When the stars of Broadway gather in New York City on Sunday night to celebrate the best of the theater season, there will be a secret Memphis connection on stage: virtual sets designed by Memphis video designers K. Brandon Bell and Sarah Rossi.
Bell is a Louisiana native who went to graduate school at the University of Memphis. He became involved with the Tony broadcast while living in New York City, where he also met his partner Rossi, who is French. The pair moved back to Memphis to raise their three children, and for most of the year they make their living doing interactive website design, photography, and motion graphics. "I do a little bit of everything," Bell says.
But every spring when theater awards season rolls around, their lives are thrown into chaos "We have to do the whole thing in about a month," Bell says. "They announce the nominees at the end of April, and the next week, we come up and see all the shows."
Rossi, along with Memphian Dan Baker, takes hundreds of detailed photographs of the sets of the nominated Broadway shows. Bell then uses those photographs to create backdrops that are then displayed on giant screens on the Tony Awards set. "It's all LED," Bell says. "Everything is fed directly into these giant screens. They're 20 feet high and about 50 feet wide when you put them all together."
These "virtual sets" were first used in 2011, after the Tony Awards was forced to vacate its traditional home at Radio City Music Hall. "They moved it to the Beacon Theatre, which is way smaller," Bell says.
In the old days, when the cast members from the nominated musicals would come on stage to perform numbers from the shows, a small army of stage hands would quickly recreate the sets they used every night. But that proved impractical in the smaller confines of the Beacon, so the screens were used to give the same impact while scaling the production to fit its new environment.
"Nobody had ever done this kind of thing before," Bell says. "Not that nobody'd ever used virtual sets, but nobody had ever tried to recreate 10 or 15 sets in a month for a live TV show. It's a weird thing to try to do, and there wasn't a process in place for doing it. We just had to kind of figure out how to do it on our own. 2011 was a nightmare. I still don't know how it worked out as well as it did."
Bell says they have some degree of creative leeway in designing the virtual sets. "We're not necessarily, exactly reproducing what we see in the theaters. But it should feel like the experience of watching the show. There's one director who, every year, she'll just completely throw out the whole set and make something new. It's crazy!"
Between the Tony's producer, director, and art department, plus all of the individual play directors and their set designers and lighting designers, Bell and Rossi have a lot of people to answer to. "If you looked at it like a set designer, it would drive you crazy. But I'm not a set designer. My whole thing is trying to make all of this work, creatively and technically. It's not my vision, and it's not Sarah's vision. It's the top dogs at the Tonys and the people from the individual shows' visions. I'm just trying to make all that work on TV."