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Jon Kusner: Evolving Light

Posted on February 5, 2018

Every lighting project is a puzzle, for this Park City, Utah based designer, a collection of disparate parts that must be woven together into a balanced, harmonious look through the art of design. Since leaving the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU to work for Broadway legend Ken Billington in the 1990s, Kusner has become a master at solving design riddles, first in the world of theatre, and later in broadcast applications. This ability has earned him the universal admiration of his peers, along with two Prime Time Emmy Awards and 11 nominations.

Having worked on major broadcast events like the Academy Award and Grammy Award shows, as well as The Opening Ceremonies of the Salt Lake Olympics, The MTV Video Awards and Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, Kusner is totally at home on the big stage. Still, no detail of any project is too small to escape his careful scrutiny. A broadcast designer must always take extra care, he says, to balance conflicting needs, such as those between creating compelling visuals on one hand and maintaining the basics of front lighting on the other; or between reaching the crowd at a live event, while never losing focus of the TV audience.

These and other pieces of the lighting puzzle, never fit quite the same way from one project to the next, which is why this accomplished designer says he never stops learning. Speaking to us from the offices of his company 22 Degrees, Kusner shared some insights about the constantly evolving process of broadcast lighting.

Early in your career, you worked for two of the very best lighting designers: Ken Billington in theatre and Bob Dickinson in TV. Although they occupied two very different corners of the lighting world, was there a common denominator in what they taught you about the creative process and how to approach your work?
“This question could probably generate a small book in itself. I am most fortunate to have worked with two pillars of the lighting design community. To start with both Ken and Bobby are passionate about what they do, so with this passion brings a lot of energy towards their projects. Ken and Bobby also understand the importance of collaboration, lighting is just a part of the “whole” production and both Ken and Bobby are not afraid to participate and help shape the production in the direction that they think will improve the show. Both of them have also built relationships with the directors, designers and producers that makes for an easy dialog between them. So, from my perspective it came down to passion and the desire to be there, having an opinion and with those opinions hopefully a dialog with fellow members of the design team that turns into trusted relationships for the future.”

On the subject of theatre and television, you did substantial work in the former before focusing on the latter. How would you describe the difference between theatrical and broadcast lighting?
“Broadcast lighting is less forgiving. The human eye has the ability to appreciate and discern so much more information than cameras see. So, in TV you are concerned about prioritizing and balancing what the picture needs to be. On top of this, in television you have as many perspectives as you do cameras. By contrast, in theatre things are usually viewed from one perspective, since the audience is stationary and they are viewing from only one angle. They are not walking around changing their viewing perspective which complicates the work load. There’s also the issue of time. Theatre works at a more measured pace, whereas TV is often a factory and you are always pressured to prioritize what needs to be done.”

It seems to us that the role of broadcast lighting has changed in recent years from that of merely illuminating the performers and scenic elements on the set, to creating visual displays that are meant to be appreciated in their own right. How has this changed your approach to your work?
“Your perspective about this change is totally fair. I would describe it as a maturing of the art form of lighting. If you look at any discipline it starts humble – it’s based on what is necessary – and then it grows into more interesting, complex or unusual forms. Add to this that lighting technology now offers so many options and you see that it’s hard for broadcast lighting not to be more compelling. To look at the second part of the question, lighting the performer is the basic foundation that we are responsible for doing in my view. So, it then becomes subjective on how you, or the artist or the producer see this illumination to happen. The expectation of the visual experience of events continues to rise which is the driving the desire to reinvent how the technology is being used.”

Is it also fair to say that front lighting is less emphasized in TV lighting than it was five or six years ago?
“No, I think front light is just as important. It may even be more scrutinized then ever due to better TVs and higher broadcast standards like HD / 4k etc. If you think of almost all TV, we are looking at just faces. Think of all day time TV, news and the sitcoms, where we’re just looking at faces. What I do think has happened, however, is that the idea of front lighting on music shows has become more adventures. More artists are willing to be seen in non-traditional front light. Any time I am doing a show, the question become ‘do we need to make this person look flattering?’ Can we model the face so one side is darker if it makes the artist look stoic or interesting? This is the kind of front lighting question that maybe wasn’t asked in the past.”

While we’re on the subject of creating interesting looks, what are your thoughts about keeping some dark spaces in a broadcast lighting design?
“This is a decision that usually starts with the production designer. The environment will determine if this feels appropriate or not. It also comes down to the director and or the producer, often they feel negative space is bad. So, it really depends on so many aspects of the show and who is behind it.

You’ve lit so many great productions. Looking back through history is there a program from an earlier era that you wish you’d been around to light?
“This is a tough for me, nothing immediately or everything comes to mind. Many large concerts, Olympic events and unusual broadcasts from random places can easily be on this list. I think each show is a puzzle that you as the designer need to put together the pieces to work out what the answer is. Of course, that answer is the “look” of the show. So, I tend to look at all shows and ask myself questions about how they did something, how it could be better – everything is a learning opportunity.”

