truth,” “Wisdom” and “Tenacity” — all meant to stand for, both literally and figuratively, the foundations on which journalism is based on.
“It felt important to provide reminders for what the people in that room do and speak to the qualities of the people delivering the news,” explained Higgason.
Staffers will also be able to look down for other reminders of their mission to facilitate conversation between the public and elected officials — numerous quotes about the free press and its relationship with the government are adhered to the floor.
One of the most obvious things about this text, however, is that it doesn’t line up with the rather grid-like layout of the rest of the space — instead, they’ve been aligned to roughly form spokes reaching out from the Capitol grounds.
“The idea is that the people in there are listening to what is emanating from that buildings,” said Higgason.
Also outside the studio is an open space that includes a combination of green room and gathering spaces for guests and workers alike.
An open area outside the studio includes a green room and large NBC peacock ‘bench’ installation.
Rather than just rely on traditional seating, HD Studio came up with the idea to use a top-down view of the NBC peacock logo as a multifaceted seating area complete with faux marble bases.
Each “feather” is a separate segment of the installation and topped with one of the corresponding six colors found in the iconic logo.
Although COVID-19 likely means gathering in the area (as well as the other planned communal meeting areas throughout the newsroom) might not be leveraged right away, Higgason says it will be interesting to see how staffers and guests end up gravitating to it and sparking additional conversations.
NBC News Studio N1
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“For more than seventy years, “Meet the Press” has been the place where presidents, policymakers, foreign leaders, and those in power have come to speak directly to American viewers,” said Todd. “This year, we will continue to be the gold standard of Sunday public affairs programming with the same sensibilities and mission, only now from a 21st-century studio with the latest technologies and broadcast capabilities.”
To reflect on the creative, innovative moments of 2020 and to welcome the hope that the New Year brings, Live Design is conducting 31 Days Of Plots. Every day during the month of December 2020, we will highlight a different lighting design, from across theatre, concert tours, corporate events, and more.
Lighting designer Dan Rousseau of the Lighting Design Group shares the plots for All In with Chris Hayes from Los Angeles on March 2. “Situated in one of NBC Universal’s Sound Stages, we had a blank canvas to work from,” says Rousseau. “We wanted the room to be the background for the broadcast and to help identify that we were in LA on a sound stage. Incorporating large film fixtures, toning the walls, and highlighting architectural features created a dynamic background with depth and drama. The color palette was cool to allow the warm glow of the larger lighting fixtures to pop as well as the talent. A careful balance across the three layers—background, audience, and talent—were important because all three elements could be in a single shot at any time.
The lighting rig was ground-supported with truss towers wrapped around the center point of the stage with an LED wall for graphics. The talent positions constantly changed to accommodate different segments and guests. The host had various standups that shifted his background between scenic and audience. “Careful selection of gear such as framing moving lights was necessary for all the different layouts. LED fixtures allowed for quick changes in color,” he explains. “The entire production had only 36 hours to load in and go to air so quick flexibility was key. The most impressive part of the broadcast was the wide shot where you could take in the whole room and see the scale of the setup. However, the show never felt too ‘big.’ This was achieved by highlighting the audience in the same color temperature as the main talent but allowing them to be a touch lower in intensity so that they didn’t appear flat when layered in with the background.”
Mike Grabowski is on the show by listener request! He’s a Senior Lighting Designer at LDG, a member of Local USA 829, and has lit innumerable projects for broadcast over the course of his 15 year career. We discussed several of those projects, including the intricacies of his work on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.
Mike was MTV’s Broadcast Lighting Consultant when they did a major overhaul of their Times Square studio, and we discussed that project in detail. We also discussed some of the unusual techniques he used on History’s Forged in Fire and AMC’s Comic Book Men. In addition, Mike revealed how exposure to street performance and busking in his home of Philadelphia connected him with the world of theater and production, and how working as a draftsperson introduced him to parts of the business beyond theater.
Visit his website MTG Designs for more information. As always, thanks for downloading and listening!
Against the exterior wall, two large windows afford views of the United States Capitol dome separated by a vertical LED ribbon and features metallic knee walls with internally lit horizontal bars.
