With about 31 hours to go before the start of the fifth Democratic presidential debate, the Oprah Winfrey soundstage at Tyler Perry Studios is buzzing with crew members testing electrical equipment, wiping down the lecterns of fingerprints and the super shiny stage floor of footprints.
Rashida Jones, senior vice president for specials at MSNBC, observed the activity with aplomb. She is responsible for ensuring the debate is not just visually compelling but informative for the audience. She brought 252 staffers to Atlanta to make it happen.
Jones had already overseen the June Democratic debates in a theater in Miami, which ran over two days with 20 candidates without major complications.
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In this case, it’s merely one debate for 10 candidates, airing Wednesday at 9 on MSNBC. But Tyler Perry Studios, which officially opened just last month, faced a fresh logistical challenge for the organizers.
There was no stage, no seats, not much of anything inside the 40,000-square-foot soundstage. That meant MSNBC had to build much of it from scratch. They were able to recycle some pieces from the June event such as the lecterns but had to install carpeting, sundry sound and lighting equipment, 1,000 white fold-out chairs and 14 cameras over a span of four days.
“It’s been a robust build,” Jones said. “But we think it was worth the extra effort. We wanted to be able to do something different this news cycle. It’s a blank canvas. You can make whatever you want. It’s a fun challenge.”
Her colleague Marc Greenstein, vice president of creative production design for MSNBC, said the space lacked elements of a theater so they added video screens on each side of the seating. They also created three design elements above the stage that evoked a flowing flag so people’s eyes would naturally flow down to the lecterns for the 10 Democratic presidential candidates who were eligible for the debate.
“There’s a bit of muscle to build this structure,” Greenstein said. “There’s something like 40,000 pounds of truss and decking. Thousands of miles of cables. We had to bring in air conditioning. We had to do it in a way that it looks good on TV.”
The color palette for any presidential debate, he noted, is generally limited to red, white and blue, the colors of the American flag. Although the carpeting is red, he gave the stage a bluer tint to reflect it’s a Democratic primary. If there had been a Republican debate, he would have made it a bit redder. “The accent lighting would change,” he said. “We’d give it a flip the other way.”
Tyler Perry Studios, which held a fancy gala last month for its official opening featuring the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Andrew Young and Halle Berry, is the one of the largest studios in the United States with 330 acres at the former Fort McPherson site in southwest Atlanta. Perry himself is the only African American in the country who owns a major studio and has become a billionaire courtesy of dozens of popular TV shows, films and plays.
The Democratic National Committee wanted to highlight how important Georgia was to their plans to take back the White House. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms aggressively pushed for the debate to be held in Atlanta and was directly involved in the talks that helped close the deal. And when the idea of Tyler Perry Studios came up as a location, it quickly became a no brainer for everyone involved.
The backlot not far from the studio itself includes a replica of the White House Perry built recently for his current BET drama “The Oval.”
“It’s gorgeous,” Jones said. “It could not be a more perfect statement of how what we’re doing is important.”
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