Barrett Hall: Unfolding Light

Posted on December 1, 2015

Oftentimes Barrett Hall will begin a new design project by asking himself how he would go about creating a certain look if all he had at his disposal were a few conventional par cans and some basic gels. It’s not that the acclaimed New York LD is bereft of technological skill. Anyone who’s seen his annual work for the NHL Draft knows he can create dazzling arrays with the best of them — just as his work lighting UNICEF’s Education First event at the United Nations and network television programs conveys his familiarity with the most advanced lighting techniques.

Dwelling on the basics at the beginning of the design process aids Hall in getting his head and heart around the soul of a project. Once he captures this essence, he can build on it with layers of technological magic. In keeping with his organic lighting philosophy, this LD sees design as an unfolding narrative. Sometimes this may mean keeping tricks in his back pocket so he can surprise the audience later. On other occasions it will involve weaving subtle and intricate gobos into his design to engage people on different levels over the course of an event. Hall’s flowing designs have enriched some of New York’s most notable landmarks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as some of its most celebrated events. Speaking to us from his office at his company Magic Hour East, Hall shared his insights into telling stories with light. Enjoy.

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You once said you were a fan of keeping some things in your back pocket and not showing everything your lights can do at the start of a show. Can you elaborate on that point? Do you see a lightshow as an unfolding narrative? How important is the element of surprise to your work?
“Your term ‘unfolding narrative’ is actually a great description. Unless it’s a specific lighting-focused artistic installation, rarely is a show only about the lighting. I try to consider the subject matter, story line, emotional feel/journey, and other design elements present in order to create an overall visual landscape appropriate for the project.

“Obviously this is something that can vary widely between the static utilitarian look of a press conference to the dynamism of a highly energetic live concert or award show. With all the technology at our fingertips it’s sometimes really helpful to go back and ask yourself, ‘How would I light this if I only had a bunch of conventional par cans or only four gel colors to choose from?’ Asking myself this question usually keeps me from pulling out all the bells and whistles at once, which I suppose adds to the element of surprise.”

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You’ve worked at a very eclectic mix of venues, ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center to something post-industrial looking like The Tunnel nightclub, yet your lighting always seems in place. When you enter a venue for the first time, what do you look at to guide your design?
“I look at the architectural elements. There are some architectural elements that take on light in such a dramatic way. For example, you can never go wrong with some uplights on exposed brick walls or ornate columns. Plus, things like that look great on camera and in person do well when focused on by light. In venues like The Met and Lincoln Center, there’s an abundance of art, sculpture, and structures that are really fun to light.”

You’ve done quite a few high profile projects at the United Nations; can you tell us how that came about?
“In 2008, my colleague Drew DeCorleto of World Stage Inc. got a call from the White House seeking production support for a high level meeting during the UN General Assembly with the then recently elected President Obama. Drew recommended me as an LD and we had a successful collaboration on that and future presidential appearances. During that same time, there were also some events with delegates and Heads of State from around the world and the producers were looking to elevate the overall impact of these meetings by adding lighting, video, and live performance elements. So, it was word of mouth from the POTUS events that got me that job as well. This really started a trend of sponsor countries and UN organizations wanting to enhance their events and concerts and I have been fortunate enough to keep getting those calls.”

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We couldn’t help but be impressed with the way you broke up color washes with gobo patterns at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Can you tell us a little about the way you like to use gobos to create looks at events?
“Using gobos can create some added depth and texture, which I like. There’s just a nice extra element that you add to your design when you use gobos to create imperceptible, natural ‘sunlight through trees’ looks or really sharp geometric breakups that fit the overall theme and look of your project.”

You’ve also done a lot of broadcast work; how does that differ from your other projects?
“One big thing that I’ve learned when it comes to broadcast is, how your design looks on camera takes clear priority over how it looks in the house or in person. This makes total sense now, but initially it was an adjustment for me since I came from the world of theatre and event design. I imagine that branching out into these different forms adds a little something to an overall understanding of all lighting genres.”

What do you like to design in?
“I used to start with a chicken scratch napkin plot until I arrived at a more finalized design, but nowadays I typically start drafting a plot in Vectorworks and just make revisions as I go. I like to be able to open up my MacBook and work on that file from wherever I might be.”

