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Getting set for 'Idol'

The unveiling of a spiffed-up stage signals that, once again, things

March 11, 2009|Richard Rushfield

Sunday afternoon, with 48 hours until the first-ever Top 13 sing here, the cavernous "American Idol" soundstage more closely resembled a demolition zone than the glitzy home of the nation's leading entertainment powerhouse. Next to the half-finished judges' table, a Hertz rental crane hoisted a cherry picker basket above the set for a technician to adjust some lights. Some 60 crew members moved about with unhurried focus, installing video monitors, placing a drum kit on the set's second-floor bandstand, testing the sound system and setting up platforms.

Andy Walmsley, "Idol's" impish set designer since its second season, seemed slightly unnerved by how smoothly it was going. "We're half a day ahead now and no one knows why, it's so bizarre. At lunchtime yesterday we were looking at each other and saying, 'How did this happen?' "

Surveying his work, Walmsley obsessively looked for flaws. He fixated on the arched "rainbow wall" on the second floor. "That should really be four feet higher than that," he sighed. "But because of the lighting and a lot of boring technical reasons, it's four feet lower than it should be . . . No one would ever know except me but there's always something like that that drives me nuts."

It is this kind of hyper-focus on the show's myriad details that makes it, season after season, stand on another plane, production-wise, from its peers. In the days after the show goes from semifinals to the finals -- this year, Season 8, 13 out of 36 singers survived the brutal whittling -- the stage from the previous season is taken out of storage. And so the Idoldome is rebuilt and re-imagined for each new group of contestants.

Asked what message Walmsley is trying to convey this season, whether the chrome arms evoke a Thunderdome-like gladiators' arena, he demurred and said: "In theater, you spend hours and days thinking about what kind of chair would that character sit on; would that character have actually gone out and bought that kind of chair? . . . With TV, it's just what looks good."

Pressed further, he admitted to a dash of Flash Gordon in his aesthetic, with a little Disneyland and Jules Verne tossed in.

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Steeped in the stage

Similar to many in the "Idol" family, Walmsley hails from a theatrical background: His mother was a professional fire-eater, his father a famed British comedian. As a boy, Walmsley built mock studios out of Legos, his more sophisticated models drawing the attention of a magician friend of the family who hired him at age 15 to design the set of his TV show. At 21, he designed his first Broadway-bound show, crafting a set at London's Shubert Theatre.

Also in his credits is one of the most famous stages on Earth, particularly after this Oscar season: the set for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

The process of designing the "Idol" set, it becomes clear, is not unlike that of decorating one's living room, battling the same enemy -- limited space.

Motioning to the set, Walmsley said, "This show has literally outgrown the studio, and this is one of the biggest TV studios in Hollywood. The very first season . . . there was just a ton of empty space and the set's just grown and grown and grown."

Last year's decision to allow performers to use instruments sparked a crisis, as room was suddenly needed to store pianos within reach of the main stage, leading to what Walmsley called one of his most controversial decisions: moving the band to a second story above the stage. "By lifting the band in the air, we gained all that real estate," he said.

Onstage, we were joined by James Yarnell, "Idol's" art director, who described the challenge each season of revisiting the set. This year, they have not done an overhaul of last year's major revamp (they estimate the set is about one-third new) but, instead, "You try to step it up," Yarnell said. "There's more screens on the wall, screens on the floor, each one takes it up a notch to try and be brash without being tacky."

Perhaps the biggest change this year, and the one most likely to keep Walmsley and Yarnell up at night, is the addition of a staircase that will emerge from the center of the stage, allowing movement from the bandstand down to the main stage.

Previously, the band's space was effectively isolated, with the trip up the stairs difficult during a two-minute song. Further, the lighted staircase creates an opportunity for a grand entrance for Ryan Seacrest. But first, they hope the complex series of actions required to unfurl the staircase will unfold as planned.

If any part of the operation should fail, "You've got your host stuck up top in front of 20 million people," said Walmsley.

Asked how many times the system will be tested, Yarnell nodded. "Many. Many, many."

Beyond the stairs, 90% of an "Idol" show's visuals, Walmsley said, are the singers standing in front of the video screen. "Without the screen, it would be a piece of scenery that would never change for 12 weeks."

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High-tech challenge

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