In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
As a production designer for shows like The Voice, Top Chef, and The Biggest Loser, James Pearse Connelly has helped shape what viewers think of as a reality show’s look. With some palm trees and spotlights, he can remind tens of millions of people that The Voice centers around real Hollywood drama, while clean lines and plenty of stainless steel reinforce that the Top Chef kitchen isn’t just a set and is, instead, a set that also happens to be a well-stocked and fully functional kitchen. He creates hangout rooms and stages, providing stressed-out contestants and glammed-up judges places to not-so-casually casually chat, all while cameras look on. The A.V. Club talked to Connelly about this process, as well as about how he’s translating Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California cool into the new season of Celebrity Apprentice.
The A.V. Club: How did you get into production design for reality shows?
James Pearse Connelly: I ask myself that every day, but in a different tone.
I was a child of a single mother/art teacher, and a father who was an architect, so I’ve always been around the combination of art, fine art, and architecture my entire life. There was a period there where I was like, “No, no, no, this is crazy. I don’t want to take any more drawing classes and talk about what looks best. I want to study math and psychology and physics and all these nerdy things with computers.” That was fun and great, but that didn’t work out. At the end of high school, I was like, “Uhh, what’s easier? Drawing is easier, I’ll do that.”
I was a gay kid in high school in the late ’90s, and I was in theater club. I was never a thespian. I was much more of a lighting guy or a backstage guy. Because I wanted to do something easy for the rest of my life, I thought, “Maybe I’ll go and apply to colleges that specialize in theater set design. I’ll do that. That’s what I want to do.” With theater, really, I’d be around the gays.
I grew up in New Jersey, and I applied all over, but I went to Rutgers University. They had an art conservatory program. I didn’t even know I wanted to do design. I just wanted to be backstage, and near the scene. I was applying to the art school, but there was a checklist that said I had to do either production design or stage management or acting. I thought, “I don’t want to be an actor, but I know production and stage management take acting classes”—this is literally my internal monologue. I was like, “Designers don’t have to take acting classes. Cool. I’ll check that box.”
There were only like six or seven of us in this small, tight little conservatory program. I have no idea how I got in. The first day of class, they were explaining what set designers do for a living, which is basically that you read a script, and you make a diorama shoebox of it, designing the set. I thought, “I could totally do that. Reading plays is so easy. This is totally my life. This is totally it!” And from there on, I just kept going with it, and moving forward in the set design world.
After I graduated college, it was a terrible time in New York City. It was after 9/11, because I graduated in 2002, so I took a job in San Diego as a prop guy. The idea was to always stay around the scene. But when I moved up to L.A. in the early 2000s after doing props in San Diego, I was like, “Fuck reading scripts—that’s too hard. I want to be in unscripted TV.” So it even got easier. I got more into that reality/variety/alternative television craze, which was popular back then, and I feel like now is taking a little bit of a dip.
I love this medium. I think unscripted variety television may or may not get a bad rap now, but it is a fabulous environment. It is exactly who I am, and there’s so much creativity there to express. Suddenly now the environment that I’m designing is the situation to be in. Producers are looking to me to concept full worlds for subjects to compete, play a game show in, win an award, blah blah blah. It’s a really exciting place to be as you conceptualize the format of a show. I get involved so early in the process and it’s become quite a unique position for a production designer. It’s really fabulous—I love it. I never had a specific direction. I just kind of made it my own.
AVC: What do people want from you? When a show’s creator comes to you, do they describe the room they want? Do they tell you how they want it to function? What are the directions?
JPC: More and more I’ve been getting involved with some of the shows that are starting from the ground up. I’ve definitely been involved with shows that have had multiple seasons, though, and want an update. That’s one story.
The second story is when a show is starting from the ground-up. Usually they don’t really know what they want. They know the way the show is going to edit, they know the structure, and the program. They tend to supply adjectives that are really loose, and they have no other ideas. I come in with a series of questions like, “What’s the demographic? What time is this show airing? What time do you think it wants to air? Where are you? What’s your favorite restaurant? What restaurant feels closest to this? If we were in Vegas, what hotel is closer to the show than the other hotels?” I can get a little litmus test on the overall vibe, and then I send tear sheets and inspirations, especially if it’s a contemporary show, because nine times out of 10 we’re not doing anything period. I send images of retail stores, restaurants, hotels, architectural installations, artwork, and sculptures that can help me get closer to the tonality that they’re feeling.
From there, I scratch out a little choreography of how to get their format to work in a production, and then I elevate it and apply the finishes that we had discussed on top. It’s like a show therapist, in a way. You just hear from them about their dream boards, and use what they want. They’re much more of the visionary, in loose terms, and then I take it and translate it out, and help guide them into it. A lot of times, they say things and they don’t really mean it. So you show them, and they’re like, “Oh no, not that.” I’m like, “Okay, cool. Remember when you said this?” So there’s a little bit of therapy.
