The Studio Gets an Overhaul for 2020 Election Coverage with Help from the Lighting Design Group
PLSN recently caught up with Dennis Size, executive vice president of design for the Lighting Design Group, the largest television lighting design firm on the East Coast. Among the projects he has been deeply involved in lately is the redesign of Studio TV3 at Disney/ABC News headquarters on West 66th Street in New York City, the flagship studio of ABC News.
This studio has been a mainstay on television since 1986, when it was designed and built for Peter Jennings’ evening news broadcasts. Since then, many other shows have been added, and in addition to the country’s number-one newscast, World News Tonight with David Muir, and other shows including Nightline, World News Now, America This Morning, This Week and Weekend Good Morning America.
Despite several major studio designs in the works all over the world, things have slowed considerably for Dennis as he hunkers down with his family at their home in New York, currently the Covid-19 epicenter of the country at this writing. One of LDG’s biggest projects this year, the Summer Olympics, was postponed until 2021.
And although Size has been busy redesigning ABC’s TV3, “ninety percent of Disney/ABC’s buildings are empty, with almost everyone who is able working from home. Anchors are now broadcasting from home out of necessity. The only news show still in the 66th Street Manhattan studio is World News Tonight. David Muir insists on broadcasting from his own ABC studio — but they’re using a ‘bare-bones’ skeleton staff.”
Scaling down is not necessarily slowing down for Size, however. The previous weekend saw him putting on his ‘hazmat’ suit and installing a small lighting system at the Hamptons home of George Stephanopoulos, who, along with his wife Ali Wentworth, was diagnosed with Covid-19. That installation allowed George, who did not suffer symptons, to continue as daily anchor of Good Morning America in addition to Sunday morning’s This Week.
News Set Trends
News sets have evolved in recent years, many of them latching on to the eye-catching, video driven, colorful set wave that networks such as ESPN and CNN have embraced. We asked Size for his take on this current trend.
“The Lighting Design Group has been involved in lighting news studios and events for decades, providing the lighting for several dozen presidential debates and the national presidential conventions. News coverage has become big ‘business.’ Election night broadcasts are huge televised events — the ‘Oscar Awards’ of network news divisions.”
Lavish Midterm Coverage
ABC invested heavily in the production supporting its 2018 midterm election coverage, spending trillions of dollars (okay, maybe not quite that much) for a Seth Easter-designed multi-level circular set. Dennis Size and his associate designer/programmer Alex Kyle-DiPietropaolo also played a key role for the midterm election coverage with a lighting design that utilized several hundred moving lights and more than a hundred conventional fixtures to bring that news programming to life. Disney/ABC was thrilled, “not only with ‘the look’ and the incredible coverage — using the latest in Augmented Reality graphics — but also with the ratings. They decided to emulate that look with as much production value as possible for their TV3 newsroom studio and their 2020 Election coverage,” Size says.
Future Plans Downtown
Studio space in NYC is scarce and at a premium these days. Disney, the parent company of ABC, is building a 19-story headquarters in lower Manhattan at 4 Hudson Square, close to where the Holland Tunnel emerges from beneath the Hudson River. It’s not scheduled to be completed for another three or four years, however, and the people ‘upstairs’ at Disney/ABC wanted a new set for the 2020 Election Coverage during this interim period.
They were willing to invest another $100 billion (okay, again — maybe not quite that much) for this TV3 studio renovation, even though it may only be used by ABC News for another three years once finished. However, it was imperative that the news shows continue as usual in temporary spaces while the demolition and construction of the redesigned news studio was happening.
The production/broadcasting of news specials like Super Tuesday primary election coverage require a robust control room capable of switching dozens and dozens of feeds from locations all over the country. The control room to accommodate this was already in place above TV3, so that’s where the studio had to be kept, especially since all the offices of the ABC News Division are in the building.
