CAD Goes Hollywood, Part 1

6 Jul, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

VectorWorks helps set designers achieve sometimes-unrealistic demands of TV industry

When you're watching your favorite primetime sports channel or news program, slouching on your favorite couch with a bowl of popcorn, an AutoCAD Command line or x-y-z coordinate system is probably the last thing on your mind. But if you look carefully, you might find evidence of familiar CAD programs lurking behind anchors Charles Gibson or Katie Couric.

CAD might not see the limelight in Hollywood like some higher-profile technologies, but that's not because it's rarely used. In fact, CAD comes into play in Tinsel Town more often than you might think. In this article, the first in an occasional series, we'll channel our attention toward the design and drafting technologies that are sneaking into our living rooms through our TV screens.

Mad Money Makes Him Sad
It's painful for Jac Gendelman, managing partner of blackwalnut, to watch Jim Cramer, the flamboyant host of CNBC's Mad Money. "He tends to throw things around the set," Gendelman observes. Sometimes, as he takes questions from viewers in his well-known Lightening Round segment, the easily excitable Cramer might toss a swivel chair onto the set. That's the set Gendelman helped build, along with his business partners and the blackwalnut production team.

Chances are you have seen some of Gendelman's work. His company, which describes itself as "the entertainment industry's go-to scene shop," is responsible for a number of recognizable broadcast environments -- for instance, the sets of ESPN Classic Now and last summer's reality TV game show My Kind of Town.

Reflecting on concept drawings he has received over the years, Gendelman says, "[They] can be anything from a scanned pencil drawing to a fully rendered 3D image" -- with an occasional napkin drawing in the mix. Gendelman warns that if he's forced to give a quote based on a napkin drawing, "The estimate will include a giant caveat that says it is based on sketches and verbal description, but final bidding will be determined based on the completed sketch."

Not-Reality TV
Because practicality is rarely considered a virtue in the entertainment industry, Gendelman and his team have seen some early concepts based on unrealistic requirements, such as one-inch-thick acrylic sheets bending beyond their maximum capacity or fixtures floating in defiance of the laws of physics. "In some ways, it doesn't matter what the budget is, whether it's $100,000 or a million, because the design is always going to be pushing the envelope," he says.

Negotiating between the construction industry and the design industry, blackwalnut operates in a dual-platform environment, with an equal number of PCs and Macs among the staff. "Half of us are working on VectorWorks and the other half on AutoCAD at any given time," says Gendelman. The dual-platform VectorWorks from Nemetschek is one of the standard packages in his market. "Most of the drawings we get from designers are drawn initially in VectorWorks," he says.

Build the warmest, most high-tech environment possible. That was, more or less, the directive from KGTV, one of blackwalnut's latest clients. To accommodate the client, PDG/Jack Morton Design, the designers of KGTV in San Diego and frequently a blackwalnut partner, chose to utilize state-of-the-art color-changing light boxes.

"One of the biggest challenges of TV news is giving them the biggest, broadest variety of shot choices," Gendelman remarked. "[The set at] KGTV was going to host not just the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news but the 4 p.m. news as well. Jim Fenhagen and Bryan Higgason at PDG designed -- and blackwalnut built -- a 360-degree room. We had to come up with a way to pivot the anchor desk. The tricky part was managing all the electronics that had to go into the desk."

To create a warm environment with a high-tech feel, blackwalnut and its partners used color-changing light boxes for the set of KGTV in San Diego.

Virtual Assembly and Demolition
Aside from VectorWorks' drafting tools, the team at blackwalnut finds the software's 3D modeling tools vital to production work. "Before we build," Gendelman says, "we're often modeling the entire set in 3D, including lighting and shadows." blackwalnut uses VectorWorks in conjunction with the 3D modeling packages Cinema 4D from Maxon and form.Z from auto-des-sys.

"We break down all our construction drawings into components. We have to figure out how to make our pieces modular. We can't just build it in one piece and cut it apart. Everything has to snap together. We're essentially making a gigantic LEGO structure," Gendelman says. "We can't build the set on-site."

The set has to be built at blackwalnut's production facility in Valley Cottage, New York, then dismantled, shipped to the site and reassembled. "If there's a piece that's too big to fit through the TV studio door, it's far better to discover it in the 3D phase than the postconstruction stage."

Gendelman predicts more and more broadcasters will be forced to migrate to the HD (high-definition) environment, which is not the most forgiving environment for visualization. "If you have a scratch in the laminated surface," he says, "people will see it." Maybe that's why he's particularly troubled by Mad Money's Cramer. In HDTV, the damaged walls on the set -- Gendelman's labor of love -- will be many times more visible.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

More News and Resources from Cadalyst Partners

For Mold Designers! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the mold design professional. Sponsored by Siemens NX.  Visit the Equipped Mold Designer here!

For Architects! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the building design professional. Sponsored by HP.  Visit the Equipped Architect here!