High-definition television may be the wave of the future, but the tide has been awfully long coming in. Japan's NHK broadcasting company launched an HDTV development program more than 25 years ago, but difficulties establishing an international standard and workable transmission system have slowed the switchover from NTSC video broadcast to a crawl in the US. With the target year of 2006 for all-digital HD broadcast over the American airwaves looming, there are still few producers and studios that have invested in the equipment. In addition, there have only been a few thousand widescreen HD sets sold nationwide. At a cost near five figures, and with so little high-definition programming to watch, this is hardly surprising.
But changes are occurring, and are starting to be felt by people across the board in television production. Nationally televised high-definition made its debut October 29, 1998, when a live broadcast of John Glenn's liftoff on the Space Shuttle was transmitted by ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and PBS affiliates using an ATSC DTV system. Soon after, CBS broadcast a Buffalo Bills vs. New York Jets football game in digital HD format, and a special episode of the hospital series Chicago Hope. For the 1999/2000 season, ABC made the HD transition with NFL Monday Night Football and Super Bowl XXXIV, and HBO switched to 24-hour-a-day high-definition service. Just as significantly, CBS began airing most of its primetime series, both multi-camera sitcoms and single-camera dramas, in HD, though all are still shot on film and transferred to the format.
In terms of studio-originated network programming, probably the most high-profile show both shot and broadcast in HD is The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, which converted to Sony digital high-definition equipment April 26, 1999. Not coincidentally, the show's homebase set and production areas were simultaneously revamped by production designer Dennis Roof, and relit by LD Gary Thorns. What does high-definition mean for a designer? Quite simply, it's a matter of picture quality. If one goal of the format is to provide a clearer, sharper, more film-like image, then what's actually going on camera has to meet HDTV's exacting visual standards.
"It's wonderful if you want something that's beat up, because it shows real well on HDTV," says Roof, who has been designing The Tonight Show since 1988. "If you want a stressed look, you've got it. But if you want a slick and clean look, you have to be sure the carpentry is slick and clean. The shop and the people who manufacture things also have to be aware. If you go in tight, you have to be careful that the seams are smooth. It takes a little extra attention." Thorns adds, "Everything's in focus, it's just like looking through a window. You don't get a blurry picture in back; it's much less forgiving. It sees everything-the wrinkles, the pores, the cavity in someone's teeth."
There are two major issues facing the designers of an HD show: aspect ratio and resolution. The former has to do with the width of the image in relation to its height; while the NTSC standard is 1.33:1, rounded to 4:3, the HD ratio is 1.78:1, or roughly 16:9. That's 25% more image for a designer and LD to cover. "That means that if you've got a 10'-high set, it has to be at least 18' wide instead of 14' wide," says Roof. To fill the widescreen image, the designer added an extra chair to the homebase set, next to Leno's desk, and curved the entire setup downstage tohelp eliminate stray elbows or coffee mugs that might pop into frame. Also, Roof says, "when we're doing a production number or sketch set, we have to make sure we have enough coverage right and left."
Wider aspect ratio is a fairly clear-cut problem, with coverage the all-purpose solution. The issue of resolution is thornier, and more subjective. It derives from the fact that, in general, the HDTV image has four times as many luminance picture elements, or pixels, as either the NTSC image or the slightly more defined PAL and SECAM systems in use internationally. That translates into about a 25% sharper image on an high-definition TV set, and a 15% sharper picture on a standard set.
"We went through a long audition process with new fabric, because we reupholstered the sofa and chairs, and made a new desk for the homebase segment," says Roof. "We looked at textures, and made the desk in cherry, with a beveled top and leather insert. We added a reflective surface to the front, which can present a problem on TV, but we used sandblasted, back-painted glass. We also looked at colors. Before, we had more midnight blues, which got closer together in value on the HD camera. We wanted to punch it up a little more, so we added maroons for saturation. If the colors get too dark, it means we have to put more light on it, which we didn't want to do because it would have an adverse effect on the people sitting there. Of course, we have to be careful, because the more saturated colors are wonderful in high-def, but we're still on dueling formats here. On a standard monitor, it can get super-saturated. So we go to a middle ground."