Spearheaded by ABC production designer Seth Easter, decisions were made, plans were drawn, and contractors were brought in. (To download a PDF, CLICK HERE.) “Usually, when they remodel a set, they just add new scenic pieces and we move the lights around, swapping some fixtures in the grid in the process,” Size says. “The problem was, the old studio did not have the trim height for the big look the executives wanted.” This would necessitate not only gutting the existing room, but removing the ceiling and grid and combining part of the fourth floor space into this third floor studio.
The studio started construction in November, but World News Tonight with David Muir, who was set to occupy the center stage of the studio, wished to keep working during construction. This put two different scenarios in play. First, they needed to build a makeshift studio in one corner of the floor and seal it off from the construction mess. The second was that the construction would have to work around the time the show was on the air. (To download a PDF, CLICK HERE.)
Thus, a temporary broadcast space for the popular anchorman was constructed — affectionately called the “Bubble.” Size had a small Unistrut grid system installed in the makeshift studio to hang a small design for Muir’s nightly newscast (and ABC’s Nightline). “Another problem that sprang up was ABC’s sudden coverage of the impeachment hearings. Now we had more special news reports that we had to work around. ABC’s scheduling became very complicated.” (To download a PDF, CLICK HERE.)
Dennis took possession of Easter’s drawings last September (2019) and began designing a brand new lighting system, complete with a new lighting grid structure, since the entire studio was being gutted. Alex Kyle once more served as Dennis’ associate for the project.
TV3 is quite the bustling studio. Once the pandemic is over, there will be many ongoing shows shot in this studio, coupled with occasional news specials, using several different sets for the various shows occupying different areas of the studio floor. To accommodate those requirements, Size would need to design a multi-purpose system that would service at least seven major network news shows in addition to ABC News’ election coverage events.
“Of course, the best-laid plans are always met with obstacles when construction starts,” Size notes. “The new plans were drawn off existing plans that had, of course, been modified during the original construction decades earlier. A lot of re-design went into the project along the way. It brought back memories watching them tear out the old motorized grids and throw away a mixed bag of Altman’s, CCT’s, S4’s, Desisti/Century, Arri and yes, even 60-year-old Bardwell Fresnels. All that tungsten is gone. I had been the assistant LD when the studio was designed back in the mid-80’s. It was fun being one of the few people who had the ‘institutional knowledge’ to answer crazy questions about why something was done a certain way back in the ‘medieval times.’”
Size expands on the modern-day changes being made. “Everything is high tech video-centric at the studio. Seth Easter designed a couple huge LED video walls that can fly in and out, and another large wall that can jackknife out at any angle of choice. The circular floor in the center of the studio is all made of video tiling as well, upon which they create the most amazing augmented reality graphics. The entire studio is surrounded by LED video walls. The design called for video ceilings overhead as well. A T-shaped cross of video hangs above the set. The construction guys and welders had to install a lot of steel to existing I-beams, and the slab above, to handle the additional weight.”
One thing to take into account was that all the lighting for the Super Tuesday live event was only temporary and would all be removed/modified after that event, Size notes. “Nobody ever seems to preconceive the exact hanging points for the lights ahead of time, since the talent positions were unknown. Since there was no longer any grid, as the scenic department hung an element in the air, I’d say, ‘Hey, while you’re up there — can you secure a pipe to this wall for me?’ I may not actually have a use for it at that moment, but we will need a light there at some point.
“The re-design required an all energy-efficient LED lighting package of several hundred fixtures. The Super Tuesday setup was treated like a ‘one off’ road show, however. In conjunction with the ABC Electric Shop, I designed a purpose-built control system installing accessible gateways and DMX opto-splitters throughout the studio. We ran temporary DMX cables everywhere. We were fortunate that a lot of the old existing power could still be used. Rather than rip out all the old dimmers, they were repurposed and ‘slugged’ as hot power racks, giving us hot circuits all over the place.
“I had 15 High End System’s SolaFrame 750’s for multi-purpose key light coverage,” Size says, noting that he’s got 10 more in his pocket for the other shows. “The remaining fixtures were mostly LED conventionals or small movers, like the GLP impression FR1. I love those little movers! I can take them, or a Chauvet Color Dash Accent, and plop them in any dark corner for a little sparkle of color. Arri LED SkyPanels, L7 and L10 Fresnels, Practilite 604 Fresnels and Source Four LED fixtures rounded out the lighting package.” All lighting gets controlled by an upgraded ETC Ion console. When the new Disney/ABC studios are complete downtown, Size mentions, “we will probably move to the EOS Ti.”
