Emmy-winner James Pearse Connelly is leading a virtual production design revolution. With productions facing delays and uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic, Connelly and his team have been using Virtual Production Design (VPD) to continue designing stunning sets for shows like The Kelly Clarkson Show, The Masked Singer, Celebrity Show-Off, and others. VPD uses a cutting-edge rendering software that allows Connelly to create and alter set designs in real-time. The designs can then be combined with green screens and other technologies to enable a safe return to work—and design innovations not previously thought possible.
In an in-depth conversation with Awards Daily, Connelly discusses how he is using VPD to continue his groundbreaking work as a production designer. Read the full interview below:
Awards Daily: So, to start off, I mean, this is Awards Daily TV, we’re obsessed with The Emmys and you recently won one [for The Kelly Clarkson Show]!
James Pearse Connelly: I did! I got a Daytime Emmy actually, really excitingly. This is the first time I’ve ever played in the Daytime space and I feel really blessed to have won.
AD: There’s so much to talk about with COVID and the work that you’re doing right now with Virtual Production Design [VPD]. But, what was your design process like before and how has that evolved now that you are working digitally?
JPC: Sure! So, I mean, COVID’s been really difficult for everyone in production and myself included. When COVID had hit, we saw it coming a bit. You know, nobody really understood how long it was going to take, but my design studio has always done our design presentations in a real-time rendering software. And, in the past, that’s done a lot of favors for me, creatively. And I thoroughly enjoy working in that software. It’s fast. It’s easy to see, and it allows me to be super creative.
It was a couple of weeks into this pandemic and the stay-at-home order that I started to dig a little bit deeper on what that real-time rendering could do beyond just design and illustration. And now we’re using it really successfully on multiple projects to key into the background.
Essentially, we are exploring a virtual production industry, and we are having a lot of success with COVID rules in place using keyable backgrounds like green screen to bring in our digital environments that we have already designed pretty fluidly into the backgrounds so that productions can keep going under a pandemic. And ultimately, that’s been great for stay-at-home, but now as we explore what the possibilities are when the pandemic is over, with all hope, we can actually use some of that technology to our benefit, to blend into the physical environment.
I feel really hopeful that this unfortunate situation has actually turned into a bit of a Renaissance [for production design]. I’m just so excited to see what’s going to happen.
AD: Talk me through how you use VPD to create your sets.
JPC: Sure. So basically, when I design a set, I design it in 3D. I design it on paper and then I put it into a computer, into a 3D software so that I can really see scale, heights, and true forms. I’ve been doing that since 2003. And as 3D software has evolved, what’s happened is that you can process light information inside that software to get a better picture. What started as seeing shapes in the computer has now turned into almost photos from the future.
With real-time rendering, what’s possible now is to put the ingredient in and you see the instant result. So all that light information on the 3- D object is instant and that’s really exciting for us. That same information now can transfer to a green screen. So we can, at the same time, make changes as well as track motion in it.
So basically, 3D renderings can now come to life inside a green screen, and even better. You can now combine that with actual elements. When we are out of a pandemic, when we really have crews back, we can blend the two, the technology with the physical, and get super creative with it.
AD: You’ve been playing with this technology for quite a while. Pre-COVID, can you give me an example of something that you learned in the digital space that you were then able to tangibly apply to your sets?
JPC: I feel like what we’re learning in this space is the ability to see everything in advance and plan everything in advance. I have a team of about 12 people that I work with and I know that with the right amount of prep and organization and what we’ll call ‘pre-bid drawings’ or ‘previous illustration’, you can set a production on the right path to success. You can keep budgets visible because everybody will know what has already decided on. And when they get to the set, they have a plan of execution because they have an image as a goal. I think that under a pandemic you need that more than anything. You need a plan so people can practice safety.
When the pandemic first hit, my immediate reaction was, ‘Okay, we’re not going to go unemployed because people are going to reach out to us for renderings and plans. Because productions need new goals to get to the bottom-line and practice safety. I feel like that’s definitely the benefit of being a designer and somebody who excels at renderings and imagery. And now who knew that you could take those assets and do whatever you want to with them? It’s really great.
