Alumni Spotlight

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Set of American Idol

By Kristi Evans

 

American Idol wrapped up its 15th and final season on CBS in April. Its popularity had waned in recent years, perhaps because a string of fresh imitators saturated the talent contest genre and splintered the audience. But the show certainly left an indelible mark on the media landscape and launched some legitimate music careers. 

TV  viewers grew accustomed to the Idol format: contestant performances sandwiched between heartwarming vignettes and feedback from celebrity judges on song choice and stage presence, all moderated by an affable host. What they did not see was the extensive preparation required in advance of each show by crew members such as NMU alumnus Danny Digneit '10 BS. They also missed the tightly choreographed and bustling behind-the-scenes activity that ensured a
seamless production.


The view from the studio audience on March 2 was much different than the televised presentation. Crews prepared the set, lighting and sound for two takes of a pre-show recording of a Demi Lovato performance to be inserted into that night’s program. During the Idol live broadcast, they scrambled to make similar adjustments within the limited confines of commercial breaks. Makeup artists sporadically tended to the judges. Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban also made time to snap selfies with fans. 

Wearing a radio headset, Digneit occasionally navigated the path separating the seated studio audience from the standing gallery of mostly teenage girls positioned around the judges. He was responsible for facilitating televised cutaway shots of family members and special guests by placing them in particular seats and communicating with the camera operators and director. 

“My role changes during the live broadcasts,” said Digneit at the time. “As travel coordinator for Idol, most of my work happens between shows. When we traveled from city to city for the auditions, I had to book flights, hotels
and car service for the judges and crew, all within budget. I ran the audience for those shows as well. It dissipates during the season as the job transitions more to the audience, but there’s still travel sprinkled in.

“There’s a lot of multi-tasking and problem-solving with this job. You also have to be available at all times. I was watching a Kings game with friends and had to interrupt that to find a new jet because the one we arranged had malfunctioned. Another time they finalized Boston as an audition city while I was flying to Michigan for my brother’s wedding, so I spent much of the time in his office arranging travel and hotel contracts. It was a nightmare, but technology makes it possible to get things done on the fly.”

Idol has ended, but Digneit continues to serve in a similar capacity for another talent show he worked on simultaneously, So You Think You Can Dance. His career, like that of many in Hollywood, has branched off in unexpected directions through a series of fortunate events and encounters.


Digneit Portrait
"I was delivering payroll for a previous job and I kept seeing this guy in the elevator and struck up conversations with him. It turned out he worked at So You Think You Can Dance. He sent my resume to the staff, which got me an interview and a job as assistant to the co-executive producer. That proved you should never underestimate any interaction with anyone or assume they have nothing to offer.”

Digneit’s first job in Los Angeles was with a commercial production company, made possible through his connection with NMU alumna Ashley Kihlmire Hempel '09 BA (see related story). It was not a full-time position, but Digneit got his proverbial foot in the door. Assignments ranged from one day to a couple of months because most companies hire production staff on an as-needed basis. He described it as a rocky initiation to the business. 

“I had no idea what I was doing on that first shoot; it was so different from anything I had done before,” said Digneit. “On set, there are safety and union regulations you have to abide by. I even got in trouble for moving a lifeguard’s car at the beach. A lot of what you do in this field you learn on site. Every commercial, TV show and movie is different and the people you work for want things done differently. It’s hard to prepare for that, so you adapt as you go.”

Digneit shifted from commercials to a reality show that revolved around socialite Paris Hilton, again with the help of NMU friend Hempel. He then landed a “small role” assisting with pre-production work on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Two weeks later, he was hired as a production assistant for Ellen Degeneres’ TV show. Among other duties, he filtered viewer-submitted videos, music and stories for possible show content and assisted executive producers in the control room. 

Northern Magazine staff members passed by the Ellen offices on a Warner Bros. studio tour. They also saw iconic backlots with exterior sets adapted for various filming purposes, soundstages used for The Big Bang Theory and other TV programs and the “Script to Screen” interactive exploration of the entertainment production process. Prominent Batman-related displays, unveiled for the 75th anniversary of the DC Comics hero in 2014, remained in place and served to promote the late March release of the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie.

