With a BFA in theatre design from Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts, James Pearse Connelly developed a taste for design from his art teacher mother and architect father. “I was always around spaces and crafts and crayons,” he says. “Then, in high school, my crowd was the backstage nerd kids, and I did a lot of lighting. I went to drama school to avoid foreign languages or physics, and I was also hoping there were some more gay folks there. I didn’t know what set design was but I got really interested in it.” Today, Connelly heads JP Connelly Production Design, an Emmy Award-winning creative design firm in Los Angeles with TV shows such as The Voice to its credit.
Connelly headed to San Diego after college as it was soon after 9/11 happened in New York City. He was working a props job when a chance encounter changed his career trajectory. “I met a woman at a wedding who said I could make a lot of money in television so I moved to LA and picked up jobs in reality TV. I had skill sets in drafting, and it was a way to be super creative. Not many people were looking to work in the reality TV world at that time. So I found my way in. I was really hungry, happy to have a job, painting, shopping…I loved the type of TV we were doing,” Connelly says.
Connelly loved designing big, super-creative houses or spaces that could “influence or control behavior,” and admits he enjoyed not having to read plays anymore. “I fell in love with the social experiment, variety specials, and reality TV— nobody knew how to turn those into series—reality TV still doesn’t have great cache but I fell in love with it anyway.” He was even a decorator on a male model show on Oxygen hosted by Fabio: “Hot guys in a mansion competing to be on a book cover…Really a hoot,” he recalls.
After a lot of MTV shows, then working as an assistant art director to Scott Storey on The VMAs, Connelly started working in music performances, and bigger, glossier productions. “I learned how to do multiple projects at the same time, and art-directed Lopez Tonight, then designed the second season, and moved on to the backstage reality stuff for The Voice. They needed a better look. I liked the show, my genre, so I said, let’s do it...and it’s been big projects since then.”
Connelly recently designed the set for The Masked Singer, a new reality show where guest stars sing behind large animal masks and fancy costumes, while the panel tries to guess who they really are. “I come from theatre and reality, so Fox appreciated that. The Masked Singer was a small show that is now a runaway hit.” Executive producer Craig Plestis has already announced Season Two.
The show started in South Korea and Thailand, but as Connelly notes “sometimes Asian TV doesn’t always transfer. It’s odd. You can have a giant oyster onstage singing. For the design, you have to find the love and the aesthetic and elevate it. This is a show about costume design, so I related it to opera with big costumes so there can be a big scenic gesture. Something in the background can be big and wild.”
The producers wanted The Masked Singer to look like the Thai version, so Connelly adapted the shiny floor, with an X shape stage with video behind the singers yet made it more operatic for the American audience. “It’s kind of a comedy, whereas The Voice is more of a drama,” he says. “A comedy is just for fun, lots of laughs and like witnessing a party. A drama has more at stake…It blends in a lot of storytelling, the action backstage, the performances.”
The floor is a 5mm, LED surface from Sweetwater/NEP placed under smoked, tinted glass that had to be seamless, with no level changes, no trip hazards, and lights embedded in troughs below the floor. “The seamless floor looks black on TV, but there are traps, lights, and video below, from CyroTubes to special effects,” says the designer. “For the content on the floor, we rented a video library from Gravity with some custom stuff…The video content is coordinated with a home base look, then the creative per performance is initiated by the choreographer. The content producer curates a few options, and everyone chimes in.”
Connelly created the screen content for the home look using previsualization software from Maya to Unreal. He coordinated the looks with Simon Miles, lighting designer for The Masked Singer. The big scenic elements comprise two 25'-tall faces that are tunnel entries from backstage with 21st-century shapes, polygon faces with glowing eyes and lighting positions. Upstage, there is a panoramic video surface with the show logo with LED wings that mask the cameras that shoot the judges.
There is also an observation tower for the host, the judges’ desk based on the shape of a mask, and a total of three camera positions. “The whole show is very linear, with Martin Sceptrons (1-meter tall LED pixel bars) adding to the lighting looks,” says Connelly. “I looked at music festivals when thinking about this design, not opera. I asked where do kids go to party, the EDM festivals. And the backstage area is also fun for me—it’s theatrical. It’s like Batman’s cave, or a super hero lair when you go backstage. There are special costume mannequins, like a gallery or museum.”