The Country Music Television Awards' Larger Than Life Production
Well, I admit it. Last year, I didn't know who Rascal Flatts was, and there wasn't a single country album in my collection. Three country concerts and a year later, my country CD collection is steadily growing, Sacramento, CA's #1 country station has a permanent preset on my radio dial, and I'm suddenly in Nashville — backstage at the 2007 Country Music Television (CMT) Music Awards. It's pretty surprising what a year can do for one's musical perspective.
Even more surprising was the way that the CMT production crew prepared Nashville's Curb Event Center for one of the year's premier live broadcasts. Under normal circumstances, the Curb Event Center is a mid-sized arena and multipurpose facility seating approximately 5,000 on the campus of Belmont University. Yet for the 2007 CMT Awards on April 16, at least a third of the seats were tucked away to provide room for the set's layered proscenium and thrust.
In addition, with only a 44' ceiling to work with, the challenge was to create the illusion of height and width and essentially transform a college basketball arena into a dynamic and visually rich palette for the high-definition lens.
Color, Dimension, And Slivers Of Video
To meet the challenge, Nashville-based I-Mag Video joined forces with CMT, executive producer Audrey Morrissey of Camouflage Films, and veteran designers Anton Goss and Simon Miles. Based on the success and visual impact of last year's CMT Awards show, Goss expanded the design into a creative array of projection, movable “slivers” of abstract video, a large-format video wall, decorative LED trim, and wooden “slats” of background scenery. To maintain the highest degree of visual interest (with hardly any two-camera shots alike), the set had multiple focal points for performers, announcers, and presenters, along with sweeping jib moves.
To realize Goss' concept for the set, I-Mag supplied eight movable columns of Barco D7 tiles, two movable D7 headers, one large Barco OLite 510 wall, three OLite 510 towers, and two 18'×24' projection screens using double-stacked Barco FLM R20+ projectors. To cap the design, Barco's new transparent MiTrix modules were used as the front fascia for the stairs and as a decorative “handrail” that framed the performers on the thrust. “There's something really cool about MiTrix,” says Goss, “because it's designed in a 7.5“ form factor that can be placed in stairs. Of course, the engineers designed it for multiple vertical tiles, but they didn't think about placing it in horizontal strips. It's an interesting real-world application.”
To provide color and dimension to an otherwise small (and monochrome) arena, LD Simon Miles used Vari-Lite VL5s, VL6s, VL1000s, VL2416s, and VL3000 spot fixtures; Martin MAC 2000 Wash units; and Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12s — all run on a Vari-Lite Virtuoso DX2 console. The lighting was programmed by Harry Sangmeister, with gear supplied by Vx Inc. via PRG Nashville and MTV Networks Nashville. The show's rigger was Mike Linn, with rigging equipment supplied by Atlanta Rigging Systems.
To deliver the simulcast in SD and HD, CMT (a subsidiary of MTV Networks), pulled in MTV's new “Pegasus” mobile HD truck. “The interesting thing about doing this show in HD,” notes Miles, “is the ability to render color more accurately than we used to do in standard def. It's a more forgiving environment — particularly for music — and you can go wild with color and contrast.”
The “Go-To” Guys
Tony Macre is director of engineering for I-Mag Video, with credits that include concerts for Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts and video support for the past two presidential inaugurations.
“This is the third year we've worked on the CMT Awards, and there's a lot more video on this particular show than ever before,” explains Macre. “We have 601 SDI running to every single LED element, and we're using about 20 Barco digitizers overall. Each LED element is fed by routers in the Pegasus truck, so the TD can place any video content anywhere — whether it's video from the 12 Ikegami cameras or abstract backgrounds from the Green Hippo Hippotizer media servers.” Video was programmed by Adrian Dickey using three Hippotizers in dual mode, controlled by the Virtuoso console. The media servers were supplied by Vx Inc.
“The Barco products are very friendly as far as processing goes, especially the way that we can easily map images into the columns that Anton designed,” he continues. “This is just an amazing set, and combined with the moving LED columns, I think we really met the goal of ‘wowing’ them even more this year. We love working with CMT — they're always taking us in new directions, and it's really a treat to push the edge. Honestly, when no one else knows how to do it, we're the one's to go to, and that makes us very proud to be working with CMT and the designers on this broadcast.”
Pure Country Tech
With a background in rock 'n' roll, MTV, game shows, and awards shows, Goss' recent credits include set designs for Tyra Banks, Ellen, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, and Deal or No Deal. His company, Consortium Studios, is based in Venice, CA, with a core staff of four artists and designers. Goss' key to success has been, in his own words, “to stay creative within the technology, using technology as a tool, and not just as an excuse to throw a trick into the design. There may even be a tag line that says it all — country tech.”
“In this small college arena, I had to create a big stage presence and a quick walk-on from the audience to keep up the energy,” Goss explains. “And that's the impetus for the ‘video’ stairs with the Barco MiTrix and the MiTrix railing that encapsulates the presenters. It's very cool, and I particularly like the low-res, transparent nature of it.
