Tips for designing a new virtual studio set

My goal

Overhaul the entire look of our longest-running program here at RJI, Views of the News, a show that was last updated, for a little perspective, sometime during Obama’s first term in office. The new set look makes its debut tomorrow.

The furniture

Here is where the ball began to roll. For six years now, the talent — the moderator and two panelists — have been sitting at what can only be described as a large, surfboard-shaped, boardroom-style table. This table was made by a local cabinet maker who didn’t just give me a wood panel façade, but an actual piece of dense wood that weighs more than I can lift by myself. (Let’s just say I’ve lost track the number of willing students who help me drag it out into the hallway each week.)

At NAB this year, I just happened to meet with some folks at Gelbach Designs, a North Carolina-based set designer/manufacturer. I was so impressed with their unique approach to constructing studio sets (lots of Velcro), that when I was later thinking about a new table, I went to them first.

Allow me to step back just a bit. My situation here at the Reynolds Journalism Institute is unique in that we don’t just produce standard newscast-style productions; far from it, in fact. Everything I have built for use in the RJI studio has to fit a number of needs both known and unknown, including the furniture — a concept that took a little bit of explaining to the folks at Gelbach. I needed a table that would look good with two people sitting at it or four people sitting at it; could easily move around to different areas of the studio and talent could do a show while standing (pretty popular these days). I needed a table that looked good in front of both a real set and a virtual set. What we ended up creating is a custom round table that’s power height-adjustable with a four foot in diameter acrylic-based top that I can cover for when I have to use it in front a green screen.

The old Views of the News virtual set
The old Views of the News virtual set

The set

With my new table in place, changing the set seemed like a natural next step. I’ve been hesitant to change over the years because the look of the graphics was based on the look of the set.

For the set update, I went back to my favorite virtual set website: For the non-graphic designer like myself, they do everything for you, and at a fair price. We’re a four-camera show, and so their sets are perfect because a single package comes with multiple angles. Each angle is its own layered file, which for me means I can open it in Photoshop and remove a fake desk or a fake television monitor I don’t want to use. (If you choose to keep the monitors, you’re able to customize the image that goes inside them.) The first step was finding the right set. What made me buy the one we did was its “control room” view in the center of the image. It came with a fake one, but since I have a permanent camera in my actual control room, I thought it’d be cool to incorporate that perspective into the show. For the techies out there, making that happen live involves using three of six keyers on the switcher: on the bottom is the control room camera, DVE’d; in the middle is the virtual set; and on top of that is the studio camera.

The animations

Two words: Digital Juice. I recommend them to anyone and everyone. If you’re not a graphic designer or you just don’t have the time to create eye-popping, professional-looking animations, backgrounds, lower-thirds, etc., Digital Juice has you covered. For a flat rate each month, we have access to thousands of Photoshop templates, After Effects templates, Motion templates, Final Cut Templates and so much more. Finding an animation that works as an open, for example, is much like shopping for the right virtual set: it’s got to look good and fit the mood of the show. Because there are so many options, it helps to kind of know what you want before you begin. I think I searched “lines diagonal” to start; after which I narrowed the field until I found what I was looking for.

The graphics

The whole reason for holding on to the old look for so long is because the look of the graphics was based on the look of the set. A pretty common design technique, really. I created them all from scratch in Photoshop, borrowing colors from the set.

So big deal, right? Just change them. Well, I build each week’s graphics on templates accessible only from Chyron’s online portal, Axis Graphics. Most outlets that use Axis are television stations that produce multiple newscasts each day. In order to create the templates that are used in Axis, you have to subscribe to a program called Lyric. That comes at a cost, a cost not worth the number of times I would need to use it. I couldn’t easily change the graphic templates which meant I couldn’t easily change the set…so I didn’t.

Earlier this summer, Chyron granted me access to Lyric for 30 days, which is plenty of time to upload new templates. That was enough of a green light for me to move forward with the complete and total makeover of the show.


Comments are closed.