Encampment resident 'lights up' for Emmy

Allen Branton gets 2 of 5 Emmy nominations for his lighting work on NYC Adele concert, The Wiz: LIVE!


Photo Courtesy of Allen Branton

Allen Branton, of Encampment, pulls a trout from the water. Branton fell in love with Wyoming years ago, though he was born in Little Rock, Ark.

As Encampment resident Allen Branton describes it, the job of a television lighting designer is to figure out how to squeeze wonderment into a box. Branton should know: this year he has received two of five Primetime Emmy Award nominations in the category of Best Lighting Design/Lighting Direction for a Variety Special. Branton was nominated for his cinematography of both NBC's "The Wiz: LIVE!," a televised broadway-style play, and "Adele: Live in New York City," an NBC broadcast of an Adele concert at Radio City Music Hall.

Branton describes the two endeavors as "two radically different productions," which made very different demands of him and his team.

For the Adele concert, the components of the show were somewhat limited, but the time constraints Branton worked under were extreme. Branton said his crew was only on location at the concert hall for two days, when "Normally you'd be in there for four or five days at least." There were fewer moving parts for the Adele broadcast than there were in other productions Branton has been involved in over his 40-plus years in television lighting, but the margin for error was practically nonexistent.

"We actually felt like we had to plan it really, really carefully, because there was no time to make a false step," Branton said.

One of the tactics he used to make sure he could get everything set up without a hitch was to model much of the lighting in advance using a computerized pre-visualization process, or "pre-vis," as industry insiders refer to it. Doing the pre-vis weeks before the show let Branton experiment virtually instead of on set, and once his team was in place in New York he could complete the install with maximum efficiency.

Branton also credited the success on a tight timeline to his close collaboration with production designer Es Devlin, whom he described as "our guiding light." Devlin and Branton did most of their work together through email and conference calls, only working in person in the hectic two days before the show.

Branton's time on set for the Wiz, by contrast, was over a month. It was in many ways a more complicated project with multiple personalities and manifold dimensions to consider. Whereas Branton described the Adele show as basically "A woman in front of a band," on the Wiz Branton had to contend with multiple scene changes, a cast of over 40 actors and a 10-person creative team. If speed and forethought were key to Branton's approach with Adele, an ability to negotiate a large number of interacting variables was critical in lighting the Wiz.

It was also a rare excursion into theatre for Branton. He described himself as mostly a television person, although he has also has experience on several play sets. On the Wiz, Branton worked with Broadway veteran Derek McLane, who was the show's production designer.

The world of television lighting, it would seem, requires fast execution, constant learning and being a good team player under stressful circumstances. Over the course of his interview Branton compared his team's work to that of a pit crew at a NASCAR race, a construction crew working together to build a new building and a navy SEAL team following a "rapid deployment scheme."

In an increasingly professionalized world, Branton also described television lighting as one of a handful of jobs that many people haven't necessarily gotten a specialized degree for. "Most of the people you find there have arrived via some weird, circuitous path," he said.

Branton himself kind of fell into the industry after doing lighting for shows on the side while playing the saxophone in the 1970s. Soon, he was doing the lighting for big-name bands like the Beach Boys and Three Dog Night. Unlike his meticulous lighting arrangements, Branton said a career in cinematography is "just not something you can plan."

Along with an aesthetic sense, Branton said the most important characteristics a lighting designer can have is being dogged and determined. He said he would have liked to have attended the Emmy awards ceremony September 11, but unfortunately he will be working in Atlantic City on the Miss America Pageant that day. Dogged and determined indeed.

<i>The story has been updated from its original version to reflect the fact that Es Devlin was the production designer for the Adele Concert, not the "production manager," as was originally stated. Max Miller apologizes for the mistake.


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