"It seems to me that fleshtones have changed subtly," says Thorns of the HD picture. "I used to use a cosmetic Lee 184, and I've now gone to a 181 or 182. The picture is enriched and saturated across the board, from fleshtones to backgrounds. I've had to lose all my primary blues and primary reds, because they blow out the colors so much. Now I've gone to 012, which is a more orange-red, and a 241, which is more peacock blue than true blue. I'm still finding colors that will tear or bloom, where the image looks distorted around the outside edges." The LD, who has been with The Tonight Show for two decades, has also had to adjust light levels. "Something I never counted on was the extra footcandles that it takes to bring up pictures in high-def. We've opened up at least one-and-a-half to two stops. In order to make people pop, you have to fool the camera on the background; if the majority of the picture is dark, it drives the whole thing down."
As with many of HD's attributes, the clear focus it affords can present a challenge to the designers. "In the production area, where we have our live bands, we had to go to a more layered look to give us more depth," says Roof. "It became more of a problem for lighting than anything." Thorns agrees, saying, "There is no way to get the depth out of the set that we used to get with camera focus; now I have to do it with colors and lights. I've brightened up certain areas and taken down other areas, to give the illusion that the stage goes back further than it really does." The musical guest area is now backed by a swagged curtain that reveals the studio wall, and the designers make liberal use of scrims and other transparent materials. "I light the studio wall with one value, the curtain with another, and the talent with another," says Thorns. "It's tripled my job, but it gives a really interesting look."
At CBS, there has been less consistent attention to the design issues raised by HDTV. Maxine Shepard, production designer of the new LA hospital-set series City of Angels, says, "We don't really make any kind of special concession in the art department for HD, though in the camera department they cover themselves for the widescreen." On the other hand, Michael Mayer, designer of the family/courtroom drama Judging Amy, says that he now pays more attention to set finishes and textures. "Most of the walls are glazed down, in muted tones," he says. "We like to do it gritty, and accentuate the textures." As Judging Amy DP Kenneth Zunder says, "Our show takes place in Hartford Juvenile Court buildings that were probably built in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. More attention has to be paid to aging down the sets, so the high resolution won't pick up the fact that they were made last week."
Mayer also keeps an eye on moire danger spots like mini-blinds and wallpaper grid patterns. Moire, explains Zunder, is "when you have thin horizontals that are approximately the width of a scan line, and they come alive and vibrate. That's more likely to occur in high-definition, because the image is that much sharper." Since Zunder has educated himself to such an extent about HD, the informed approach seems to have trickled down to Mayer.
Scott Heineman, production designer of the multi-camera CBS sitcom The King of Queens, has felt less affected by the switch to high-definition. "We're still doing a lot of the old videotape cheats, such as using masking tape on seams and painting over them," he says. "I've seen an HD tape of our show, and you can see the imperfections. But we don't have HD cameras, we don't have HD monitors, and we seldom see the high-definition transfer. All we have is a video feed on the film camera with the 16:9 format, so my largest involvement at this point is making sure they don't shoot off the sets."
CBS' switch to HD has been underwritten by Mitsubishi, a manufacturer of high-definition TVs. "Mitsubishi obviously wants to sell HDTVs, so they made a deal with CBS," says Zunder. But the fact remains, he adds, that "99.9% of the TVs in America are still the 1.33 variety." That means a couple of things. First of all, as Heineman puts it, "I don't think even the producers are seeing it in the HD format. If we had high-definition cameras and monitors onstage, they would become a little bit more concerned about the finishes, seams, edges, and scenic techniques."