“It’s fun to watch movies because I’ll know the set and I’ll know how they did certain things,” said Digneit of his experience at Warner Bros. “People thought I was crazy when I left Django for Ellen, but I prefer TV. With film, you can do something a thousand times and still not have it right. With TV, you prepare as much as you can, the show goes on and you start working on the next one. I like that pace.”

Digneit’s first foray into television occurred while he was a media production major at Northern. The Walled Lake native worked on the campus Standing O and Public Eye News programs. He also was hired by ABC 10 in Ishpeming as floor director and ultimately directed the evening newscast. A highlight of Digneit’s NMU experience was an internship with the former Late Show with David Letterman. He said it’s doubtful any other university would have presented him with similar opportunities.

Despite his positive experience on Letterman in New York City, Digneit headed in the opposite direction to Los Angeles within a year of graduating from NMU. He traded snowboarding for surfing and enjoys the vibrant live music scene. His goal is to someday be a tour manager for a music group, but Digneit has learned not to look too far ahead or rule anything out. 

“I had no interest in becoming a travel coordinator and never thought I’d do it, but here I am and I have no regrets. It’s nice to have been part of Idol because it was such a monumental show. I don’t get too nostalgic, though. I’m just into production and shift gears quickly to the next thing. It’s true that connections help in Hollywood. If one person can help give you a start in the business, you can take it from there. If you show you’re capable and willing to work, they’ll hire you. This business can be stressful and uncertain—if a show ends, so does your job—but it’s also very rewarding.”

 


 

Happy Couple

SHOW NOTE:

Keeping it Real in La La Land

 

“This is a big city but it’s a small world.  Out here it’s like two degrees of separation.”

That’s what Ashley Kihlmire Hempel ’09 BA has discovered in the land of television, Burbank, California, and the epicenter of entertainment, greater Los Angeles. 

“You have to really behave, because everyone knows someone in this town,” she added, with a bit of sarcasm. After all, her career is built around other people’s bad behavior. 

Hempel has worked as a production manager for such reality shows as Hell’s Kitchen, MasterChef and Married at First Sight. Without the outbursts of chef Gordon Ramsey, the catfights of Real Housewives, or the meltdown of contestants, TV would be, well, boring.

And maybe real life would be, too.  “With Gordon, what you see on TV is real, he has a real passion for food and when people screw up he can’t hold it in. He’s super friendly though,” Hempel said. And truly unpredictable. “One time we went out to shoot on location to a National Preserve desert and we could only go in designated areas. But he got a 4 x 4 and we all had to chase after him.” 

Hempel, who was a broadcast journalism major at NMU and interned at TV 6, has just been promoted to line producer. That means she is in charge of the budget and many logistics for shows that operate on about $6 to $7 million. “Safety is our #1 concern,” she said. “We had to do psych evaluations for all contestants on Married at First Sight. Pretty much everything that goes on behind the scenes is my responsibility—from getting insurance for the show, to travel arrangements for the contestants.”

No pressure there. 

Matchmaking is not new to Hempel, who has also worked on The Bachelor, and is herself married to her high school sweetheart, Ben Hempel ’10 BS. A quarterback at Northern, he was the reason Ashley attended NMU. While he’s not in the entertainment business, Ben said his job as a middle school physical education teacher who coaches high school football “felt like a movie at first.”

It was a struggle when the couple first moved out to L.A., a week after Ashley graduated, but they did it with a bit of U.P. by their side: their first dog, adopted from Marquette’s UPAWS (animal shelter)—a cause still near and dear to their hearts. Ashley also lured Danny Digneit to LA with the promise of a job offer. There’s that two degrees.

While Ashley often doesn’t make it home until 9 pm to what locals consider the boondocks, about 15 minutes outside of Burbank, and Ben goes in at 5 am, they feel they’re living a version of their own perfect reality show. And it shows.

by Rebecca Tavernini ’11 MA