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Allen Branton: Translating Light

Posted on April 2, 2019

It isn’t often that a lighting designer interviewed on these pages compliments us on our choice of words, the way this Prime-Time Emmy Award winner did when we asked him how he “translates” live tour designs into video productions.

Translating does not involve merely replicating something, as Branton pointed out to us, but preserving its meaning as it moves from one motif to another. In lighting a concert performance for television, such a transformation requires that the essence of a live production be distilled and reconfigured in a way that works on camera, where even the smallest detail, like a seemingly insignificant slice of a backdrop, can loom large in the final production.

Adhering to this ideal of the translation process has been at the heart of Branton’s design philosophy. It’s served him well too, earning him an Emmy Award for lighting Bette Midler’s “Diva Las Vegas,” as well as nominations for “Adele Live At Central Park” and “Cher Live At MGM,” in addition to a Cable ACE Award for the “Madonna Live!” TV special.

During his celebrated career, Branton has also lit Paul McCartney, Nirvana and Eric Clapton on MTV’s unplugged series, designed the lighting for two Super Bowl Half Time Shows, and worked on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, plus numerous network awards programs. Taking time from his busy schedule, he spoke to us about translating the language of light.

You started out playing music, tell us a bit about your background there and how its informed your lighting design work.
“Well, I think my musical background would be familiar to a lot of people. I started in the school band, and then went on to play with friends. The experience helped me understand presentation, and the structure shows more generally. Most music, and theater by definition, is telling a story. You want your lighting design to help tell that story. Consider common musical terms: allegro/adagio, rubato/staccato, expressivo, and my personal favorite, rest; a quiet interval when we remember to turn things off. These are used to invite the musician toward emotional expression. Stage lighting, when effective, aspires to similar nuance.”

How about people, who were the big influencers in your career?
“As with many people, the first was my father, Eddie Branton. When I was a boy there was always a man in the house at a drawing board or poring over spreadsheets. Dad eventually ran his own architectural design/build firm, but when I was a boy, he worked for a commercial builder as what was called ‘estimator.’ The estimator prepared the sealed bids, projecting requirements for time, materials, labor, etc. – everything required to complete a given building. Sort of a real-world ‘Price is Right.’ ‘Estimate’ how much without going over. When I was old enough, he introduced me to the concept of The Critical Path, a process management system developed by the navy and popularized by various MBA programs. Through my Dad, I was exposed very early to the art and science of planning a project and bringing it to completion.

“In the lighting business, my first mentor was Kirby Wyatt. He pretty much confirmed all of what my Dad taught me about work, and hardened it. Dad was a soft hearted, sweet man. Kirby, not so much.

“Then, my first boss as a free-lancer, Joe Gannon (Google him). Joe brought all this technical training back around to an intense study of the intangibles. He taught me that lighting is not about the lights.”

Are there one or two projects that really influenced your career above all others?
“Working for Diana Ross as a young man was a formative experience for me. Particularly in Las Vegas where we presented a lavish production twice a day, seven days a week. I spent several months at Caesar’s Palace working a large, well-equipped stage with a seasoned IA crew, who embraced a young man with a bit of raw talent and a lot of desire. I have often said the Caesar’s crew raised me. Where else could somebody have hung a lighting design, cued it, and then watched it in performance (with tweaks and edits most days), twice a day for weeks on end?

“For my first few years with her we deployed an all-white environment: white stage floor, white scenic elements, white wardrobe on band and dancers, white everything. That became an advanced course in the importance of intensity and angles because you’re throwing onto a dozen different bounce boards, and if the light is in the wrong place or focused improperly you are in trouble. This was the genesis of my affinity for hyper-precision, because I needed to control every light hitting that stage or things would spin out of control. Looking back, the methods we came up with to survive that white set became the basis for how I approach television. We were practicing a sort of indoor/sideways version of Ansel Adams’ zoning theory, but I only realized this later.

“Between that, and the impetus to have Diana look great, which wasn’t difficult but prepared me for the importance of a closeup, she really prepared me to move into television.

