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October 2014
Issue: June 1, 2011

Broadcast Design

By: Marc Loftus

Those first few seconds of a television show can say a lot. They build excitement, introduce concepts, recap storylines and most importantly, establish an identity. The same goes for networks, which try to set themselves apart as unique entertainment destinations.

This month, Post spoke with a number of different studios that work in the broadcast design arena. While their work differs, all agree that the competition is fierce and the budgets are tight. Here’s what they had to say about the pitch process, competition, trends and changes taking place.

REALITY & AWARDS

Toronto’s The Studio Upstairs (www. thestudioupstairs.com), which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, is a division of Creative Post and provides broadcast design services, as well as post services for episodic series, films and commercials.

Executive producer Tania Smunchilla says as much as 80 percent of the past year’s broadcast design work has come from Canadian clients, most of it from high-end networks, but that percentage varies from year to year. The fact that the studio has a few years of stereo 3D production experience under its belt is helping to bring in business from the United States as well.

The Studio Upstairs is home to Quantel and Autodesk Flame systems, along with NLEs from Apple and Avid. Creative Post has also purchased SGO Mistika systems, which are located on the building’s main floor and available to The Studio Upstairs.

The studio recently completed design work for Dinner Party Wars, a new comedy/reality series that needed to establish a unique identity. According to art director Ian Tucker, the challenge was to introduce viewers to the format of the show before it even starts. And since the contestants change from week to week, the open couldn’t show the different participants. 

“They wanted to show that there are a couple of couples competing with their dinner parties, and there is one winner,” explains Tucker. “They wanted that to play out in the opening titles, but they also didn’t want to have any sort of specific contestant shown. We presented them with the illustrated work that they ultimately ended up going for, which solved a lot of their problems because they weren’t having to show anyone specific, but yet they were able to get the concept of the show across within the first :20 of that opening.

“Because the producers didn’t have a clear identity, even down to the logo, we had to come up with an identity for the show. In terms of the look, color, design, the logo and the fonts, all of that was presented from us, which was nice because a lot of times clients will come in with very specific ideas. On this one we were able to flex our muscles a bit.”

The look they created carried over to the on-set look of the show, which made used of the logo on posters and other set pieces. 

For the Gemini Awards, which is Canada’s equivalent to the US-based Emmys, the studio created a full package that included the show open, nominations, bumps and stingers. “They wanted to change their look every year, just like any awards show,” notes Tucker. “It was kind of a blank page. They didn’t have any clear ideas. They wanted something fresh, which is actually like saying, ‘We don’t really know.’ Luckily we were able to work with the stage designers to be able to come up with a look that marries the entire awards show. One thing we didn’t want to do was have our broadcast design look completely different than the stage and the environment in the auditorium.”

On the 3D stereo side, The Studio Upstairs just finished work on a television pilot called Over The Edge, which explores the coastlines of North America. The goal was to create something simple and clean to open the show, which debuts this fall.

Both Smunchilla and Tucker agree that there is a trend for the networks to have more of a say in the look of an individual show’s graphics. “The networks really do get a lot more into the decision making, which sometimes works against the design because they are trying to flatten it more for the style of their network rather than identifying the show,” says Smunchilla. “The production company will get really excited about one of our designs…and the network comes along and says, ‘That’s just too fantastic. [You’ve] got to bring it down a bit.’ Sometimes it’s a shame because it jeopardizes the creative in some sense.”

“It could just be the idea that there is a little more concern as to how their network is shown,” adds Tucker. “The producers for the individual show are only concerned with their show. They don’t care about the full network. That can create a butting of heads because you have two very separate priorities.”

NATIONAL GEO & MOVIES ON DEMAND

Manhattan’s Thornberg & Forester (www.thornbergandforester.com) is a four-year-old design studio that has worked with Fuse, Turner Classic Movies and Planet Green. Justin Meredith, a partner at the studio, as well as an artist, says he has witnessed a change in business over the years, not to mention an increase in competition.

Broadcast design, he says, used to be a larger percentage of the studio’s work, but now represents between 30 and 40 percent. “It seems like it is shifting or changing,” he notes. “As far as network rebrands, there is less and less money in it, and a lot of in-house efforts are being done. And the whole way that networks are talking about themselves is changing. So the big rebrands that occur, it seems there are a thousand companies all vying to do the same thing. It’s a pretty brutal process.”

