Designing History

From the opening gavel at the Pepsi Center in Denver this past August, it was obvious this was going to be a very different Democratic Convention. That was exactly what the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) asked for when Emmy Award-winning producer Ricky Kirshner and longtime Democratic Party strategist Mark Squier became executive producers. Kirshner and Squier assembled a top-notch creative team including production designer Bruce Rodgers, screens producer Allan Wells, and lighting designers Bob Dickinson and Bob Barnhart.

“Governor Howard Dean, chairman of the DNC, gave us a mandate early on,” says Kirshner, “to break the mold and take our thinking outside the box. This team was well-suited to do just that.” Squier adds that, though Dickinson, Barnhart, and Wells had done past conventions, Rodgers brought a new dynamic. “When Ricky brought in Bruce, it offered such a fresh approach. It was a big change, but we wanted a strong visual way to have people be part of the interactivity of this convention. This team's efforts built a background that helped enhance Barack Obama's message without getting in the way of it. They allowed him to connect with people beyond just those in the hall.”

It was important to Rodgers that the set work for the people at the convention as an experience, but it also had to be a translatable experience to people watching. Line producer Lisa Geers notes, “We are all comfortable in the world of television, so that was always a concern that the tight shot had something interesting in the background, and that the wide shot be interesting. Considering the live audience and also the televised audience was always, always a priority.”

“My thinking was to create a set that had a sculptural feel to it — a strong abstract that had some weight of purpose to it,” adds Rodgers. “I wanted it to be primarily made of video technology, so that we could change the scenery around in the most modern, green way possible, through video imagery. I thought it needed to be tall, it needed to have grace, and it needed to have a strong base so that everybody felt like they were part of what was on the stage. The architecture of the design started with the floor — the solid part with the wood and the stairs that opened the stage to the audience — and then we had illuminated parts that grew out of that like a tree. This solid base sprouted this kind of exciting idea that rose and grew branching out. We came to refer to the arching LED screens surfaces as fingers.”

The stairs at the front of the stage had a specific design intent. “I wanted the staircases at the front of both sets to come across on television as a very welcoming part of the design,” says Rodgers. “But, as you visually moved left and right, those steps ceased to continue, so that the focus was on a single location in the center of the space, the podium. The podium itself was important. First, that had so much flexibility to it. PRG made a pretty cool piece of machinery. I wanted the ability for the podium to adjust automatically for people of different heights and the ability for the podium to completely disappear so that we could have a clean stage at the end of a speech.”

Geers believes Rodgers served both the function and the feel of the event. “There is a certain amount of functionality that had to go along with the staging; there were people that actually worked throughout — parliamentarians, the DNC secretary, and the stage managers, as well as a house band and a correspondence area. Also, on an upper level of the stage, there needed to be a reverse camera position. So, the functionality really dictated the footprint from which Bruce then came up with his amazing design.” Rodgers enjoyed fitting in the business part of the set. “It was this crazy little working city of people in suits up there, and it had to be part of the whole design,” he says. “We wanted — and I think had — a cohesive look overall. The work areas weren't just scabbed onto the stage set.”

American Snapshots

The predominant feature of the production design in the Pepsi Center was the LED “fingers,” and it fell to Wells and his team from Mdots/Fontastics to populate enormous screen surfaces with content. “Allan's work was so important because it was a huge part of the visual,” says Rodgers. “He achieved two goals with his content, because it was not just about the inspiring kind of imagery, which they do great, but also moving through the mechanics of the convention's week's worth of business.” Both Rodgers and Wells have a real understanding of how visual information moves people and the emotion — the sense of participating that can come through to a wider television audience by their design choices. “Allan is an expert at that,” comments Rodgers. “My team from Tribe Design did some inspirational sketches for the way things could look in the video screens, and he kept me involved in how the graphics were developing. They really made use of the way I saw the set conceptually. They brought it to life; I can't say enough about those guys.”

The design of the content required a balancing act since the content was a design element that could make or break the overall look of the ambitious scenic design. Wells succeeded, hitting a perfect note with the content that conveyed the energy of the event and the celebration of the history of the moment while overcoming some technical challenges. “The visual challenge was twofold,” points out Wells. “First, we had the mix of high and low resolution surfaces that we had to create imagery on, and second, we had to be sure it wasn't too busy in general that it would upstage the speakers. The convention is all about the speakers, not our imagery. We worked hard to create imagery that looked good, that worked within the geometry of Bruce's design, as well as presented the excitement of the event, but also was subdued enough that it worked behind the people speaking when seen on television.”

Wells chose to stick with still imagery for the most part. “We knew we were working with such a large visual area that any movement we did with the imagery would just instantly dominate and upstage,” he explains. “The graphics design content, like the waving lines, brought back in some of that movement.” Almost a year earlier, Wells' team had designed the logo for the DNC convention, and the graphic content grew out of that design.