“I also have to mention David Bowie of course. When I’m asked who my favorite act or performer is over a long career, David Bowie is always the answer — one I often have to stop myself from blurting out. I’d had a bit of experience by the time I was hired for the David’s Serious Moonlight tour, and I imagined I knew something about lighting a dynamic performer in concert. Which brings to mind another Kirby Wyatt truism, ‘… it just goes to show how wrong you can be.’

“Sometimes you are privileged to work with artists that elevate the entire endeavor. They are invested in and understand it, and they create a space for everybody to explore and get better. It really helped my confidence, because I wasn’t really sure how much difference my work was having. David and his team really encouraged, supported, and later fought for my ideas, which was indispensable to my growth as a designer.”

You’ve had outstanding accomplishments in television and on touring. How do TV lighting and concert tour lighting compare?
“We are describing the practice of a secondary discipline, apart from lighting a stage production day to day. I will not suggest this multi-camera television discipline is harder, but I know from having done both that it is profoundly different.

“A concert is an occasion of immersion – immersion in music, visuals, temperature, and smell. However, if you take a similar event and televise it, there is none of that. The primary governing element in the latter process is the television camera. As good as these cameras are, they are junk compared to the human eye. So you have to make peace with these differences and realize your task in a television context is really a math and science exercise. It’s all driven by what the cameras can see.

“Lighting that is perfectly acceptable, even perfect, for an audience in a live show can look weird and unflattering in countless ways when you ‘push in’ to a shot where the performer’s face fills the entire screen. Television is a close up medium, and close-up photography is the coin of the realm. The cameras are mostly in close or medium close framing, wider shots give geographical reference or feature grand moments in the production, but the director rarely relies on those wider perspectives as the backbone for his cut. The wide shot can accentuate a story, but the medium and close up shots will tell it. Lighting a show for what the camera sees and the viewing pleasure of someone watching on a TV really does shift one’s priorities. “

Does mastering the discipline required in broadcast lighting sharpen a designer’s skills in other lighting genres?
“Yes, absolutely. Or at least I hope so. For one thing, there is a great deal of measurement involved in lighting for camera. You learn the technical aspects involved in deploying your favorite looks that you didn’t know previously, and are forced into a level of precision that simply isn’t necessary with stage work, where it might even be undesirable in certain cases.

“Also, and I think just as important, are the logistics and planning components. The prep processes for a tour vs a television show are just radically different. If it’s a pure TV production, you’re collecting a bunch of mercenaries who may have worked together a fair bit, but maybe not together leading up to the show. You’re not going to set up in a soundstage for a month rehearsing and doing cue to cue. You may not see a musical act for more than a couple hours on camera, and the staging and blocking may be completely different from any video you’ve been able to review from prior performances. A quick install is important in both contexts, but if you have hardware issues to iron out, that may not be crippling in a touring context because you’ll see the show 50 times before an audience does, whereas in a TV production you might only see it once. If you hung a truss in the wrong place, hanging it affects five different departments and you just blew a huge hole in everyone’s profits.”

Who do you collaborate with most closely when lighting for TV and what are the issues that crop up most often?
“This truly depends on the show. There are a few producers or directors that I’ve worked with for so long that we seldom speak directly about the show’s look, only content that may be unique to that show. My primary collaboration is probably with the scenic/production designer. He or she is designing the physical bones of the show. Put differently, the actual elements that will need to be lit. Sometimes a simple scenic change will require a complicated, and expensive, change in the lighting, so managing that interplay is very important.

“Of course, I can’t discuss collaboration without talking about my team, most of whom have been with me for a long time. It’s really important to find good people you can trust, because on some larger and more bureaucratic productions, my attention can be divided. You need good people that can keep the action moving. This is a point I think is often underemphasized, the management aspect of delivering the show. What can we do with the time and money allocated? What is the right balance between human capital and lighting equipment? The more practice you get at creating a design, the more the answers to the lighting questions become second nature and more comfortable to navigate. Managing the money and logistics can be radically new challenges every time, even after 35 years. So, building a good relationship with the production staff, who have to make the money work and balance these competing interests is vital. That is the critical path.”

