When the producers of the variety show Entertainment as a Second Language with Carlos Santos (ESL) came to production designer Terry Gipson of Gipson Design Group and lighting designer Michael Grabowski of the Lighting Design Group to do a new show for MTV, they recalled the finale of MTV’s Total Request Live. “The designer had created a low ceiling grid over the performers by renting [Philips Color Kinetics] iColor© Accents. These tubes have LEDs in them, so you could constantly change the color,” Gipson explains. “You could have different looks for each performer. It’s very flexible and dramatic looking.”

It may have been very dramatic, but it certainly wasn’t inexpensive. They would have to do the new show on a budget that was about $200,000 short of what it would take to incorporate something similar to the lit scenic grid, if they used the same or similar equipment. “There are unbelievably amazing LED-based products developing every year,” Gipson says. “They’re great toys we all want to use, but the prices haven’t dropped.”

“The producers and a lot of the production staff from ESL had come from Mi TRL,” adds Grabowski, who designed lighting for both. “We wanted to make ESL our own and to make it work for this aesthetic,” while incorporating an element similar to the grid. Could Gipson and Grabowski come up with an affordable and high-tech look?

Budget wasn’t the whole problem. The show that was to serve as a model had occurred just once and in a large venue. They were now called on to design a show to run for 30 episodes in Manhattan Center Studios, which is only 40'x70'. Gipson would have to fit a live audience in the space. A band would perform for each episode, and crews would not know which band or how large a band until the day before.

The stage would have to be flexible so they could shoot different ways, sometimes in the round, sometimes on a fashion show runway, sometimes proscenium-style. “We had to figure out how to make it flexible, and for each option, we had to leave places for camera positions,” Gipson says.

Up to three other shows would shoot there each week, requiring that the set load in and out between episodes. Even if the ceiling design were affordable, even if the space had been manageable, the weekly load in would be impossible to accomplish in the five hours allowed. They had to create something that would be both replicable and instantly customizable.

“We put our heads together, and we came up with a version that achieved a similar effect,” Gipson says. Something in the ceiling would change color, and the grid format would be retained. But instead of renting or buying iColor Accents, they were able to lay out a custom grid design. “If I used acrylic and made it 6" wide, and if Mike would hang lights directly above the panels, we knew that would change the color of the panels. We could get the same kind of effect with the right combination of lighting equipment and acrylic,” says Gipson.

Then Gipson took the grid idea and expanded on it without expanding the budget. “Once we figured this out, it made sense to carry the whole design look throughout the rest of the stage,” says Gipson, who would create a changing lighting grid not just on the ceiling but behind the stage unit in columns. “When lights come on, surfaces can become any color you want anywhere you want. It really gives us a high-tech look.” With the help of design assistant Brian Barker, others at the Gipson Design Group, and scenic fabricators at Cigar Box Studios, Gipson and Grabowski were able to do this for less than $100,000.

Grabowski used Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast© fixtures, ColorBlaze© 48 and 72 units, and Altman Lighting MR16 striplights. “All the MR16 striplights were specifically lamped at the ‘narrow spot,’ so we are able to just illuminate the scenic grid and not get a lot of light spill over the edge to pollute the rest of the environment,” says Grabowski, who had many discussions with Gipson first to determine an ideal grid height, one that brought the ceiling low enough to be present, but high enough so Grabowski could control what light hit it.

“Our first idea, instead of using iColor Accents or Element Labs Versa Tubes, was to go to LED striplights on each section, but again, the cost became a problem,” says Grabowski, explaining that it would have taken between 45 and 60 LED strips to cover everything. He studied the set and possible camera angles carefully to decide just what parts of the ceiling would be most seen on camera, then used LED strips primarily for these, using the MR16s elsewhere. “The interesting thing with the scenic grid is that upstage and downstage lines are more important than left-to-right lines,” Grabowski says. “You only see a little of the left-to-right lineage during the scenic transitions and camera moves.” That meant using almost all LED strips or ColorBlasts for the upstage-downstage lines and the MR16s for the left-to-right, even over the stage. The MR16s worked out nicely. You can see the lamps chasing, the way you do on the main entrance sign, which serves as the show’s logo. So, when the designers gave the producers the look they wanted for the price they needed, they also gave them an exciting addition. “It married a lot of the aesthetic together,” Grabowski adds. “Struggling with budget concerns paid off as a benefit.”

To create flexibility for different stage configurations, Gipson designed modular seating units made from 4'x8' platforms and created a variety of plans for their use. Grabowski created three lighting plots for each. Additional lighting for the broadcast includes Martin Professional MAC 700s, as well as Altman SpectraPARs and ETC Source Four ellipsoidals with various lenses. The show was programmed and runs on a Barco/High End Systems Hog® 1000 console. Altman Stage Lighting provided the gear that supplemented the inventory.

Now that they had created the look needed and a way to present it on different stages, they knew they still had a major problem before them. “We had to figure out how this big ceiling could load in and out every Tuesday and look just as good every time,” says Gipson. He created a ceiling that broke into parts. “We put chain motors in the grid of the studio that would allow us to assemble an entire ceiling on the floor. It goes together like a big jigsaw puzzle, and then we can hook chains on it, and it lifts all at once.” After practicing a few times, the crew was able to accomplish this in three hours. “It’s not all they’re doing in those three hours,” Gipson adds. And by using LED strips, Grabowski is able to change color for each show, performance, and segment, without having to change gels.
Check out clips from the show.

Davi Napoleon has been writing for Live Design under its four names and four editors since 1977. She authored Schoolbiz, a column for TheaterWeek, and Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre, and continues to write widely about the arts.