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High-End Broadcast Design - GRAPHICS: Streamlining The Process

People watch an NFL game on TV because they are primarily interested in the content. A smaller, but often crucial part of a show’s appeal, is the look and style of the broadcast.

A carefully considered and well thought out graphics and animation package helps frame and present any show in a more memorable and engaging way. The appreciation and appetite people have for good design and animation should never be underestimated; also, the graphics are often the primary form of branding and advertising for the show or network.

There are two major keys to success when tackling a new production. The first key is to plan ahead: have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, a list of what is needed, a budget and a schedule. It doesn’t cost any money to carefully think things through at the front end; however, if things need to be changed later it can be costly and time consuming. Planning and evaluating options at the start is an invaluable investment of time.

The second key, if you’re farming out your design work, is to pick the right design studio. It’s important to choose a company for the right reasons: they come closest to visualizing your goals, and most importantly, they’re people you feel you can work with in the long run, both in terms of budget and schedule as well as personal interaction and communication. One of our clients, Barry Smith, creative director for CBS affiliate KFMB, puts it very succinctly: “Look at your specific needs and try to match those needs with a company whose design sensibility makes them a great partner. Look for that perfect fit: a company that will ultimately under-promise and over-deliver, a company with a personality with which you can feel an instant chemistry, a company that understands the constraints and limitations but is unafraid to try to push to another level. Work hand-in-hand from the onset with the creative director and staff of designer/animators. Engage in frank discussions upfront concerning the expectations and desired results.”
Here is a list of six areas a producer can consider before production actually starts.

What Is The Goal?

What does your station or network need to accomplish? Do you want to increase viewership and revenue, reflect a change of direction, portray a different image, capture a different demographic or promote and feature a new host? You should have a design and animation package that complements your mandate and truly portrays what you want to accomplish. Whether you are having something re-designed or created from scratch, know why you are doing it.

Consider putting together a creative brief, which outlines the styles that interest you, as well as creative goals and motivation for the project. This creative brief is given to the production houses or studios you are considering for the project. It helps them to understand motivation for the project, and can be a powerful statement of purpose. With a creative brief, as well as a list of required elements (with technical specifications), budget and schedule, a production studio has a very good chance of creating visuals that properly capture your creative vision.

For Barry Smith, we recently designed an entire on-air look including news, sports and weather packaging. One of Barry’s goals was to develop a fresh look that remained true to the personality of the San Diego community, yet stepped away from a traditional “local” attitude. To present greater on-air stature, one of the first things we suggested was to think and design more along the lines of the primetime look of a national network. Interpreting this, we focused on combining a more contemporary layout with friendly, people-oriented imagery. We increased the sophistication of the news opens by using different colors and light effects so the mood and feel of each show reflected the time of day broadcast. Much of our success working with Barry and KFMB was enabled by his clear thinking about what kind of feel and attitude he wanted KFMB to have.

The Big Picture Good producers, like Barry, know they must challenge and encourage their audience. They have a grasp of where broadcasting is heading, who the competition is and what the producer can do to better position their station or network. Both creative and business goals are made in light of this larger context. Barry’s direction for a fresh-primetime look was motivated by where he wants KFMB to position itself within its market.

The trick for many sports producers is how to get their show to line up with the overall style of the channel or network and at the same time give the show its own personality and power—sports broadcasts tend to be more pumped up, physical and energetic looking.

For HBO’s Boxing After Dark, the producer’s creative brief outlined a show that described it as a “crossroads” event, and the word “gritty” came up a lot. The young boxers who fight on Boxing After Dark are at a turning point in their careers where their stars might rise or fall based on the outcome of the fight. With that in mind, for the overall show we created a grainy, urban street look that captured the competitive, no nonsense attitude of tough fighters on the rise and an opening that told the story of one boxer’s hard journey to fight night. HBO Sports has an overall approach to its graphics and animation that is big, classic and powerful. For Boxing After Dark, the way the logo scenes and internal graphics were designed strikes the right balance between grit and class.

Visual & Audio Reference

Quite often the client will describe in great detail the look they want (something new, more colorful, more practical, more glamorous). Still there is a lot of room for interpretation in these words. We can sometimes get a better feel for what the producer is looking for and how it will work by discussing existing spots: movies, commercials, music videos, etc. When the producer can say “I really like the look of ESPN’s X-Games”, we know not to design something that feels like Monday Night Football. Similarly, music can be a great clue to mood and style. If the client can talk about what kind of music he envisions for the show, i.e., something orchestral sounding as opposed to jazz or hip-hop, again we get a good idea of where we should be heading visually.

Budget Money is the last issue people like to discuss, but it is important to have an accurate idea of the budget. The biggest mistake the client can make is keeping the real figure they have in mind a secret. We believe in being collaborative and cooperative, but the more up front the producer is the better off everyone will be. The client can get much greater value if the design studio knows how much there is to work with and the client understands what the budget will “allow.” For instance, they may want to shoot film but the budget is better suited to HD. We’re not afraid to ask questions like “how rich do you want this to be?” “How complex and how sophisticated?” The natural tendency for any creative designer is to think big; but we can make things look expensive in many ways.

Most production companies will endeavor to give you as much as possible within your budget because studios like clients who return. But do not expect a Ferrari if your budget is better suited to a new Mustang. Producers need to do a bit of homework and find a studio that can work well within the budget.

Technical Direction

One of the things that a sports producer in particular must pay attention to is the technical equipment he will be employing, specifically mobile production trucks on location at arenas or stadiums, or what in-house equipment will be available for producing the show. High profile shows like Monday Night Football or HBO’s World Championship Boxing have dedicated trucks and equipment, but equipment is often updated and smaller productions might get different equipment or suites to use week to week.

The good sports producer is interested in pushing things further technically and creatively without making everyone’s life too difficult. They know how to take advantage of the increased power of new equipment, whether it’s being able to do alpha keys or more complex 2D and 3D animations.
We sell the creative concept first to the client and then work with the producer to adapt to the particular technical setup. There is a learning process for everyone involved.

When given the opportunity, we like to meet with the technicians and directors to see how they work together—what things they are committed to keeping the same and what things they are open to changing.

Time Frame/Schedule

Outside of knowing the general production schedule, knowing the client’s approval process and how long it takes to get combined feedback on design is a great help. If we know how long the client needs to respond, work can be scheduled efficiently. Also, who has authority for final sign-off? We never assume that the buck stops with the producer. Getting proper approvals at key stages in production saves lots of time and money in revisions.

We like to think of our work as the “other host:” graphics that introduce and announce a broadcast with appropriate flare—a show within the show. Everybody tunes into a station, network or sports program because they love a particular show. And the broadcast is that much more engaging and memorable for your viewers when you add to their entertainment with an ever-changing kaleidoscope of exciting and informative images.

Jocelyne Meinert & Colin Gillies are the co-founders of Big Studios (