How do get inspired when you design? Listen to music? Go for walks?
“Music for sure.”

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What kind of music?
“Depending on the project or, even more specifically where I am in the design or drafting process, I’ll listen to everything from pop and hip-hop to jazz standards. Oddly enough, I can’t listen to classical when I work — the complexity tends to distract me.”

Back to your scenic lighting – as noted you’ve illuminated some stunning structures. So, how do you achieve the balance between colorizing and enhancing a structure without distracting from it?
“I try to be respectful of what the artist or architect created and then just go for it and see what looks good. Really, the lighting is only temporary so I don’t over think that.”

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We know that you used the Next NXT-1 moving LED panels in your design for Azteca Upfront (a major advertising event for the Azteca TV network during New York’s Upfront Week). When you see new technology like that, how do you evaluate whether or not you’re going to incorporate it into your work?
“I like to try new things. It keeps me entertained and inspires creativity. I usually chat with my vendor contacts and other LDs about what new ‘toys’ are out there and then I put some on a show and see how I like them.”

Does new technology give you new ideas as a designer, or is it just a matter of making it easier for you to do the things you already wanted to do anyway?
“Yes to both.”

On the subject of new technologies, what do you think of pixel mapping?
“The line between video and lighting has become more and more blurred in recent years, and pixel mapping is a good example of that. I’m seeing a lot of interesting designs utilizing this type of convergence and I definitely plan to do more of it myself.”

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You’ve done the NHL Draft, which by the very nature of being a draft, has a lot of suspense built into it. At an event like this, how do you see lighting contributing to that sense of drama?
“The NHL Draft is an interesting one, because at the heart of it, it’s a business meeting. But then there’s a huge arena full of energetic hockey fans who are there to support their favorite teams. Each year I try to add a bit more in terms of theatricality and flair — both for the fans and the cameras. Things like followspots picking up the announced draftees and deck and truss fixtures doing flyouts, etc. in team colors has added to that sense of drama.”

Looking at your many projects, are there any that stand out?
“It’s been both challenging and rewarding working at the United Nations over the years. There are a lot of constraints due to the venue itself, and obviously security is always a concern. However, having the opportunity to light several sitting US presidents and all the heads of state from around the world several times each year is certainly an honor.”

How did you get started in lighting?
“When I was in school in Boston, I met a very talented lighting designer named Suzanne Lowell. She taught me how to light for theatre and dance. She later opened up a highly successful special events company and I had the pleasure of working with her for several years before moving to New York City.”

If you didn’t become a lighting designer, what would you have done?
“I also direct theatre with my wife Sarah — she works in television too. We love getting to work together in that way and try to take on a couple of projects like that every year. But, that’s not too far away from what we do every day, so if I was to say what else I might have been, I’d say marine biologist.”

Who were the big influencers in your career?
“I’ve always been heavily influenced by images in film, TV and other art forms around me. There are many incredible LDs out there, and if I had to name one whose work continues to inspire me I’d say Bob Barnhart of Full Flood. I had the pleasure of visiting the set and doing a little guest LD work on his series So You Think You Can Dance? last season. What he does on that series every week is really beautiful.”

Your use of color is outstanding. Do you have a favorite color to work in? A color that is most challenging? Has LED color mixing opened new creative options for you?
“It might sound like a copout but my favorite color is ever changing and really depends on what I’m working on. Some colors are more challenging than others when it comes to over saturation, etc. on camera for sure. The immediacy of LED color mixing is unbeatable in terms of speed and convenience. It can also pose its own challenges, because sometimes you have almost too many options. I wouldn’t ever go back and trade that convenience, but it’s great to sometimes sit with the gel swatch books and come up with a palette that way — even if in the end you are using all LEDs and moving lights.”

Any advice on how to add depth to washes when coloring a structure?
“I consider how natural sunlight would play on something and cast shadows at different times of day. Then of course you can turn that all on its head and have a source coming in at a really low angle or from an unexpected position, which can up the dynamic factor.”

How would you like to be remembered as a designer?
“Am I dying? Just kidding. Hope to always be remembered as someone who’s fun to work with.”