Camera right of the window is a video “alcove” that includes the intersection of two perpendicular video walls, while the left and right side edges feature”wraparound” corners.
NBC News’ new D.C. bureau newsroom appears behind MSNBC live shot
The one nearest the window has the advantage of being able to display graphics or branding on the narrow vertical strip, forming, in a sense, an LED mullion.
When shot this way, this allows for branding and a real, live view of the Capitol, like was done on both “The Cross Connection” and “The Sunday Show,” the first two MSNBC shows to use the space.
In this shot of ‘The Cross Connection,’ anchor Tiffany Cross is shown with a real window view of the Capitol behind her, with the far edge of the wraparound LED installation on the right side of the screen — making it possible for NBC to brand this impressive view.
On the opposite side of the window is a triptych of large-screen monitors with internally lit frames and surrounded by a metallic wall with horizontal accents. The corner between this wall and the windows also features a large square column created with wood tones and additional horizontal accents.
The two-panel venue inside of Studio N5.
There is then a bright red structural column that segues to a final venue — a two video screen array with a similar frame and wood wall with internally lit accents and flanked by two flat, metallic walls with two edge-lit installations of oversized NBC peacockoutlines.
The studio also includes at least two desks that can be wheeled around the floor that features a grid of darker and lighter wood tones.
The studio’s pod-shaped desk features a metal and glass base with a color-changing ring with three thinner red bands in front of it.
The larger desk features frosted banding and the NBC peacock (likely selected so it could be used across NBCUniversal properties if needed).
The video walls also obviously give the space flexibility for multiple NBCU brands and shows to use the space, including ones that temporarily need to originate from Washington.
Saturday “Today” has been originating from Washington during much of the coronavirus pandemic using the set originally built for “Meet the Press,” which has played host to other MSNBC shows after the fire, though this was reduced as the pandemic worsened.
The pod can be leveraged for both a single person in a standing or seated position (albeit with a higher chair). It likely could also be used for small, two-person interviews (though likely not in the era of social distancing).
Meanwhile, the larger desk can fit up to five but was also used on the debut shows for a single anchor.
The Lighting Design Group lit the new studio space led by Niel Galen with blackwalnut fabricating. Planar supplied CarbonLight CLI 1.5mm pixel pitch LED for the various video walls.
In addition to N5, there is also an empty studio on the floor below. NBC is leasing space on both floors for studios and workspaces — with the 7th floor being additional space it picked up after the fire. The network also occupies part of the first floor with what will be the new home of “Meet the Press” as well as additional office space.
That studio is expected to debut in January, according to sources.
The “MTP” studio was also used for shows displaced by the fire, though much of that changed when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
On Sept. 21, 2020, NewscastStudio obtained an internal memo from NBC News management that also included a photo of one of the new work areas built inside the North Capitol Street building. That workspace is on the first floor, according to sources.
For this year’s NFL season, ESPN has created its own “bubble” in New York City leveraging the capabilities of its South Street Seaport facility along with a new rooftop studio space.
“Our shows, especially ‘Monday Night Countdown,’ are usually on the road… with COVID and travel restrictions, that became a difficult challenge,” said Terry Brady, director of remote production operations at ESPN.
With the safety of crew and talent at the forefront, ESPN opted out of traveling this NFL season, instead of creating a new home for the show along with “Sunday NFL Countdown.”
“We were looking for an alternative to bring talent to New York, first and foremost to keep them safe in a quasi bubble and also to showcase New York as the hub of sports,” noted Brady. “We thought it was a really good option to keep the show fresh for the fans.”
Atop the roof of the Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport complex, which includes a public greenspace and restaurant, ESPN has erected a studio with sweeping views of Downtown Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Pier 17 facility is the normal home for programs including “First Take,” Around the Horn” and “Get Up!”
Filmwerks, who often work with ESPN on their remote productions, created the temporary structure using the Modtruss system, with Jack Morton Worldwide providing the interior scenic design.
Brady notes the final decision on the relocation was made only about 20 days before going on air, setting off a rapid series of events.
“We had a very short time frame,” said Brady. “All our partners and our all our ESPN staff and departments really stepped up. We’re moving forward at a very rapid pace.”
Jack Morton Worldwide was able to design the interior space in only five days, mixing urban design elements found in the seaport with organic materials and finishes found in ESPN’s current NFL branding.