AVC: Can you walk me through something like The Voice? How did that go?
JPC: Just the way I said. Exactly that.
In fact, on the season that just finished airing, there was a big overhaul in the overall storytelling. That really started with a, “You know, the problem is this doesn’t look right, and this is not conveying the story that we want. We need an authentic space that feels more intimate with the singer and the artist when they approach this competition.” Or, for the rehearsal spaces for instance, they might say, “So, the problem is that we are watching the stage so much. We need to showcase a breath of fresh air for the audience watching the show, tonality-wise. We need to give the show a little bit of style, and we need to show the artist and what they’re doing in between acts.”
That’s sometimes all you get. You’re like, “Okay, cool. Let’s show them walking into a rehearsal compound. Let’s show their world outside of the stage, and what does that look like? Here are some tear sheets on some style.” “Oh that’s cool, I like mid-century, I like Eames,” or whoever. “Cool, cool, cool. All right, let’s pretend this is the little hallway they walk right in to get to the rehearsal room. And then maybe this is the rehearsal room.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” And then they come back with a very conceptual idea, and it’ll be sort of like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the rehearsal room had the same shape as the stage?” “Yeah, that would be cool.” “Great.” We pencil that out a little bit, and then I go back and I put my style on top of some of the ideas that we talked about. It goes from there, but there’s a shepherding-type quality where you’re kind of herding the visionaries through a series of questions.
AVC: Are they also functional rooms? When you make a rehearsal room, for instance, does it sound good?
JPC: Budget affects everything. The word “budget” is the idea-killer. It slaughters any idea. The moment somebody says in a meeting, “Can we afford that?” it’s basically negative poo-pooing on something. Budget tends to play a huge role. My approach is to 100 percent get the concept and the visual right. Get the client to love the space. Once they love the space, everything’s possible.
Once we have a nice, conceptual sketch and rendering and design approved, then it’s really about pinpointing what’s functional and what’s not, because functional equals expensive. If the person or artist doesn’t touch it, and if the camera stays relatively far away from it, it doesn’t really have to be real. So we’ve absolutely printed brick walls. We’ve shown many a non-functional microphone. If they’re in the background, they don’t have to work. It’s expensive if they’re real. We can fake those items. Are they really singing and rehearsing? Yes, 100 percent. We’re not there to interrupt their journey. What’s behind them, is that always real? Maybe not. Maybe it’s there for looks. Maybe it’s there just coincidentally. But it starts with the idea first, and getting the look right. Everything around it is about budget.
AVC: For Top Chef, did you do the hangout room and the kitchen, or just the kitchen?
JPC: I just do the kitchen, not the stew room.
AVC: Are you doing the new season?
JPC: I did, yeah. Charleston, South Carolina. I just got back.
AVC: How do you bring the spirit of a location into the kitchen? Is it possible?
JPC: Oh God, absolutely. That’s the theme of the show.
When I get the call about the show coming back and the dates and the location, that’s job number one. I dive right into research of what that local city is. What are the local restaurants? What are the flavors? What’s the history of a city? Why is it called The Holy City? What does a license plate look like? I do a mile of research just on the city and its history.
Charleston was easy, because I have a lot of experience and a lot of family down there. I went down there a year or so ago for Thanksgiving, so I just dug up all my old photos, and studied a lot of the architecture that’s down in South Carolina.
Coincidentally, the culinary history of South Carolina is fascinating. The slave trade was so heavy there, and so how the slave trade affected residences and eating and prepping food was essential to put into the Top Chef kitchen. The slaves would make all the meals, right? They would prep all the food downstairs, if it was a large manor house, or outside, because slave owners didn’t trust them not to burn down the place. A lot of times they would have cookhouses, or they would be submerged down in the basement to prep all the food. So when I designed the kitchen this year, I brought in nuances of a lower level. There are steps down into this kitchen, and there are oversized loading doors that feel as if you could step down and load the goods downstairs. So a lot of that affects the design greatly. The producers and the network love it, too. If you can give your walls history, it supports the action that’s happening in front of them.
AVC: A set like the Top Chef kitchen seems to have a lot of layers, too. It’s not flat. It looks like there are rooms and hallways and things where they might not be. That’s to your credit.
JPC: If you look around anywhere, layers are an important part of, not just the story and the concept, but the world you’re in. If you just turn around and look at your office door, there’s a door, and there’s something behind it. I was just saying this in a meeting the other day about TVs in rooms and outlets and vents. You take for granted the details that make something look real. It can still look fabulous, but if you add a light switch, a vent, or the notion of air conditioning, it can look real. I don’t even know of a room that doesn’t have a flat-screen TV in it. These are things that just come in environments these days. And if you were going to walk into a space, where did you come from? Was there a bathroom around the corner? These are things that are authentic, and that’s what makes successful television. It’s not pre-produced garbage. It’s believability and connection. The environment has to tell that story.