Another thing you’ve done quite often is translate tour designs into video shoots. How does that work? What are the first things you look at in the tour design before beginning the translation process? How do you give up elements of the tour design without losing its original character?
“We start with a cue to cue analysis of the primary performer(s) close-up. This cue to cue analysis will lead, first and foremost, to repairs of that portrait lighting. Usually, we choose one, or very few, versions of that lighting that is most flattering to camera and use it throughout, whereas in a live show we might vary the performers lighting more, based on color palette in the stage lighting, wardrobe, or simple variety. But variety is a not worth much in close-up. The best version of a portrait achievable is almost always the right choice. Variety in presentation will be offered to the viewer in other ways.

“Next, the close-up backgrounds will usually need adjustment: too dark, bright, distracting, etc. This close-up background, depending on how much the performer moves can be a very small slice of the stage picture but is very important because the home viewer will see it constantly whereas the live audience may not notice the change at all. Based on camera angles, we may need to add elements off stage that wouldn’t be necessary for a live show.
We look for consistency in exposure in all the elements. When composing scenes for a TV production we balance everything as we go. Interacting with a live production’s already-established scenes, we will find much of it renders inconsistently to camera, even if it works well in the live presentation.

“As far as the original character is concerned, our goal is to bring that out rather than obscure it, and that is really the philosophical cornerstone. Building a good working relationship with the tour designer is important here because they’ve created the show, and it is that show that the television audience wants to see. It’s one of the reasons I like your use of the word ‘translate’ in your question, because that’s what we are trying to do, make the show render faithfully on television without changing its underlying meaning.

“Sadly, the more tours and festivals that are broadcast because of the shift in delivery to streaming and online, the less this sort of thing takes place. It’s becoming rare that the broadcast recreates the sense of scale and wonder the live audience is experiencing. This comes down to money of course, but I hope the discipline isn’t lost.”

What’s the biggest misconception LDs in other genres have about broadcast lighting?
“I don’t think I’d use the word misconception. I wouldn’t presume to know what people in other disciplines believe or know. To not completely dodge your question though, I think the importance of how things photograph is more important than ever. Consider how often video clips and photos of various events end up online. You never know what is going to go viral, and it may be viewed more than any press release or even the show itself, so make sure that you’re composing good pictures.”

You won a Prime-Time Emmy for your work on Bette Midler’s “Diva Las Vegas” special. Can you tell us what made that project special? Were there any special challenges?
“Well I’d have to begin with Peter Morse, because it was his tour design, which he’d done a wonderful job with, and he really welcomed me onto his turf and the collaboration was delightful. And I don’t think we get that outcome without Bette Midler. When you have an artist that is so invested in the quality of the production and supports the different people and components whose job it is to produce the show, it has a multiplying effect. She knows her production and cares about it, so when we wanted to try and take the time to refine something or deliver a better outcome, we had an informed artist on our side, and that makes a huge difference.

“Although, in defense of the other artists and creators I’ve worked with, award voting is incredibly political. Bette is an absolute powerhouse where that is concerned, and while I’m incredibly proud of that show, and thankful to Peter for welcoming me, I don’t think you can discount the politics involved in all these awards. I used to care about that sort of stuff, but now I judge myself on whether my clients are pleased with the results. It’s a good lesson, be worried about what you can control.”

Still the number of awards you’ve won has been impressive. On that subject, you’ve done a lot of award shows and Las Vegas specials where special effects are called for. How do you balance the effect lighting and key lighting?
“Well, going back to our cue to cue analysis of the closeups, which is true in the regular broadcast context as well, once we have ‘control’ of the pictures we are seeing, it becomes much easier and safer to incorporate those effects.

“The primary difference between doing this in a live arena context and television is, again, the camera. We need to know what shots the director is going to take and when, and understand how to create a compelling picture for that shot at that moment, and that is going to differ from the techniques we’d use for a live show in an arena. For example, the amount of horsepower you need to have someone in the upper deck ‘feel’ a lighting effect, is almost always in excess of what a camera can tolerate, even in a wide shot. So, it becomes a balancing act, but if you understand where the light is coming from, and why it looks the way it does on camera, you are in a position to create some great pictures.