Wells notes that Rodgers' positioning of the five fingers was close enough together to “give us the ability to put a single image across all the screens. We could also break it up into the five strips or even deal with it in more segments within the geometry of the set design. The screen directly behind the podium, which was seen in close-ups, we made more subtle. We decided to keep it on its own, just to keep the geometry and the DNC watermark in it but avoid too much distraction there. This gave us a look that worked for both the live event but also for TV close-ups.”

To get all the work done and stay on top of the nature of a live event, Wells' team had an ordered approach. “First, the UnitedVisualArtist's d3 Show Production Suite provided by XLTV allowed us to map and create all of our projection surfaces as 3D objects, allowing us to solve the challenge of the five fingers that became an arched ceiling. Using the system, we could move around the room and see the broken apart fingers and how the whole image would tie together. We designed and created all the animation on Mac with Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects. Early in the process, we determined what the pixel count of that center high-res screen would be, and that became the basis for scale of the design. We figured out the sizes from there of the fingers and the horizontal wall in order to make the master canvas as big as it needed to be for the imagery. We had a master canvas of 3,500 pixels tall by 4,000 pixels wide. It essentially started as one big high-res canvas that we rendered out into a movie and then brought it back in and cut it up into five separate high-definition resolution movies that we then transferred to the Tektronix profile video servers. Each look was actually five to six channels of profile playing back. ProQue handled all the profile playbacks, and we used our proprietary GakWorks custom screen system that allows us to control multiple dissolving feeds effectively. In this case, it was running nine dissolving feeds at once that we could build cues for and trigger cues to have all the screens dissolve at the same time from one set of profile channels to another.”

XL Touring Video sourced gear from their facilities in both the US and Europe, using both Barco MiTrix and iLite 6 products to create the screens and sculptural finger elements of Rodgers' design. To handle the complicated rigging, Kish Rigging was brought in, saying, according to Rodgers, “This is like threading together the makings of a watch.” Dave Hyslop, project manager for XLTV, was excited about Rodgers' design. “The stuff he comes up with is just really incredibly creative,” he says. “Anybody can put up a flat LED screen, but he takes LED flat squares and bends, twists, and turns them; Bruce is like the Frank Gehry of LED designers. He's not really very happy with just a flat surface.”

Wells was pleased with the final results. “I have always been thrilled with the canvas Bruce provides when we produce content on projects with him,” he says. “I think he's a real visionary and has got a grasp of the display technology like no one else. And working with both Bobs is so easy. They are clever and just nothing but help. We knew that we were walking into something special; we just wanted to present the best visuals that we could without upstaging everybody — just do our best.”

A Historic Night

A month before the opening of the convention, as load-in was beginning at the Pepsi Center, the Obama campaign announced that the Senator would give his nomination acceptance speech at Invesco Field, the Denver Broncos stadium, opening up the final night for the DNC to 84,000 people and welcoming America to join in the moment. Of course, that moment now needed another set, another light plot, and a very fast load-in crew. For Rodgers, “the design part of it went extremely fast. We certainly realized the significance of Obama's acceptance speech being on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's ‘Dream’ speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I also knew the Pepsi Center design was unique; it didn't really reference anything except modern set design. But for the Invesco speech, the set needed to be a little bit more specific; it needed to be presidential. So I thought why not use the Lincoln Memorial as inspiration. It is a wonderful building.” All involved felt that Rodgers' use of the Lincoln Memorial-inspired set was an ideal visual bridge honoring the past and framing the history in the making.

To connect the two sets to the single convention, Rodgers replicated the exact footprint and design of the podium at the Pepsi Center but placed it at the end of a ramp, covered in the same carpet as at Pepsi, moving Obama out into the audience. The biggest challenge to the change of venue was time required to fabricate, load-in, and load-out. “For fabrication,” Rodgers notes, “I went immediately to three shops that I knew could build, deliver, and install in the tight time. Between PRG Scenic, All Access, and ShowRig, we pulled it off with a lot of their people working full-out and turning things around unbelievably quickly. They were awesome.”

Supervising producer Rob Paine agrees. “The Friday night before, there was a Broncos game, so we only had four days to load-in everything, set, lights, and the entire media setups. With another game right after us, we had only 24 hours to get off the field. Luckily, all the vendors went into this knowing it was going to be commando-style. They all went above and beyond to make it work smoothly.”

As venues were added and LED fingers were built, convention veterans Barnhart and Dickinson offered support and solutions. “Dickinson is one of the best in the business,” states Rodgers. “He has done a bunch of these conventions before so I knew from the beginning one thing we had going for us was we had him and Bob. They know how to light not just the speaker but also have a way of painting the audience like nobody else. So when we went to Invesco, it was huge and dramatic, and Bobby does that so well.”