AVC: Do shows come to you with colors they want to use? Did The Voice say “Let’s use red”?
JPC: It’s a spectrum. I treat every show, every production, like its own individual human organism that’s grown up in a certain way, and they all have crazy habits and do different things. For instance, I work a lot with Game Show Network. Game shows sometimes like to choose the colors ahead of time. Everything else, not so much. But the colors, they know. During round two or three of our chats, they’ll be like, “You know what it’s going to be? Purple and green.” I’m like, “Oh, great, okay.”
AVC: Mardi Gras!
JPC: Yeah, exactly! I said that yesterday—I was like, “Yay, Mardi Gras!” But NBC’s The Voice had a brand, and when I got into it, they definitely wanted me to have freedom with it.
I’ve greatly affected The Voice’s brand, and pulled out the V and made the V a character. In some seasons, I’ve blown it up black and red and kept it the same as their first logo ever. And some seasons, I’ve totally steered away from it.
Just to give the audience a breath of fresh air is important. If you can maintain the silhouette of a brand, and repeat that silhouette to remind the viewer what show they’re watching subtly, you don’t need the color. Or if you keep the color, you can play with it. The Voice lets me do that. Some shows want to keep it sacred and untouchable at first, and some shows like to have a little freedom. It’s all kind of different.
AVC: How does lighting play into what you’re doing and how you envision things?
JPC: I pre-visualize every set with a sketch rendering. It’s all 3-D. Sometimes we even do fly-through animation. I have a team and a company together here. And in those fly-throughs and video animations of fake worlds, I do a lot of the lighting, and even some of the camera moves. Sometimes, you’re doing it for the client before the lighting designers are even involved. Lighting is there to create an evocative emotion. If you’re walking through a certain hallway, and it’s dramatic, you know what you’re about to get into outside of that hallway. If it’s a full-light, colorful experience, it’s a little light and airy, it’s a little comedic maybe, or it’s meant to give a different feeling. The lighting there is more for the personal emotion of the subject that is in that environment, and the client and I work together on it. Sometimes we trade tear sheets of lighting, and sometimes they are fine with however I present it, too.
AVC: How does it work with something like The Biggest Loser? That’s a very emotional show on a number of levels.
JPC: Oh, yeah. And you have to create spaces for that emotion to come out. There’s so much crying. It’s almost a running joke. You need to create pockets and quiet spaces for that part of the journey to happen. We laugh about it, casually, but what they go through for this cardio crash course of losing entire chunks of their body, there’s so much emotion attached to it. They used to not have areas to do that. And they can’t be, “This is the area to cry now!” It’s got to be an organic corner that, if you had an emotional experience and you’re kind of out of control in your sadness or your overwhelming emotion, you would gravitate to. How far away is it? How many steps away is it? Can somebody meet you there? Do you have privacy there? Can you hide? Can the camera still see you?
I try to put myself in the situation and think about how I would approach it. It can’t be too far away, and it also can’t be too big. It’s got to be welcoming. One hundred percent, you have to think about that. The Biggest Loser is great because I was a fan of the show before I took it, and so I knew what it was all about. And then you watch a few more episodes, you find out what’s really important and think, “What did I react to?” most importantly. So, I put that all in.
AVC: What are some of the silliest things you’ve been asked, or dumbest challenges you’ve faced?
JPC: Every creative meeting you come away and you say, “I can’t believe they said this, and I can’t believe they said that.” But I have to make it good. If it’s crazy and insane, I have to make that believable and as good as it possibly can be. Every request is crazy and stupid, and it’s up to me to make it the best I can.
AVC: You’re working on the Arnold Schwarzenegger Celebrity Apprentice. What’s that like?
JPC: I’m so excited for this one to come out, because of the tail end of the Donald Trump thing. It was awesome to inherit, and it’s totally a reboot of the show.
Nothing’s the same. Yes, the contestants go to the board room. Yes, it’s being hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the entire look and the space went from New York, small Trump Tower corporate office, “What does corporate power and business power mean to New York?” to “What [does] corporate executive chic style and power mean to Los Angeles?” It was a personal story for me, because I came from New Jersey and New York and traveled to L.A. You know how you talk to people who just moved over and they say, “It’s black and white—it’s so different,” and you’re like, “How?” They say something general like, “The people,” but it’s everything. It’s space. To me, Los Angeles and California and executive power are about big, open warehouse buildings. Tech companies are buying oversized buildings, because they project growth immediately. These big Silicon Valley companies that are popping up are projecting growth skyrocketing in a few years. So they need a space they can grow into. Not so much in New York. Super conservative, super small.
AVC: And there’s a different kind of opulence.
