Production Design Makes It

A BTS still from a recent live Internet Broadcast I produced that utilized some sophisticated production design. Have you delved into real production design for your project?

I recently produced a live stream fundraiser for a local private school. Our company produces a lot of these, especially since the pandemic began. One takeaway has been that with the evolution of production over the past 15 or so months, live streaming and fundraising are a match made in heaven. We’ve produced dozens of these types of events for various non-profits, schools and even for the Los Angeles Zoo, and the common thread has been that the better the production looks, the more seriously the audience takes the message and the more money our clients raise.

This was the set for our live auctioneer. The background is a screen-printed canvas and the remainder of the set design consists of carefully chosen props for a “Route 66 garage” kind of feel. The auctioneer answered “calls” during the broadcast, using the phone booth phone prop.

Don’t Ignore Production Design In Your Projects

Part of the “looks good” department is good old-fashioned production design. I wanted to highlight this recent live stream because the production design was so good and impressive. This particular client is located near Hollywood and many of the parents of the students work in the entertainment business. It turned out that as the production began to take shape over the past three months, the set design team was going to bring some serious contributions to the overall look of the broadcast. The team put together a theme based upon a road trip.

Especially in low budget or no budget micro-production, production design is often overlooked and people assume that because they lack the budget, they just have to work with the sets, locations and production design they have access to and that’s it. This was a live internet broadcast for a school, so the budget was definitely low. The production team decided to make the production design and theme a priority though and they executed at a very high level.

All three of the background plates we used lined up and staged for quick set changes during brief breaks during the broadcast. The front canvas was a Route 66 in the Arizona Desert look, the second was a roadside diner at night and the third was a beach scene that took place at the Santa Monica Pier, the end of the real Route 66.

Scene Changes During a Live Broadcast?

In the client’s run of show, the director called for three scene changes. Really, we’re going to change sets during a live production? How? Once I saw the running order, it made sense. The show featured a robust number of pre-recorded video roll-ins. Most of the roll-in pieces were relatively short, only about a minute or two long, but the writer had cleverly written the show.

After we began a set change and a pre-recorded video played and ended, we didn’t cut back to our two main hosts, we cut to the show’s auctioneer and he delivered his content to the audience about how the bidding process with the giving platform worked. A lawyer with a sense of humor, the talent was good at vamping. For the set changes, we could have closer to 4 to 5 minutes. That still seemed like a ridiculously short amount of time to change out an entire set with props, and the background and talent were also slated to do wardrobe changes that would reflect the new location.

Production design makes it
A better view of our roadside diner set as it was staged, awaiting the cue to replace the first set, the Desert Route 66 road set.

The Sets

The show opened on the two hosts on a desert Route 66 sort of look. The first set change was to a roadside diner. The next change was to a representation of the Santa Monica Pier, the end of the real Route 66. During the rehearsals we conducted, we actually had the production design team do the set changes in real-time as we went through the run of show. As the producer, stage manager and DP for the broadcast, it became apparent to me after the first set change that we needed to do more rehearsal and to tape off the talent’s chairs, table, where the background stands were to be located and areas for all of the prop placement. In the rehearsals, when we would come back to our live hosts, the set geometry was off—the camera was seeing off the edges of the backgrounds.

After rehearsing it a few more times, the production design team learned that it was much more efficient to stage the backdrops stacked behind each other rather than wheeling them in from the side. Once we used paper and Gaffer tape to mark the locations of everything seen on camera, the rehearsal became much smoother, and when we would come back to set, everything on the sets and on-camera looked perfect.

Production design makes it
My key source with a Godox VL300 put through a 6×6 Full Grid piece of diffusion. The quality of light was beautiful, but it took some careful flagging to knock down the output on the front of the host’s table, which initially was far too brightly exposed.

Having Alternative Shot Options Helped

We had it easy with our auctioneer’s set. His set stayed the same throughout the entire broadcast, so I at least didn’t have to worry about coordinating two sets making changes. It’s funny, the production design team asked me if instead of them moving the sets in and out if it was possible to move the entire camera and grip and lighting package down the line to the new sets. This was a fairly complex and involved lighting setup, so the answer was a decided no.

In the end, the set changes worked really well, the production design team hit it out of the park with the design and props for each set and the end result looked really great on camera, supporting the theme, texture and intent of the road trip concept. My takeaway was that even on lower-end productions, stop shortchanging your production design as it makes a huge difference in the quality of the end product.

Here are some basic tips if you’re not experienced in working with production design: 

  • Plan your design and design your plan. It takes time and hours of work to pull off something visually interesting and well-executed.
  • Your production design team needs an artist/visionary to design the set(s) and lead the team, along with a lot of collaborators.
  • Get creative with your visual theme and work with the resource availability of what’s needed to carry it off. No point in designing a concept that you can’t execute.
  • You need a good-sized team, not one or two people. Our production design team had half a dozen people plus assistants that showed up just to help switch out the sets.
Some tasty-looking fake desert props from the roadside diner set. It’s all in the details!
  • Prop rentals are important. What made our concept really work was renting some really interesting, cool-looking props. If you shop carefully, it’s not as expensive as you might think.
  • Sketch it out. Even hand drawings can be invaluable or you can use an Illustration program. It’s important that everyone can actually see the vision that the production designer has.
  • The theme is important. We have produced live broadcasts like this one with dozens of themes—Fiesta, 80s throwback, old-fashioned Ball, Western, Hawaiian, etc.
  • Good production design visually announces that this show is a “legit” professional production.
Production design makes it
Our set in action with our hosts during the broadcast. I attribute a large portion of the success of this shoot to the excellent production design. Once you work with good-looking sets/props, it’s hard to go back to working without them.

Good luck with your production design ambitions!