Have you ever wondered why reality television is so compelling? Why do audiences tune in, week after week, to watch the drama of noncelebrities competing for a record deal, a modeling contract, or a chance at true love?
Like most forms of televised entertainment, reality TV is all about the telling of a good story. But unlike real life, the drama of reality TV is acted out against a well thought-out, and visually stimulating backdrop. The settings for popular reality shows are designed to maximize the dramatic effect of otherwise unremarkable situations like a dance audition or a first date.
James Pearse Connelly, a production designer and primetime Emmy award winner, is the man behind many of those reality TV sets. His work has been seen on "The Voice," "America's Next Top Model," "America's Best Dance Crew," MTV's "Miss Seventeen," VH1's "Glam God," the Grammy Awards, "Lopez Tonight," the MTV Video Music Awards, and the HBO series "Big Love." He also served as art director on the hit movie "The Kids Are All Right," starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore.
Connelly said the secret behind his dazzling sets is using set design to tell a story.
Connelly realized fairly early in life that he liked to tell stories. The son of an art teacher and an architect, his sensibilities were formed in part by his creative parents, he said.
But his passion for spinning a good yarn comes from the theater.
"It really wasn't until drama club in high school, and the community and freedom of expression I found there, that I knew that storytelling was totally fun," said Connelly, a graduate of Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. "I loved listening to a story and trying to reinterpret the environment it was placed within."
This love of listening and retelling stories led Connelly to pursue a career as a designer, and after completing a degree in theater arts and set design, he moved to New York and then Los Angeles, where he worked for different studios and learned the ins and outs of his trade.
After more than 10 years of working for others, Connelly decided to start a business of his own based in his home in Los Angeles. Being his own boss has proven to be an exciting and liberating experience for this 32-year-old designer.
"I'm obsessed with the freedom of taking my own risks and standing by my own point of view," he said.
Setting the stage
Connelly's job is all about setting the stage for the telling of a good story. In order to make that happen, he must collaborate with the director of whatever project he's working on and decide how to bring a particular scenario to life. This process usually begins with a simple conversation and a decision about the mood of a story, he said.
"Sometimes you hit a home run right out of the gate," Connelly said of this collaborative effort. "It's an organic process, and we're going to get it right together. We're in the business of working together. It's about establishing a working relationship."
Because his job revolves around the creative process and the intertwining of various points of views, there's always room for improvement. In fact, Connelly admits that the thing he loves most about his job is getting the chance to improve with every new venture.
"I love doing something different with every project," he said. "Experiencing new challenges with the same friends and teammates is the best."