The way TV works has radically changed over the decades, from only three major networks and one screen per household to an explosion of options, not just with an expanded array of networks delivered via cable and satellite, but a whole new array of interactive media platforms as well. But one tradition that’s still holding steady, and keeping those on the live side of the entertainment industry busy, is the TV network “upfront” — elaborate corporate events designed to pique the interest of TV advertising buyers, the press and other VIPs in advance of the annual crop of new TV programming.
To add to the sizzle and buzz, prominent TV stars or other entertainers typically attend, and the traditional timeframe for the bigger networks is in late May, with New York City’s grandest venues — Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center — rented out for the occasion.
While not quite the Emmys or Oscars, the typical upfront is “kind of like a mini awards ceremony,” notes Julio Himede, who served as production designer for MTV, which, like many of the cable and satellite networks, maintains its own tradition of staging its big show earlier in the spring than the Big Three broadcast networks that started the upfront tradition.
MTV’s 2013-2014 upfront took place at the venerable Beacon Theatre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The hour-long event featured an opening performance by Emeli Sandé and closed with a performance by Selena Gomez.
To amplify the impact, the technical crew worked with a 14’ 5” by 25’ 5” projection screen that served as a visual centerpiece within the 2,894-seat, three-tiered venue, which hosted the Tony Awards in 2011 and 2012. (This year’s Tonys move to Radio City Music Hall).
“The overall theme is presenting and selling new shows to market,” notes Himede, and to that end, the quality of the on-screen presentation is critical. “The show is all about the screen and showing off the new shows.”
Himede has been working with MTV since 2005, when the network’s Video Music Awards (VMAs), which date from 1984, were joined by a version for Australia (the AVMAs), now known simply as the MTV Australia Awards. Himede, working in Australia, collaborated with U.S.-based art director Aaron Black and Atomic Design out of Lititz, PA to bring the stage alive.
For MTV’s 2013 upfront, Himede’s goal was to make the most of the Beacon Theatre’s unique architectural details, but also to draw the eye toward the screen at center stage. “I didn’t want to compete with beautiful architectural of theatre,” says Himede. “I wanted to show it off, while still providing a sense of moving forward and innovation.”
To balance the ornate beauty of the past with a more modern feel, Himede designed two downstage curved walls with LED light boxes stacked on top of each other to steer the audience’s attention toward the main screen.
“The light boxes have the ability to come alive with color and animation, helping to draw the attention to the center,” Himede notes. “We wanted a softer look within a frosted membrane rather than an LED panel,” he adds.
After some experimentation in the build process, Pat Bonner and Zak Keller from Atomic Design were able to help find an LED product that would provide the desired look.
“The entire design was based on the light boxes, so it was important to get those right,” says Keller, Atomic’s project manager. Working closely with lighting designer Tom Kenney, the design team incorporated Philips Color Kinetics iColor Cove LED fixtures into the design.
“Once everyone was set on the fixture choice, the actual dimensions of the boxes could be set,” Keller says. “We didn’t want to have gaps or spaces where there weren’t any LEDs.”
While preserving architectural details from the Vaudeville/Movie Palace era of the 1920s, the Beacon Theatre presented challenges including limited wing space.
“With no wing space and a tight load-in timeframe, we engineered the set to be modular in design,” notes Atomic Design account manager Pat Bonner. “The entire set and stage extension was able to fit on a tightly packed 46-foot trailer with the stage extension on a 26-foot box truck.”
Staged live for 1,500 attendees — and with no time-outs for commercials — the MTV upfront needed to keep moving without a noticeable break for the band change-overs.
“We overcame the space limitations by flying the center stage screen in and out,” notes Himede. “While the show was going on, the band’s gear was being set up upstage behind the screen and curtain. When it was time for the live acts to come on, the center screen lifted to allow the band risers to roll forward and backwards, thus saving time and precious space on stage.”
Along with limited wing and changeover space, the Beacon Theatre presented challenges in terms of the requirements for the safe operation of the venue’s fire curtain.
“The onstage steps for talent entrances and exits crossed the fire line,” notes Keller. “To pass the fire restrictions, we had to fabricate the steps with a collapsing feature — if the fire ?curtain was to fall, the steps had to break. After a couple of design variations, the steps provided the entrances and exits needed, with a breaking point needed for safety.”
Supporting the Screen
How do you light the main “talent,” a projection screen, in such an important event? “You don’t,” says LD Tom Kenny, noting the need for complementary visual enhancement rather than a direct lighting approach, which would wash out and weaken the all-important imagery.
He should know — Kenny has lit “seven or eight” of MTV’s VMAs around the world since he began working for MTV and its sister network, VH1 in 1990. That’s included a number of big special event broadcasts, including the Jan. 1992 Unplugged concert featuring Eric Clapton, other concerts, MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs) and VH1’s Story Teller series.
“I have done enough of these that it is second nature for me,” Kenny adds, noting his appreciation to MTV for surrounding themselves with “the best” in terms of crew and gear so that everything flows smoothly. “Working with Julio, Atomic and VER, things just clicked. Talent like that makes you want to step up your game and provide the best end product.”
To enhance and not take away from the main screen, Kenny took his cues from Hideme. “I started the design working from the set up and working around the scenic elements. The video packages provided by MTV on the main screen were key; everything else was supplemental.”
Kenny also made a point of ensuring that the distinctive architectural features of the Beacon Theatre — while not the primary point of interest — would not be lost in the shadows.
“I used a number of different fixtures, from Robe 600 LEDs, Clay Paky Sharpys and Vari-Lites to add simple, very muted lighting to the house. It kind of felt like lighting a museum piece.”
The MTV Upfront also served as an opportunity for Kenny to put Robe’s new Pointe fixture, which had debuted at Prolight + Sound in Frankfurt, through its paces during the opening and closing acts. The 16 Pointe fixtures are also used as accent lighting for some of the theatre’s architectural details.
“Our goal was to support the main screen while still providing a look that shows MTV is innovative and forward thinking. During the course of the event, there may have not been much in the way of lighting effects, but we had the ability to really rock out during Emeli’s and Selena’s sets.” With the skilled hands and programming experience, “Mike and I helped to bring the set alive.”
Producers: Garret English, Michael Barrish (MTV)
Production Designer: Julio Himede
Art Director: Aaron Black
Staging Supervisor: Tony Houser
Lighting Designer: Tom Kenny
Programmer: Michael Appel
Gaffer: Mike Grimes
Lighting Tech: Steve Leif, Jason Livingston, John Ellar
Set Design Co: Atomic Design; Pat Bonner (Account Manager); Zak Keller (Project Manager), Jason Miller (Production Carpenter)
Video Co: Video Equipment Rental (VER); John Healy (Account Manager)
2 MA Lighting grandMA2 Full consoles
4 MA Lighting NPUs
20 ETC Source Fours (750W, 19°)
20 ETC Source Four PARs (750W)
536 Color Kinetics iCove Chromacore fixtures
52 Robe 600 LEDWash
16 Robe Robin Pointe fixtures
12 Vari-Lite VL500 ARCs
16 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spots
12 Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash fixtures
12 Vari-Lite VLX Wash fixtures
12 Clay Paky Sharpys (Chrome)
12 Solaris LED strobes
12 Color Kinetics iWhite Chromacore 12s
4 Daylight 1’ LED light panels w/battery packs
2 Kino Flo 4’X4’ panels (Daylight)
4 ARRI Baby 1K Fresnels
6 ARRI 650 Fresnels