Bringing Christmas morning to a TV studio in the middle of September
Produced, written and directed by Brian Patrick Flynn with photography by Christina Wedge
Nothing pisses me off more than seeing Christmas commercials on my TV before seeing trick-or-treaters at my front door. Well, actually, there’s dozens of things that piss me off even more, starting with sticks in a vase shoved in a corner, but you get the point. After eight years working both FOR and ON the small screen, I kinda get the Christmas-cart-before-the-Halloween-horse thing: Nothing personal, just business. When you’re in the middle of dealing with concepts and designs that have 30-day shelf lives, it all starts to make a little more sense. Designers, inventors and marketing gurus have a small window of opportunity to get seasonal items out there—and make them sell.
As freelance Associate Producer [Design & Decorating] for a long-running Saturday morning series, I was given the task of showcasing the hottest toys for December 25th—in mid-September. Yeah, kinda hard to get into the holiday spirit when [a] it’s 89 degrees outside [b] stoplights are the only things sporting the green and red combo [c] store employees have yet to become familiar with red-nosed-reindeer.
Thankfully, the not-yet-released toys were sent directly from the sponsor; however, showing them in Christmas morning context was the tricky part. My mission, and I chose to accept it, was to showcase these soon-to-be-all-the-rage toys in a fresh, modern holiday setting. But there’s more: The on-set environment called for a Christmas morning feel void of branded-and-licensed reindeer, copyright-protected snowmen and the uber-expected green/red color scheme. Oh and yeah, it all needed to go up in about two hours—including walls. From working with a microscopic budget to giving test-runs to battery-operated mice, I brought my photographer in to capture the insanity of morning show set dressing. Will this project impress the upscale, residential-design-loving Elle DECOR crowd? No. Will it give morning show TV lovers a new understanding of how much work goes into creating a two-minute segment on Dance Star Mickey Mouse, Singamajigs and Stride To Ride Dinosaurs. Well, it better. Otherwise, I’m clearly in the wrong business.
Just a few steps behind the pretty, polished set lives the grab-it-and-go world of props. For every one item, there’s bound to be two or three multiples beside it. From double-sided tape to lint rollers, from super glue to spray mount, the art department has everything a single prop’s lonely, little, inanimate heart could ask for. Segments are usually organized by table. While Table Number One sports Legos and monster trucks for a kid segment, its posh neighbor, Table Number Two, sports dainty tableware for a segment on holiday hosting. Have I ever been responsible for breaking a plate when no one was looking? Nun-ya-bizness.
Sure, when a camera rolls, the toys—and kid actors playing with them—are as happy as can be. That’s all due to the painstaking prep that stylists and set dressers go through to learn the ins and outs of each featured item. After hours assembling, then playing with a plastic dinosaur that transforms from a teach-me-how-to-walk tutor to a come-on-ride-the-train companion, every producer and art department professional involved knows its inner workings and how to shoot it from every angle. I personally enjoyed popping color and texture into the background with hand-woven blabla toys—way more than a 34-year old man should. But it’s not all fun and games; each non-sponsored, background or filler prop on-set must be pre-approved by someone from the sales department. In other words, there can’t be a Build-A-Bear Workshop creation on the same set as a plush Momma Bear which Toys R Us has paid big money to promote. If there was, Christmas morning on this set wouldn’t have been so jolly.
Put up a wall
When working in TV studio set design, putting up a wall not only comes with the job, it’s encouraged. Studio people refer to walls as “flats” which are pre-built using 1X4′s, drywall or foam core, and footers. Once placed side-by-side, they’re weighed down from behind using sandbags. Painting them can be rather tricky, not to mention having to hide each seam with drywall mud, then sanding it prior to paint. To create a graphic, wintry feel, I opted for wall decals. Yeah, I know..BARF, right? We design snobs are so over decals; however, when you’re creating the look and feel of America’s most bankable holiday three months early with 16-feet of empty wall space and only two hours to execute an entire look, they come in pretty darn handy. You know what did NOT come in handy? Forgetting how much precision goes into applying decals. Luckily, my art director came up with the clever idea of mounting each vinyl silhouette on clear, non-glare Plexi. This made the walls easy as hell to adorn plus it now allows us to re-use the vinyl birch trees as many times as we want. Since budget was tighter than the mens’ pants on Dancing With the Stars, I saved by using “EXPEDIT” from IKEA for shelving, then updating their back panels with “Soma: Multi-colored” wallpaper from Graham & Brown. Thanks to that little trick, I was able to spend some bills on custom, navy blue Imperial Trellis floor pillows and fire-engine red Fatboys.
Getting some action
With seconds to spare, all toys were in place and perfectly lit. The kid actors entered the set with their million dollar, Christmas morning smiles; however, my production manager’s two-year-old nephew—notsomuch. He preferred chocolates and juices in craft services over the Mickeys and dinosaurs on-set. Santa FAIL.