Hairspray Live!, NBC Universal’s transformation of the theatrical musical into a primetime special, may have appeared to the untrained eye as just another television show. However, Lighting Designer Allen Branton explained that lighting 17 different locations across the Universal back lot, each with disparate requirements, on live TV, made this a design challenge unmatched in his 30+ years working in Television.
For Branton, Hairspray Live! was far more complicated than a large awards show, or even a Super Bowl Halftime show. “It was an unparalleled human undertaking – more than any other production – the scale of it, it was monstrous,” he said. The crew and co-ordination required, where a single set was a quarter mile long, was significant. During setup, the technical director joked that the only time he had ever installed a comparable amount of video cable was while broadcasting a golf tournament.
With eight of the 17 sets being exterior, programming, even on camera, often occurred during daylight. And the massive footprint of the production meant three to four separate lighting crews could be working on crucial aspects of the show at any of the 17 locations simultaneously. Though this is not uncommon, usually these “other” locations involve tangential elements of a show, in Hairspray they would showcase core elements of the narrative. While the cast for Hairspray Live! rehearsed for weeks, the lighting team would have only nine days on camera.
Branton makes clear he could not have brought this “monster” in for a safe landing without his collaborators, with whom he has worked for decades. Among the most acute challenges were responding to the scenic and choreographic changes that took place as Branton and the other department heads refined their approaches, “We solved more problems in one day than during the entirety of a typical primetime special.”
In one example, scenic changes, on show day, to a small back alley location would require a critical new focus, but there was no camera time at the location before airtime. The solution? LD Darren Langer setting up a FaceTime with LD Felix Peralta (at main stage FOH) to make the changes.
Since limiting fixture noise was a priority, Branton used 67 Claypaky Scenius fixtures, not only “for their utility in quiet settings, but the exquisite precision of the framing shutter feature.” Branton also used 31 Claypaky Mythos for their “horsepower” in the finale plus 32 Alpha 800s and 25 Sharpy Wash. “Since the introduction of the original Sharpy, Claypaky has been doing some great things. As a life-long lover of the Alfa Romeo, it’s good to have some Italian engineering on set.”
As for control, seven grandMA2 consoles were deployed to the various sets with roll-ability functions. LD Kevin Lawson highlighted their indispensability. “Due to the massive layout of the system, which was several city blocks, the need for flexibility and stability in control was a must. Knowing that we needed to have multiple programmers working simultaneously in multiple locations the MA2s multi-user functionality was critical to our success. Up to and during the live show, one programmer executed cues, while another made adjustments as needed. Meanwhile another programmer worked as an advance unit staying ahead of the live show wringing out and checking focus on roving units on the back lot.”
Branton, Peralta and Lawson all agreed that even with their many years of experience, they would not have succeeded without the tremendous support from 4Wall Entertainment. According to Peralta, “Brad Hafer (of 4Wall) made the whole thing seamless. There were many proud moments for the whole crew.” Branton echoed this sentiment, “Brad Hafer and his team are the best, and it’s really not close.”
4Wall Lighting Gear List
- 3 MA Lighting grandMA2 Full
- 4 MA Lighting grandMA2 Light
- 10 NPU
- 67 Claypaky Scenius
- 32 Claypaky Alpha 800
- 31 Claypaky Mythos
- 25 Claypaky Sharpy Wash
- Lighting Designer: Allen Branton
- Lighting Directors: Felix Peralta; Darren Langer; Kevin Lawson
- Lighting Programmers: Kirk Miller; Joe Cabrera; Celine Royer
- Head Gaffer: Rob Lindsey
- Gaffers: Kevin Harvey, George Gountas
- Best Boy: Jason Seagrove
- Lighting Techs: Tim Donovan; David Hunkins; Mike Smallman
- Lighting Operations: Liberty Bock
- Lighting Operations Assistant: Maggie Morlath
- Lighting Interns: Avery Richardson; Neal Petz