Studio Design: Shaping the Big Box

Old and new merge in today's studios
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Old and new merge in today's studios

WASHINGTON

The digital revolution and advanced electronics have begun to change the design and construction of the very space that exemplifies television: the studio.

Long an isolated box with minimal outside interaction and a maximum supply of power and air conditioning, the modern studio still needs to be designed carefully. The good news is that modern components draw less power, make less heat and pack more features into a smaller space.

The basics of studio design remain the same, however. A successful studio will have the right mix of ceiling height, unobstructed space, acoustical isolation, lighting capability, electrical and air conditioning capacity and access to related technical and operational spaces. A failure in any one of these areas will compromise the studio in ways that vary from annoying to comical - and can render the studio unusable.

All television studios must have a studio and a related control room. Both of these spaces must have the right kind of lighting, plenty of air conditioning, lots of electrical power and a quiet acoustical environment. The ability to work conveniently in a space can make a big difference in its productivity, so it should be easy to pass between the control room and the studio, and it should be easy for the operational staff to get to the studio.

In this post-Sept. 11 world, video producers and broadcasters are starting to think about security and redundancy. Tom Canavan, president of A. F. Associates, a systems contractor with long experience in the television industry, said that his clients are definitely thinking about what to do in the event of a catastrophic failure.

"We are seeing a much greater emphasis put on disaster recovery scenarios," he said. "What happens if this building must be evacuated or is unusable? Everything that's happened in the last year has opened everyone's eyes."

WHERE TO BEGIN?

At its most basic, a studio is a big, open space. The operational word here is "open," and a room that has columns or other obstructions will be a compromised studio. Furthermore, the large size also pertains to the ceiling height, which must be higher than the ceilings found in typical commercial construction.

The minimum size for a working studio is about 20 x 30 feet. Sure, you can have a small specialty studio, perhaps for one-person announcements. But if you're going to build a set, light the set and set up a couple of camera angles, you will need at least 20 x 30 feet. As in so many things, bigger is better.

In addition to the unobstructed floor space, a studio of 20 x 30 feet needs sufficient ceiling height to allow the installation of a lighting grid and electrical distribution for the lighting. Since studio light fixtures can easily hang down 24 inches from the grid, lights can get into your shots if the grid is too low.

This is not the calamity that it was 20 years ago, when pointing a camera at studio lights for a few seconds could put permanent burns in $10,000 worth of camera tubes. But the more ceiling height you have, the more flexibility you have with lighting. You may also need the space for large air conditioning ducts.

"The [ceiling] slab-to-slab height is always a key issue when you are going into an existing facility," said Kyle Lombardo, a senior associate at Rees Associates, an architectural firm that specializes in technical facilities. "You have to have a minimum - excluding structure - of 14 feet to even attempt anything. Another issue is clear floor space."

These two studio requirements - large, unobstructed spaces and high ceilings - are often either impossible to find or exceedingly expensive in existing commercial construction. If you will be building a new studio facility, be sure that you get your requirements to your management as early in the process as possible - and remind management occasionally afterward.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

While many broadcasters now use "open newsroom"-style studios for news broadcasts, controlling sound is still a good television practice. While you might hear the occasional phone ringing and the murmur of a voice or two during a broadcast from a newsroom studio, you probably won't hear noise from vending machines, cars starting or tapping footfalls.

A studio space must be quiet and noise from internal and external sources must be controlled. There is an old story about the sad-sack production company that built a studio in a commercial building, only to find that a dance instructor had a practice space overhead.

True or not, this is the classic example of extrusive noise, generated outside a space that leaks into it. It's important to find out what exactly is in the spaces that surround your studio and deal with that information.

Boiler rooms have pumps that switch on and off randomly; offices have people who push their chairs away from desks, move furniture and drop coffee mugs on the floor; and residences have loud TVs, barking dogs and screaming children. It's hard to get away from externally generated noise unless your studio is built as a separate wing.

There are means to mitigate the noise, however, including special wall and ceiling construction, acoustical seals and shooting at night if you must.

"When it comes to isolating adjacent spaces, there are many techniques to take out the mid- to high-range frequency sound," Lombardi said. "The ones you have a real difficult time with are the low-frequency rumbles like trains, jets, air conditioning units and thunder."

There is also a problem from noise generated internally. Intrusive noise comes from noisy studio lights and dimmers, fans in electronic equipment, alarms and buzzers and the mechanical noise of things like video recorders, computers and other video gear. (A 35mm slide projector can be deafening when used in a studio!)

The good news is that video gear uses less power today than it did 10 years ago, and that means fewer fans. In many cases, chassis that have a heavy electronics package (and therefore a fan) can be controlled remotely from a fan-less control panel. In addition, equipment today is becoming less mechanical than the gear from 20 years ago we sometimes reminisce about.

