by Richard J. Alley
The interview begins with the simplest of questions: “What is it you make?” And yet, the answer is anything but simple and Brandon Bell stumbles as he tries to explain what it is he does to the Luddite sitting before him.
“It’s funny because whenever people have asked me that I’ve always had kind of a hard time explaining. I’d say, ‘Well, I do design, but I do a lot of interactive, and I do a lot of video and motion graphics.’ So I’d sort of list things off and people would ask if I do logos and, yeah, that’s part of it.”
But even this ludite can find Bell’s website and there it is in simple, easy-to-understand, black-and-white pixels: “I make creative digital stuff.”
And he does. His stuff is seen by millions from national stages — he’s created and produced the virtual sets for the Tony Awards, and designed and produced the screen graphics for Ted Talks Live. Closer to home, he’s done online work for Soul Fish Café; designed and developed the website, logo, and packaging for Relevant Roasters coffee company (now French Truck Coffee); and the video animations for the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum’s ceremonies; among others.
Bell enjoys doing a little bit of everything, a jack-of-all-trades for the digital world, but admits it makes it difficult to sell himself and just what it is he does. He came from traditional media working on branding, advertising, and print design. Then he got into interactive web work such as phone and desktop apps including a user interface for Audi working through MTV.
“Once you get into interactive in general, the principles are the same whether it’s a phone interface or a digital audio recorder or it’s a desktop app or car interface,” he says. “The way you apply them are different but the principles are the same.” He got into Flash, which was popular at the time, and it was easy from there to go into animating for video because those principles are the same. “It evolves naturally over a period of 20 years.”
It seems there’s no job too big or small for Bell, working in the open and airy three-room office he shares with his partner, photographer Sarah Rossi, in Cooper-Young. The two met in New York City where Bell lived and worked after earning an undergraduate degree from Louisiana Tech University and a graduate degree in graphic design from the University of Memphis.
His five-year stint working on the Tony Awards began in 2010 when the event moved from Radio City Music Hall to the smaller Beacon Theatre. “Things had started to evolve from traditional set design to more digital, but they realized they couldn’t get all those physical set pieces into the Beacon, so they decided to do their whole thing with LEDs instead,” he says. “It wasn’t really something that anyone had ever done before.”
Brandon and his team, including Rossi, went into the various theatres to photograph the shows’ sets piece by piece, lighting them in different colors for different looks. “Then you have to chop all that up and program it on the server and you put it on the screen so it looks like a real set. It took about a month. It’s pretty nuts.”
Recent projects include the branding of the Soul Fish restaurants and Young Avenue Deli. The PBS program TED Talks: Education Revolution, which aired in September, featured his video sets as well.
Bell and Rossi moved their family (they have three children between them) back to Memphis in an effort to downsize and to simplify life and work. In addition to his work making “creative digital stuff,” Bell teaches graduate-level classes in graphic design, typography, and interactive media at his alma mater, the University of Memphis, and says, “What I’m excited about is getting some of the students involved with some of the productions I’m working on.”
For more on Brandon Bell, visit brandonbell.com.
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