By Bruce Shutan
When the 56th annual Emmy Award nominees are made public on July 15, the announcement may confirm what many observers across the production community already are thinking. One such thought is that HBO’s impressive creative streak has no end in sight, especially in the art direction category.
Stuart Wurtzel, a New York-based production designer whose work on the Angels in America miniseries for HBO was recognized by the Art Directors Guild Local 800, was thrilled to be part of the highly acclaimed Mike Nichols project that won five Golden Globes. The guild’s annual awards may serve as an Emmy precursor.
“It was an amazing piece not only of beautiful writing and poetry but also social and political history,” he says. Wurtzel was particularly proud of the compelling theatrical presentation of an arch dividing two rooms in the Greenwich Village apartment where reality and dream sequences played out as the main character dying from AIDS drifted in and out of consciousness.
Another HBO show that’s generating considerable buzz is the period-piece pilot for Carnivale, which Wurtzel describes as “visually very rich.” Adds Scott Meehan, an art director on American Dreams: “Everyone has been talking about how fabulous it looks in texture.” Carnivale won the 2003 Art Directors Guild award for Excellence in Production Design in Television, Single Camera Series.
Still, there’s plenty of Emmy gold to go around for noncable shows. Wurtzel finds Alias “always interesting in a much more contemporary point of view” and praises CSI for finding “an incredible visual style that I really find riveting.” Both shows were recognized in the Art Directors Guild single-camera awards category.
Roy Christopher, a production designer/art director who has won half a dozen Emmys and recently received the Art Directors Guild Lifetime-Achievement Award, enjoys Alias’ sleek, slick and high-tech sensibility. “The look conveys exactly what the intent of that show is,” he says, “which is action, sex, speed and glamour.”
Although he arrived at American Dreams one-third of the way through the television schedule and missed the last two episodes to work on the Fat Albert feature film, Meehan calls the 1960s drama “a fabulous-looking show” that may earn an Emmy nod in art direction and other categories for its second season. He believes production designer Phil Toolin and directory of photography Brian Jay Reynolds have done “a tremendous job of really capturing the nostalgic look and feel of the ’60s, and it doesn’t look like any other show on TV. The sets and lighting really make that happen.”
Lighting direction is another area where crew and cinematographers have made their mark, with cinematographers determining how performers and props alike will be lit on set. An important development in this arena has been the emergence of high-definition 24P acquisition, explains George Spiro Dibie, ASC, national president of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600. He says cinematographers add their unique perspective to composition, color and texture.
In a similar vein, technical direction drives the organizational agenda. Technical directors, or TDs as they’re often called, belong to the Motion Picture Editors Guild Local 700 and are responsible for overseeing every piece of equipment and electronic aspect of the shoot.
Guy Jones, a video controller on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, lauds the work of Jonathan Jackson, the new late-night talk show’s first TD, and Ervin Hurd, his successor. “Things change by the minute, and you have to be keenly aware of your switcher in a noisy environment and stay mentally focused,” explains Jones, who won an Emmy last year in the technical direction category for Cher’s farewell tour special.
He also reserves high praise for On-Air With Ryan Seacrest. “There’s some structure, but they make it up as they go with a young, hip MTV feel,” he says. “It requires intense concentration and the TD really has to be on his toes.”
As might be expected in any award competition, critics always wonder if the most deserving candidates are walking away with statues. One multiple Emmy-winning TD who declined to be interviewed says academy peer groups favor a popularity contest approach that has soiled the system. Meehan agrees with this assessment and hopes that voting members make more of an effort to be objective and view every screener vs. having cursory knowledge of hot contenders. “It’s been a gripe of mine over the years,” he says.
By Bruce Shutan