Secondly, even though Mayer says, "You're building more, you're dressing and decorating more, lighting more, and getting more extras to fill the frame," Zunder puts the whole thing in perspective: "Maybe 50,000 people out there have widescreen TVs, and of those, maybe 10,000 are watching Judging Amy. If I put an actor on the edge of frame, only 10,000 people will see him, while 26 million won't. So I have to compose for 1.33, though I have to keep 1.78 clear. I can't put a grip picking his nose on the side of the frame."
Jim Fenhagen's revamped 1997 set for NBC's Meet the Press was also geared for the 16:9 image, though the show is still not shot or broadcast in high-definition. "When we got the assignment, we were told that it was going to be an HDTV studio, and we needed to keep that in mind," says Fenhagen, partner in New York company Production Design Group (PDG) with Erik Ulfers. Meet the Press, which is shot at NBC affiliate WRC in Washington, DC, has to accommodate several commentators and guests, who face each other across a desk on a central platform, with a cyc-shaped background visible across about 2/3 of the studio. "We decided to go with a wide-angle movie kind of look, and provide a panoramic view of Washington. We hired a photographer to shoot all the Washington monuments, and then collaged them as one big picture, with the sky and ground row to tie it all together. With that, we felt that we had instantly created that panoramic look that would look really good on HDTV. When you frame the shots, you've always got a nice background."
Like Roof and Mayer, Fenhagen says he paid close attention to the detailing of materials. "We used a lot of real metal, and the desk and laminates are real wood. The preciseness of the work had to be pretty tight, and a lot of care has to be given to how it's welded together." The Meet the Press set, as well as WRC's nightly news set, also redesigned by PRG, was built by the Orlando, FL scenery construction company FX. "We had to supervise them very closely," says Fenhagen, "but they happen to be really, really good at laminates and clean kind of work." Noting the work done at other companies like Showman Fabricators, the designer says most conscientious craftsmen already have a leg up in creating HD-worthy looks. "We try to go for a high degree of detail anyway. And Steve Brill, who lit both WRC shows, is the kind of lighting designer who's so sensitive in the way he lights that he's going after the film look anyway. He uses a lot of instruments and he's not blasting out the background. He's sculpting with light, which plays into the look of HDTV."
PRG designs a number of news sets around the country, and Fenhagen says most "want to make sure we're considering that they will eventually be HDTV." On the WRC news set, "We were really paying attention to what that two-shot is. Usually you go into a two-shot, and you don't really see much but the people. A scene designer's dream here is, now they go in tight on the two-shot, and you see the architecture of the set. It also throws a big change into the lap of over-the-shoulder graphics people, who have a lot more room to work with." But HD's resolution also meant that the "beat-up" appearance of the old WRC set, with the anchors' doodling visible on top of the desk, would no longer fly. "That'll be a real issue for the soaps," he adds. "They knock them down and set them up every day, and they try to paste them back together and patch them up."
In many cases, production designers are so busy doing their jobs and sometimes dealing with other technological issues that thinking about a relatively abstract concept like the HD image is not high priority. City of Angels designer Maxine Shepard, for example, devotes a lot of intellectual energy to providing proper backgrounds for the skintones of the largely African-American cast. "I've done a number of shows, like the feature Soul Food and the series 413 Hope Street, with multi-ethnic casts, so I'm familiar technically with how to balance colors and sets and textures for a variety of skintones," says Shepard, one of the few African-American women in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Art Directors. "Color is especially important when you have a cast where skintones go from being very light to very dark.
"Usually warmer pigments work better, so even if you're using blue, you go more towards a warm blue," she continues. "On City of Angels, Michael Warren has got a medium-brown skin tone and bald head, and he's in a room surrounded by a lot of wood. The thing is, you've got to figure out how you're going to get his skintone to separate from his environment. Also, when someone has very dark skin, they're going to absorb more light, so they're probably going to be pumping up the light a lot more. You've got to realize it won't be as shadowy in there, so that's going to blow out your color." Shepard couldn't say to what extent the show's high-definition broadcast either mitigates or complicates these issues. And though there are rumblings at CBS of an eventual conversion-perhaps beginning as early as next season-from film to HD cameras on some of its shows, she certainly couldn't guess how this might affect her job on City of Angels.
