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February 23, 2018

The Upstagers

The team at Vista Studios —  the newest production center in L.A.’s Silicon Beach — is appealing to producers looking for the latest technology and support staff who never say no.

Nicole Pajer
  • On Stage 1 of Vista Studios, an audience watches the Facebook Live series Make Up or Break Up while comments stream in from Facebook users viewing online. During host Shan Boodram’s interview with Kelsey and Edward, a couple at a crossroads, the crowd votes on whether they should #Makeup or #Breakup.

    Mark Edward Harris
  • Vista Studios co-founder, partner and CEO Randall Heer perches in a control room

    Mark Edward Harris
  • Co-founder, partner and CMO Frank Gianotti takes a chair in front of a green screen on one of the facility’s four stages

    Mark Edward Harris
  • Corin Nelson, showrunner and executive producer of Facebook Live’s Make Up or Break Up

    Mark Edward Harris
  • A modern façade beckons Vista’s visitors and, inside, the ergonomic work-flow allows for rapid access to the many production and post facilities.

    Mark Edward Harris
  • A look at the bullpen

    Mark Edward Harris
  • Inside Vista Studios

    Mark Edward Harris
  • Inside Vista Studios

    Mark Edward Harris
  • Mark Edward Harris
  • Wardrobe stylist Yaniece Thomas Elzein (left) and assistant Sadai Banks evaluate options for Make Up or Break Up guest Kelsey.

    Mark Edward Harris

At 10:30 a.m., Kelsey and Edward walk in the door. After 18 months together, their relationship is at a crossroads.

Once they're mic'd up and through hair and makeup, a therapist sweeps them away to prepare for the day's journey. In six-and-a-half hours, the duo will air their dirty laundry before a live studio audience, and as they speak, viewers on Facebook will vote to decide their fate. For all their disagreements, Kelsey and Edward have agreed to honor whatever verdict the virtual jury reaches.

It's a typical Thursday at Vista Studios, an independent production facility in Playa Vista, California, along the Pacific coast just north of LAX. The neighborhood, dubbed Silicon Beach, is also home to such tech companies as YouTube and Google.

At Vista, workers for Thumb Candy, the digital division of B17 Entertainment, scurry about the building. They're busy assembling the 12th episode of Make Up or Break Up, their Facebook Live series, which will go live at 5 p.m. PST on the Facebook Watch platform.

A team of execs, including showrunner–executive producer Corin Nelson and B17 vice-president of production Jackie Hakim, join show host Shan Boodram in a conference room for the morning meeting. Then it's off to the set for rehearsals.

For Randall Heer — co-founder, partner and CEO of Vista Studios — hosting Make Up or Break Up is exactly what the space was designed to do. "Five 4K cameras, live television, with a live audience," he says. "It uses all of the high-end top-tier capabilities that we built the building to support and is a marquee model of what we were hoping somebody would come in to do."

Heer teamed with Frank Gianotti to develop the facility, which launched last July. They met while working at the Tennis Channel and quickly identified a need for a place like Vista. They leveraged their respective backgrounds — Heer worked for more than 20 years in sports, at platforms like Fox, and Gianotti was a producer at places like MTV — to create what they call "the studio of the future."

Their idea was to design a turnkey facility that lets a production team walk in with an idea that Gianotti and Heer can help bring to life. The 30,000-square-foot studio has four stages: the largest is 6,100 square feet; three can accommodate a studio audience; all have full connectivity 4K/HD control rooms. The facility offers equipment rental, editing capabilities and 24/7 broadcast operations.

"Vista offers a full technical core, meaning control rooms are in place, plus cameras, lights and grips," Gianotti says. "We also provide tech managers who can help lay out and build a production with you." Vista employs a team of experienced hands-on staff, many from the sports broadcasting world, and has partnerships with cutting-edge tech companies such as Snell Advanced Media and Riedel Communications.

"The intention is that when you walk in with a project and you're under the gun, you don't worry about the tech — you worry about making your content," Heer says.

