August Online Exclusive: Ahead of the Game

You Don’t Know Jack Pushes the Envelope on Quiz Shows

In this computer-driven world, it’s practically guaranteed that when a TV game show hits the peak of popularity, a CD-ROM version will follow, generating even more income for all of the parties involved. But the Carsey-Werner-Mandabach production company and ABC have reversed the process with You Don’t Know Jack, a wildly popular CD-ROM that has spawned an entire series of slightly impertinent, sometimes insolent, and always amusing games. Producers have tapped the talents of Paul Reubens (of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse fame), brought in three contestants per program, and added the talents of lighting designer Simon Miles to create a half-hour game show that is far from a run-of-the-mill offering.

You Don’t Know Jack is a fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek quiz show that goes far beyond typical game shows. "The format is extremely irreverent, much like the CD-ROM," explains Miles. The show, shot on Stage 36 at CBS Television City, starts with host Reubens offstage, then follows him onto the set. "We set the tone for the ensuing half-hour with a brief monologue of perhaps three sentences and then Paul will go over and start berating the contestants," Miles says with a chuckle.

Playing the actual game is simple; there are four acts, with specific types of questions for each. There are also specific lighting cues for each act as well. "From act to act, we have specific color and gobo signatures, so each has its own distinctive look," Miles notes. The first three acts take place at a funky, stylized desk area with video support behind the contestants, while the final act, the Jack Attack, takes place downstage center. A 9'x12' rear-projection screen is used as a game board in front of the contestants, and the main scenic pieces are a combination of RP panels and what have been termed "bubble walls."

The RP panel/bubble wall pieces, the most dominant scenic elements in the show, were originally designed to be something entirely different. "The concept of the show had, besides the game board and the contest area screens, 21 sources that were originally scheduled to be video projection or some sort of video imaging," Miles reports. "It was determined that wasn’t going to happen, but the producers wanted to keep that kinetic, moving feel and they wanted a variety of colors and shapes, so we replaced the projectors with Vari*Lite® VL7s™."

There are a total of 21 VL7s behind the RP panels, which work with the bubble walls, the largest of which is 16' high by 6' long. "The bubble walls are panels that have circles cut in it," Miles explains. "Some of the circles have convex plastic domes of them, and those walls are backlit by Vari*Lite VL5s™."

You Don’t Know Jack starts traditionally, with a variety of questions for the contestants. This is when the ‘Dis or Dat’ question, also found on the CD-ROM, is featured. "The first act is a red/amber/gold combination," Miles notes. "We use the dot-grid gobo in the VL7s with a three-point prism rotating in front of it," Miles says. The RP panels alternate color, giving somewhat of a checkerboard look. "We reverse the color signature as a slow dissolve, so the color is moving as well as the gobo."

As the show goes into commercial, the color signature changes again. "At this point, any of the lights that aren’t actively engaged in illuminating the scenery are then obviously swishing around and blowing into our cameras and so on," Miles notes. Returning from the break, the stage is now awash in the cool hues of green and lavender, accented by a Spirograph gobo in the VL7s, with the three-point prism in it, moving at all times. "The gobo is rather reminiscent of the atom symbol, but repeated many times."

While Act I is about the colors constantly moving in the chosen palette, Act II is quite the opposite. "We don’t color-shift," Miles notes. "The color remains pretty constant." In this segment, the most traditional of the entire show, contestants vie for the two-million-dollar question, with a bit of a twist. "The two-million-dollar question starts ticking down when Paul starts reading the question," he explains. "Whenever somebody rings in, they get the remaining amount of money on the board." Which, depending on the complexity of the question, can be quite different from the original amount on the game board.

