Production designer Terry Gipson, who heads design at MTV Networks, is used to “weird situations. It's the nature of our business. We're prepared to take on anything,” he says. But launching a high-definition studio at 10,350' above sea level was more “anything” than he imagined.
The new glass-walled studio sits atop Vail Mountain in the Colorado Rockies and headquarters the networks' new channel, MHD Music High Definition, which programs a variety of music and artist interviews. MTV Networks has been doing HD programs since 1991, originally in analog HDTV, which were sent out through networks that were not themselves HD; this is its first dedicated HD network. The set, a high-end ski lodge, would have to look “incredibly real” to look good in HD, and Gipson relied on scenic artist Will Redd of Backstage Productions to carve and paint all the stone and wood detail.
Getting scenery up the mountain — and people down it — proved the biggest problem. Gondolas, basket-like sky cable cars, transported crews during ski hours, from 7am to 3:30pm. The mountain grew very dark by 4pm — not good for a crew that planned to work until 8pm. A cafeteria on top closed at 2pm. “You can't say, ‘I need this nail, so I'll go to Home Depot,’” Gipson notes. Gondolas weren't available to bring crews down after hours and were inadequate for hauling scenery up anytime.
And how would the altitude affect work? Thermal insulation for camera equipment helped deal with extreme cold, but the altitude wore on the crew, physically and mentally. “The air there is so dry. No matter how much you drink, you don't feel it's enough. Your appetite increases. You have a huge breakfast and a couple of hours later feel like you haven't eaten,” says Gipson. “Each day, we thought we should have gotten more done, but our brains were working slowly, too. We slurred words and didn't complete sentences.”
Four huge windows that provide a magnificent view of adjacent mountains were no use after nightfall, and crews used work lights during the day, too. “The room faces almost directly into the morning sun,” Gipson explains. “The sun bounced off the snow. Even though it was 20 degrees outside, it was really hot in the room.” Could crews protect themselves from the glare while insuring that the view was visible during shoots?
Crews drank gallons of water and covered windows with black fabric, adding optically-clear Rosco Roscolux color correction panels to the windows to protect views.
Snowcats (flatbed vehicles with tank-like treads) moved people and things. “We called them ‘hell cats,’” says Gipson of the 8'×10' vehicles that were not very heavy or secure. “They were not intended to be used the way we used them.” It took several trips, each about an hour, to get the set up the mountain, with care to ensure that set pieces built in small transportable units didn't fall off the trucks.”
Crews came up in gondolas but had to come down after hours on the snowcats. “It was basically like being on a giant bobsled down a ski slope in a really, really dark place,” says Gipson. “You had to put your faith in the driver.”
Careful planning and occasional improvising helped. Even so, an occasional extra trip down the mountain proved necessary. Once, Gipson went down and brought two cases of water back to a thirsty crew. Another time, he sent someone down to take his rental car to a hardware store. “Both of us being delirious, I forgot to give him the car keys, and he forgot to ask,” says Gipson. The design assistant went back up and down and up the mountain.
The studio is home to MHD from mid-January, when it opened, to mid-April. After the ski season, all the scenery comes down the mountain, and the network relocates the studio. Sigh.
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Lighting Designer/Director: Bill Brennan
Art Director: Ryan Palmer
Design Assistants: Carl Tallent, Blair Mielnik, Jennifer Columbo