Traveling Through Light

Traveling Through Light

The Decemberists. Photo courtesy of Vortex Lighting.

There are the never-satisfied globe trotters, and there are the ever-elusive time travelers, and then there’s Anne Militello, who travels through various worlds of light. She has navigated the genres of theatre, concerts, opera, and architectural lighting within the entertainment design industry for more than 30 years, before it was even an “industry.”

In fact, Militello has a “funny relationship with the word ‘industry’” as she is, first and foremost, an artist. She describes herself as a “lighting world traveler,” exploring the creative possibilities of light across all its wavelengths. While today the realm of design has grown to be more corporate, the experienced lighting designer was there when it was still a budding business, designing for theatre productions and rock ‘n’ roll clubs. It was not a conscious decision to break into this field, she says. “I just wanted to work with lights, and I found the people I wanted to be around.” When the design scene shifted to a more formal business, Militello was already firmly entrenched in the world of light, designing for Off-Off Broadway and Off-Broadway—for which she’d eventually earn an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Lighting—working with glam rock and punk rock bands, and at venues like the Mudd Club and CBGB, among other New York underground nightclubs.

Dulce Rosa. Photo by Robert Millard/Los Angeles Opera.

Militello branched into architectural lighting—again, effortlessly—the typical way: through a friend, of course. Said friend knew the owner of a famous store in New York’s Greenwich Village, who wanted to update the old-fashioned store windows and introduced her. Militello promptly hit up downtown’s Bowery scene, where numerous lighting shops resided, managed by helpful store owners full of advice, such as what was a recessed downlight and how to use it. “I always knew how to shape light,” says Militello, “but I didn’t know the architectural tools.” Despite her unprecedented experience in the genre, Militello figured it out and went on to design a few more stores in Manhattan at the time. She began a bit of self-education, reading books and researching any questions she had, including how to draft.

Soon, Disney began sniffing around New York for theatre designers to work on the second phase of Euro Disney and, subsequently, made an offer to Militello. She joined Disney Imagineering, designing themed rides and attractions as well as dining areas, which helped her to further understand architectural lighting. During her time with Disney, Militello designed Toontown for Disneyland in California and several attractions in Tokyo Disneyland. Eventually, she worked with Universal Studios on “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man” in Orlando, Florida, earning her multiple honors, including Lighting Designer of the Year Award for a Themed Project at LDI in 1999. “I really cut my teeth professionally there,” Militello says, once again traveling “to this other world of lighting, where it was all so exciting and interesting and creative.”

Anne Militello. Photo by Sardi Klein.

Rather than become rooted in one world, Militello wanted to participate in all of them, expanding across the horizons. “When you have a full-time job with someone like Disney, even though they were very forgiving about leaving to do shows here and there,” the designer explains, “it got to the point where I wanted more time off to do some tours, so I moved on.” Militello left Disney and eventually started her own company, Vortex Lighting, in 1996.

As an artist, creating solely for herself, Militello does not think of what inspires other people, but as a designer, working with and for other people, she considers what people need from the project. “The first thing is what the intention is,” she says. “For me, every idea has to come from an intention. I don’t see how to work any other way. The tools are the last thing.” Whether it is a theatre production enforcing a message or a hotel conveying a social atmosphere, the intention informs her approach to light.

Worlds Of Light

Light Cycles. Photo by Ryan Muir.

For Light Cycles, a 150' installation for the World Financial Center at Three World Trade Center in New York, commissioned by Brookfield Arts, Militello wanted to infuse the design with “happy, loving energy” for the area had suffered greatly in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Images of galaxies and nebulae from the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as jewels and gemstones found in nature, inspired Militello to create an environmental celebration of light and life. “I wanted to bring the sky down into the atrium,” she explains, “and I also wanted to bring the Earth up to it.” The designer activated the complex’s 10-story glass atrium, called the Winter Garden, by day and night, stringing up strands of various sized discs of color-changing LED panels, backed with mirrors. During the day, sunlight bounced off the mirrors, flickering with their movement, and at night, the light shone through the windows, spilling onto the river and out toward New Jersey. In a lucky accident, the coating used on the glass of the windows also reflected the light back into the garden. Light Cycles earned Pick of the Week by Time Out New York for three straight weeks after its debut.

Given her long career, Militello says her life experience has also influenced her work. “Sometimes the best lesson is the hardest lesson, which is to let go of your own ego,” she asserts, adding that, even when you have created a look you love, there are other collaborators, and you have to gauge what to fight for and when to let it go. “It can be tough to let an idea morph, but sometimes you can make a more beautiful piece of work that is the result of not just your creativity, but includes the different talents and voices around you,” she says. “The older I get, the less I want to fight, and it’s not that I’m giving up. It’s because I’m finding it easier to transpose my ideas.”

Tom Waits. Photo by Axis Debruyn.

With such a philosophy, Militello acknowledges several people with influencing her career and the way she designs. She experienced light on a more serious level, she says, than her work with punk rock bands, when she collaborated with playwrights Sam Shepard and María Irene Fornés, who both wrote the pieces they directed, thus, giving more insight to their theatrical productions. “I was welcomed into a world of trust with them, where the ideas flowed naturally, and they came about almost organically, which made the work powerful,” the designer explains. Similarly, working with singer-songwriter Tom Waits was influential. “He knew what he didn’t like more than he liked, which helped as a direction.” Militello says that she works with artists who don’t “over-intellectualize” design but operate on intuition instead. “We’re most successful with the people that we connect with,” she says, “and I’m lucky enough to have been on their wavelengths.”

Her favorite piece to date—and will always be, she says—is one such cohesive collaboration: the New 42nd Street Studios. Though the project has morphed since she first designed it in 1997, her “challenge was to express the energy and vibrancy and creativity of the performing arts and put that on a building and add movement to it,” she says. Militello lit the structure’s façade so that light passed through the holes in the stainless steel blades. It was an amazing collaboration, she says, with everything aligning, from client and architect to city officials and vendors, and even to the spectators who watched her program on the street at night. “That was the culmination of everything I’ve ever learned in theatre and architecture and the psychology and nature of working with people. That was big.”

New 42nd Street Studios. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Militello’s upcoming projects include a remounting of Christopher Alden’s production of The Flying Dutchman at Seattle Opera as well as the design of four boutique hotels. She is also continuing her research on light and how it affects health and biology, and how she might incorporate such findings into her designs. Staying current with California’s strict energy guidelines is a constant task, forcing her to get creative with her designs. Additionally, she heads the Lighting Design Program at CalArts and is also a featured speaker at the Las Vegas Master Classes for Lighting October 21-22, in conjunction with LDI 2015.

Militello likes to keep the lines open as “you never know what’s going to come up next,” she says, “but that’s what I love about it. I’m a lighting world traveler. I like to travel within different wavelengths of light.” And so she shall.

For more, download the August issue of Live Design for free onto your iPad or iPhone from the Apple App Store, and onto your Android smartphone and tablet from Google Play. 

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