Andy Walmsley, production designer for the new American Idol set, has been involved with the various Idol productions for seven years, including doing original designs for Pop Idol in the UK. When he designed the original, most of the countries that subsequently launched the show the world over used his design. When the show came to the US, so did Walmsley. “I had actually grown tired of my career in the UK and had made the decision to move to the States,” he says. “The fact that Idol hit big just as I applied for my green card was a very happy coincidence.”
So, when the show wanted an entirely new set, using Walmsley was a natural choice. The designer had worked with the two British executive producers, Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, for almost 15 years already. “We have a great shorthand,” he says. “They didn't really brief me as such. It was more a case of: this is the biggest TV show in the world, and the set needs to reflect that status. It needs to visually feel like an event — water cooler-discussion TV.”
To render his new design, Walmsley, who usually works in Google SketchUp — he describes it as “stunning 3D modeling software and very easy to use” — worked this time entirely with scale models. “I was famous for my highly detailed models back in the UK, but since moving to the States and finally getting with it technology-wise, it's rare that I do real card models,” he adds. “They are very time consuming.”
Walmsley placed a large crescent-shaped, Barco ILite 10 LED screen center stage to maintain some of the Idol signature look. Several plasma and LCD screens on side towers provide additional opportunity to run video, but Walmsley is quick to add, “I'm actually very proud of the fact that the set is not dominated by video. It's about scenery with video complimenting. It drives me insane how video has totally replaced the art of set design, particularly on TV. I go to initial production meetings with producers, and the very first thing that always comes up is how many screens we are going to have on the set. Then it's usually a case of me designing a nice floor and arranging various video screens around it. That's utterly the way it has gone in the UK, and it's creeping in here now. The crazy thing is that it costs the production companies a fortune in rentals. They could spend half that money and have a stunning set.”
Interestingly, Walmsley notes there is not as much collaboration with other designers on the final design in television as in other disciplines. “It's been rare in my TV career,” he says. “I have been lucky to have a unique career split equally between TV and theatre, and my experiences in theatre have been far more team-based, with the designers truly working together.”
Over 2,000' of Cii (Christopher International, Inc.) Neoflex flexible LED neon highlights many components of the set, including the backdrop, towers, pillars, band mezzanine, steps, and numerous logos. “It's a great new product,” says Walmsley. “I am somewhat infamous for using miles of neon on my sets, and the great thing about Neoflex is that on camera and to the naked eye, you would swear that it is real neon, but the best part is you can't break it. You just look at real neon, and the glass breaks. The down side is that it's still pretty expensive compared to neon, but Idol was one of those shows where we could embrace new technology despite the additional cost. Those shows are rare.” Using DMX control, the Neoflex is programmed for flashing sequences, chases, and fades.
Sweetwater Video supplied all video equipment for the new set, and Scenic Express of Hollywood built it. Bill Ferrell was also involved with the set build, providing automation of the opening LED screen for stage entrances, as well as automation of the highly complex gyroscoping American Idol globe signs on the side towers. Walmsley's two art directors on the new set were James Yarnell and Jim Nelson. In addition to the new production design, new lighting was designed by Kieran Healey, and rigging was done by Kish Rigging.
Walmsley is starting work on an adapted version of the Idol set for a permanent installation at Disney World in Orlando. This is a new attraction allowing park guests to perform, Idol-style.