Partner Scott Matz agrees. A great Website and reel are not enough to secure a job anymore he says. “It would be beautiful if people would respect Websites and reels and work. There are no pitch fees. If there are, it’s $2,000 to $3,000, but on many pitches we’ll spend $20,000 of our own money. Last year we pitched for Disney, closer to $40,000. [That was] out of pocket, up against eight really competitive companies, and they didn’t award it to anyone in the end!

“It’s survival of the fittest to be honest,” he continues. “Our company is a little over four years old and we’ve fought really hard to get where we are. But, when you are going up a against a company that is 15 years old, all it takes is one person who is footing the bill to ask, ‘Well, what have they done?’”

At press time, Thornberg & Forester were preparing to deliver the third in a series of three :10 IDs for the National Geographic Channel. The studio’s work was all-inclusive and involved conceptualizing the design, animating the IDs and delivering music and sound design.

“We went through quite a design process for this, and we didn’t have much time either, so we ruled out a lot of things early on,” Matz explains. The IDs couldn’t feature photography or animals that one might expect to see from National Geographic. Instead, the studio was tasked with coming up with abstract stories or narratives that metaphorically speak to what the network is about. 

“One has more of a mathematics/science skew to it, done in an abstract interpretive way,” explains Matz. “One is adventure based, and the last one, Topography, is more about land masses and showing a journey that is pretty abstract. You are travelling somewhere and are on your way to where National Geographic is.”

The studio spent two weeks storyboarding as many as 15 different ideas, which were later narrowed down to three. “At that point it was all about synergizing the look and feel [so it seems] they are all coming from the same voice.”

Thornberg & Forester is a Mac-based studio that often calls on Maxon Cinema 4D for broadcast design work. “Cinema 4D is a really robust tool for 3D in the motion design world,” says Meredith. “It’s really easy to learn and it’s laid out and built in a way that makes sense for people coming from After Effects, as well as designers. It’s something you can pick up quickly. The higher-end [tools], you might need a science degree to figure out. It’s an intuitive program that delivers great results.”

The studio also calls on Autodesk Maya for projects that require animated characters.

Another client that Thornberg & Forester has been working with is Movies On Demand. The studio has worked with Movies On Demand for nearly three years now, and for the last two campaigns, acted much like an agency, handling copywriting duties in addition to design work. “With all of this technology — Netflix and Hulu and other ways to see movies streaming on the ‘net — it’s been part of our job to help conceptualize ideas for Movies On Demand to really position them in this aggressive landscape of competition,” Matz explains.

The two-phase campaign appeared before and after the Oscars, with movie fans from different walks of life talking smack about their Oscar predictions. The goal, says Meredith, was to alert viewers to the fact that Movies On Demand is home to 90 percent of the Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated films. The storyline was shown via live action, and the back half used a modular component that could allow for the insertion of different movie clips. 

“That’s kind of what network branding is,” he notes. “You are creating engines or devices for lots of content to fit in while not looking generic. It’s always a big challenge.”

REALITY OPENS

Chris Roe set up Fish Eggs (www. fisheggs.tv) approximately eight years ago, initially keeping it lean by working out of his garage, and later moving into work/living space on Electric Avenue in Venice, CA. He still tries to keep it lean. Fish Eggs is home to four full-time employees who work on broadcast packages — logo design, animation and main titles — for programs that air on NBC, ABC, Spike and Nickelodeon, among others.

Most of the studio’s work is for reality programming, but the facility does contribute to shows outside of the genre on occasion. When Post caught up with Roe, Fish Eggs had just completed work on Combat Hospital, a new ABC show that has yet to air. Their reality work includes Love in the Wild and Miss USA 2011 for NBC; Wipeout and Expedition Impossible for ABC; and Coal and Bar Rescue for Spike.

“There seems to be a move toward naturalism,” says Roe, regarding what he sees taking place in the broadcast design business. “Using 3D less to look big.” 

Before the economic downturn, Roe and company worked on programs such as American Gladiators and Deal or No Deal. “[They] were these big, glossy, expensive-looking shows, and that’s often the direction I would get from a producer: make it look expensive. But once the economy hit the shitter, and nobody had any money, that became the opposite. I had one person say, ‘Don’t make it look like a Fish Eggs graphic. We want it to look really clean and simple.’”