“The new seaport design is a distant cousin of the current NFL studios in Bristol, with similar finishes but an overall brighter tone. The primary goal was to retain as much of the expansive view as possible, while also providing production support space,” said Andre Durette, the principal designer on the project from Jack Morton Worldwide.
“Richly-textured internal walls solved both issues, with a segment of them able to track to reveal more of downtown Manhattan if desired. Additional presentation areas include a one-on-one area with a stand-up monitor, along with three tracking screens to introduce content graphics and sponsorship,” said Durette.
The key piece of the studio is its 360-degree, socially distanced desk which is designed to expand based on the needs of a particular production.
“We chose to shoot that in a round to highlight the vistas of the Brooklyn Bridge, the East River and the skyline of New York City,” said Brady. “But, first and foremost was the protection and safety of our of our team.”
Three PTZ cameras allow for one-shots of talent along with a Steadicam, three traditional pedestal cameras and two jibs, both capable of augmented reality graphics.
The entire 1080p production relies on ESPN’s REMI workflow with control from Bristol using 24 outbound transmission paths and 14 return paths for the studio monitors and feeds.
ESPN has also noted its NBA coverage will utilize the studio for the upcoming NBA Playoffs, with other programs potentially activating the space later this year.
Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano, which belches toxic gas from its lava lake crater, was aptly named “The Mouth of Hell” by a 16th century Spanish friar. Photo by Steve Brill/LDG
LDG’s Steve Brill puts high wire artist Nik Wallenda and an active volcano in the spotlight for dick clark productions.
Steve Brill of New York City-based The Lighting Design Group got the call. Nik Wallenda of The Flying Wallendas had already crossed on tightrope Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, among other death-defying feats. Now Nik was training for his highest and longest walk, on a one-inch wire across 1,800 feet over an active volcano. For live TV.
Brill’s first reaction was, “Wow, how the $%# am I going to light a volcano?” Second reaction: “In Nicaragua?” Third reaction: “What an amazing project!” The dick clark productions event, Volcano Live! With Nik Wallenda, was broadcast on ABC TV on March 4, 2020, just before the Covid-19 lockdown. It’s not a spoiler alert saying he was successful. But PLSN is interested in the story behind the story.
Spanning 1,800 feet across the active volcano, Nik Wallenda’s high wire disappears in a miasma of fumes, making lighting a challenge for the live TV event. Filmtrade Equipment Rentals and Musco Sports Lighting provided the gear. Photo: Steve Brill/LDG
A Unique Project
Brill started on the project in December 2019, but pre-visualization could not accurately render something this huge, so he trekked to the volcano for a site survey. The Masaya Volcano is a hot tourist destination. Just 14 miles outside of Managua, Nicaragua, it’s got its own website with live webcams, a cell phone app and top ratings on Tripadvisor. It’s also got its own official title: “The Mouth of Hell.” A 2,000-degree lake in its crater bubbles with molten lava, churning out clouds of toxic gases with a sulfurous stench “a whole lot worse than rotten eggs,” Brill says. Because of poisonous fumes, visitors are restricted to a 10-to-15 minute window of time near the crater. But it doesn’t stop the vortex of vultures circling the scene.
Some observers of the stunt, including these volcano vultures, were disappointed with ABC’s safety harness mandate.
A volcanologist was brought in early to certify that the ground’s stability. Some locations were not permitted. Major equipment constraints were weight and power. They needed to go as big as possible. Every lighting position needed a generator and a backup, and it all required fuel. Yet the fixture type chosen would be dictated by the logistics of getting it to the location.
Brill carried a few fixtures to test how they would take light through the “never-ending gases and smoke.” There was lots of calculating and recalculating. Aided by precision rangefinder binoculars to measure distance to a target, Brill could determine the huge throw from possible fixture locations.
Because of all the drones and fixed camera positions, the team determined the need for 360 degrees of lighting. “The ground around Masaya is unstable, so there were many weight calculations. The last thing we wanted to do was to dump a Musco truck or an 18k HMI into an active volcano,” Brill notes.