JPC: Yes! Humility and casualness is a thing here, in terms of style. In New York, it’s a little bit more formal, a little bit more decorated, and there’s a real appreciation for traditional style. Out here, it’s casual, fresh, new, and almost humble. Empty space and a kind of casual power are two things that I had to weave into the finishings and the architecture of Celebrity Apprentice. So it’s very different.
AVC: One of your very first IMDB credits was the America’s Next Top Model limousine. How did you design a limousine?
JPC: Oh my God, I know. It’s so funny. It’s something I’m so proud of, and it was so early. I was very young. I just took a random job, because America’s Next Top Model had some integration with L’Oréal or something, and they needed a fully decked-out limousine. So I said, “Sure, of course I’ll do it.” Just like the way I am now, I’ll take anything and make it good. I love this medium because there’s freedom to make it good.
So I blew up this limousine. We did the outside. We did the inside. We re-finished the upholstery, and the linings, and gave it some window treatments, and it came out as its own character. I ended up doing it for four seasons successfully, and now I’m pretty familiar with car makeovers. It’s pretty easy, so whenever the challenge arises, “Hey, you know, we were thinking about putting the cast in a car, and we wanted to give it a little… ” “Yeah, sure, I know how to do it, no problem.” You learn along the way.
AVC: What other cars have you done?
JPC: There was this MTV awards show called the O Music Awards, and a couple of years ago, they did a 24-hour bus tour from Memphis to New Orleans with Wayne Coyne from Flaming Lips and a few other people. They traveled and sung at a bunch of different venues, all through the 24-hour internet broadcast of the tour. I did the bus, and the bus was a giant character that had been around forever. I hid the camera, the lighting, full-on character finishes, wallpaper, seats, the whole shmegegge, and it was awesome. There wasn’t even room for a cameraman in there, so every shot had to be dictated by a GoPro, and automated surveillance lights. So, when somebody’s just kind of walking around being boring, the viewer needs something fabulous to look at. So the bus became a character. It was really, really fun.
AVC: What happens when you’re done with something like that? What happened to the bus?
JPC: We store it for a bit. It’s a large part of our job. It’s kind of a motto of mine: “It will come back, just like acid reflux. It will come back.” So we photograph it to death. Things change on the fly, so we make sure we’ve noted our paperwork to reflect the changes that were on camera. And then we throw it away. But we note everything. So if they recreate it, or they didn’t get a shot, it’s reproducible. You’ll never know how many times that happens. The viewer never notices.
On The Voice, it happens a lot. We reproduce a lot of those sets on the fly. “Christina can’t make it. She’s sick.” “Oh crap. Take it down. Put it up, put it up.” It’s detailed, and you don’t notice in the show, but that may have not happened on the same day or that may have been somewhere else.
Every shot will be recorded so that we can recreate it. A lot of times those designs were coming out of a natural shot from season two or something. Then we recreate it so many times that it takes on its own little design of its own while it maintains some of those old ideas. The Voice has been on for 10 seasons. It’s morphed and changed all along.
AVC: Do you try to capture judges or mentors’ personalities? With Top Chef, do you think, “How is Padma Lakshmi going to fit into this?”
JPC: On Top Chef, it’s really about the city.
I can’t sit still, but for now, I’m obsessed with the regionalism of Top Chef. For The Voice, from season two to eight, it was about the coaches to me. I was 100 percent obsessed with who they were. I was obsessed with watching them. But now the show has become such a landmark achievement for alternative television and singing competitions that it’s become more about the journey of the artist to Los Angeles pop-star fame.
I’m 36, and sometimes I’m working so hard I don’t realize how much I’ve gotten done. But I’ll tell you, every time I drive onto the Universal lot, and I drive up to go to some meeting where somebody needs something else from me for God knows what, and I get to the fifth floor where I usually park—I put the car in park and I get out and I see Stage 12 from blocks and blocks away. That’s The Voice stage, and it’s the mural that’s wrapped, that we painted, on the stage. It’s standing out there, and it’s colorful. I’m being totally honest, but I really do get chills every time I see something that I designed, painted on the biggest stage in Universal, standing proud there among all the other stages. I think, “That is so amazing that I did this.”
I grew up in New Jersey on the shore, with hand-me-down jackets and shit, and would think to myself, “I just want to spoil my kids in the future if I have nothing,” and here I am, walking through Universal, and they’re shooting Uncle Buck the show, and there’s some random grips, and there’s an astronaut or whatever cliché that walks past. It’s so special. I still feel so awesome about it.
I really think that’s probably what these kids are feeling, too, for the biggest audition of their life. They’re looking at all these special things and these nuances around them that are so L.A. and so Hollywood, and that you can’t see anywhere else. I want to put that into the show. I’m obsessed with this feeling now. It’s a little bit of reminiscing and it’s a little personal, but that’s where I’m heading with it now, in season 10 and 11.