Fish Eggs is a Mac-based facility, relying on Adobe CS4, including Illustrator, Photoshop and After Effects. The studio also calls on Maxon’s Cinema 4D for the bulk of its 3D work. “I started real early in Cinema 4D,” Roe recalls. “I remember asking around, and Maya seemed like total overkill. Cinema 4D has grown some and more people have made models that adapt to it. It’s a lot easier to do some of the simple stuff [in 3D] as opposed to Maya. One guy here is fluent in Maya, but we still do a bulk of the work in Cinema, and it seems to work real well.”

The studio has a small greenscreen set up for shoots, but Roe says since most of their work is for reality programming, which tends to shoot an exorbitant amount of footage to begin with, they often receive material from the show’s producers and then add their own graphical treatment.

Another trend Roe has witnessed is what he describes as the death of the main title sequence. “The main title sequence is almost going away now.” He sees show opens becoming more or less title reveals, especially in reality programming where characters are often cut early and mid-way through the season. This eliminates the need for introductions in many cases. “They’ll use [a] super tease to explain the show concept, catch you up to where you were before, and then there is a logo resolve and they get you right into the show.”

Fish Eggs recently completed work on a new competitive reality show called Expedition Impossible. Roe describes it as Eco Challenge meets Amazing Race, where teams of three have to get past different challenges in foreign lands. The first season takes place in Morocco. 

“They hadn’t shot anything and gave a general description about what the show is about,” says Roe of the design challenge. “They didn’t direct us. They did say it was going to be in Morocco and they wanted some of that flavor, but the logo had to be generic enough that it could apply to different locations, similar to Survivor. The basis of the logo stays the same, but they adapt it to each location. They said they liked the idea that the logo wasn’t just text, that it felt enclosed and could envision it on a patch or something like that.”

Fish Eggs tapped into the culture of Morocco, and went with a textured, matte feel that was authentic and not at all glossy. “The main thing we came up with and eventually sold them on was that the logo was on a flag. Each team has to get to a flag — a location — and plant their flag, and [then] they are the winners. I don’t think they put the logo on flags for the actual shoot, but that was kind of the inspiration:  a symbol that can sit on a flag.”

IDS, PROMOS & MORE

North Miami’s 2C Media (www.2cmedia.com) is a six-year-old facility that creates IDs, promos and long-form content — and sometimes all three at one time. The studio is headed by executive creative director Chris Sloan and his wife, co-president Carla Sloan. 

2C Media is home to 10 Final Cut Pro suites running on Mac Pros. They also have five iMacs with FCP, Facilis TerraBlock storage and an HDCAM SR deck.

Swamp Wars is a good example of a program that makes full use of the facility’s resources. In addition to conceiving the show — which airs on Animal Planet and focuses on venomous snakes — 2C Media also produces and edits the program, as well as designed the open and created promos. 

Design director Luis Martinez says the 2C team shot snakes — including a diamond back and a python — against a greenscreen at a local insert stage using Sony EX and Canon 7D and 5D cameras. Cinema 4D was used for graphics. Sloan says that having all of the program’s elements under one roof helped when creating a package, as everything is right there to draw from.

The studio also created two :10 IDs for Fuse that use the network’s “Where Music Lives” slogan. In the Record Store ID, a young man walks into vintage record store. His movements trigger design splashes, and as he browses albums, the Fuse color palette pops from different record covers. His final selection features an animated Fuse logo. 

In the :10 Heed, boom boxes, musical instruments and MP3 players come together at a downtown intersection where the Fuse building blasts music from an array of speakers. 

One of the challenges in creating the IDs, says Martinez, was to hint at a New York environment, even though they were both shot in Miami. In Record Store, the location is made to resemble Brooklyn, while the streets and intersection featured in Heed suggests Manhattan, where Fuse’s offices are located.

2C Media also created the on-air game package for Lacrosse Live on MSG Varsity, a new sports network that focuses on high schools in the New York area. The team created a :20 open, as well as player graphics and transitions. 

The pitch process for getting broadcast design work, says Sloan, depends on the network and the size of the “carrot” they are dangling in front of them. A big package or network design might not include a pitch fee, and then it’s up to the studio to decide how to allocate its resources to create a pitch while not upsetting the workflow of a paying job that might already be in-house. 

Sloan estimates that half the time there is a small budget for the pitch, and other times not. In a business that has a somewhat low barrier to entry do in part to affordable tools, coupled with people that do great work, he says the key to being successful is the ability to “put a lot onto the screen” and knowing where and how to use their resources.