The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Thursday, November 05, 2015


November 5, 2015 Marian Sandberg | livedesignonline

Raeford Dwyer Photography

Production designer Jim Fenhagen and senior designer Larry Hartman have worked together on many projects in their respective positions with Jack Morton Design/PDG, not the least of which have been Comedy Central’s incarnations of The Daily Show sets, as well as the set for The Colbert Report when it first launched and when it was redesigned. They’ve also worked on Colbert’s specials, including Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear at Washington DC’s National Mall, the 2012 summer concert series on the aircraft carrier deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York, and his December interview with President Obama in DC.

With Colbert moving to CBS to take over the timeslot and space of The Late Show With David Letterman at the iconic Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York, the same design team masterminded his set. We caught up with Hartman the week after The Late Show With Stephen Colbert first aired to learn more about converting the famous space, including the new lighting design by Michael Scricca.

LD: When it came to the actual look of the new set, what sort of aesthetic were you going for?

LH: Arriving at the scenic design was truly a collaborative process that took months and many, many conversations with Stephen and his producers. We really wanted to embrace the theatre architecture, so that the entire room could be a part of the onscreen environment.

Raeford Dwyer Photography

One particular challenge was taking this magnificent open volume and creating an environment that “contains the comedy,” as Stephen put it. We spoke a lot about how large spaces, like the theatre where the Oscars are held, are almost synonymous with killing comedy. In our design conversations, he spoke of the need to direct the focus on himself and his guests. We did this by creating structures that connect to the soaring theatre facade but appear to naturally divide it and organize its impact into smaller areas. The downstage ends of the stage have naves with tall columns culminating in Gothic arches. We added balconies on each side, essentially cutting the height down to person-sized levels. This not only helped to make the scale friendlier but also doubled the playing space for a show that will continue to grow and experiment.

To manage the towering height of the proscenium, we created a canopy that runs horizontally across at about mid-height. The space above the canopy features an LED star drop that softly twinkles behind a large, dimensional show logo. The canopy nicely frames Stephen’s interview area and the performance space below.

The design process was even more intriguing since we were designing the set as the very show itself was being figured out. Stephen noted that we were being asked to “create the arena” before the game was set, so giving the show a flexible playground that could evolve was a key factor in the development of the design.

To this end, other powerful features of the new set are the large LED screens incorporated into it. These include Stephen’s backdrop, as well as a flying screen in the performance area, and vertical towers flanking the proscenium. D3 LED provided all of the LED tiles, as well as their support structure. The tiles range in pixel pitch from 1.6 mm to 2.5mm. These displays enable Stephen and the writers to make the background a dynamic part of the jokes, providing editable canvasses to reinforce the comedy.

Raeford Dwyer Photography

Getting back to the original question of the aesthetic of the set, it had to be warm and inviting with an obvious late night vibe. We wanted to reinforce the grace and textured depth of the theatre architecture but then complement it with modern forms and finishes. We also juxtaposed the grittiness of the backstage, using painted brick and industrial practical light fixtures. And there is certainly a nod to the feel of The Colbert Report, with color-changing light boxes and wood shelves featuring books and props from the show, like Captain America’s shield.

Overall, it is the theatre’s neo-Gothic style meeting a warm, industrial chic.

The theatre’s period look features vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. The stained glass has become a feature in the overall design, with the existing windows once again illuminated and some of the projections mapped onto the dome, depicting Stephen in a colored glass style. During the design process, Stephen mentioned wanting to find our own version of the stained glass, and we landed upon an almost Mondrian motif. The rectangular colored patterns that accent the set are actually separately controllable, color-changing light boxes. Coupled with the LED displays and the rest of the traditional lighting rig, these “Mondrian light boxes” can reskin the look of the set instantly. This will all be on display, especially with the guest band performances.

For the full article visit Live Design Online Part 1 & 2

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