Challenges required off-the-chart decisions. “How much light do you get from an 18K HMI at 1,800 feet while shooting through a dense cloud of sulfur dioxide gas?” Brill asks, amused. “I couldn’t find any chart that would tell me that! We calculated as best we could, created a scale light plot using Google Earth, and had to trust our instincts.”
The first big consideration was Nik. The aerialist needed to see the tightrope while cameras needed to see him. “I understood the need to keep the light out of his eyes, so we kept all fixture positions at least 30 degrees off his line of sight. He is putting his life on the line here.”
With no way to accurately focus the lights, they had to trust calculations and estimate. “Try to find somebody to go out on the tightrope with a light meter to aim these fixtures!” Brill jokes.
The LD chose three 18K HMIs as “followspots.” “An 18K on full spot at 1,800 feet produces around 15 foot candles of light,” Brill explains. “To compensate, and to give us a margin of error, every area was lit with multiple fixtures.”
The second consideration was: how to light the volcano. Each side measured roughly 1,800 by 600 feet, or more than a million square feet. Multiply by four sides, and they were tasked with lighting over 4 million square feet of surface area.
Showcasing the active lava lake — which is “not as bright” as one would think — was another balancing act, creating a bright enough image for the cameras to make level without overwhelming the image of the lava. They also wanted to light the volcano walls to bring out the natural beauty of the rock.
Finally, lighting was needed for safety. This New Yorker wasn’t prepared for a nighttime sky with no light pollution. “It is a darkness I had never seen before,” he says. “You couldn’t see five feet in front of your face. We needed to ensure the lights would stay on no matter what. Our system was designed with six distinct locations, each with a separate power source and backup. If we lost any one source, we would still have light, on and off air.”
In the end, they specified more than 100 HMI fixtures, ranging from 6Ks on a Musco truck to 12Ks on Condors and 18Ks on crank-stands to cover all their bases.
LD Steve Brill
From Load-In to Live Event
With plots finalized by the end of January, the gear shipped early February. It traveled by truck to Miami, by boat to Nicaragua, and trucked again for a seven-hour trip over land to Masaya. Access was a major issue. In the rugged area, little could be hand-carried.
Lava, toxic gases and weather forced “The King of the High Wire” and the crew to wear goggles and a mask. “We had planned to focus lights on three consecutive evenings, but on one night the wind was so strong we couldn’t see anything to focus on. Remember, we were trying to focus on the far side of the volcano, 1,800 feet away. There was no way to accurately focus on the wire, so we had to use our best judgment.”
And then the wire walk started. During those breathtaking 31 minutes and 23 seconds, Brill had his usual worries during any live broadcast. He worried about the stability of the installation. But his biggest worry was Nik. “There was no rehearsal,” the LD explains. “Once we saw him on the wire, I breathed a sigh of relief. He looked great. Of course, not as big a sigh of relief as when he hopped safely off the wire at the finish!”
Brill gives credit to his “absolutely amazing” team who worked very hard under extremely difficult conditions, without complaint, and with a wonderful sense of humor. Key players were lighting directors Paul Lohr and Anna Jones, Gaffers Jon Goss and Stephen Alain, Best Boys John Reynolds and Michael Mustica, Musco’s Jerome Crookham and production lighting coordinator Mike Kemp. “Of course the dick clark productions team was also amazing. Everybody was just great to work with.”
No word on what Wallenda will conquer next.
Onsite at Masaya with LD Steve Brill and his crew, taking a goggles and mask break when the wind blew the other direction.
LDG is proud to be nominated for a News & Documentary Emmy Award alongside our collaborators at CNN & Jack Morton Worldwide in the Lighting Direction & Set Design category for our work on CNN Studio 19Y shows, New Day & Cuomo Prime Time. The awards will be presented via livestream tonight at 8pm EST. Congratulations to President Steve Brill, Senior Lighting Designer Niel Galen & Lighting Designer Dan Rousseau, & the entire team!
Photos: N. Galen
Vice President of Design Dennis Size was up early this morning, lighting Alicia Keys’ performance for New York’s essential workers, live on ABC’s Good Morning America from the Skyline Drive-In in Brooklyn.