Less power is also good from the standpoint of air conditioning. A studio and its control room must have lots of very quiet air conditioning and the A/C system must function whenever the studio is operational.

Many commercial and educational buildings have energy conservation systems that limit the operation of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems to the hours that people normally work. However, television operations are often active after normal business hours and on weekends.

This leads to a situation where there is no air conditioning for the public affairs shoot with the mayor planned for Sunday morning. You may want the mayor to be a little hot under the collar, but not from environmental issues of your own making.

In a building designed for television production, getting the right HVAC in the right locations is not a problem. In a leased commercial building with a variety of tenants, HVAC that operates 24/7 can be expensive and use more space than you might think.

LET THERE BE FOOT-CANDLES

Studio lighting is a beast that eats money and excretes heat. Fortunately, the situation is much better today than it was 20 years ago.

For one thing, there are many more choices in lighting instruments today, including instruments that produce several times the light of an incandescent fixture, yet have the same power draw. HMI and fluorescent fixtures are just two examples, and LED fixtures also promise to beat incandescents in the lumen-per-Watt sweepstakes.

For another, new cameras generally need less light than their distant relatives of 20 years ago. A high-quality camera from 20 years ago required 200 foot-candles at f4 to achieve its rated signal-to-noise ratio of 57 dB. Recent cameras achieve a S/N of 63 dB with just 100 foot-candles.

According to Bruce Aleksander, a lighting director and member of the production staff of KTRK in Houston, you light to the sensitivity of the camera. KTRK's news studio has a lighting intensity of 100 foot-candles.

"The first cameras that I was lighting for required 300 [foot-candles] or so," he said. "Now it tends to be about 100, and that's a comfortable, easy level for conventional lighting equipment."

Aleksander said that the station uses a mix of incandescents and fluorescents for lighting its news studio.

"Fluorescents are an excellent source for a soft light," he said, "but they don't render fleshtones as smoothly as an incandescent. I find that mixing fluorescents with incandescents is a very nice thing."

The combination of more efficient lighting and more sensitive cameras has a real impact on the amount of power consumed and heat generated by television lighting instruments. This does not mean that you can relax and ignore your studio lighting system and the necessary HVAC to deal with it - unless you want to be studying books about how to write a successful resume.

Studio lights will almost certainly require dimmers, and dimmers make both heat and noise. You will also have to find a place for them - plan on it.

WHERE'S THE STUDIO?

A studio generally works best when it is adjacent to its control room and is in the close proximity of its various supporting spaces. These supporting spaces include makeup rooms, set building and storage, staff offices, the engineering office and toilet facilities.

Other physical factors include security for the staff and equipment (particularly if there will be production at odd hours), getting various cables into and out of the facility and determining the best way to run cables within the facility. While you don't want to have a raised computer-style floor in your studio - trust me, it's very noisy - you do need a way to run video, audio, intercom and control cables throughout the facility.

This often means lots of conduit and raceways in the studio, and raised floor or other more imaginative solutions in the control room. Any penetration of the studio wall is a means for sound to leak into the studio, so this should be considered very carefully.

Likewise, if there is a window between the studio and control room, this window should be double-glazed, well-sealed and preferably sloped on both sides to minimize sound reflections.

HELP, I NEED SOMEBODY

There are architects and consultants that specialize in the design of studios and the use of such a consultant is not a bad idea if you are tackling your first studio design. Even if you have designed several, you often have other tasks that limit your ability to do research, draw up plans and specifications and monitor construction. An architect, consultant, and sometimes a design/build firm or systems contractor can be the key to getting you the facility you really need.

The desire to design your new facility burns in your gut and keeps you awake at night. And who knows the operation and its needs better than you?

But quirks of human nature and the demands of our workaday jobs sometimes prevent us from preparing the design we want and shepherding it past the management minefield. As silly as it sounds, sometimes your management will want validation from an out-of-town consultant before it will agree with your vision.

Working with the right architect, consultant or design/build firm is not a waste of money that will make you look foolish. It is smart, as long as you participate and plan on some give-and-take during the process.

A. F. Associates recently participated in the design of high-end studios for TV station WTVJ in Miami and a large pharmaceutical company in Westchester County, N.Y. According to Tom Canavan, a lot depends on whether the architect is experienced in professional television facilities. Some are but many are not.

"[Inexperienced architects] tend to treat most spaces as office spaces," Canavan said. "They don't consider things like extra air conditioning, grounding systems, properly designed power distribution, cable access and raised floors."

And here's a tip from someone who's been there: Don't forget to ask the production staff what it wants in a new facility. You will learn some interesting things and the production staff will be pleased with its contribution. People may even thank you.