“For last year's set,” continues Goss, “we moved areas around, created a huge pit, rearranged the walk-ons, and basically went with strips of video as opposed to 4'×3' screens. My initial theory was that the ‘look’ should be very pixilated, very low-res — like the font on old digital watches. And as ‘future’ as it gets, we have this nostalgia for the old video look. In a way, it humanizes the video and leaves room for the high-resolution elements. This also provides a perfect contrast with the background slats, which is a very non-video, very simple look.”
With regard to the thrust and the set's focal points, Goss is enthusiastic. “With the raised solo area on the walkway, I wanted to create a destination for the performers and ensure that it was inviting,” Goss says. “In this way, it gives the ability for the performer to go into the audience and engage the audience — far different from a basic proscenium show. Throughout the design, camera angles were a prime consideration for the solo stage, the low hand-held ‘hero’ shot, and the way that the large I-Mag screen is positioned right behind the performers.”
Goss also has an interesting take on the overall show as history. “I can't say enough about this group,” Goss notes. “Starting with Audrey Morrissey's company, working with Simon Miles, right through the entire CMT organization — they really care about the music. I feel like they are preserving history and regarding these productions as archival gems. It's true to the artist, with a sense of history as it's being performed.”
Distinctive Style And Energy
Morrissey, executive producer for the 2007 CMT Awards, worked at MTV for nine years on big events and award shows prior to forming Camouflage Films. Now, with her production company specializing in music events, this marks her fourth year of involvement with CMT. In addition to the American music scene, she's also involved with MTV Latin America.
“I've tried to bring a lot of what I learned at the other networks and apply it here,” says Morrissey, “and that included the use of video, new staging techniques, and new ways to make a show more dynamic. With the CMT Awards, I changed the show's layout and placed the executives and country stars in the side risers rather than sitting in front of the stage. I also filled the floor with standing fans, which gave the show much more visual excitement and energy. And by bringing in more dynamic designers, it really pushed the envelope on that level.
“This year, the freshest note is that we've added more video,” continues Morrissey, “and Anton is largely responsible for that. We love the fact that specific screens will only take slivers of a frame to make it much more abstract. But because Anton designed very odd-shaped screens, the content had to be carefully designed and formatted, and that was a major challenge. Yes, it's exponentially more complicated than in years past, but with I-Mag's help and all the talented crew, we're proud of the fact that we've brought a distinct style and energy to this broadcast.”
Regarding the planning stages and the logistics of doing a dual-format simulcast, Morrissey says that it took about six months to plan this first go at an HD broadcast. “We're shooting HD out of the Pegasus truck and down-converting to SD, with two simultaneous feeds going out — one to MHD, which is MTV's HD channel, plus the SD feed that's going out directly on CMT,” she says. “And I think there's upward of 250 people on site, with the camera crew, CMT crew, production, set and video crew, stagehands, riggers, tech crew, event staff, logistics people, Pas — it's exhausting, but it's gorgeous, entertaining, and hip.”
The Collaborative Process
LD Simon Miles started out doing theatrical productions, but now “it's all TV and the occasional light show,” as he puts it. With credits that include The Arsenio Hall Show, Vibe, and Dancing With the Stars, his Los Angeles-based Vx Inc. has been involved with the CMT Music Awards for more than eight years.
“We're utilizing the tools available to make this show more closely resemble what you'd see and experience in a live concert,” says Miles. “The most challenging aspect is the venue itself and the fact that the arena is not particularly tall. It's only 44' from floor to ceiling, and we have a very large stage and thrust area to cover. So my challenge is to try to maintain the illusion of the vertical element as much as possible, without making it look short.”
Miles explains how he integrated Anton's design into his lighting requirements. “Obviously, we work apart in terms of distance, but there's a huge amount of file sharing,” he says. “The process with Anton, as it is with all production designers that I work with, is that I try to make my design sympathetic to what they're trying to achieve visually. The idea is to make it look like a cohesive whole — and not like we're doing two different shows in the same space at the same time.
“Anton provided a lot of very strong elements,” he continues, “and not just visual elements, but physical elements that we can hang lights from and splash color across. So by utilizing what he's given me, as a platform for lights and color, we suddenly have an integrated picture, with scenery, lights, and video. The Barco walls are a wonderful design element that Anton brought to the table, and my contribution is to collaborate on how we'll present the overall picture in terms of color and contrast — whether we want to be complementary or go wildly opposite. You also have to be able to throw a concept away if it's not working, and I think that's paramount to a successful production.”
Miles also offers an interesting observation on the differences between rehearsals and the live concert. “Last year, during the rehearsal process, we felt that the show was visually flat. But, as soon as the audience came in, and we saw how the lighting worked with this mass of people in the pit, it really brought the whole organic nature of our scenery to life. We couldn't see that until we were actually on the air.”
There's something wonderful about this “country tech” concept, and the way that an entire collaborative team can stay creative — within the technology. If you missed the live 2007 CMT broadcast and would like to view a webcast that includes shots of Goss' set, Miles' lighting, and all the video mentioned above, visit www.cmt.com, click “On TV,” and then follow the links to the “2007 CMT Music Awards” page.
Paul Berliner is president of Berliner Productions in Davis, CA, a company providing video production and marcom services to the broadcast and entertainment industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.