The Studio Gets an Overhaul for 2020 Election Coverage with Help from the Lighting Design Group
PLSN recently caught up with Dennis Size, executive vice president of design for the Lighting Design Group, the largest television lighting design firm on the East Coast. Among the projects he has been deeply involved in lately is the redesign of Studio TV3 at Disney/ABC News headquarters on West 66th Street in New York City, the flagship studio of ABC News.
This studio has been a mainstay on television since 1986, when it was designed and built for Peter Jennings’ evening news broadcasts. Since then, many other shows have been added, and in addition to the country’s number-one newscast, World News Tonight with David Muir, and other shows including Nightline, World News Now, America This Morning, This Week and Weekend Good Morning America.
Photo courtesy ABC News
Despite several major studio designs in the works all over the world, things have slowed considerably for Dennis as he hunkers down with his family at their home in New York, currently the Covid-19 epicenter of the country at this writing. One of LDG’s biggest projects this year, the Summer Olympics, was postponed until 2021.
And although Size has been busy redesigning ABC’s TV3, “ninety percent of Disney/ABC’s buildings are empty, with almost everyone who is able working from home. Anchors are now broadcasting from home out of necessity. The only news show still in the 66th Street Manhattan studio is World News Tonight. David Muir insists on broadcasting from his own ABC studio — but they’re using a ‘bare-bones’ skeleton staff.”
Scaling down is not necessarily slowing down for Size, however. The previous weekend saw him putting on his ‘hazmat’ suit and installing a small lighting system at the Hamptons home of George Stephanopoulos, who, along with his wife Ali Wentworth, was diagnosed with Covid-19. That installation allowed George, who did not suffer symptons, to continue as daily anchor of Good Morning America in addition to Sunday morning’s This Week.
News Set Trends
News sets have evolved in recent years, many of them latching on to the eye-catching, video driven, colorful set wave that networks such as ESPN and CNN have embraced. We asked Size for his take on this current trend.
“The Lighting Design Group has been involved in lighting news studios and events for decades, providing the lighting for several dozen presidential debates and the national presidential conventions. News coverage has become big ‘business.’ Election night broadcasts are huge televised events — the ‘Oscar Awards’ of network news divisions.”
ABC News’ Studio TV3 during the Midterm Election 2018. Photo: ABC/Danny Weiss
Lavish Midterm Coverage
ABC invested heavily in the production supporting its 2018 midterm election coverage, spending trillions of dollars (okay, maybe not quite that much) for a Seth Easter-designed multi-level circular set. Dennis Size and his associate designer/programmer Alex Kyle-DiPietropaolo also played a key role for the midterm election coverage with a lighting design that utilized several hundred moving lights and more than a hundred conventional fixtures to bring that news programming to life. Disney/ABC was thrilled, “not only with ‘the look’ and the incredible coverage — using the latest in Augmented Reality graphics — but also with the ratings. They decided to emulate that look with as much production value as possible for their TV3 newsroom studio and their 2020 Election coverage,” Size says.
Future Plans Downtown
Studio space in NYC is scarce and at a premium these days. Disney, the parent company of ABC, is building a 19-story headquarters in lower Manhattan at 4 Hudson Square, close to where the Holland Tunnel emerges from beneath the Hudson River. It’s not scheduled to be completed for another three or four years, however, and the people ‘upstairs’ at Disney/ABC wanted a new set for the 2020 Election Coverage during this interim period.
They were willing to invest another $100 billion (okay, again — maybe not quite that much) for this TV3 studio renovation, even though it may only be used by ABC News for another three years once finished. However, it was imperative that the news shows continue as usual in temporary spaces while the demolition and construction of the redesigned news studio was happening.
The set layout for Studio TV3.
The production/broadcasting of news specials like Super Tuesday primary election coverage require a robust control room capable of switching dozens and dozens of feeds from locations all over the country. The control room to accommodate this was already in place above TV3, so that’s where the studio had to be kept, especially since all the offices of the ABC News Division are in the building.
Spearheaded by ABC production designer Seth Easter, decisions were made, plans were drawn, and contractors were brought in. (To download a PDF, CLICK HERE.) “Usually, when they remodel a set, they just add new scenic pieces and we move the lights around, swapping some fixtures in the grid in the process,” Size says. “The problem was, the old studio did not have the trim height for the big look the executives wanted.” This would necessitate not only gutting the existing room, but removing the ceiling and grid and combining part of the fourth floor space into this third floor studio.
