Cube Power

For a unique set design at Fox News, a platonic form and rear-projection wizardry energize the cable TV powerhouse

by C.C. Sullivan

Crafting a visual brand image has become integral to television broadcasting success. With more channels to compete against, networks work hard not only at video graphics and animations but also unique set designs that push the boundaries of audiovisual and scenographic know-how. In the dog-eat-dog world of cable news, an unmistakable identity means a major player.

"The approach to broadcast is more of a marketing approach,” says Erik Ulfers, principal and owner of Clickspring Design, New York City. “They need a vernacular that keeps them separated in the marketplace – from network to network and from channel to channel.” Fox News Network, for example – known for dark backgrounds punctuated by crisp red and blue hues and big, sharp graphics – has played this card especially well, becoming one of the most-watched primetime cable networks in only 15 years.

Fox programs that are telecast from its 36-foot by 48-foot Studio H in Manhattan with personalities like Shepard Smith and Glenn Beck have helped build this industry buzz. Innovation in a variety of architectural and audiovisual techniques has contributed to these wins – and this ARCHI-TECH AV Award.

As with its other studio set projects, Fox turned to AV integrator McCann Systems, Edison, NJ, and set builder Showman Fabricators, Long Island City, NY. Their challenge: Create a 360-degree studio to match the brand. Their solution, never before televised, combines the twin focal points of a novel mono-desk, which merges into a staircase and catwalk unit – wrapping an iconic, monolithic cube of four rear-projection screens. The cube’s shape echoes the familiar, spinning Fox logo, but at a massive scale, visually anchoring the 360-degree, concentric set with its sculptural presence.

Custom Platform, High-End Systems
According to McCann Systems, the AV cube’s one-of-a-kind design made it “imperative that the ideals of the concept and the reality of the technology be in sync.” McCann collaborated early in the process with Clickspring and Showman Fabricators – “experimenting, testing and fine-tuning all aspects of the technology.”

The 12-foot-square screens posed challenges in the placement of projectors as well as the conversion of television’s golden mean – four by three – to the atypical 1:1 square surfaces. “This is the only cube we’ve done of this sort, and besides the challenge of the aspect ratio, we didn’t want to see the projectors on camera,” says Ulfers.

Flexible filmscreen material on a custom frame, along with a special mounting platform, were fitted to the existing space and studio lighting grid. “The lightweight steel frame is engineered to support the screens without deflection while being thin enough that the framing doesn’t get in the way of the projection equipment,” says Robert Usdin, the LEED-accredited owner of Showman Fabricators. LED strip fixtures on bevels serve as transition at the corners between the four screens.

The mono-desk surrounding the cube, used as a 360-degree studio set, connects to a stepped catwalk unit made of open steel framing with a multilayer top of highly reflective material under glass that renders a bright gold sheen, enhanced by LED edge lighting. Architectural-grade finishes, including applied and painted graphics, were specified to make the set compatible with high-definition broadcasting. The LED strip fixtures, developed with Lighting Design Group, New York City, accentuate glass, mirror and other reflective finishes. A mirrored tile floor reflects and reinforces the cube.

To further accentuate the cube’s scale, McCann selected Vista Spyder for video layering opportunities. The team ran fiber optics from the main technical room in the basement of the building to the 12th-floor broadcast studio for the new displays.

Fox also wanted to add several banks of LCD televisions into the new set, each containing multiple displays and an assortment of plasma screens – a total of 45 monitors for rapid-fire displays during live broadcasts. To make it work, walls were fitted with multiple cutouts and adjustable mounts, with an efficient radio-frequency (RF) distribution scheme instead of routers. Only five wires feed all the monitors; video brought in from Fox is modulated into four channels to allow the display of custom graphics on small, RF-only monitors. McCann Systems also created a graphical interface allowing Fox technical directors to choose preset scenes with one-touch operation.

To the Polls on Time
While the full budget is under wraps, the AV line hit $545,000 for Studio H. More important than cost, however, was schedule: The studio had to open in time for the 2008 fall elections.

“Broadcast doesn’t have forgiving deadlines,” says Ulfers. “It’s gratifying because you get to see it very soon. But getting it up and ready to go is stressful.” To contend with the set’s complexities, the team created mock-ups and demos off-site, fine tuning every possible aspect of the technology, according to McCann Systems, which had previously done a smaller rear-projection cube. These steps would speed fabrication and reduce surprises during the installation crunch.

“The most important thing is to know what you don’t know, and to make allowances for clearance and access where things need to be tightly integrated,” says Usdin, who had four detailers working on the set.

What really made the team coalesce was the mutual familiarity and respect of all the team members. Ulfers had worked with McCann for almost 15 years on such projects as CNN Headquarters and a Fox Business Network studio. Usdin was a familiar collaborator, too. “Put it this way: We know everybody,” Ulfers sums up.