What do you design in?
“I use Vectorworks in a very clumsy and novice way, I still spend a fair amount of time doing what I call my “doodles” either with pencil and paper or on my I-pad in a basic drawing program. I rely heavily on a few design partners — I say partners instead of assistants because they are a very large part of my design process — to help me realize the design since their efficiency in CAD way out weights my ability which makes my process better and often challenges my thoughts which I think is healthy.

What is the most challenging color to work with in broadcast lighting?
“White Light! White light is totally under appreciated. In television it is the foundation that all colors are based on, while at the same time color relationships is how the human eye evaluates or measures the idea of saturation. Difference in color or intensity creates contrast which is the vehicle that changes our perception of what is saturated and/or bright and dim.”

How does your approach to design differ when you’re lighting a televised event that’s filmed before a live audience as opposed to one that’s being shot in a studio?
“It is really just a question of priority. A live event has different priorities then a taped television show. This is a puzzle that often becomes a conversation point with show producers; they will want the live event to be great so the energy of the live audience is captured on the camera, which makes the home audience hopefully appreciate the event. On the other hand, the look of the show maybe handicapped when live audience is the priority. At the end of the day, you have to walk a fine line to balance what is best for both sides of the event. However, one of the two (live or broadcast) audiences must be the primary concern when you design, otherwise you’ll have minimized the visual success of the show on both sides.”

We’ve been impressed with how you create a sense of depth on the set as you did at the 2017 iHeart Radio Music Awards, building an architecture of light that performers move through. Can you talk about how you use lighting and video to add dimensionality to set and why this is important?
“The great thing about lighting design is that when you shut everything off you start with a blank slate or screen. So, as you turn lights on you develop what is seen and how it is presented. In the case of iHeart, the set was made up of bands of horizontal video with layers of lights in between the video. Now add that to that some large scenic columns with more lighting gear in a pattern or shape that contrasted the horizontal vocabulary of the set. It was with these horizontal and vertical bands that we used to develop the lighting looks. I think if a design is cleaver it’s hard to differentiate where the physical scenery ends, where the LED screen begins, and how the lighting positions fit into this space or relationship. I think iHeart did a fair job of balancing the three to create what became the performance space. Like on many shows lighting was an extension of the screens either adding scale, directing focus or replacing the need for screen for moments of high contrast.”

We know your interest in lighting goes back to before high school. What drew you to this field? How does the reality of being a lighting professional differ from what you dreamed about in high school?
“In 8th grade I was walking thru the freshman orientation of my high school to be and I went past the theater. They had loud music playing, lights blinking and then a pyro flash pot when off! I thought, ‘this looks cool!” From that point on, I never looked back. I was lucky enough to grow up with a mechanically sound father – he was an electrical engineer– so I easily connected to the mechanical stuff in the theatre. Over a short period of time it became clear to me that lighting was more interesting to my tastes than scenery or sound. Since academics was never my strong point, I was happy to find a safe haven to participate in while in high school. I was further encouraged by the chairman of the fine arts department in the school who probably saved me along the way by pointing me in the right direction, nurturing the creative mindset and introducing me to the idea of networking. In fact, he is responsible for me meeting Ken Billington in a roundabout way. I am not sure that I totally understood back then that this would be my forever path, but I was having fun so I kept going – and I continue to do so.”

When you light outdoor televised events, always seem to incorporate the background scenery into your design. Why is that?
“You must consider the background, or you are only doing part of your job. At moments you may sacrifice the foreground for the background, or vice versa, but if you want to make a balanced and complete picture, you can’t afford to neglect any part of the frame. When you are lighting an outdoor event, you are at the mercy of sunlight or lack of sunlight. You have to take this into consideration when planning or reacting.”

If you had to sum it up in a single sentence, what is the essence of a successful broadcast design?
“That’s a hard question to answer, since each production has so many moving parts. I guess I would say: A successful production is one that you walk away proud of the work you have delivered, you did the basic’s well (such as lighting people) and had a few moments that you feel you delivered something artist or special from your perspective.”

How did it feel when you won your first Emmy Award?
Well funny enough the first time I won an Emmy I was on a job across town in LA, so I heard about the win via a text. The great part of winning was my parents went to the show and after I won, one of my fellow winners (Andy O’Reilly) went back stage to collect my award. He then handed it off to my parents who sat happily in the audience for the rest of the show. They were thrilled.”

On the subject of Emmys, you’ve enjoyed such a successful career. What do you regard as its highlights?
“Really, the most important thing of my career is that I found something I truly enjoy doing, which means I am happy to get out of bed every day to go to work. Given that, I do feel very fortunate to have had the path I have had. Other highlights of my career are really the people I have been able to share my path with since they helped guide, teach, irritate, enjoy and experience what I have been through.”

How would you like to be remembered as a lighting designer?
“As a person that was fun to work with. I always say we are not saving lives or making the world a better place, so let’s have fun along the way. If everyone is having fun the product is better, which means the show is better. This industry asks a lot of the people. It asks that you spend time away from your family, your hobbies, your pets, your happy places, so given that you might as well enjoy it.