EDC’s Founder and Chairman, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK.
DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.
Television: A Love Letter
As I have been writing about my experiences designing in multiple fields—Theatre, Film, Live Shows, Themed Attractions, Music Tours—I’ve slid into a comfort zone with an ‘origin narrative’ of how my artistic inspiration seemed to flow from my roots in Central Africa, and then my anecdotal narrative would flow from there. But the easy flow of my previous blog posts screeched to a halt when I started to reflect on my work in television, and found an old resume that listed over three-hundred and fifty TV shows I had designed, spanning the gamut of Variety and Award shows, like the Oscars and Emmys, to weekly series like Peewee’s Playhouse, MTV and everything in between. Somehow along the way I have been honored to receive four Emmys.
No wonder I was floundering to recount my TV experience in a way that would have any relevance. At the rate I was going, it would be a mega-sized post with “and then I designed” between every few lines.
I started designing for Television in the mid-70s and continued through the 90s when my attention turned to Theme Parks and attractions. As I contemplated the résumé, I realized that I had spent a great part of my life designing for the ‘small screen.’
The next thought that struck me was what wonderful people I had worked with and all the fantastic friends I had made—dreamers, pragmatists, visionaries and ambitious risk-takers—all working incredibly hard, with not enough money and hardly enough time to get the shows done.
So here are a few highlights that embody the TV work ethic of team spirit and a close-knit family of creatives working toward one goal.
A few days after 9/11, I was on a road trip in central California when I got a call from Joel Gallen, the owner of Tenth Planet, a bright, new production company. He asked if I would volunteer to design Tribute to Heroes, the 9/11 benefit concert he was directing and producing. Joel is an amazing communicator and had rounded up a willing team of volunteers to put a network special together in only four days—the fastest turn around that I have ever been part of. No time for plans or lighting plots; the show was to be shot in New York and Los Angeles and in order to accommodate the challenging schedule everything was done over the phone!
Joel’s plan was to hire an art director on each coast and the design challenge would be to make it look like one show as there was not time or money to book stars at the last minute. He had contacted my friend and design hero, LeRoy Bennett, in New York who he patched into our conversation and right about when I was driving through Bakersfield we came up with the concept of candles. By Monday we were loading in the matching sets in LA and New York and by Wednesday the show was being taped with stars like Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, George Clooney and Celine Dion. One of the most stressful jobs in the entertainment field is directing a live, multi-camera show, where instant decisions of which shots to take will determine the viewer experience of the entire performance going smoothly. Miraculously, it all worked out.
Years before the 9/11 tribute, I had earned my TV stripes by staying awake for three nights and two days, doing a set change for Bobby Vinton’s Rock and Rollers produced by Sid and Marty Krofft. I worked through three shifts of union stage hands and really got to know and be respected by a lot of them. That friendship and respect lasted throughout my TV career and those stage hands saved my butt on many shows by putting in that extra bit of care and attention to details.
The Rock and Rollers set started as a 50s roller skating rink which was set up in a day and a night and taped the following day. That night it was taken out and we loaded in an indoor carnival park, complete with working rides. I gave myself a pat on the back for endurance and went to bed for a day!
Recently, I spoke with Greg Brunton, the lighting designer, about this experience. Greg was the first lighting designer I worked with who was my age and I loved working with him because I felt like a co-creator instead of a rookie trying to please the old guard. When I asked Greg if he remembered this show, he remembered it well: from the lighting point of view, the carnival park was set up in the wrong direction so all of his lights were pointing the wrong way and this was before moving lights! (He said that from then on, he always goes to the set during the load in day.) But in spite of all of that, no one waited for the set or lighting department.
The ‘heat’ of the short schedule was felt by every department and the show was another great example of the kind of dedication and long hours TV crews endure without even a second thought.
A LIGHTING ‘FIRST’
Speaking of Greg Brunton, he and I shared a ‘technical first.’ In the early 90s, I found myself designing the main stage for the second season of In Living Color, a sketch comedy series, and Greg was the Lighting designer.
I had been working with a wonderful group of young guys who were doing lights for clubs. Lowell Fowler was one of the innovators of High End Systems, their Texas-based lighting company, and we became friendly. Lowell and his partners were inventive and very proactive and I fell in love with their little moving club lights, having come from the world of Scoops and Lekos that were TV’s common fare. Whenever I mentioned Lowell’s moving club lights, lighting designers would say that the throw was too short, so when I designed the Living Color home base set, with the Watts towers as inspiration, I eliminated long lighting throws and suggested that Greg take a look at Lowell’s lights. Greg never hesitated and installed them in the home base set, so we credit ourselves with being the first to introduce moving lights to TV’s lighting DNA and certainly for being at the forefront of the fabulous rise or High End Systems, which went on to pioneer many lighting innovations.
