Behind the scenes at Trump's 'showbiz' Republican convention

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, promised a "showbiz" Republican National Convention this year. Here's a look backstage at the production effort behind the spectacle, and Trump’s much-discussed 'silhouette entrance.'

Lighting designer explains Trump’s 'silhouette entrance'

Donald Trump's silhouetted entrance at Monday night's Republican National Convention was the work of lighting designer David Grill and visuals designer Michael Zinman. (C-SPAN)

As a piece of political theatre in conservative America, the Republican National Convention is the ultimate curtain raiser before a general election. But nobody promised it would be glamorous work.

Members of the production unit are working from the showers of the Quicken Loans Arena this week. The core production crew's desks are surrounded by changing-room lockers. And there was even talk of putting work spaces in a sauna, organizers say.

Stage manager Howard Kolins, right, conducts sound checks with keynote speakers ahead of the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"We have people working in bathrooms, there are people in closets," says Lizzie Mickelsen, a production team member, sitting on the illuminated steps leading to the main stage of the stadium.

"I'm behind this staircase," Mickelsen says, rapping her knuckles on a glowing step, part of the temporary set constructed over the past few weeks. "We take over every square inch of this building that we can."

Welcome to backstage at the "The Q," ground zero for the Grand Old Party this week, as Cleveland hosts the biggest Republican bash of 2016.

Here, under a roof housing two recent championship pro sports teams — the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers and the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters — party delegates expect to anoint another prospective winner: Donald Trump.

Lizzie Mickelsen, part of a production crew at the Republican National Convention, says her workspace is set below a set of illuminated stairs leading up to the main stage at the Quicken Loans Arena. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"It's very important to put some showbiz into a convention," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said earlier this month. "Otherwise people are going to fall asleep."

Well, if it's showbiz Trump demands, it's showbiz he'll get.

His "silhouette entrance" on Monday night set the tone for the week, inspiring online comments comparing the walk-on to everything from a Mariah Carey concert to a pro-wrestling character intro.

Donald Trump introduces his wife Melania at the Republican National Convention Monday night. 1:10

To create the effect, three-time Emmy Award-winning lighting designer David Grill blasted the background with metallic 4,400 K white, cloaking Trump in shadow as he walked out to Queen's We Are the Champions and introduced his wife, Melania.

"The producer wanted something dramatic, and it was up to us to think of that," Grill says. "It was always designed so that it would be a dramatic entrance. You overexpose the camera, pumping light directly into the lens. For the audience, the only light on him was from behind."

It was Grill's call from the control room to decide when to splash Trump with a spotlight to reveal him.

Republican National Convention Screens director Dirk Sanders works in a control centre in a 5.5-metre-long truck parked at a loading bay at the Q arena. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"There's that mystery because you don't see the person's face," Grill muses, adding that the scene was mainly geared towards amping up the TV audience.

While Trump has invited some mid-tier celebs like actor Scott Baio and soap stars Antonio Sabato, Jr., and Kimberlin Brown to deliver keynote addresses, the behind-the-scenes technical wizards like Grill pump out the real razzle-dazzle.

Eric Marchwinski works with a team of about nine other people programming screens and running graphics in the stadium. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Sitting in control rooms inside the Q are Emmy-winning producers and stage managers voicing commands into comms and turning a scripted quadrennial political bash into something even more ambitious — a piece of entertainment.

Among the hired hands directing the Republican spectacle are veterans of Winter Olympic Games and Super Bowl halftime shows, as well as display programmers who have worked on major arena concerts for the likes of Katy Perry, Jay Z and the Foo Fighters.

Pacing the main stage wearing a headset, stage manager Howard Kolins coaches Charles Eversole, who was conducting a choir of teens with northeast Ohio's Singing Angels, the young group selected to sing the opening national anthem.

"When they finish with, 'Home of the brave' — two, three, four — I'd like you to give them a cue to leave," Kolins says. "Do you want to do another pass with them vocally?"

Eversole, the group's musical director, nodded, then prompted his choir for another run-through, humming a high F to tune them.

"One, two — 'Oh, say can you seeee…'"

Almost every scheduled speaker at the convention will have at some point this week interacted with Kolins, who instructs them to count to 10 to check their volume levels, or read dummy text from the teleprompter. Sometimes it displays the Gettysburg Address; sometimes it displays poet Emma Lazarus's sonnet The New Colossus.

"I'm an acting coach, in a way," says Kolins, reciting the names of prominent Republicans he's mic-checked this week.

There was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin."I tell them all the same thing," says Kolins, who has worked on three Super Bowl halftime shows. "I say, 'Let the message carry you to the lectern. You want to have everyone's attention in a room that is never quiet.'"

Charles conducts the Singing Angels choir group during a rehearsal of the American national anthem at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The group performed the Star-spanged Banner at the opening of the convention on Monday. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Nearly 200 stage hands are working on production, according to convention organizers. The general contractor has over 100 managers, labourers, and contractors per day, many of them working 10- to 14-hour shifts.

In Kolins' ear will be Emmy Award-winning former NBC News producer Phil Alongi, who is serving as executive producer. Mostly, though, he'll hear prompts from the convention's director, Ron De Moreas, best known for his work on Entertainment Tonight.

Visuals designer Mike Zinman has previously worked on the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, when they were owned by Donald Trump. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Occasionally, he might get notes from Dirk Sanders, the screens director, working from a darkened truck that serves as a mobile control room parked in a stadium loading bay. Sanders, who sits at a desk with print-outs marked "Confidential," leads a team of about 10 people cueing graphics around the main arena bowl, their faces lit only by the glow from a wall of displays in the 5.5-metre-long truck.

The looping 3D graphic on that curved screen overlooking centre stage?

"That rotating drum logo is coming from here," Sanders says. "We're responsible for playing back and switching all the screens."

They're also responsible for programming the "ribbon" screens that run throughout the Q.

All told, that amounts to about 20 million pixels worth of displays. A playback system allows the display technicians to preview pieces of content — videos, social media activity, photographs — in a 3D simulation of the entire stadium before pushing graphics to the actual scoreboards and screens.

Sanders's team works closely with visuals designer Michael Zinman, who occupies a suite in the Q's control room. Zinman, who was asked to incorporate more 3D effects, is also leaning towards warmer tones and ambers, but the colour and lighting packages may change according to the theme of a speech.

An alternate, non-televised view of Donald Trump appearing onstage to introduce his wife Melania at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

"If somebody's talking about a soldier who got wounded, we might have a picture of that soldier to reinforce that, but it will as be reinforced with colour contrasts," says Zinman, who previously worked on the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. A more uplifting message might have a brighter colour palette.

The content can be a little bit of a surprise, forcing Zinman to preassemble backup lighting toolkits to be rolled out when appropriate.

"We usually get the speeches a day before," he says.

It may sound stressful, but for Mickelsen, the production designer working beneath the stage's illuminated staircase, the big show is about celebrating the work of the Republican party.

"These delegates are in meetings all day, voting, dealing with so much policy," she says. "When they finally get into this arena, we just want them to feel it's finally party time. So just take a breath, and let's do this."


About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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