The studio started construction in November, but World News Tonight with David Muir, who was set to occupy the center stage of the studio, wished to keep working during construction. This put two different scenarios in play. First, they needed to build a makeshift studio in one corner of the floor and seal it off from the construction mess. The second was that the construction would have to work around the time the show was on the air. (To download a PDF, CLICK HERE.)
Phase two of the redesign
Thus, a temporary broadcast space for the popular anchorman was constructed — affectionately called the “Bubble.” Size had a small Unistrut grid system installed in the makeshift studio to hang a small design for Muir’s nightly newscast (and ABC’s Nightline). “Another problem that sprang up was ABC’s sudden coverage of the impeachment hearings. Now we had more special news reports that we had to work around. ABC’s scheduling became very complicated.” (To download a PDF, CLICK HERE.)
The lighting for the temporary “Bubble” set.
Dennis took possession of Easter’s drawings last September (2019) and began designing a brand new lighting system, complete with a new lighting grid structure, since the entire studio was being gutted. Alex Kyle once more served as Dennis’ associate for the project.
ABC News’ Super Tuesday Election Set in TV3. Photo: ABC/Lorenzo Bevilaqua
TV3 is quite the bustling studio. Once the pandemic is over, there will be many ongoing shows shot in this studio, coupled with occasional news specials, using several different sets for the various shows occupying different areas of the studio floor. To accommodate those requirements, Size would need to design a multi-purpose system that would service at least seven major network news shows in addition to ABC News’ election coverage events.
“Of course, the best-laid plans are always met with obstacles when construction starts,” Size notes. “The new plans were drawn off existing plans that had, of course, been modified during the original construction decades earlier. A lot of re-design went into the project along the way. It brought back memories watching them tear out the old motorized grids and throw away a mixed bag of Altman’s, CCT’s, S4’s, Desisti/Century, Arri and yes, even 60-year-old Bardwell Fresnels. All that tungsten is gone. I had been the assistant LD when the studio was designed back in the mid-80’s. It was fun being one of the few people who had the ‘institutional knowledge’ to answer crazy questions about why something was done a certain way back in the ‘medieval times.’”
ABC News President James Goldson unveils the new Super Tuesday Election Set on Monday, March 2, 2020.
Size expands on the modern-day changes being made. “Everything is high tech video-centric at the studio. Seth Easter designed a couple huge LED video walls that can fly in and out, and another large wall that can jackknife out at any angle of choice. The circular floor in the center of the studio is all made of video tiling as well, upon which they create the most amazing augmented reality graphics. The entire studio is surrounded by LED video walls. The design called for video ceilings overhead as well. A T-shaped cross of video hangs above the set. The construction guys and welders had to install a lot of steel to existing I-beams, and the slab above, to handle the additional weight.”
One thing to take into account was that all the lighting for the Super Tuesday live event was only temporary and would all be removed/modified after that event, Size notes. “Nobody ever seems to preconceive the exact hanging points for the lights ahead of time, since the talent positions were unknown. Since there was no longer any grid, as the scenic department hung an element in the air, I’d say, ‘Hey, while you’re up there — can you secure a pipe to this wall for me?’ I may not actually have a use for it at that moment, but we will need a light there at some point.
The whole set has become video-centric. Pictured here, Super Tuesday, 2020. Photo: ABC/Lorenzo Bevilaqua
“The re-design required an all energy-efficient LED lighting package of several hundred fixtures. The Super Tuesday setup was treated like a ‘one off’ road show, however. In conjunction with the ABC Electric Shop, I designed a purpose-built control system installing accessible gateways and DMX opto-splitters throughout the studio. We ran temporary DMX cables everywhere. We were fortunate that a lot of the old existing power could still be used. Rather than rip out all the old dimmers, they were repurposed and ‘slugged’ as hot power racks, giving us hot circuits all over the place.