In the fast-paced world of television production, it is easy for the technological revolution to get left behind. Heineman's art department for King of Queens is entirely computerized, with Vector Works used for design and File Maker for inventory. As a Columbia/ TriStar production, the sitcom takes advantage of Sony Studios' sophisticated database of the walls in their immense scene docks. "We have a photograph and CAD drawing of every stock wall, updated to show what the last finish was," he says. But while Shepard uses a Corel program for simple elevation sketches, her set designer still works with pencil and paper. The Judging Amy art department is thoroughly traditional. "Graphics and artwork are on computer," says Mayer, "but for the basic sets, we're moving so fast it's all in pencil." The Tonight Show also does its graphics digitally, but Roof says for other sets, "You're almost doing it on a cocktail napkin, because we have a very short turnaround time."
Not being restricted to a weekly or daily production schedule, Production Design Group managed to convert to an all-digital office about three years ago. The company is even making tentative excursions into the world of virtual sets. "It's very strange," says Fenhagen. "My partner Erik and I both studied traditional theatre, opera, and dance, and we've come a long way. Creatively, it's really exciting. But as a financial model, it's sometimes difficult. The way you need to tool up, and the amount of time it takes, can be unknowns. You have to be sure you get paid enough to do all this new stuff."
This is a concern echoed by everyone, though for a series production designer it's more about sticking to a budget. Mayer points out that "there is less money in art department budgets than there was 10 years ago," when he was working on LA Law. "The construction pattern when I was doing LA Law was $52,000 per episode," he says. "When I did the next show, Dangerous Minds, the new number was $34,500. And, of course, the prices are going up."
So who's going to pay for all that extra detailing, the actual materials, and those extended set walls supposedly required for the HDTV image? The upconversion of The Tonight Show studio, which involved gutting and reinstalling the stage and control rooms, cost on the order of $10 million. If other series without the flagship cachet of The Tonight Show have to make similar investments in equipment and studio revamps, how much money is going to be left for the lowly art department?
Now, Heineman says, "Shows are not budgeted for us to do our construction or tweak our sets as it should be done for high-definition." But just as Zunder says that some unspecified day, "as more and more people get the HDTV sets," he will begin composing for the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Heineman hopes producers will begin to see the high-definition light. "I personally would hate to be shooting on HD and not be given the money to make sure the sets are finished nicely," he says. "It would be very frustrating at that point to still be taping brick seams."
Television used to be so easy. One box, three networks. Just flop on the couch and watch. Now, it's converging, enhanced, and high-def.
Scenery used to be easy: draw the plans, build the set, install in studio, and tape the show.
Now, scenery has gone virtual, and a designer has to wade through the digital morass of all that television wants to be. The role of the virtual set designer has grown and integrated with the digital output of the graphics department, and no longer can scenery be described as the "background" in a television environment. It is actually a "database" (not exactly a design school term) and as such, is capable of a more active role in the production. How does this expand the virtual set designer's job?
Sets reflect current trends and tastes. Our new shows have become self-referential. We have nostalgia programs that emulate the styles of other decades, such as That 70s Show, which uses its decor as a comedic character. Self-observing shows like Sports Night or Ally McBeal allow the viewer to go behind the scenery or into the character's mind. Enter the virtual set designer, and watch the scenery respond to plot lines and emotional tone. We are so used to seeing talking appliances, dancing food, and morphing animals that having the scenery take an active role in the production doesn't seem all that strange to the viewers.
Desktop publishing and increasingly affordable 3D effects and modeling software have made shows more graphics-driven. Computer-generated images are everywhere, some obvious, many "invisible," all created to "fix" or perfect the reality of the scene. Virtual sets are lurking everywhere: ABC's One Saturday Morning, the Discovery Channel, ABC's 20/20, TNT's sports programming. Examples in the recent past included CBS' Secrets of the Cryptkeeper's Haunted House, and The CBS News/Time 100 Series (photo, left), which won an Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction in 1999.
