HD set design

New news sets offer the freedom to roam.
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Most stations have invested in digital transmitters and HD production gear, which are more affordable than ever. Now broadcast stations are turning their attention to the news studio for the next phase of the HD migration.

News studio sets are getting bigger and better looking, evolving from static news desks to news environments with multiple venues. Even the newsroom, with its cluttered desks and frenetic activity, is getting airtime. Set designers are incorporating these new on-air staging areas to keep the newscast fresh and interesting, which is what viewers (and advertisers) want.

The need for new sets in the industry is potentially huge, as only about 10 percent of stations in the large markets have converted to local HD news production. Roughly 30 percent are in negotiations to do it within a year.

In the smaller markets, sets designed for the 16:9 aspect ratio are almost nonexistent. That's because new sets are not cheap. A new HD set could cost $100,000 to $650,000, with the average station spending $200,000. Of course, repainting a set, adding new lighting or using less expensive materials can get you a refurbished look for as low as $30,000 to $50,000.

Planning

The process of designing and building a new news set takes about three to six months, depending on the size and complexity. It starts with an initial meeting with the design team and station management, news director, operations manager and others. Then a design is developed with 3-D modeling and CAD software to show the client how the set will look in both 16:9 and 4:3. Professional set designers can simulate what a standard two-shot or wide shot will look like and guide clients through a virtual tour.

Most stations want sets that are HD-ready, meaning the composition of their designs, the quality of their construction and furniture, and other set pieces will be designed for the sharper images and wider aspect ratio of HD, even if the stations have yet to broadcast in HD. Stations must plan for a dual aspect reality. Mack McLaughlin, founder, CEO and creative director of the FX Group in Ocoee, FL, said stations should plan on using 4:3 framing for the next five years.

Layout

The wider sets built for 16:9 HD enable news departments to offer viewers wider shots with jib cameras or stationary cameras mounted on the ceiling. This makes the set look more spacious, which studies have shown is very appealing to viewers, according to Graham Blyth, president of New York-based Blyth Design.

The most important aspect for HD is the actual positioning of the talent, according to George Andrus, senior design consultant for The Express Group in San Diego. In the standard 4:3 format, he said, the news team usually sits shoulder to shoulder. But with HD's 16:9 format, the desk needs to be wider, with the talent sitting an additional 6in to 8in apart. This leaves room for over the shoulder graphics without encroaching on the person sitting next to the anchor on screen, Andrus said.

The notion of a single talking head, or anchor altar, is changing rapidly. Many attribute this change to cable and European news channels. The trend is to place reporters in the newsroom at a desk or at a podium next to an electronic screen to read stories on-air. Main anchor desks sport a lighter, trimmer design to encourage the anchor to get up and move around. This is all part of the comfortable atmosphere designers are striving to create.

And sometimes achieving that atmosphere translates into no anchor desk at all. Most of the new CW Network newscasts, for example, feature talent standing next to a plasma or rear-projection screen, mounted either horizontally or vertically. This gives news directors the flexibility to change the set quickly for different stories.

Yet HD studio design is about more than just a wider set. Stations are adding HD graphics, virtual set technology, electronic displays and aesthetically pleasing furniture. The general thinking is that if you want people to watch your newscast, newscasters need to create a pleasing, familiar environment.

Weather

Weather is a big ratings booster for newscasts, so flashy weather centers are becoming the norm in many markets. Whenever a station upgrades its computer weather system, the on-air look of the entire newscast is affected, so careful planning is important.

The Express Group recently designed a new weather set for KNXV-TV in Phoenix, AZ. The new HD set features multiple venues around the studio where talent can report from. Two 50in Samsung and Toshiba HD DLP monitors act as a backdrop. And the station added new high-res graphics to prepare for future HD broadcasts.

Andrus said DLP technology offers a better value than plasma. Plasma screens larger than 50in are cost prohibitive for most stations. DLP allows stations to have a larger screen at a more affordable cost.

DLP also does not reflect unwanted light the way most plasma screens do. And plasma screens suffer from burn in when a graphic is left on a screen. This does not happen with DLP projection, he said, adding that color saturation can be controlled better with DLP displays, and maintenance (replacing an old bulb) is easy and cost-effective.

Materials

Physical materials used for HD sets are not that different from those for analog sets, said Mark Karlen, senior design rep at Broadcast Design International in Carlsbad, CA. Wood laminates are still used, but a greater array of smooth and textured surfaces, Plexiglas, frosted acrylics and metal stylings are now employed.

The main difference between HD and SD set design is in the attention to details, such as the edges of furniture and the site lines between the weather set and the news desk. Quality construction is critical, according to Karlen, because news sets take a beating.

Stations can't get by with HD sets that are taped up or refurbished, said Blyth. Analog cameras can hide or minimize flaws so they aren't distracting. But in HD, everything can be distracting if you let it be. When designing a great HD set, every detail is important.

