‘Sunday Morning’ uses temp virtual set backgrounds for annual design edition

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For its annual “By Design” edition, “CBS News Sunday Morning” opted to bring on iconic scenic designer David Rockwell to craft a suite of virtual sets inspired by the show’s sunny logo.

Working with The Rockwell Group, whose numerous design credits include the Oscars and other high-profile projects, CBS commissioned four virtual environments to feature within its yearly look at the world of design. 

The first option, used to open and close the edition, was a lattice-like tunnel formed by an arched array of gold-toned renditions of the various sun iconography the show uses with a bright blue sky visible beyond. 

The remaining options were more defined spaces, including a room with two panels in front of a wall of windows. The left panel included a large frosted sun or virtual video wall, while the camera right one, set at an angle, also combined various version of the sun element.

Unlike the first version, however, these suns were not placed within a ring, creating a distinct look. The winow wall in the back included more frosted suns in arrangement that appeared to interpret them more as flower blooms set against a soft background of greenery. 

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The next room-like setting used a slightly different take on the sun icon — making it appear more textural and less defined in most cases, with a focus on the primary version of the sun with distinctively-drawn face along with a collection of more detailed hand-drawn elements.

These were featured prominently in the ceiling panels, which have the feel of a skylight as well as on the series of vertical columns running at an angle. These sported a blue background with glowing gold accents, while an additional wall on the right had a foil-like textural look, which had the option to feature a virtual video panel, inspired by the show’s primary set, to showcase topical imagery.

Far in the background is a window with a similar pattern used in the previous room.

Finally, the last option leveraged the rounded notion of the sun and interpreted it as a round, rotunda-like chamber. 

In another nod to the sun’s home, an oculus, which draws immediate connections to the Pantheon, is placed in the center of an elaborate gold ceiling fixture with blazing gold angles.

Under three tiers of soffits, the lower part of the chamber is illustrated as having white panels with textural renditions of sun icons in browns and golds. Unlike the more window-like feel used in the previous two spaces, these have more of a solid feel, possibly as either carved or etched imagery. 

When creating the designs, The Rockwell Group explored multiple options and types of spaces. The final options were created in 3D, making it possible to adjust the viewports of the backgrounds that were inserted behind host Jane Pauley.

Ultimately, however, none of the looks incorporated any on-camera moves that would have required more advanced virtual set technology such as camera tracking.

These virtual sets were created to be used only for the May 19, 2024, edition of the broadcast.

Ironically, “CBS News Sunday Morning” has been using a take on virtual sets on most episodes going back to the pandemic.

After shooting some episodes in Pauley’s kitchen during the height of COVID-19 restrictions and the closure of the CBS Broadcast Center, the network switched to using both renderings and photographs of the set the show debuted in 2017.

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That redesigned set, created by Jack Morton Worldwide, was originally installed in Studio 45, but has since been removed and put into storage. That version of the set used elements from the show’s classic look, but also provided multiple new looks.

Before storing the set, network did shoot a variety of photographs of the space to be used as digital backgrounds behind Pauley, including ones with various seasonal and holiday decor. 

It now draws on an archive of these images, along with digital modifications such as adding thematic or seasonal elements, color shifts and swapping out topical graphics as needed, but with Pauley shot in front of a chroma key wall and the backgrounded added in (incidentally, longtime CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” uses a similar technique to insert its hosts in front of the virtual pages of a magazine).

This still from the May 2023 Memorial Day edition of ‘CBS News Sunday Morning’ showcases season floral elements and the American flag.

Compare that to this still from the Memorial Day show from May 2024. Although the video panel is sporting a different image, the flag has identical folds and the flowers are arranged in exactly the same way. Although technically possible to achieve, it’s not likely that, had the show been shot on the real set with the flag and flowers removed after the 2023 edition and then brought back in 2024, that they would exactly the same.

In November 2021, the show did return to a studio setup with a real set, including scenery borrowed from the 2017 set, for a Thanksgiving episode.

The show has also used completely virtual recreations of the set.

Like the “By Design” virtual sets from Rockwell, the renderings and digital backgrounds built around photographs of the studio are not designed to be used with camera tracking, meaning on-camera moves are largely not possible. 

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