CA: Midtown creative firm develops virtual sets
On the set of PBS’s “TED Talks Live” at Town Hall in New York City, Memphian K. Brandon Bell orchestrates a sound and light show worthy of the Wizard of Oz.
Tucked out of sight in the venerable theater, Bell and a colleague work digital control boards to create a mostly made-in-Memphis virtual set on stacks of LED monitors spanning a 20-foot by 70-foot space.
Bell and two other Memphians helped create digital content for LED backdrops used over six nights of lectures last fall by artists, actors, academics and other thought leaders.
Bell’s digital design, his partner Sarah Rossi’s photography and Dan Baker’s animation were on display when PBS on March 30 aired the first of three “Ted Talks Live,” titled “Science & Wonder.”
The second, “War & Peace,” scheduled to premiere May 30, will feature Rossi’s photographs of military surplus equipment at Memphis Equipment Co. on South Third.
Broadcast date for “Education Revolution” hasn’t been announced. It includes photos at Idlewild Elementary where the couple’s children attend school.
Bell, 44, and Rossi, 39, are transplants to Memphis from Monroe, Louisiana and Corsica, France, respectively, by way of New York City.
The couple took a break this year from the Tony Awards, for which they created virtual sets and photographed theater sets from 2011-2015. They were part of a set design group that won an Emmy, an Addy and an Art Directors Guild Award for the 2012 Tony Awards.
Juliet Blake, a “TED Talks Live” producer and curator special projects, called on Bell and set designer Seth Easter based on their work on a less ambitious version of the speaker series in 2013.
“Brandon created all the visual backdrops for each individual speaker, and they worked like a dream,” Blake said. “Each speaker had their own signature look and this really helped us create a visually interesting program which had been a mandate from PBS.”
“I love how collaborative Brandon is to work with. We swapped images backwards and forwards. I shared some visual thoughts with him, and he and his partner Sarah, who is a wonderful photographer, developed an exciting visual palette for each program and each individual speaker.”
Bell and Rossi are members of a creative class that Memphis has been trying to attract as a community growth strategy. Advertising and public relations executives and professionals have been working with the Downtown Memphis Commission to establish a permanent physical presence for Creative Works, a conference that’s been held annually since 2014.
Bell doesn’t see Downtown as competition for Cooper Young, which has long enjoyed a reputation for welcoming artists, artisans and creative people.
“I think Memphis needs that creative center,” said Bell, who lived in Memphis for several years while earning a master’s of fine art degree at University of Memphis and working for an advertising and public relations agency.
Bell and Rossi relocated to Memphis 4.5 years ago because of family ties.
Rossi said they appreciate the lower cost of living and laid-back vibe of Memphis, where they’re able to strike a better balance of work and family. “It’s relaxed,” she said.
The couple works together and solo in a studio above GCD Interiors in a big house on Cooper. They collaborated on a logo, packaging and website for Relevant Roasters and websites for GCD, me & mrs. jones painted finishes and Young Avenue Deli.
Rossi’s client list includes Folk’s Folly Prime Steak House, Humphrey’s Prime Cut Shoppe and an American Advertising Federation-Memphis awards program.
Bell teaches graphic design, print communication, motion design and interactive classes as a visiting professor at U of M.
His recent clients have included ESPN, Goldman Sachs, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and the Stax Museum, where he’s helping to update interactive exhibits.
Rossi, who studied at the International Center of Photography in New York and was director of photography for New York’s Downtown Magazine, said artists tend to get pigeonholed in bigger cities.
“In New York, someone would ask you what kind of photographer you are. Most of the time you have to either choose between commercial or wedding or portrait, but you cannot do everything,” Rossi said.
“I like doing everything, because I like different challenges, and that’s possible here,” Rossi said. “People trust me, even though I do interior and wedding (photography), they trust me with both. I have been a painter, and I know here, if I wanted to and I had time, I could still do my photography and start to sell paintings. That doesn’t happen in the bigger city.”
Bell said, “There’s no barrier to entry here, and it’s not an intimidating environment. It’s okay to take risks. It’s okay to do stupid stuff that doesn’t work.”