AD: I’ve interviewed a number of production designers for Awards Daily. And one thing that we’ve discussed is that production design involves the use of your senses, right? Because you’re thinking about fabrics, textures, and colors. In a way, it’s all about feeling and instinct. How do you move that process to a digital landscape? I mean, how does that change? Do you find that it’s still fundamentally the same or does working behind a screen change that process and that dynamic for you?
JPC: You know, you’re absolutely right. And a lot of this is feeling. When you talk about the feeling of production design, its ‘How does the feeling translate to the character or to the audience?’ Right? So, I’m using that feeling and I really want to see it on camera. A lot of the time, I want to see how that fabric or texture is going to react on camera.
This technology is going straight on camera. So, actually, when I’m creating it on my computer, I’m already getting a sense of what it’s going to look like in advance which has been really great and because it’s feeding in the software quickly and all happening in real-time so you can make changes. I can audition colors and provide alternate swatches. And I see lots of different options all at the same time. It’s sort of like I had seven or eight fabric swatches in front of me and I’m able to just throw them on the couch and get the couch upholstered immediately right there. And that’s really actually quite helpful when I’m trying to plan out how to design the couch. Do you know what I mean?
AD: Yeah, absolutely. That’s always something that I find so interesting —what aspects of the work remain universal and what aspects sort of shift from project to project.
JPC: Yeah! I mean, it’s a different artistic medium, right? It’s like oil paint or acrylic paint, pencil or ink. This is just 3-D art and you can use it in different ways. I can paint different pictures
AD: And just looking through your work, you’ve done a number of Reality TV shows and projects that incorporate a live audience. How does that idea impact the way that you approach production design in needing to establish a closeness with the audience in the studio and at home? And how are you incorporating that in your post-COVID work?
JPC: Yeah. I feel like we say ‘reality’, but it’s ultimately unscripted, it’s alternative programming, right? It’s talk shows, music shows, competition shows, and award shows. They’re all in this like grouping of unscripted, variety, reality, whatever we should call it and I love this space because it’s really creative. Because there’s no storyline or story arc to these shows —the environment actually plays a really important part. The production design that is around this action as it is happening, it’s actually a driver for the story that the viewers are watching. So, sometimes I just had to tell myself, like, ‘I am the script, right?’
I’m creating the space for these shows, in which case, sometimes you can be really bold. And you can really be super creative, which is why I love it. I love the creativity of these shows. If you had to force me to design 50 police hallways, of course, I would. However, I would much prefer to do personality talk shows, big fabulous award shows, decorated to the nines. Because they’re just so creative and you can explore so many different textures and characters in that space.
So, there is that, and I feel like this business is a bit of a machine—there are short timelines, there are very humble budgets that are all often stretching the dollar. And it’s a real challenge. COVID has definitely challenged me. However, it’s brought me producers that are making this type of television, who are really on a path to reinvent it. Because at the end of the day, it’s just about entertaining the audience at home. And if one has to rethink the traditional way of making some of these projects to get the story out of the human behavior that it’s showcasing then that’s great.
I feel like it’s a challenge, but also some of the content we’re coming up within the digital space is super creative. We’re working on our show right now for TBS called Celebrity Show-Off. And we’ve made this city from the future where it’s mimicking what we’re all doing at home.
We’re all staying at home and we’re on the balcony talking to the adjacent building where other people are hanging out. And we’re able to decorate that city and make that building twist and turn and do really fun things that you just never could with a budget for production. And that’s really exciting stuff.
AD: You’ve mentioned that these technology and techniques have evolved so much just from a few months ago, from where we were at the beginning of COVID. Where do you think it’s going? Do you have any insight on that and what comes next in this production evolution as we move forward?
JPC: I think in order to predict the future, you have to look back at the past. And I also think that no one would have ever expected this to happen, even in January, even if you read the news and you were even in China, you wouldn’t be able to understand how this was going to affect the globe. So, I will say, ‘who knows?’
