When NBC’s Meet the Press wanted a new set for the news program, it needed something to meet high-definition needs, was both multifunctional and modern, and also reflected the show’s 60-year history. Designed by Erik Ulfers of Clickspring Design, the set features a juxtaposition of analog and digital—something old, something new—with bookshelves and plasma screens, and its unveiling in May accompanied an interview between host David Gregory and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Front and center on the set is a new illuminated news desk engineered and built by Showman Fabricators, Inc.
The desk comprises an illuminated 28' monorail, internally lit by LEDs that are DMX-controlled via the studio’s console. The unit’s surface includes a 5'-diameter stainless disc and a separate manually rotatable clear acrylic trapezoid, both of which track and rotate along the full 28' length of the rail. The design is meant to bring the program an in-the-round feel, allowing a 360º array of looks, while the enormous load of the surfaces can be anywhere on the desk across its length.
Mike Riccio, head of design and engineering, and CNC department manager for Showman Fabricators, notes that the desk is like a floating blade of light, carving up the open space on the set. “The LEDs are RGB LEDs that we fabricated into what is essentially a custom light fixture that is compatible with HD cameras,” says Riccio. “The light box goes onto the floor, becomes part of the wall, and reaches back to the top of the desk, visually not structurally.”
A DC dimmer within the desk is optimized to be compatible with the show’s high-definition cameras. “We have seen many cases where LED dimming is not compatible with camera refresh rates and causes an onscreen flicker,” says Grigor Grigorov of Showman Fabricators. “Showman has been working with a US-based company to provide this dimming solution to our clients. It is a real answer to the needs of our industry.”
Working with Clickspring Design during the design phase, Riccio notes that many factors came into play that affected the realization of Ulfers’ initial concept. “It rarely ever stays the same as the initial drawings,” he says. “The design might be going in one direction, but the physical constraints of the space might go in another direction. We were able to start working it out early on, where the structure needed to change or a seam break needed to occur due to loading conditions. It ended up a pretty good representation of the original plan.”
That doesn’t mean the process was without challenges, some of which involved considerations given to trucking, installation, and how many pieces the desk had to actually be, “all of which can often then rear an ugly head on the design side,” Riccio says. The blade of light that underscores the desk, for example, has acrylic seams that, in the engineering stages, gave the structure an opportunity to sag, so it needed to be reinforced. “We also didn’t want to bleed white light out of every seam,” adds Riccio. “We ended up dealing with seams by introducing definitive—or museum—seams. Two seams together will never be flush, but they’re hidden in a way no one will ever see. Achieving structural integrity is the most important goal with an interactive set like this.”
To preserve the look of floating light without affecting the integrity of the structure, the desk requires support legs that occur every few feet down the center of the desk. “You just never know which area is going to be the heavy side because of the rotation of the surfaces,” says Riccio. “It also needs to be a stable work platform.”
Working on the actual build threw a curveball or two also, says Riccio, “when material came in with a warp, for example, and we had to shave down the thickness of a cantilevered section, leaving the design not as structurally stiff as we needed it to be. Working with Erik and the craftsman building it, we needed to add some structure, so there’s some push and pull between us, but it all works out when the designer is standing right in front of the object and not just in design software mode. Erik has his version of what he feels is achievable, and we have to find out how close those two are to reality and make changes to bring things back to what’s possible.”
To work well in the unforgiving, detailed HD world, the quality of all elements seems to have gone up a notch or two. “We’re moving away from building scenery where the eye is fooled by some trickery of paint or material and more toward what you’d find in finished carpentry or high-end installations—more substantial and less faux,” says Riccio. “Our designs and builds have changed, and new technologies have to broaden our build vernacular.”
Executive producer Betsy Fischer calls the set a “thoughtful combination of contemporary design elements in a stately setting, keeping with the longstanding history of the program.”