Evan Rohde (Theater BFA 97)
Creating Worlds from Stage to Screen
Evan Rohde (Theater BFA 97) came to CalArts to learn technical direction for theater, but like many CalArtians, he discovered that his degree was a ticket to a somewhat different creative career. Instead of overseeing the lighting, sound, and sets for plays and musicals, Rohde designs television commercials and music videos.
As a well-respected production designer, Rohde takes directors’ ideas and creates physical sets designed to meld with today’s highly technical digital effects. Rohde’s goal is to please both the director and the corporate client—typically an advertiser or record label—by producing visually stunning environments that imaginatively and accurately represent the product or recording artist. At the same time, Rohde must keep his eye on the budget.
Last year, he completed one of his biggest projects: designing the set for the two-minute opening sequence for the fall season of Sunday Night Football on NBC. In a massive Playa Vista soundstage that once housed Howard Hughes’s all-wood airplane, the Spruce Goose, Rohde built a set that passed for a huge concert arena, designed to blend with digital effects. “When you watched the segment, it felt like you were in an arena with tens of thousands of people,” he says. For his efforts, on May 6 at a ceremony at New York's Lincoln Center, Rohde won the 2014 Sports Emmy Award for Outstanding Production Design/Art Direction for the Sunday Night Football--Waiting All Day for Sunday Night opening with singer Carrie Underwood.
Rohde began his career at Universal Studios Hollywood. CalArts’ School of Theater Assistant Dean Stephanie Young (then an advisor) and fellow CalArts School of Theater alumni Stacey Deckard (Production and Design Technology 98) and Marina Sousa (Production and Design Technology BFA 97) were each instrumental in helping him land his first job as an events manager at Universal CityWalk.
A year later, he became a production manager within Universal’s Special Events division, helping to stage fully-scripted theatrical extravaganzas to support the opening of new theme park attractions and major movie premieres. For one production, he arranged for a helicopter to transport a Humvee through the air and then dramatically lower it into a fictional firefight. For another promotion during the summer, he made the world’s largest single scoop of ice cream. He designed a custom crane rig that could move more than a ton of ice cream, and also devised a temporary freezer tent in which his team could sculpt the scoop the night before the event. The tent was equipped with a removable roof so that workers could instantly unveil the scoop to a waiting group of news photographers and camera operators.
“I used the things I learned at CalArts in terms of staffing, managing and budgeting and took them to the next level at Universal,” Rohde says. Rohde credits CalArts with teaching him the importance of audience experience when crafting a design. Since many CalArts theater spaces are all-immersive and non-traditional, Rohde says he learned that “it is integral to develop not only the elements of the design that drive the story, but also the way the audience is guided through the story.”
Rohde left Universal in 1999 to freelance as a production designer, and with the help of his agent, built up a business and a client base over the years. Many directors and producers have become repeat clients. “I’ve spent years honing skills and problem solving, working my way to where I am now. I’ve developed a reputation as a designer who will both realize the artistic vision and be fiscally responsible.” Four years ago, Rohde’s work was evenly split between commercials and music videos. Today, about 90% of his work is on commercials.
Rohde’s client list includes many Fortune 500 companies, including Ford, McDonald’s, Apple, Procter & Gamble, and Allstate, among many others. In music videos, he’s created production designs for international artists, including Coldplay, Bruno Mars and Kanye West. When working with Ashlee Simpson, he designed a surrealistic dreamscape for her Outta My Head music video, which borrows elements from Gulliver’s Travels and The Exorcist.
The work schedule of a production designer is unpredictable, typically involving a couple of weeks of intense activity followed by a week or so of downtime. Rohde usually takes about 10 days to design and build the set for a production. He works with a freelance staff that includes an art director, model builders, set designers, construction workers, decorators, and shoppers—as it’s often easier to buy props than to build them. For most projects, he designs a digital set in the computer, and then turns his models over to builders, who scale them up for the scenes that require an actual physical set. “If your goal is realism, having actors perform around real scenery instead of placing them in front of a green screen produces a far greater realism,” Rohde says. “The trick is finding the economical/creative balance between real sets and visual effects.
“It’s exhilarating work,” he says. “The crazy person in me loves it.” Despite the thrills of his commercial and music video work, Rohde, who turns 40 this year, is “looking at film and TV as the next chapter.” He says that will allow him to delve deeper into characters and spend more time on projects. But he’ll continue creating fictional worlds, which has always been his dream. “I’ve been involved in theatrical design since the eighth grade. I always knew that make-believe was my future.”