“I had 15 High End System’s SolaFrame 750’s for multi-purpose key light coverage,” Size says, noting that he’s got 10 more in his pocket for the other shows. “The remaining fixtures were mostly LED conventionals or small movers, like the GLP impression FR1. I love those little movers! I can take them, or a Chauvet Color Dash Accent, and plop them in any dark corner for a little sparkle of color. Arri LED SkyPanels, L7 and L10 Fresnels, Practilite 604 Fresnels and Source Four LED fixtures rounded out the lighting package.” All lighting gets controlled by an upgraded ETC Ion console. When the new Disney/ABC studios are complete downtown, Size mentions, “we will probably move to the EOS Ti.”
Line-of-Sight and Reflection Challenges
Because the production designer and directors did not wish to see any lighting fixtures hanging in front of any video surface or the light boxes that looked so great on camera, finding the best hanging positions was quite a challenge. Additionally, the second floor of the studio is shrouded in Plexiglas, risking unwanted reflections.
The studio launched with a flurry for ABC’s Super Tuesday Election Coverage on March 3. Then Size turned that design around to meet ABC’s sudden need for extensive pandemic coverage. He’s currently designing the lighting for the third phase, as all the shows migrate back to the studio when the pandemic ends.
The new TV3 studio is a state-of-the-art and versatile work of beauty, Size notes — two stories high, with video walls and tall light boxes illuminated “by millions of LED tape channels. The video floor and ceiling stay in place, but the sets are all different. There are four different anchor desk positions, including the special ‘home base’ desk configuration for World News Tonight. All desks will move around, however, to satisfy the production demands of the various shows.
“The Production Designer had the initial thought that the room may be able to just be repurposed by sliding two unique desks into one or two configurations and changing the surrounding media content and colors. But, of course, every show wants a special look. Good Morning America, for example, wants a totally different look with totally different talent positions than This Week, or other news division shows.”
While Size hung and tucked key lights and Fresnels in wherever space he could, backlight and floor light space for beauty specials was limited. The high trim was of no help. “I had a ton of threaded rod stanchions made for dropping fixtures where needed. I must have dozens of hidden ETC mini Source Fours providing backlight, accent lights and fill lights because God forbid any fixture block a video panel.”
We inquired how he used the “in demand” eye-lights for all the talent in this scenario, to rid the newscasters of any unwanted neck shadows and add a little sparkle to their eyes. “On a lot of our projects, we actually have a hand in designing the desks. Like most live events, we rely on LED tape now. On this new set, I relied on the ABC Electric Shop to create custom eye-light housings for the LED tape that they mounted under the curved plexi desktops. They had a row of warm white and a row of cool white LEDS, so we could adjust the color temperature accordingly and softened [them] with a diffusion lens that Environmental Lights makes. This helps keep the light omnidirectional, but less obtrusive and softer to the anchors. We at the Lighting Design Group have been using Environmental Light products on all the projects we design. The quality they provide is exceptional.”
Balancing Color Temperatures
Speaking of adjusting the color temperature, we asked Dennis how he prefers to light his sets. “Video displays have a color temperature up to 8000+ degrees Kelvin now — awful high, and extremely ‘cold’ — adversely polluting the color of the ambient broadcast lighting. If you try and take them down to the old 3,000 Kelvin or lower tungsten range (the color loved by talent everywhere) the video rendition/quality is terrible. On-camera talent is not fond of being lit at 6000 Kelvin (basic daylight color) They feel it’s too white, too ‘cold’ — almost blue. They need their skin color to be honest to their eyes. As one anchor told me, ‘I want my lighting to be warm and fuzzy, like it is in my living room at home.’ Consequently, I usually cheat all my LED key lights to 4500° Kelvin as a baseline compromise. Then we adjust the temperature of the LED walls down and video levels up as best we can to match. In the old days, this took some time, adjusting and matching with CTB and CTO color correction gel. These days it’s easy-peasy with high quality tunable LED fixtures.”
At the time of this writing, the pandemic was still a major crisis, and studios are still shut down, but Size had completed three of the light plots required, with several more to go. Once Disney/ABC gives the go ahead, he and his team will head back into the studio to finish the remaining shows.
“The plan is for the studio to ‘re-launch’ with David Muir’s newscast, World News Tonight. Then all other shows will migrate back home …. just like the swallows to Capistrano!”
For more information, visit The Lighting Design Group at www.ldg.com.