Party Lighting

Dickinson and Barnhart, of Full Flood, knew that certain fundamentals needed to be included in their design, but Rogers' unique production design meant they had to come up with some clever solutions to accomplish their goals. “Unlike other projects, where we start working from a creative process out,” comments Dickinson, “the needs of the convention were very specific, like the speaker lighting. We needed to illuminate his face regardless of which direction he turned. We did that with a series of followspots that are highly controllable instruments from a great distance.” Dickinson adds that the lighting also had to work for the delegates on the convention floor. “We needed basic area light for people, but we also needed to expose it sufficiently for the TV networks. The networks were all over the floor, so we tried to provide sufficient, homogenous illumination for a camera everywhere. But we had to control it so light stayed off the set — control it so it didn't flare cameras. It had to be an angle not too steep as to be unflattering; and we had to keep the exposure level at an extremely even level. We keyed this show at 65 footcandles, which is just the minimum.”

The LDs were resourceful working with Rodgers' set. “Once we saw Bruce's design, we started laying the lighting over the footprint that he offered us,” says Dickinson. “Obviously, when we layout the truss design, we don't want to declare war on the scenery, so the LED finger concept was something we had to embrace. We mimicked it with the trussing that we ran between the fingers vertically and expanded out following the fingers over the top horizontally. It looked great visually, but it did put lights in unusual positions considering what our goals were; it took some figuring to work out what each light — not in the ideal location — could do to fill the objectives of the delegate environment.”

Barnhart adds there was another concern with getting proper backlight angles, “which are important because when you are looking at someone standing at a podium, you don't want them looking flat,” he says. “We ended up hiding fixtures within the set, and we were able to negotiate some angles that came in from just slightly off-center. Everybody was on the same design page. You saw Bruce's LED fingers, and right next to them were our truss fingers which looked like a design element, but in reality, were a functional element for the lighting.”

With the event at Invesco Field added only a month ahead, the designers knew that getting gear would be tricky. “We knew instruments would be a challenge,” recalls Dickinson. “We, ourselves, were involved at the same time with several other large shows, and we knew that, even as big as PRG is, there are only so many instruments available at the same time. We had to cobble together enough of the long-throw instruments of several different varieties to get what we needed.” Barnhart adds, “We used a light plot designed by the same people who make coleslaw. We used a little bit of everything — whatever was available. Tony Ward and the others at PRG were fantastic; they always take care of us. They told us what they could get, and we made our light plot out of it.” In the end, the Invesco design was a mix of long-throw wash lights and various followspots.

Of course, a roofless stadium meant coping with natural light, but again, the designers' ingenuity helped. Barnhart notes that the balancing of daylight and TV was an issue early on, “but as a producer once said to me, ‘If there is no solution, then there is no problem.’ The reality was there was nothing we could do,” he says. “We made the decision to keep the stadium lights off all day and let the light descend into our light level. The cameras had to constantly adjust as the sun moved into evening, and as we got full control over the light, we corrected when they went into a video piece. We would make a sweeping correction adjustment with all the followspots during the piece; the video operators would adjust cameras, and then, during another tape package, we would repeat the correction process until we eventually got to the fully corrected version and had the light level we were comfortable with before Obama took the stage.”

Lighting the memorial-style set at Invesco, the creative team wanted a straightforward look. They didn't light the set from any outer part of the stadium, but rather all the accent lighting and base wash was from the set, which is a much harder way to light. In the end, it worked perfectly and highlighted the elegance of the set. Barnhart notes, “It was an important historic moment, and everyone wanted it to be a great moment. While it was happening, as Mr. Obama took the stage, you realized it was working. I think it was what everyone envisioned.”

Blue Carpet Goes Green

The DNC also mandated the convention to be as green as possible with all departments tracking their environmental footprints. Scenery — usually one of the hardest areas to be green — became an industry-wide model on this project. “One of the real joys of doing this project was working with PRG's Lincoln Maynard and his crew,” says Rodgers. “The PRG shop in Vegas was amazing. They put in so much detail; the carpenters and painters did beautiful work plus Lincoln's attention to the green mandate from the DNC will set new standards for us all.”

Maynard describes some of what they did scenically to stay green. “Everyone at PRG took going green as a priority, and that will continue past this project. All the paints were no VOC, and a good deal of them were soy-based. Most of the MDF that we made all the skins with was LEED-compliant. We shipped everything via bio diesel both ways. We used Evergreen Recycling in Las Vegas, which commits to recycling 75 to 90% of everything we bring them. We also did small things like not painting unseen steel; the carpet was 40% post-consumer to start and 100% recyclable at the end; much of it went to Habitat for Humanity and FEMA. Habitat for Humanity in Denver took a large quantity of the set for building materials since we built a good deal with reused wood, and minimal glue and nails, so it was in great shape. We used ½"-thick MDF flooring from another set to fabricate a lot of the walls for the DNC set, and now it has a third life in a new home for someone in Denver.”

