A staple of American politics, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions give each party an opportunity to present its candidate in an engaging environment. This year, both conventions showcased production designs that had strong video elements and also brought unconventional twists to the traditional convention look.
The Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, FL, took place first on August 27-30, officially nominating former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Executive producer of the RNC was Phil Alongi of Alongi Media Solutions. “We knew we wanted to embrace the traditions of the political convention while still moving it forward,” says Alongi. “We wanted to produce an event that reflected what the party and the candidate wanted to say with a production that was a great experience for the delegates in the hall but also for people watching.”
Alongi tapped two longtime colleagues for the production design: Jim Fenhagen, SVP of design at Jack Morton, and Eddie Knasiak, who often freelances at Jack Morton. “From a producer’s standpoint, I felt the design really brought a lot of energy to the stage,” notes Alongi. “From the beginning, I wanted to have the podium be able to take on a different look every night, so that we could reflect and support the various themes and messages.”
Fenhagen and Knasiak’s design looked to balance the convention environment and the feel of warmth the campaign wanted to reflect. “We knew the set needed to hold its own in an arena of that size,” Knasiak says on how the design evolved. “It needed to embrace the venue and yet still feel intimate. A campaign adviser mentioned the idea of ‘America’s Living Room,’ which became a starting point.” Fenhagen adds that Ron de Mores, the director for the broadcast, mentioned using Frank Lloyd Wright as an inspiration. “From that, Eddie and I sketched as a team, resulting in the final design,” he says.
Their design left behind the traditional flat-screen look and instead layered thirteen wood-framed LED screens of varying sizes. This allowed for a lot of imagery to be presented while also creating a dynamic scenic picture. “It really allowed the set to help tell the story,” says Knasiak. “We used narrow wood frames like pencil lines around the screens to define them and create separation. Layering the screens in space provided a beautiful visual depth. We were using 4mm, 6mm, and 11mm LED screens; the pixel ratio was great. It blended really nicely.” XL Video provided the Pixled screens. Kish Rigging handled the rigging package.
The stage and lectern positioning also broke from the conventional: it was asymmetrical. Fenhagen points out the subtlety here. “Sometimes you do things that might not be obviously noticed but that can create a different feel,” he says. “The asymmetry made it feel a little bit more intimate. We had the lectern more stage-left, and the actual thrust was built off-center from the main stage. The composition with the screens layered and having the speaker off-center really worked; it was visually interesting in the wide shots. You didn’t notice in the close-ups because the camera platform was lined up with the lectern.” Freeman built the set and camera platforms, and provided the delegate seating.
The design posed a challenge for the content management, Alongi notes. “With 13 screens, it was important to get the graphics right, and Allan Wells did a great job with the imagery.”
Control Freak Systems (CFS) managed the screens, with screens director Dirk Sanders overseeing the graphics cueing and routing to the screens. “The producers and the RNC wanted to leverage the screens as effectively as possible, so we focused on creating the big picture while making sure that a close-up shot also worked,” says Sanders. “A lot of care was taken so that no one got lost in the content of the backing screens.”
Sanders and CFS engineered a playback control system with eight Barco Encores controlled by two Control Freak Encore Bridges. Twelve PRG Mboxes were devoted to the main screens, with six more managing the ribbon LEDs around the arena and the scoreboard screens.
The biggest challenge that Sanders had to solve was how the team could do the complex cueing of the highly specific imagery for the upcoming speeches without revealing it on the actual screens. “We were coordinating 13 screens and trying to do much of the cueing while the arena was open,” says Sanders. “The solution we came up with was the CFS Freakulizer, a screens visualizer. Essentially, the control truck could roll a tape package and see it on the visualizer but not on the actual screens in the arena. It’s a piece of software that CFS wrote that took in the eight screen feeds and had a 3D model of the entire venue with camera plots, which let us bounce through different views, from different angles, of the set with the video. It proved to be an insanely valuable tool to help program the show but also for the producers and the directors to get a sense ahead of time what everything would look like.”
Lighting designer Steven Brill and his team from The Lighting Design Group, including fellow designer Dennis Size, wanted to reinforce the feeling of warmth. “The set had a lot of wood on it, so it lent itself to lighting with warm hues,” Brill explains. “We lit everything between 4,000K and 4,200K, right between daylight and tungsten. We wanted the video screens to look good live and on the broadcast, but if I went with daylight to match the screens, they were going to end up looking blue to the eye. So we found this happy medium, and it looked good to the eye and the camera.” Brill and his team worked with Sanders on brightness levels on the screens, which were all individually adjustable. “In terms of footcandles, television cameras don’t need what they once did,” Brill adds. “We ran a test at 85fc, and the networks and the still photographers were very happy with that level, so we went with that more natural level.”
The lighting package was provided by PRG and included ETC Source Four PARs and ellipsoidals. “We used GLP Impression LED moving lights for some flash and color,” says Brill. “I had Clay Paky Alpha Spots 700 hitting the very narrow screen mullions. They could really get the narrow cuts we needed. I was also very happy with the PRG Best Boys. They’re really punchy for the long throws and had a lot of control. We used them for keying someone from halfway across the arena. For the primary keying, I used followspots. They give you that single key, which is an elegant look, and it really helps people pop out from the background. There was a lot of depth on the set behind the speakers so they actually popped out quite well.”
Happy with the overall results, Alongi concludes, “I can’t say enough how much I appreciate the work that the whole team and the crews did to make everything work and happen. It was a great effort from a strong team; we had strong designs, and it showed in the successful results. It was a tremendous experience.”