Line-of-Sight and Reflection Challenges
Because the production designer and directors did not wish to see any lighting fixtures hanging in front of any video surface or the light boxes that looked so great on camera, finding the best hanging positions was quite a challenge. Additionally, the second floor of the studio is shrouded in Plexiglas, risking unwanted reflections.
The studio launched with a flurry for ABC’s Super Tuesday Election Coverage on March 3. Then Size turned that design around to meet ABC’s sudden need for extensive pandemic coverage. He’s currently designing the lighting for the third phase, as all the shows migrate back to the studio when the pandemic ends.
The new TV3 studio is a state-of-the-art and versatile work of beauty, Size notes — two stories high, with video walls and tall light boxes illuminated “by millions of LED tape channels. The video floor and ceiling stay in place, but the sets are all different. There are four different anchor desk positions, including the special ‘home base’ desk configuration for World News Tonight. All desks will move around, however, to satisfy the production demands of the various shows.
“The Production Designer had the initial thought that the room may be able to just be repurposed by sliding two unique desks into one or two configurations and changing the surrounding media content and colors. But, of course, every show wants a special look. Good Morning America, for example, wants a totally different look with totally different talent positions than This Week, or other news division shows.”
While Size hung and tucked key lights and Fresnels in wherever space he could, backlight and floor light space for beauty specials was limited. The high trim was of no help. “I had a ton of threaded rod stanchions made for dropping fixtures where needed. I must have dozens of hidden ETC mini Source Fours providing backlight, accent lights and fill lights because God forbid any fixture block a video panel.”
We inquired how he used the “in demand” eye-lights for all the talent in this scenario, to rid the newscasters of any unwanted neck shadows and add a little sparkle to their eyes. “On a lot of our projects, we actually have a hand in designing the desks. Like most live events, we rely on LED tape now. On this new set, I relied on the ABC Electric Shop to create custom eye-light housings for the LED tape that they mounted under the curved plexi desktops. They had a row of warm white and a row of cool white LEDS, so we could adjust the color temperature accordingly and softened [them] with a diffusion lens that Environmental Lights makes. This helps keep the light omnidirectional, but less obtrusive and softer to the anchors. We at the Lighting Design Group have been using Environmental Light products on all the projects we design. The quality they provide is exceptional.”
Balancing Color Temperatures
Speaking of adjusting the color temperature, we asked Dennis how he prefers to light his sets. “Video displays have a color temperature up to 8000+ degrees Kelvin now — awful high, and extremely ‘cold’ — adversely polluting the color of the ambient broadcast lighting. If you try and take them down to the old 3,000 Kelvin or lower tungsten range (the color loved by talent everywhere) the video rendition/quality is terrible. On-camera talent is not fond of being lit at 6000 Kelvin (basic daylight color) They feel it’s too white, too ‘cold’ — almost blue. They need their skin color to be honest to their eyes. As one anchor told me, ‘I want my lighting to be warm and fuzzy, like it is in my living room at home.’ Consequently, I usually cheat all my LED key lights to 4500° Kelvin as a baseline compromise. Then we adjust the temperature of the LED walls down and video levels up as best we can to match. In the old days, this took some time, adjusting and matching with CTB and CTO color correction gel. These days it’s easy-peasy with high quality tunable LED fixtures.”
At the time of this writing, the pandemic was still a major crisis, and studios are still shut down, but Size had completed three of the light plots required, with several more to go. Once Disney/ABC gives the go ahead, he and his team will head back into the studio to finish the remaining shows.
“The plan is for the studio to ‘re-launch’ with David Muir’s newscast, World News Tonight. Then all other shows will migrate back home …. just like the swallows to Capistrano!”
For more information, visit The Lighting Design Group at www.ldg.com.