Maynard adds that they also used a new product to keep the green going. “All the ‘red oak’ on the set was MDF painted with a soy-based paint that looks incredible,” he says. “We had a really talented scenic artist, BJ Lipari and — using what he called, ‘some of the best paint I have ever worked with’ — he created what looks exactly like red oak. I had a team of people here that worked every day, and they're incredibly, incredibly proud to have been on this project. It's something we will all carry with us.”

Rodgers was also proud to be part of his first convention. “I have never been involved with a team that came to work with the idea we are doing something bigger than us,” he says. “We were doing something for everyone, part of something that is so fundamental to who we are as Americans. We got the chance to be involved in history; it was an honor, really.” That large view was evident in the final overall design that addressed how we get information visually and how we communicate both our history and our future. It helped to inform and inspire, capturing a quintessential American moment and reflecting the themes of the convention of change, moving forward, and the importance of including all people in our political process. The creative team believes they will have been successful if it inspires people to take part and vote November 4.

2008 Democratic National Convention



Executive Producers - Ricky Kirshner, Mark Squier

Line Producer - Lisa Geers

Supervising Producer - Rob Paine

Coordinating Producer - Mo Morrison

Production Designer - Bruce Rodgers, Tribe Design

Lighting Designer - Robert Dickinson, Full Flood

Lighting Designer - Bob Barnhart, Full Flood

Screens Producer - Allan Wells, Mdots Design/Fontastics

Audio Designer - Patrick Baltzell, Baltzell Audio Design

Art Directors - Sean Dougall and Mai Sakai, Tribe Design

Assistant Art Director - Thomas Benoit, Tribe Design

Model Builder - Richard Hale, Tribe Design

Lighting Director - Jon Kusner, Full Flood

Assistant Lighting Director - Travis Hagenbuch, Full Flood

Screens Coordinator - Juli Pritchard, Mdots Design/Fontastics

Lead Designer - Vince Jimenez, Mdots Design/Fontastics

Designer - Wilt Manglicmot, Mdots Design/Fontastics

Staging Supervisors - John Bradley and Bobby Allen

Head Riggers - George Gilsbach, Kish Rigging, and Bobby Grenier

XL Touring Video - Dave Hyslop

PRG Lighting - Tony Ward

PRG Scenic Technologies - Lincoln Maynard

PRG Lead Scenic Artist - Bernard Lipari

PRG Project Manager - Scenic - Ben Hart

PRG Project Manager - Automation - Peter Johnson


Gaffer/Head Electrician - Richard J. Beck

Conventional Programmer - Tim Rogers

Moving Light Programmer - Rob Hume


Gaffer/Head Electrician - Tony Ward

Conventional Programmer - Patrick Boozer

Moving Light Programmer - Pete Radice



SCENIC VENDORS - PRG Scenic Technologies, Kish Rigging, All Access, ShowRig

VIDEO VENDORS - XL Touring Video, UnitedVisualArtists, GakWorks, ProQue, NEP Denali

LED SCREENS - Barco MiTrix, Barco iLite6, Lighthouse R7

LIGHTING VENDORS - PRG Lighting, A&O Technologies, Arc Light Efx


2 PRG Virtuoso VX Consoles

2 ETC Obsession II Consoles

12 PRG Series 400 Power and Data Distribution Racks

PRG Series 400 Power and Data Cables and Distribution Boxes

159 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash

123 Vari-Lite VL3000

49 Vari-Lite VL3500

52 Vari-Lite VL5

12 Vari-Lite VL5 Arc

48 PRG VL6C+

62 PAR64 PAR Bars

35 ETC Source Four PAR Bars

Nila LED Luminaires

10 Lycian 1293 3kW Followspots (6 owned by the Pepsi Center)


2 PRG Virtuoso VX Consoles

2 ETC Expression 3 Consoles

5 PRG Series 400 Power and Data Distribution Racks

83 Martin MAC 2000 Wash

114 Vari-Lite VL5 Arc

74 Vari-Lite VL2000 Wash

75 Vari-Lite VL2415 (VNSP version of VL2416)

42 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spot

40 Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash

48 ETC Source Four PAR

48 PAR20

38 MR11 Striplight

14 Lycian 1293 3kW Followspots (10 from Arc Light Efx)

48 Falcon DX-6K Searchlight Fixtures


OTHER KEY VENDORS - All Phases, Artistry in Motion, CAT Entertainment Services, CenterStaging, Denver Theatrical Resources, Pyro Spectaculars, Production Wireless

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