MY TV MENTORS
I started my TV career after a television set designer, James Trittipo, bought some of my paintings from an exhibit and hired me as his assistant for a Broadway production of On the Town. After that job was over he recommended me to Rene Lagler, a brilliant young designer, who was the art director for Glen Campbell’s Good Time Hour, a music and comedy variety show that was being taped at CBS at the same time as the Sonny and Cher and the Carol Burnett show.
I was a theater designer and knew nothing about television—I didn’t even have a portfolio, just a folder full of Doc Martins water colors, but miraculously Rene saw something in my work and hired me. (He kept my first sketches and recently he gave the drawing to me that he had kept beautifully framed for thirty years.)
Popes and presidents have walked on Rene’s perfect stage geometry—clean, simple designs with Swiss precision and minute attention to detail. Renee taught me to draft and literally mentored me for a year, giving me the greatest gift of my career, the benefit of his knowledge and of his mentor, Jay Krause. I had some wonderful experiences as Rene’s Art Director for the 57th Academy Awards and the ’84 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and have always taken great pride in having been mentored by him. If ever there was an ambassador of design it’s Rene Lagler!
DESIGNING FOR CAMERA
Speaking of stage geometry, I was taught a huge design lesson by a cameraman. It was my second award show and at that time the standard award stage had two podiums, one on stage right and the other on stage left. I was battling getting good shots of the presentation podiums once the center cameras turned on them. The wide shot looked beautiful but the follow spot was kicking light off the podiums and considering that the wide shot lasts a few second at the beginning of each segment and the bulk of the time on camera was spent at the podium, I was heading for a fall.
I wish I could remember the name of that wonderful cameramen who turned to me and said, “You’re a theater designer aren’t you?” I said that I was, rather surprised that he had picked up on my background. “This is Television,” he said. “Design for what the camera sees, not the audience. The design layout should be a bicycle wheel where the two center cameras have a center line on the stage no matter where they point.” The penny dropped loudly and the problem I had been having with podiums and award shows went away forever!
Having worked in MTV as it was evolving in the 80s and early 90s, it is easy to forget that back in the day we were not inundated with hundreds of cable choices; there was no such thing as a 24-hour music channel that quickly became a global phenomenon, creating icons like Madonna and Michael Jackson.
Before MTV, I had been designing for network TV in the conventional way at the time: two cameras at a center podium, a jib on one side and sometimes a hand-held Steadicam for reverses on stage or on rare occasions a track would be laid at the back of the house. As a result, all the award shows looked alike, no matter who was on stage. My aspiration at the time was to ‘look different’, but I had given up trying to create a different look and concentrated on designing a set that told the story and represented the brand of the show.
Working with Joel Gallen in MTV was a breath of rule-breaking and anarchic fresh air. He was putting cameras in positions all over the house—backstage and in the rafters. The result was that the show looked entirely different.
This was a big breakthrough for me. I realized that scenery has a much smaller effect in changing the look of the show than finding new camera angles. Added to my list of must do’s for television design is working closely with the directors in terms of their camera shots and as I design, I’m always on the lookout for new camera positions and opportunities to tell a story in a fresh way.
MTV had an enormous impact on TV design. All the MTV producers were young and willing to take risks. I loved the freedom from the rules of network TV. Very often I would experiment with new materials and Ideas on MTV shows and then introduce them to the more conservative network conventions.
I designed the first arena MTV Awards Show set in The Pauley Pavilion at UCLA and figured out how to cope with the quantity of band performances by creating two stages.
I was also onto a new host idea for presenters. The conventional wisdom was that directors didn’t like seeing anything moving behind the presenter’s heads and I was bored! I fashioned a homemade kaleidoscope with a couple of TV monitors and mirrors that played any grabbed images on a VCR during the show. It wasn’t completely successful, but it inspired a trend of video backings behind the hosts.
My kaleidoscope invention came to a smashing end at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. During Kurt Cobain’s performance of Rape Me, his bassist threw his bass high into the air, but misjudged catching it and it landed on his head. He fell backwards, careening into the kaleidoscope.