Several times a day, the viewer will see an image built up from several composited layers. The talent will stand in front of what appears to be a 3D scene, and in reality, will be in front of a rendered image or animation created from a CG model of a 3D scene. The perspective is matched for each camera shot and the camera cuts give the illusion that the 3D scene is really behind the talent. As a result, another level of "reality" has been discovered. (We need new terms for these created spaces: 21/2D?) CBS Market Watch Weekend is one show that takes advantage of this process.
In designing a virtual set, the "decision tree," to borrow a term from computer programmers, has become much more complex. Now a set designer working on a virtual set must consider many more parameters "up front." Set blocking, lighting, and surface treatments have to be considered much earlier than in the traditional set design process. There are limitations to the quantity of the scenery in each scene due to its "expense," or the load the creation of its image will put on the computer generating the virtual set in the system. Lighting changes require the construction of many layers of textures for the virtual set, as well as some additional models, so this has to all be worked out with the lighting director well before rehearsal days.
Control room team interactivity has also been changed. The new position of virtual set operator has become a central role in any production involving a virtual set. This individual can influence the resulting output of a virtual set system as profoundly as the set designer, and a good one can get the designer much more performance from the system. Obviously, this relationship between the virtual set operator and designer must be as collaborative and communicative as that between a director and cinematographer.
The virtual set designer, by virtue of the burgeoning impact of CG graphics, must become a leader of sorts. He or she should lead the production by providing a framework or structure upon which to base the graphics aesthetics as well as the work flow in the project. Like a feature film production designer, the virtual set designer needs to remain in contact with all phases of the graphics creation. From the textures going on the set to the logos flying over the talent's head, a virtual set designer will have to imagine how all of this will combine with the elements that the lighting director and virtual set operator will be bringing into the look as well. Furthermore, the virtual set designer will also need to stay abreast of the software development in all the fields that relate to the creation of virtual scenery. This means frequent contact with the virtual set system vendors, as well as model and paint system vendors.
For the virtual set designer who has come out of a traditional, non-computer-based background, there is an Everest-like learning curve to understanding the CG methodologies necessary to creating a new virtual set. For the CG expert with no real set design experience, there is a universe of invisible factors and aesthetics that must be seen in the mind's eye in order to create a believable virtual environment that actually works physically for the production. Both fields of knowledge are critical to this craft. They are mutually supportive and interactive in a good virtual set design, one that can function well physically and hit the mark aesthetically.
And looming on the horizon is webcasting. How will the streaming of video images to the Internet influence virtual set design? The potential audience is enormous, of a magnitude many times greater than a national network. How will these sets be used on the World Wide Web?
Imagine the following scenario: We walk through a real doorway into a virtual world that represents an amalgamation and unification of all media. Information is the environment, and the environment is information, all in a cohesive and clear presentation. To interact with an object in the environment means to understand everything about it. A new way of multilevel storytelling is possible, and with it a deeper and richer interpretation of the content.
Our characters are following several storylines and timelines at once, and it's all completely understandable. We use the design of space to explain the concepts of our narrative, and our narrative redefines the spaces. We are immersed and in control of our viewpoint, or viewpoints. Television is not the illusion of 3D on a 2D screen anymore; we have gone through the looking-glass. Three-dimensional television will be here in the next decade. Imagine being able to tune in a baseball stadium and watch a game from the team bench in the dugout. Someday, the viewer will have that control, and the event will have to be designed from that standpoint.
We should be asking ourselves, what could scenery become? How will our scenery react to the director and art director in the control room? Will we "play" the scenery like a musical instrument? How will it respond to the actor, the viewer, and the advertiser? What control will the viewer have over the onscreen images, and how will that affect the designer's choices? How will this experiential television reshape the "broadcast reality" as we have defined it over the last 50 years?
The virtual set designer stands at the nexus of these crossroads. Scenery is being redefined by virtual set designers, and the new media growing out of television will continue to demand this innovation.