View From CN's Upfront

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The Cartoon Network rolled out its plans in April for a new season to press and potential advertisers, complete with a new take on the traditional television network upfront presentation.

“Usually this consists of an executive-with-PowerPoint style presentation, but these guys decided they wanted to turn it into an ‘entertainment experience,’” says production designer Willie Williams, who is not exactly known for designing these types of shows. He’s more of a record-setting, touring rock concert-style designer (think U2 360° and other massive outings). “The connection came via Tom Krueger [director of photography for 360°], who had worked with producer Lynn Johns in a previous life…Tom recommended her highly, so I agreed to do a conference call with them and see how it went. They turned out to be hilarious—a really fun group of people, which, I suppose, is what you’d hope for from people who make cartoons.”

This event also marked the first project for a new venture, The Third Company, a partnership between Williams and video content producer Sam Pattinson. The duo has worked on several tours together, including outings for U2, The Rolling Stones, and George Michael, as well as unique performances by The Kronos Quartet. “We wanted to see what other work we could encourage, on which we could work together more as a team,” says Pattinson.

The CN upfront was certainly new ground for the pair, but some elements remained the same. “In the broadest sense, it is the same process—taking a staged event and trying to make it look interesting—but it is much more akin to a theatre show than a concert,” says Williams. “There is a clearly defined script, and the performers are choreographed so, theoretically, once programmed, the show can be called by a stage manager. This was quite a special case, as it was a real departure for CN and rather brave to go out on a limb with what is normally a very conservative event. In some ways, this made things a tad looser than they might otherwise have been, but I saw that as a bonus rather than a hindrance.”

Williams’ stage design featured the checkerboard pattern that is integral to the network’s marketing for the coming season. “Their message was, in essence, ‘There’s more to Cartoon Network than you think,’” says Williams. “My immediate—and only—idea was to turn the checkerboard into a Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In-style wall. Initially, this was to be used for straight projection, but eventually, the squares became doors, windows, flaps, drawers, rollers, etc., out of which poured forth live characters representing the various shows. Happily, the CN team loved the idea, so we took it from there.”

Those checkerboard doors, windows, flaps, drawers, and rollers—built with manual pulleys—partly comprised video screens where Pattinson filled in content. Working with content was an entirely different endeavor from concert tours, as one would expect, since all media came directly from the network to showcase its shows. “Willie’s design was a very interactive, dynamic stage, so this opened up the opportunity to bring in performers and personalities—to create more of a theatrical show,” says Pattinson. “The client was really open to doing things differently, but the content itself needed to look right, so I had to use the checkerboard and repeats in certain patterns.”

Loading in on a Monday and having the show on a Wednesday at 10am made onsite time tight. Working from London, Pattinson used United Visual Artists’ d3 visual show production suite in advance to take in show clips sent from the US, mock up a visualization, and send CN back movie files. Much of the content had to be edge-blended for two screens. “The benefit, apart from the distance, was that the people at CN don’t do large-scale work, so it was important for them to get a sense of scale and what worked and what didn’t,” says Pattinson. “And because they are broadcast, they deal in standards, and we deal in resolution, pixels, and files, so it’s a different approach. The d3 helped us vet that and get everything in a usable format.”

The white parts of the checkerboard itself also needed to be lit, as Pattinson notes, “so it wouldn’t go dead. It was a joint effort with lighting, and they just masked around our screen, and then we lit the screen, so even when we didn’t have content up, we projected a white checker onto it to bring it to life. So we had to balance the temperatures between lighting and video, which can be quite a challenge, but with d3, it was pretty easy to manage.”

The upfront was presented in New York and Los Angeles. Scharff Weisberg supplied video gear for both, including two Barco FLM HD18 projectors, a Barco Encore switching system, the full UVA d3 system with two servers, a two-camera switching package for a web cast, and a 21'x10' Pixled F-40 40mm LED screen from XL Video that sat atop the checkerboard for additional content. Both presentations had identical gear, except Los Angeles didn’t have cameras.

Tait Towers built the set and oversaw installation at the two venues in New York and Los Angeles where the upfront presented. “As ever, I gave them the napkin sketch, which they fleshed out, though we did go through a dozen redesigns as the script of the show mutated and eventually settled down,” says Williams.

Williams adds that the biggest issue on the project was actually getting there. “Ultimately, it was a challenge that proved insurmountable, as the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud prevented me from leaving the UK,” he says. “Mercifully, Sam was already in the US when the volcano erupted, so he was able to fly the flag for the video end of things. It was very fortunate that, for various reasons, I had opted not to light the show myself. Phoning in a stage set is one thing, but it would have been very tricky to light it via email.”

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