Ann Latham Cudworth is a two-time Emmy winner for her work in set design for network television. For the last 13 years, she has been designing both real and virtual sets for a variety of clients in the CBS Broadcast center. A pioneer in the field of virtual set design, she has taught internationally on the subject, as well as at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. But lately she's moved from the small screen to the really small screen: designing sets for the web. She recently spoke to Live Design about this new field.
LD: Who is doing this kind of design and for what purposes?
ALC: To the best of my knowledge, many of today's television set designers are unintentionally finding their work being shown on the web. And some designers, like me, who are actually designing scenery that goes to the web first, will typically not find that work being shown on the networks, unless it is recorded on videotape at a higher resolution as well as distributed online.
Some of the clients I work for, such as CBS SportsLine.com, initiated the idea of a cluster of sports-related shows to be only available on their site. This is also true of CBS's Money Watch and Survivor Live, and UPN's Talk Model. Websites are now getting into the TV production business. I imagine it's only a matter of time before little soap operas and plays are presented this way, just as they have showed the mini movies of famous directors to sell cars over the Internet for the last few years. And of course, there are the infamous “virals,” fake ads produced for political or entertainment purposes. Someone had to be the designer on those too.
LD: What types of scenery are being used?
ALC: I have seen just about everything out there, from really large complicated news sets to simple colored backdrops. Those whose designs were intended for movies, theatre, or broadcast TV are probably experiencing negative results, as the shows they designed are repurposed to web content. The transposition from a TV screen to a cell phone screen is a large change in format.
LD: And how are those sets created?
ALC: Basically, the process is the same initially: concept, sketches, and 3D model. However, in the case of the virtual set, the model becomes the set. We use 3D software like Autodesk® 3ds Max® 7 and Autodesk VIZ® to make these models and then import the visual info into the studio computers to create the virtual set. Depending on the production needs, the set is either used as a background image or as an actual 3D model that moves with the cameras.
In the CBS virtual studio, the creative utilization of the set images or model is orchestrated by Tom Curley, our director/technical director. He and I brainstorm on the shots with the show's producer and create a visual repertoire that is unique to each show.
LD: Where can we see this type of thing?
ALC: Both CBS SportsLine.com and CBS News.com have a video window on their home pages. This is usually where these shows end up. Survivor Live, Talk Model, and Amazing Race Live all have individual home pages where you can watch a live stream and call into the hosts during the show.
LD: How does this stuff work?
ALC: For the most part, the design process is basically the same. Whether they are designing a real set made of wood and paint or a virtual set made of ones and zeros, the designer is honoring the spirit and intent of the show. And like any other broadcast, it is recorded with a camera, although this can be a web cam, which often has a very wide angle and limited adjustability. At this point, the process diverges from video frames and goes over to a compression engine to be sent out to the Internet and to wireless devices.
According to Michael Sims [director of news and operations, CBSNews.com], MPEG is one of the compression engines that moves video images onto the net and wireless devices. These days, web casts are encoded at 500KB. The broadband standard for the web is anything over 250KB; DSL will access up to 700KB; and cable modem is up to 3MB. It doesn't use frames but updates only the part of the image that has moved or changed in color. When the image needs to be updated, it must be reloaded. If an Internet or cell phone image is reloading/revising a significant part of its image, it causes blurs or pixelization to occur.
LD: That's a bad thing, right?
ALC: Yes, too much background movement is the major cause of a poor web image. Fonts that are too small or complicated also lead to a poor web image. The rule of thumb is that a font that cannot be read at arms length is too small for the web cast. And it needs to be even larger for cell phone web casts, which doesn't leave a lot of room for detail in set design.
In some cases, graphics, especially lettering, have to be quite large to be read in the web cast frame. A lot of on-air broadcasts cannot be repurposed for wireless devices because the fonts are too small, or there is too much info on the screen.
LD: So what are the key factors to consider when designing for the web?
ALC: There are two important things: one, simplicity of the image, meaning little movement, if possible, in the background, and much less detail; and two, consider the smallest size of the screen it will end up on.
LD: So what's on the horizon?
ALC: Wireless devices are changing. Cell phones, gaming devices, and video devices are all gaining larger screens and better images. Soon, we will all carry a television/computer in our pocket. Apple has introduced a wireless video device, and others will surely follow, and that will most definitely drive the television and video content producers to consider displaying their content on wireless and Internet sources.
Anne Cudworth: www.vsets.net
CBS SportsLine: www.cbssportsline.com
CBS News: www.cbsnews.com
Surviver Live, Amazing Race Live: www.cbs.com/primetime
Talk Model: www.upn.com/upn_video/insider