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The Dopey Literalism of the RNC’s 13 Screens

Last night was full of schizophrenic screens: The networks jumping between convention coverage and Isaac dispatches, one moment zoomed in on the wood-paneled podium, then switching to Anderson Cooper pelted by rain on a beach, then back to the 13 glittering LED screens on the RNC stage itself. One screen ominously counted out every cent of the national debt in the form of a giant clock. Sometimes each featured a separate scene of Americana; sometimes they all conspired to broadcast a single looming close-up. They glowed like so many monstrous smartphones above Ann Romney’s head.  

Has a convention set ever had the capacity to blast so many images at once? A golden opportunity for subliminal messaging, one might think—what better way to engineer a massive, visual Humanize Romney project? But no: Aside from some family snapshots, most of which we’d already seen, these were 13 exceedingly literal-minded screens.

“REFORM,” “REFORM,” “REFORM,” announced each screen in block lettering during Rick Santorum’s speech. Often the screens just showed audience members clapping and smiling. Artur Davis got a background of GOP elephants, as if to say, “Lest you forget, this is what I am now.” The best, perhaps, was the “Welcome to New Jersey!” postcard logo that heralded Chris Christie’s entrance.

The RNC has long had a thing for tacky digital set design. In 2008, the backdrop looked like the title slide of a massive Powerpoint presentation called “Country First.” In 2004, W. spoke in front of a computerized patchwork of billowing flags with a vibe that recalled a ’90s screen saver. The DNC, of course, has had its share of showy backdrops, though it generally seems to prefer simple blue for its close-up shots. But this particular RNC set was unprecedented in the scale of its sensory overload. As my colleague Rachel Wiseman pointed out last week, the RNC even released a PDF outlining the technical achievements of its elaborate set. “There are almost NINE MILLION total pixels in the screens,” it announced. “Screens are the backbone of the set. There are 15 LED screens total, 13 of which are on the stage.”

And yet the response from viewers at home was less enthusiastic. Twitter lit up last night with complaints about the dizzying lava-lamp movement behind each speaker’s head. (“Does anyone else find the moving, amoeba-like background on the stage behind Boehner a little nausea-inducing?”, Tweeted Times reporter Jonathan Weisman.) The set has already inspired several satirical websites to Photoshop their images of choice onto the 13 screens: for example, a giant Confederate flag, or an enormous shot of Michele Bachmann’s face.

Overall, Tuesday's digital pyrotechnics felt like a missed opportunity, a bit of flat whiz-bang technical gimmickry. But perhaps the onstage images planned for the next few nights will move beyond a dopey literalism. And on the bright side, at least Santorum’s speech did not feature 13 giant images of hands.