For Act III, the contestants are challenged to their fullest. "This act features our timed question, which is based on general knowledge, obscure references, and mathematics," Miles grins. The time limit for this question is 30 seconds, which would seem straightforward enough. However, this isn’t your garden-variety game show. "During that time, the contestants will be heartily distracted by a mariachi band that may play in the background, for example." While the contestants are trying to discern the number of castaways on Gilligan’s Island multiplied by the number of years Richard Nixon was in office divided by the number of pets owned by Elizabeth Taylor, Simon has changed his color palette once again. "We use cyan, magenta, and yellow, the three secondary colors, stacked in the RP panels, and the colors are chased on the RP panels as well as on the bubble wall."

After Act III, one contestant is eliminated, and the remaining two compete in the finale, the Jack Attack. At that point, Reubens leaves the stage, and becomes a disembodied image. "Our host is no longer physically onstage," Miles says. "He’s present as a projection in the game board, which is done offstage with an Ultramatte." The contestants stand on top of a Plexiglas disc that is illuminated by white neon from below, while above, an inverted dome flies in and hovers above them. "The inverted dome has some practical lighting in it. It’s filled with PAR-36s with these strange little conehead hats on them that look pretty cool."

While the rest of the show has been kinetic, the Jack Attack is all about white light. "It’s a complete departure," Miles comments. "We have custom-made Jack Attack gobos rotating on the RP panels, and all the other light on the scenery is off." CO2 spurts out of vents in the floor, creating a definite shift in mood. "We’ve gone from a very, very colorful show to something that’s very dark," he adds. The contestants are illuminated by ETC Source Fours cut very tight, to eliminate spill.

At this point, the VL7s are an uncorrected arc source, which gives them a blue-white look, which is mixed with the Source Fours. "The contestants have an arc source for a backlight, which is very cool in color, and we have the tightly focused ellipsoidal on their key light, and no other light except the Jack Attack gobos in the background," Miles explains. This look continues until the end of the timed Jack Attack. The camera cuts wide, Reubens returns to the stage, and the winner is determined. "At that point, we’re out of the Jack Attack, we go to a cue--it’s still monochromatic, but now you see all of the set." When Reubens says goodnight, that’s the cue for the color to come back in full throttle, once again bombarding the audience.

For his general illumination, Miles relies on traditional television lighting techniques. "The basic illumination of people is done with standard 5kWs, 2kWs, 1kWs, fresnels, and ellipsoidals," he reports. Much of the standard equipment, which includes Mole-Richardson, Ianiro, and Arri gear, came with the CBS stage. For this first layer of light, Miles uses a simple rule for illuminating the people on stage. "The formula is just key light and backlight, with fill light, if necessary."

Miles does have one exception to the key light/backlight formula. "We wanted to give Paul the freedom to be able to utilize the stage, so we needed to be able to illuminate him anywhere he wanted to go, within reason." Miles, who has a background in concert lighting, had the ideal answer: followspots, which are practically unheard of in a television setting. "If Paul wanted to move away from the home base area, we’d just pick him up with the spotlights." Consequently, Miles hung two Strong 2k short-throw spotlights, attached to the overhead grid on two greenbeds, over the audience. In a perfect world, towers might have been more effective since their location could have been moved, but they weren’t an option for Miles. "In this particular instance, there was no floor space left, so we couldn’t use towers."

For Miles, one of the most challenging aspects came with figuring out the nuts and bolts of a new TV game show. "The hardest part is finding the rhythm," he notes. "Until you go on camera, it’s all theory, including the lighting." At one point, he had cues attached to musical stingers that were eliminated, because the cues simply weren’t relevant. "Obviously, you could really go over the top. You have to balance what you’re doing with the light to make sure you’re not overshadowing the show or being distracting."

Contact the author at [email protected].

Who wants to light a Millionaire? Find out by searching for our April 2000 feature.

Photos: Oscar Dominguez

Suggested Articles:

There are two call to actions today. They are very urgent and we need you to forward this to everyone you can. Time is short.

Guest host and lighting designer Alan Edwards chats with Steve Jones, former Director of Production at the Apollo Theatre in New York City.

The President signed four Executive Orders, including continuation of Enhanced Unemployment Insurance as created in the CARES Act but at $400 per week