For MTV’s Rock N’ Jock, a TV series featuring actors, musicians and professional athletes performing together, I collaborated with Andre Miripolsky, a Los Angeles pop artists and muralist. We designed a vinyl stick-on that went directly over the center basketball court in Pauley Pavilion, something that would never happen in network TV.
The use of TV monitors to display scenic effects on stage started with me and a few other MTV designers. Previously, I had only seen video technology used on large corporate displays, mainly to present products and information.
For the first MTV Movie Awards, produced by Joel Gallen, I deconstructed the corporate video wall structure and covered the stage with monitors.
As I remembered my fascination with monitors on screen I went back and looked at some of the early sets I did with the growing quantity of screens that evolved into giant screens onstage .
America’s Funniest Home Videos was the first set where I used monitors and it sparked my awareness.of using them as a useful scenic element.
And more monitors…
I even started using multiple monitors for live bands.
What started with little monitors has now evolved in to full screen digital scenery!
LIGHTING RULES (AGAIN!)
During my entire career, I have always tried to collaborate with Lighting Designers, having learned early on that without good lighting, scenery is pointless. One of the first freelance jobs I did was Puttin’ on the Hits, a music/variety competition show featuring amateurs lip-synching to popular songs. The senior lighting designer was the legendary Bill Klages, the only lighting designer ever to be inducted into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame. When a junior set designer meets a senior lighting designer, it is a sound tradition for the junior set designer to steps out of the way; however, I thought I was being pretty clever and designed a runway for the lip-synchers in the shape of a cross and at the end of each was a colorful postmodern archway—it was the early 80s. The set was installed and I was very pleased with the hot, trendy look until Bill walked onto the set and said “I will never get my lights passed those set pieces. Remove them.” His word was law. I removed them and designed risers for Puttin’ on the Hits!
Mood lighting for TV sets came late and these sets for The Essence Awards are the perfect example of how important lighting had become.
The set below shows how lighting, by the use of color and gobo patterns, can transform even the most basic scenic elements.
ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE
Whilst designing for TV, I’ve had a number of ‘aha’ moments. For a show called Shangri-La Plaza, a made for TV musical comedy, I designed the set over a newly built corner mini-mall. Purposely kitschy and colorful, the set glared out on the corner of Vineland and Burbank Boulevard, complete with rotating donuts for the donut shop.
On the first morning we were going to shoot, we found two police cars waiting for the donut shop to open! People were drawn to the colorful store facades and while the show was being shot, the mini-mall was completely booked with new rentals. After we struck the set, I found a newspaper interview with the disgruntled tenants who wanted the theming back.
It rang a bell and made me appreciate the value of theming retail environments, and I began to think about how I could migrate theatrical design into real estate and retail. Soon after that, Terry Dougal designed the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and I got to design an animatronic fountain to anchor one end of the Forum. After that, Jim Nelson hired me to design and theme The Panasonic Pavilion on Universal’s CityWalk, a new shopping and dining promenade in Hollywood, so I owe a lot to TV, including offering me a gateway into the ‘real world.’
DESIGNING – FAST AND SLOW
Because of the tight schedules needed to make inflexible air dates, when I designed for TV, I learned to make quick, intuitive, do or die, decisions, but I could not help casting my eye to feature films with their lengthy schedules. The luxury of spending a day thinking about the choice of a color seemed like paradise: slower more deliberate choices versus fast and emotional decisions.
I thought I would have that opportunity when I signed on to be Production Designer on The Two Jakes, a sequel to China Town, staring Jack Nicholson.
I was wrong! The producer would yell at our team to “Stop designing all that scenery… all I need is two walls and smoke!” That didn’t work when Jack Nicholson, the actor/director, and Vilmos Zsigmond, the cinematographer, walked onto the stage and set up the shots in completely the opposite direction from the two walls and making a good point about not limiting the angles available to the camera. I got my full set, including a ceiling!
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE… ETC.
Television has come a long way in the thirty years that I have been designing–multiple HD cameras, moving lights, big screens and digital scenery–but the pressure and speed are still the order of the day: instant set branding style, instant color choices, fast renderings, overnight drafting, and the challenge of designing a show that can be built and loaded in to the existing venue on schedule makes Television set design one of the most difficult design disciplines.
AND THEN I DESIGNED…
Here is a smattering of my TV designs over the years:
In this particular moment there are so many incredibly talented television set designers that it is a joy to be able to stand back and see how this art form has evolved!