Paul Benson's Emmy-Winning Studio
Sets Are Our Dream Offices
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
WNW Member Paul Benson creates dreamscape studio sets for the likes of NBC, CNN, and ESPN. If you've followed this winter's Olympics at all, you've probably come across his stunning PyeongChang studio set inhabited by NBC network hosts, sports commentators, and guest personalities; the futuristic lair would also be equally well-suited for a Bond villain. If the Winter Games don't draw you in, maybe Paul's Emmy-winning work on Summer 2016's Rio Games is more your speed. Truthfully, WNW HQ wishes it could operate out of any of his sets.
In our interview below, Paul tells us about launching his career and craft, how he balances creating memorable sets that don't distract, and what some of the vital considerations to set design are that would've never crossed your mind. He also opens up about the fraught relationship between his Emmy and his cat Tiki.
What were some of the challenges and breakthroughs in launching your creative career?
An early challenge was finding all of my interests in a singular job. I hear a similar sentiment today from many younger designers. Ultimately, I found no single job would satisfy all of my interests. No 9-5 agency job for me. The breakthrough was choosing to work independently, taking or creating projects and defining my own career path.
The seemingly insurmountable level of talent found online is intimidating. The notion, however, that the design industry is crowded is an illusion—there is room at the table for all types of creatives to find success. It just takes hard work over time.
Another challenge was getting comfortable with an endless to-do-list. The truth is that if you’re trying to accomplish great things there will always be more items to do than accomplished.
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all your projects, or do you try to approach each project as its own entity?
I’m quite dogmatic and employ a utilitarian, research-based approach to projects. Each are treated independently. The best design is ultimately what’s most appropriate for the stakeholders. A strategic method allows me to justify design decisions and elevate the conversation with the client beyond fabric selection to a higher conceptual level.
What do you see as the turning point in your career?
The best is yet to come. In the future, I hope to develop solutions to larger challenges in our society.
How did you keep things fresh with the studio set design for this year’s Winter Olympics, having just done Emmy-winning work on 2016’s Summer Games in Rio?
We started working on the PyeongChang Olympic sets shortly after Rio wrapped. There was a sense of added importance as we began. News was under attack and several global conflicts brewed. Our studio spaces needed to provide room to facilitate important conversations, helping to bring the world together.
For PyeongChang many elements came into play: NBC Sports branding, Olympic history, the athletic dream narrative, winter environments, new technologies, traditional and modern Korea, and the iconic United States. When added together, we found a richly layered framework on which to build the studio environments.
This lead us, for example, to blend flooring details found in Rockefeller Center—the birthplace of American broadcast—with elements of the South Korea flag, intersected by the lines of a figure skater.
How do you balance creating vibrant and memorable sets without letting them distract from the personalities occupying them?
We don’t always know what personalities will occupy the sets. Previously, Bob Costas hosted the Olympics and was well known to the audience. His set could occupy more audience headspace, whereas 2018 host Mike Tirico is new. The show’s director is brilliant and generally can focus the audience’s attention, unfolding the set design over the course of the games, after introducing the host.
Can you share some other design considerations and challenges that the average viewer may not realize goes into your craft?
Yeah! There are so many vital considerations behind the scenes, like camera heights, lens width, and jib length. The host’s height and where their head falls in relation to the background technology is important. Depth is very important. The fabrication and lighting can make or break the entire space, which is why it is essential to work with talented partners like Black Walnut and Lighting Design Group.
Which of your set designs are you proudest of and why?
I’m most proud of my work on the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics. These sets were designed by HD Studio’s Bryan Higgason, Sid Wichienkuer, and myself. Our team includes a theatrical designer, an architect, and an interior designer respectively. The capabilities we bring to each project are complemented by our deep respect for each other. Frankly we have a blast getting the work done. Our client trusts us very much and the projects are good for the world. The sets turned out pretty bad-ass, too.
How many minutes a day do you spend gazing at your Emmy for the Rio Games?
Haha, more often I spend time watching my cat Tiki paw at the Emmy. I think she’s frustrated that it’s too heavy to push off the bookshelf. Last year I had to Google if I could take the Emmy on an airplane, which is an absurd search inquiry for the grandson of a trucker and a coal miner.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a religious leader (no joke), a politician, an architect, a real estate developer, a city planner, and finally I landed on a designer: a mix of all.
What do you do when Not Working?
Riding my bike to Coney Island for a Mermaid Pilsner and a Nathan’s hot dog. Or, I’ll enjoy a drag show at the Rosemont. I’m also working on a new project—Brooklyn Planters—where I design and sell terrariums.
Who are some other WNW members whose work you admire and why?
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Storefronts of New York, my Instagram photography project! Also, Brooklyn Planters will be available for sale soon, during Smorgasburg, from a sidewalk table across the street from Artist & Fleas on Saturdays. Come hang with me!
As for set design, we have the World Cup coming up and if we’re fortunate enough, the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.