How many times have you looked at an HD image only to be distracted by some detail in the background? Maybe it was the drapery design. Or something on a shelf screaming at you from the back of the set. Welcome to the challenge of setting a good stage for HD Production. There are several aspects a production designer considers when working with HD, from paint color to fabric design, from greenery to the floor on which the actors walk.
I spoke with two production designers working in HD. Colin D. Irwin is production designer on the Reba show. He started in film, transitioned to video, and then to HD. “My film background was very helpful because of the layering and depth of field I do in HD, yet I use the logistics I learned from video.” John Shaffner, of Shaffner/Stewart, specializes in multi-camera design for film/video. He designed the Faith Hill NBC music special and is designer for The George Lopez Show. “Since my background has been in TV/Video, the transition has been relatively uneventful to me as compared to my colleagues in the industry who have only worked in the Film medium.”
Both had good suggestions on setting an HD stage. Shaffner states the facts. “The new video technology is very light sensitive and the depth of field (that amount that stays in focus) is much greater,” meaning of course that items in the background can pop out to cause distraction. Irwin ellobarates, “I use darker colors upstage and lighter colors downstage because darker colors recede and help force the depth of field. Sometimes greenery (upstage) can help with that process. We build plants with two different colors to give them shading and highlights which helps with the illusion of depth.
Irwin talks about the issue of paint color on the walls. “The biggest thing for me in adapting to this whole medium has been going with what my original colors are and then taking them down in value and saturation, so it doesn’t get too hot and jump off the wall at you. I go with darker colors farther away from the camera and lighter colors closer to the camera, so you have the separation.”
Shaffner weighs in on the challenge of detail. “Finish is very important. A nail or screw or tape over seams in walls reveal themselves. The HD camera can sometimes even see the brush strokes on a painted backing. This can lead to a more costly process to finish the scenery.” George Palazzo, business agent for Local 729 Set Painters agrees. “HD creates more work for us because more is seen in the HD format. It takes more work to blend things out and match color.”
Irwin offered a very specific example. “On Reba, we use ‘wing walls’ that attach to sets to give us more shooting span. With standard video, the crease where the wall attaches isn’t noticeable. In HD, we have to tape and paint it. We also have to put something under the swing area between the wing wall and the floor otherwise the gap will show up on screen.”
Regarding fabric design, Shaffner says, “It is always safer to use fabrics and patterns that are not small geometrics and if you do, keep the contrast down.” Irwin agrees. “In our curtains, we try to use a blending pattern that will read more like a giant watercolor, with wash over wash over wash, as opposed to acrylic, where you have hard edges everywhere.”
Shaffner brings up the issue of floors. “Why waste the expense of lino for a wood floor when painted will do in a scene in a restaurant full of chairs and tables, or a home full of furnishings. However spend for the good floor when your cast is going to look for the proverbial contact lens on the floor or have an inspired round of wrestling on the floor.”
Irwin compares HD to audio CDs. “CDs have a crisp sound, whereas phonographic records have a richer sound. I like to create a little bit of a phonographic tone to my sets.”
Production designers have come a long way from being “wowed” by the extra detail HD offers to taming the elegant beast with know how and finesse. As Shaffner says, “The best process is to communicate with the director of photography or lighting designer what your plans are. They each approach their jobs differently and what the designer does on one show with one DP may or may not work with another.”
As many will agree, it’s all in the details.