Dan Devlin, creative director for the Devlin Design Group in Breckinridge, CO, agreed. Tolerances are a lot tighter, and the cost of a new set is higher than it used to be, he said. Contrast is a big thing. And texture and patterns can affect a set negatively or positively, depending on how they're used within an overall design.

The other consideration is the materials you use. If you spend money on good materials, it will show up on the screen, Andrus said. Cameras are getting sharper and sharper, so you have to be more careful of what you put in the background. Depth of field is critical in HD.

According to Andrus, The Express Group tries to put as much physical depth as possible between the talent and the background without sacrificing camera positions in front. This helps to soften background elements, such as monitors, that would distract viewers. Using scrim material and frosted glass is another way to resolve this issue, he said.

McLaughlin creates a sense of depth in his designs by diffusing the background printed graphic or city skyline with Plexiglas or frost glass and by strategically positioning overhead and background lighting. The FX Group recently completed a new set for WFTV-TV in Orlando, FL. The set includes two HD rear-projection systems that serve as the focal point of the newscast. This enables the station team to change the look of the set based on the story being reported. This will be particularly helpful during November elections coverage.

Color and light

Lighting is also key to any HD set, so set designers work closely with professional lighting designers. Many set design companies even have a veteran lighting person on staff.

The trend, McLaughlin said, is to incorporate more lighting fixtures, but at lower intensities (about 80 to 100 foot candles) than used for SD. A combination of soft and incandescent lights can create the desired look and feel.

Soft lighting is often used to front light talent because these lights are more evenly distributed, more forgiving to the anchors, draw less power and heat, and last longer on the set. Devlin recommends using a dimmer to help smooth out differing complexions and hair colors among the news team members. He also uses fluorescent and incandescent lighting for key, fill and backlight positions.

Adding RGB color-changing lights to sets gives stations increased flexibility. These special RGB lights help set the mood and enhance the set significantly. Red might be used for a breaking report, while a subtle blue might work for a feel-good story. FOX's NFL set makes extensive use of color-changing lights.

Bright, saturated colors are sometimes used, depending on an individual station's view of the brand and its marketing direction. Broadcast Design International recently finished the new studio set and newsroom for the “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” in New York. (See this issue's cover.) The multivenue set is designed purely for HD and includes wider set components, reflecting a stronger 16:9 design composition, brighter colors and strategically placed lights in the grid and anchor desk to compensate for the vivid HD picture.

HD reflects very vividly, even if a set uses earth tones, Karlen said. A set designed for a New Mexico newscast will look very different from one for a northern California news show because the brand of the two stations is completely different.

To make a set pop on screen, Blyth likes to use metal and reflective materials — even a high-gloss black desk — to add brightness and small silver accent lights with star filters. In the past, cameras couldn't handle reflective surfaces, he said. But today's HD cameras and lighting equipment do a much better job of bringing out the highlights without producing an ugly burn in that is visible on screen. Instead, Blyth said, it can make a set sparkle.

Moving

It's not enough to plan for what a new HD set should include. You must also figure out how to get the new set in place. The trick is to move the newscast from its existing stage to another area while new construction occurs. This process is perhaps the most challenging because a station's newscast can't go off the air. Extensive planning by the station's operations manager and chief engineer is critical.

Often, sets are built off-site and then assembled at the studio to decrease the disruption. Another option is to temporarily move the newscast elsewhere and build the new set on-site. This is what WNYW-TV in New York City did. The old set was sliced into pieces and reassembled in another studio in the parent company's building. For four weeks, the station produced its three-per-day newscasts from this secondary location while a new set, designed by Blyth Designs, was built in the home studio. According to those involved, the move was smooth and seamless, and most importantly, viewers didn't experience a disruption.

The final set

Changing sets every time a new news director is hired is no longer feasible. Today, stations are expected to live with a news set for five to seven years. With HD's emergence and limited budgets, new sets must be as flexible as possible without looking temporary.

Designs have to be versatile, yet, with many stations using robotic cameras and automated station-in-a-box systems, must accommodate new and existing production technologies and the limitations they bring, Devlin said. Many times camera movement, location and proximity don't always work well together, and that's affected by technology, lighting and studio space, he said. Having the freedom for the talent to move around a set may be nice, but often that works against the benefits of new developments like robotics that were championed over the past few years. The key is to know what you have and what you plan to keep in a new design and then make it work.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.

Web links

Set inspiration

Looking for new set ideas? The SetStudio features more than 1000 photos of sets from 100 stations and networks around the world. Founded in 2003 by Michael P. Hill, the Web site is a great resource for any engineer or station employee looking for set design inspiration.

The site is not affiliated with any set design firm or manufacturer. Hill relies on user submissions for his collection of photos. Users are encouraged to submit photos of their station's set for consideration. The site is accessible free of charge at www.setstudio.com.