I’m looking at it as an opportunity I never thought I would ever get. Right now, we need to be as safe as possible and make shows that can practice safely and that may be embracing some virtual technology and using green screen. But what I do think is really happening, and I don’t think that’s going to last forever, but I do believe is really happening is that we are educating ourselves and we’re educating others on a new medium to practice in. The most exciting part about this is that when everybody comes through this, we will have been a little bit more the wiser and we’ll blend the mediums that we liked before with the new ones that we just learned.
I think in 2021 and 2022, we’re going to see some really incredible content using new technology with old practices. And that’s so exciting.
AD: What are some other things that you’re really looking forward to playing with in terms of VPD? What are some avenues that you haven’t explored yet that you’re really looking forward to?
JPC: There’s a new design challenge out there right now for a lot of designers and I’m using technology to solve it a little bit at the moment. I think that this is going to help and also add to the future of television.
You know, for thousands of years, even in Greek times, we’ve always leaned on the energy of the audience to fill a space. And now we are not allowed to do that as much. We’re not allowed to have the volume that we have ever had before.
It’s really been up to the designer to recreate a lot of that energy. And that is a big task. People have definitely reached out about adding digital people or three video screens with people Skyping in, and all these scenarios. And I think those are all valid solutions. One of the things that I’m exploring is bringing in 3D architecture and elements of animation into a space for the viewer to visually digest and add energy. And that all happens through this motion tracking real-time rendering technology.
If you can, for a disco song, for instance, drop in 500 disco balls from the sky and fill up the atmosphere with that, you create a really exciting two and a half minutes as they sparkle and twirl and move. You never could do that before. That’s just one example I’m throwing out there, but that’s something that I’m exploring and really enjoy.
AD: I have to ask you about The Masked Singer where you’re dealing with these (Emmy-winning) costumes that are just absolutely stunning and then you have to build a production design that’s going to compliment and work with that outrageous concept.
JPC: I think The Masked Singer is a great example of what production design can do for a story. And listen, when I first heard about The Masked Singer, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this show? There’s going to be crazy costumes with people trying to guess who is inside? What has my career come to?’
When you take a look at it. When you take a breath, you’re sort of like,” Hey, this is a job and a good designer has to make this a success for the network and for the viewers.” Right? So, how do those contestants come out and not look like a laugh? How do they look serious and elegant? And how do we let the audience, just like you said, appreciate them for costume design, as opposed to just being silly? And that was actually a pretty big design challenge for me. I had no idea what the answer was and I actually had to think about a comparable situation. Like, where else does that happen? I thought about the opera and also things like Burning Man where people dress up in extravagant situations and they don’t get laughed at, at all.
So, I looked at a lot of that —these big art festivals and big splashy executions of theater and wanted to bring that into The Masked Singer. I wanted to give a big artistic impression, but also give the space enough flexibility and simplicity and elegance to it so that it could support the costume design.
It is a music performance show and it has to be cool. It has to appeal to a younger generation. So embracing a music festival or art festival was something that I leaned into a lot looking at spaces like Coachella.
I chose those tunnel entrances so that I could feature every costume as they walked out through the architectural element and through the magic of lighting we’re able to change the space and create different performance looks.
I think that’s a really good example of how to take the craziest idea ever and make it palpable, entertaining, and still stylish for the viewer at home.
AD: Speaking of things that you never thought you would get to do, did you ever, in your life, think that you would win an Emmy award over Zoom?
JPC: [Laughs]. I mean, I didn’t think I would ever win one with bare feet at my house while eating chips and guac. I didn’t think that was going to happen. I thought it would probably happen with a tuxedo.
I will tell you, I’ve been nominated several times for a Primetime Emmy and I haven’t won in a long time [Connelly won his first Emmy in 2009 for his work on the MTV Video Music Awards]. I was okay with it not being me. It’s quite all right. I mean, like to me it’s a little bit more about just working hard and doing good work and staying in the conversation.
And so it came as a bit of a surprise. I actually did not have any expectations, but I feel super blessed. And what I will say is the most special is to see how everybody reacts to it. As somebody who practices production design, it’s talked about here and there. But when people out of nowhere come out and congratulate you, it’s pretty special. It sort of feels like your birthday. It’s a really wonderful feeling.