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Volume 100, Number 2

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Designing "Design Squad"

Professor describes his experiences working on PBS' award-winning TV show

By Don Pratt

Design Squad is an award-winning PBS television program produced by WGBH Boston.  This fast-paced “engineering reality” show is intended to get 12 – 18 year old kids interested in engineering and technical careers by bringing the exciting, creative side of technology to life.  Two teams of students compete for a college scholarship by designing and building machines to solve problems posed by real clients.  After the second season, the show had an opening for the director in charge of all the technical aspects of the show, including coming up with the challenges for each episode, teaching the cast members how to design and build prototypes, helping direct the action during shooting, working with the post-production staff editing footage, checking factual information, and creating animations and voice-overs.  I became aware of this opening in January 2008, and was intrigued by the opportunity to impact an entire generation of future engineers (nearly one million kids tune in to watch the show each week).  After a three-month selection process involving a pool of candidates from across the country, I was offered the position and immediately accepted. 

During the spring semester, I worked with the WGBH production staff brainstorming potential challenges and talking with prospective clients.  I was told I could have two assistants, and resisting the temptation to hire MIT grad students, I invited two of my Messiah College engineering students, Paul Gustafson '09 and Emily Howell '10, to come work with me for the summer.  After classes ended in May, we all headed for Boston, where we were soon busy assisting with building the set, ordering parts, and getting ready for the cast to arrive.  Toward the middle of June, six enthusiastic cast members arrived and began a week of “boot camp” that we put together to get them ready for the show. 

Don Pratt's challenges often brought the high school engineering students into
unusual circumstances — on the waves or as far away as Jamaica — to test their abilities. 

After boot camp, we began filming the episodes — a total of ten for the third season.  A typical “shooting” sequence went like this:  after we selected a design challenge and worked out the details with the client, engineering (i.e., my assistants and I) would prototype possible designs and begin ordering parts.  Each design challenge had to have at least two possible solutions, so we spent a lot of time building and testing prototypes.  At the same time, a camera crew would film the client talking about the problem and challenging the cast to find a solution.  This footage was edited into the “pre-roll” which we would show to the cast at the start of the first day of filming.  Every challenge was a well-kept secret, and the pre-roll was always accompanied by whoops and cheers when the cast found out what they were going to do.  After watching the pre-roll, the cast was divided into two teams and eagerly headed off to their workshops, which had been built on the set.  With cameras rolling, they would research the problem, brainstorm ideas, and begin building their prototype solutions.  During filming, I was one of two directors, with the other (artistic) director focused on making the “right shot,” to tell the story in the most interesting and exciting way, while I was constantly monitoring the technical aspects of what the cast was saying and doing.  The artistic director and I worked very closely together, usually right behind the cameras, quietly discussing what the cast members were doing, whether they were going to finish on time, or if their design would work— all the time having to move around to stay out of the camera shot.  While we really did strive to be as “hands-off” as possible, we had to step in fairly often to give advice on a specific problem or to remind the teams of proper safety practices.  Of course, this would stop the cameras, so unless we decide to do a bloopers reel, you won’t ever see any of these moments on the show!

While they were brainstorming, we encouraged the teams to construct “sketch models,” which are scale mock-ups using simple materials used to try out ideas.  We pushed the teams hard, so that by the end of the first “build” day, each one had settled on an approach, completed a sketch model, and begun construction of their machines, which they would then complete during the second day of shooting.  Most challenges had only two build days, with three set aside for the travel shows.  Again, I can’t share details, but I can tell you that one of these travel shows involved taking the entire cast and crew to Jamaica - would you believe me if I told you that it had something to do with dog sledding?  I didn’t think so — I guess you’ll just have to wait until the show airs to find out what really happened!

After the cast finished building, we had a “prep” day for engineering to come in and do some tweaking (off camera of course) to make sure the designs were safe and would work properly.  We tried very hard not to make any major changes, or to sway the results one way or the other.  In fact, most of the time our work was unnoticeable, usually little things like tightening up wiring and re-welding questionable joints.  Paul and Emily worked especially hard on these days, and honestly, I don’t know what I would have done without them.  They both had very positive attitudes and a wonderful “can-do” spirit that over and over confirmed my decision to hire them.  In fact, both the cast and crew fell in love with them, and there were many tears when we packed up to leave at the end of the summer.

After the prep day came the “finale,” which was a day of shooting with the client.  The cast members would describe their solutions and demonstrate their prototypes for the client, who would then evaluate the two machines and pick the one he or she liked best.  This sounds simple enough, but traveling to the see the client and setting up the cameras took hours, and getting the right shot usually required multiple takes, so it was always a full day.  For the engineering staff, it was always a lot of last minute tweaking and sometimes some serious troubleshooting if something stopped working.  Once the client was able to see the machines in action and choose his or her favorite design, the winning team members each got 100 points, after which the cast was shuffled into new teams and the process began again with the next challenge.

The schedule pushed us all very hard, but it was exciting to be part of the production of a high quality television program.  I came away with a much greater appreciation for how much work it takes to put together a show, and of course, we’re just getting started with post-production, so there’s still a lot of work to do.  The finished episodes will begin airing nationwide on PBS sometime late summer or early fall 2009, and I hope many of you will have a chance to tune in.  While you won’t ever see Paul, Emily, or me on camera, you can bet that we were just behind the scenes every minute, and I hope you will enjoy the results of our work.  And, be sure to watch the credits for the engineering staff from Messiah College!
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