He adds that Vista goes beyond being just a staging company. "We're more of a technology business that finds ways to distribute content, as well as host companies that do content. [You can] pick your poison, really." There are no formats Vista cannot handle, Gianotti adds; the studio is "not in the business of saying no."

The building was designed for ergonomic workflow and "intended to be modular," Gianotti says, "so any studio works with any control room."

David Tobin, supervising producer for Make Up or Break Up, confirms that the layout works. "As the guy who is always running from room to room like a chicken with my head cut off, I can attest that the layout of this place makes sense. I've gotten lost in some other stages before, and when I'm having to pop in and check on other departments, this flow really works."

"Every room in this building is fully data-and fiber-dropped, meaning that any room can be an edit bay or a dressing room," Gianotti says. "We can even technically tie other offices to this building if, for example, the Facebook execs never wanted to come over."

Though Vista is still fairly new, its co-founders are already looking to expand.

"The building across the parking lot would be the support space for this," Gianotti says. He envisions a technology campus on L.A.'s West Side: "Building one: proof of concept. Building two: add the things we couldn't fit into this building," he explains, noting that he'd like to have six more dressing rooms, 20 more offices and another bullpen. "I want to put a full production into its full home. That's the goal."

Since becoming fully operational last summer, Vista has attracted a variety of productions. Freeform shot six episodes of Movie Night with Karlie Kloss there, and 8i, a volumetric 3D virtual-reality company, spent three months on Stage 4 shooting 41 cameras in the round — filming everything from a guy in a spacesuit to a live raccoon and a llama.

Vista has also worked with the FX series Better Things; AMC, which late last year filmed a documentary on the history of horror; and the online series MasterClass. Commercials have also been shot for Apple and Dollar Shave Club.

Make Up or Break Up began shooting August 24 and signed on to use Vista Studios for its full 21-episode season, set to wrap in February. For showrunner Nelson, the space is perfect.

"Everybody has been to every stage and studio around L.A., and we really wanted to find something that we could make our home, that could handle live. It felt like we needed to go to a stage not where you've done 50 top shows on traditional platforms for years, but [where we could] break new ground," she explains.

And the show, which is the first live series on Facebook Watch, has several requirements that make it more challenging to execute.

"Not only are we going live, but we are incorporating live comments from Facebook users onto the screens during the show," Nelson points out. "We have to have a signal that goes up here and then goes to Facebook. Viewers are casting their votes while the show is airing, and we have to link in with a company called Telescope, who is tallying our votes.

"Then there are pre-taped segments that are being fed into the live stream. There is a lot going on, and we're doing all of this in real time."

Another thing that keeps the staff on its toes: the show doesn't have a pre-arranged run time. The series started out at 18 minutes but, at Facebook's request, it's been extended to anywhere from 28 to 35 minutes. "It all depends on the couple, and if they are good talkers," Nelson says. "I make that decision of how long to run in the moment, while we are airing."

But Vista Studios can handle all these curveballs. "We didn't bring in new technology. They had to figure out everything that we needed, but they had all that capacity within the place," Nelson says, noting that on past shows, her team has had to bring in supplemental tech that "never quite fit together," resulting in issues that required timely troubleshooting.

Shortly before showtime, wardrobe helps Boodram into her on-camera ensemble: striped flared pants, a ruffled blouse and sky-high heels. After a solid two hours of rehearsing possible audience questions, with the producers sitting in for the featured couple, the host is ready to take her place on the living room set.

She's feeling refreshed, having paused for a moment with the cast and crew in the open-air lunch area. But that feeling evaporates when she's called to the stage. "Thank God this place is easy to navigate!" she says, scurrying down the hall. "I don't have time to get lost."

At 4:30 p.m., the last audience member takes a seat. Less than an hour later, by 5:29 p.m., the Facebook audience has voted. Overlooking Kelsey and Edward's significant differences on marriage and kids, viewers want them to #MakeUp.

"That's a wrap for episode 12," Nelson yells. The control room erupts with applause for the end of another successful live episode. By 5:45 p.m., the parking lot is nearly empty, as the sun sets on another day at Vista Studios.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2018

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