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From “The Voice” To “Celebrity Apprentice” – Production Designer James Connelly Defines The Stage

By: Marjorie Galas

Developing a smart production design for a reality competition is a bit like solving a subset-heavy mathematical equation.  There are the contestants anxiously hustling. There’s the camera set up trying to get the perfect shot.  And, in a show like “Top Chef”, there is an abundance of kitchen elements constantly in use.

“There is a pallet of salt, there are 12 (restaurant capacity) fridges, it’s unreal,” said production designer James Connelly, who joined the team during the finale of Season 11 and continued through episode eight of Season 13.  “There are so many pots and pans and all these amazing appliances.  Why hide them?  Let’s show them off!”

A fan of the show from its inception, Connelly was thrilled to have a chance to add to the legacy of the show’s production design – and his efforts resulted in a 2016 Art Directors Guild Award nomination for “Variety, Competition, Reality or Game Show Series.”   His concept was to make the science behind the chef’s skills and processes more relatable to the viewers.    The design emphasized the gear and tools at their disposal – elements that add interest and color to the actual journey of a creation.

The idea of a journey found its way into Connelly’s design for the tenth season of “The Voice.”  Joining the production for season two, Connelly has continued to look for ways to keep the set for each new season fresh and inspired.  Inspiration struck him on a routine afternoon as he attended a production meeting.  Connelly passed an actor dressed in an astronaut costume and grips wrangling a giant flag; aspects of production that are fresh and exciting to the layman that’s never experienced them.

“I wondered, ‘If I were auditioning, what would this feel like?’” said Connelly. “Storytelling is at the core of the show.  These artists are all real people. This season is all about the journey of the artist.

With an idea firmly in mind, Connelly grabbed a GoPro camera and captured his own step by step journey across the lot.  Working with his design team, he translated the captured images into a bright, open design scheme.  Strong angles and metal surfaces are balanced with seating areas featuring stylish furnishings with soft fabrics in a variety of soothing, earthy colors. Equipment, such as drums and a wide array of guitars were put on display in the design, and rows of klieg lights accentuate the rehearsal areas.

Undeterred by joining a highly popular property that presented a unique design challenge, Connelly jumped on board the reboot of “Celebrity Apprentice.”  Set in California, Connelly crafted a completely new aesthetic for the re-imagined series, weaving together the latest in technology, contemporary business culture design styles and natural materials.  Viewers will see a chic setting that incorporates plenty of white surfaces, smokey glass, glossy wood and tablet technology.  Taking the tastes of new host Arnold Schwarzenegger into consideration, Connelly designed a bright, open floor plan that is inductive to both a company’s social atmosphere and future growth.

Regardless of the project, Connelly is always focused on bringing the needs of the show to life.  Before a single plan is developed, often even before a director or DP is hired, Connelly sits with the producers and listens to their concepts.

“They are the visionaries.  I listen to their concept of the show, the story they want to tell, and what their needs are,” said Connelly.  “I help them develop their vision.”

Once he meets with the producers he gets into a “mode” of assembling elements that define his vision utilizing sources such as Pintrest, magazines and tear sheets.  As he begins his layout he creates thumbnail sketches prior to building a 3D model of the set.  Working with his design team, they will continue to refine the model which can take two or three more passes.

“By the third round we start adding color, texture and lighting,” said Connelly.  “Once the mood and tone is established we are ready to start the build.”

Never sitting still for long, Connelly has three other projects he’s currently connected to, including an upcoming NBC competitive reality series.  Not bad for a young man who was dead set against an art career.  Raised by his art instructor single mother and visiting his architect father, Connelly’s earliest aspirations were geared towards psychology or geometry.  Once in high school, however, Connelly’s creative juices started to flow when he signed up for drama classes.  He found himself more attracted to the lighting design than performing on stage.  His interest in design has never stopped developing.

“I always thought I’d end up being either a taxi driver or a psychologist,” joked Connelly.