“I worked on an award show once where the artist wanted to incorporate a bit of his tour design for his performance. And there were some interesting set pieces and lighting components there. The problem was there was so much negative space in the closeup background that unless we were in a wide shot, the lighting effects were literally invisible. So, in the wide shot it was complete mad house of flashing elements, but when the director went to a closeup we saw nothing but a contaminated closeup and a black background. I lost the knife fight about modifying this of course, the guy was a big star and his team wanted what they wanted. But as a consequence, the viewer had no real sense of what they were seeing.”

You began designing in an era when there were no LED video panels. Has their arrival and presence on sets impacted how you design?
“Not really, but it created another facet to manage. Those screens are basically dynamic set pieces with variable brightness. When you think of them that way, it’s pretty easy to manage them within our regular workflow. Now occasionally a production team may not realize what they’re getting themselves into when they make a huge screen the focal point of a show, because screens often seem like simple solution vs. building set pieces you may only use once. But in HD or 4K closeup, pixel density, position, and depth become huge issues. It’s not uncommon for me to turn on a television and see what looks like a 100-meter flat cathode ray tube stretched across a stage because nobody considered that these screens are going to look entirely different in close up than they did in a rendering or from front of house. So, it’s like anything else, take the time to understand what they mean to the show and the cameras, and make sure you get the right piece of equipment and place it properly.”

We talked quite extensively about the interaction between light and camera. So, when all is said and done, what makes a light ‘camera friendly?’
“I get asked this question a lot, and my stock answer is that any light can be camera friendly depending on what it is doing. Often times these lights are conceptualized in a white room, and the functionality is driven by who the manufacturers believe they can sell the light to, be it clubs or rental houses or what have you. My impression is that what matters to ‘US’ as designers is considered passively or after the fact. So here are some words of advice for manufactures (make checks payable to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital). Consider what task the light you are building will be trying to accomplish. If it can accomplish more than one task, is it likely those tasks will be accomplished from the same location in the rig. Consider how heavy and difficult to manage this piece of gear is going to be, the faster we can hang the light and turn it on (or take it down to service it), the more we can afford to rent or buy.
Remember you’re building a product that is going to be pushed hard day after day. Reliability, both the hardware and software components, is vitally important. A light that can accomplish a vital task perfectly is better than a light that can do three things adequately.”

You designed for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Awards for many years when they were at the Waldorf. Now they’re held at the Barclay Center. That’s quite a different type of venue. How has this affected your design approach?
“I think this question relates to my comments about management and logistics, which is the place where the venues differ, but in both cases they present really difficult challenges. Of course, the scale is hugely different, but those are questions that, after all this time, are fairly easy to answer. More lights, more people, bigger set pieces, but the show itself is essentially the same in terms of content. What is different however, is going from a short load-in through one small elevator into a small venue… to a multi-day, multi-component load-in into a large venue with sporting events on either side of the show. Both present a number of challenges, but in both cases, you have to stay on the critical path to a good outcome, because if we don’t get the gear hung, turned on, and programed, the design is just a figment of our imagination. But once the design is in and cameras are on something memorable and exciting always happens, and I’m grateful to be involved.”

In recent times, you’ve been focused on TV, do you ever miss touring?
“I wouldn’t say I miss the touring world I was so heavily involved in, save the opportunity to work closely with those great artists and their teams. Today though, touring is a different organism than it was, from technology to the level of professionalism, and the importance of photography, so that is appealing. I will tour again, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Do you ever procrastinate at the start of the design process?
“I don’t really. My biggest struggle is more in the other direction, staying patient knowing there will be a lot of changes throughout the process that I don’t have much control over, whether that be the budget, set design, dates, or venue. Preparation is so important, especially in TV context where camera time is so valuable, but everyone else is trying to herd their own cats, so being able to pace our preparation can be stressful. Being involved in shows at this level is such a privilege, and once you realize that, deciding to put the work in becomes a whole lot easier.”

How do you want to be remembered?
“It is difficult to imagine an answer to that question. I am sure there will be a few people who cherish our time together and a few who most definitely do not. For myself, I remember all the astounding talent I’ve been exposed to, onstage and off. And, the places I’ve seen. I often tell my colleagues that it is an enormous privilege to do this work at this level. I hope those who know me understand I have never taken that for granted and have treated the opportunity with the reverence it deserves.”