One Way of Becoming a Sitcom Multi-Camera Lighting Designer

 

My career actually began when I was 13. I was a boy scout, and not a very diligent one. I went after a photography merit badge. I got the badge but didn't go much farther in scouts. Rather, I began spending all my spare time at the photo lab on Holloman AFB where the merit badge course was held. Yep, I was an Air Force brat.

 

Some kind of fascination came over me. I remember that from that time on I was involved in photography in some way, school news papers, yearbooks, contests you name it. Eventually, I became skilled enough to get part-time, and eventually full-time work in local professional studio in Alamogordo, New Mexico where all the base kids went to school.

 

I graduated from high school and set about getting jobs in local studios. We moved to Albuquerque and my photographic skills became more extensive. I attempted college but became very disillusioned, mainly because I was already 'doing' pretty much what they were 'teaching', and I use those words kindly.

 

My passion at that young age was Portrait work. I learned the basic technique from the professionals I worked with and added my own ideas. Like most kids at that time I floated from job to job, except that, in my situation, I moved from one photography related job to another: studio work, studio lab work, professional photo product sales. It was at this point I met a friend and a mentor who would focus it all for me... and the light bulb turned on.

 

While working at a high-end photography store I had a regular customer who, every time he stopped by, told me stories and experiences he'd had where he worked on the Navajo Indian Reservation. He was a heavy equipment operator but more than that -- he was a poet, photographer, and storyteller; truly, a renaissance person. I had a mental picture of him, atop his 40-ton bulldozer, headphones plugged into a tape machine, listening to and memorizing Shakespeare, learning things totally unrelated to his "day job."

 

On one occasion, he showed me a couple of children's books he had written and published. We discussed how he wanted to make them into short movies for White and Indian children in their native language. At the time, I happened to co-own a 16mm Arriflex S camera system, which we literally stole thru a trade in at the store, but that's another story. I thought the idea of making movies on the Reservation was very romantic and glamorous... and really cool. We had talked about it for months.

 

Finally he convinced me that it was the thing to do, so I quit my job and headed out to the reservation and the unknown. ---

 

Well, the tribe, who we thought might finance our dream, didn't share our enthusiasm - so Jack Crowder, that was his name, taught me to operate heavy equipment so that I could keep the rent paid in Albuquerque, and still work to get the first story shot and edited.

 

It took about a year, but we got the movie done. Then the money ran out, and so did the job. I found myself back in Albuquerque, broke, no job and rent due - but with a film about a little Indian boy struggling in a BIA school far from home. I needed to do something fast or be out on the street.

 

So I got a wild idea: maybe the local TV stations would be interested in the film, and I immediately began calling around. My first call was to the local PBS station. They went nuts! " Hell ya, bring that film on over we'd love to take a look at it".

 

So with chest puffed out, and being all of 20, I marched in and began the viewing. I could see they were interested and offered to air it on Christmas Eve. Whoa nelly! Big bucks I thought. I offered a fair price to cover expenses with a bit for profit, and they reminded me that at PBS, they don't buy anything. I was really pissed. Then, within a micro-second, the station manager offered me a job!? So, long story short, I walked in with a film, and walked out with a job as a part-time video cameraman (which I didn't know anything about) and the promise that they wanted to start a 'film department'. Hello Video ... a new world for me!

 

I soon discovered that most of, if not all, the things I learned as a studio portrait photographer directly related to video. The only big differences were limits in exposure range and the way it handled color; it was 1970.

 

At this station, everyone did everything, especially in the studio. Engineering was ..... in engineering. So we did sets, lighting, camera, audio, live camera switching... we did it all.

 

Nothing really ever 'looked' good to me. Not like still work so I began to experiment with the lighting.

 

I applied still techniques to our set ups. The change was so amazing that other local stations began to ask what we were doing. We started producing more sophisticated programs and with every experiment, I grew. I worked at KNME till 1972.

 

The station manager who hired me took another job at a much larger and important PBS station in Madison Wisconsin. In the summer of '72 he hired me away. This was my first time leaving home and my whole world was about to radically change.

 

WHA in Madison was a state of the art public station with incredible funding. Most of the professors especially in CommArts and Theatre were practicing professionals of renown. When I arrived there, my first job was in the film department ... once again, there was everything I could need and the fact that I only "sort of" knew how to use it all didn't stop me.

 

What I didn't know today, I would damn well know tomorrow! My stay in the film department would last a short time. I was unaware that my station manager from Albuquerque put me there just until something opened up in the studio. Eventually it did, and in a 'flash', I was in charge of two state of the art studios and a student crew of 20 graduate students.

 

Professors from departments of theatre and CommArts started dropping by to get acquainted. We were all in the same complex. They were all curious about me and what WHA was doing. So began a true collaboration and thus my real 'lighting' education.

 

After all, these were nationally famous designers, including Gilbert Hemsley, considered at the time the finest theatre lighting designer in the country... and he's shooting the bull with me in my office! I had Arrived in Heaven!

 

For the next 4 years it was a maddening, fast paced, blur of production on a totally network level. In the 4th year, my work was noticed by an equally renowned Hollywood TV designer, Bill Klages. After doing several events together I got a call from him alerting me that he had just recommended me to ABC Television in Hollywood....'time to get out!' Well, 3 weeks later, I found myself in Hollywood lighting both "The Lawrence Welk Show" and "American Bandstand." It took about a year for the self doubt and fear to subside and to realize where I was and what I'd accomplished. I learned to be proud of my work and show that in my manner.

 

I stayed at ABC for 8 years, during that time designing lighting for all types of programming all the while still learning and experimenting. I did my first Sitcom (Soap) in 1978. Production companies liked my style which was equipment simple and somewhat film style in technique. I've been a Sitcom designer ever since.

 

As it seems I never stayed in one place too long and in 1984 during the Olympics I was offered a great opportunity to become 'freelance' and take on 2 programs at Universal. So I left ABC and became my own man -- which was scary since I now had to find work independently of a large corporation. In spite of that fear, I've done well.

 

To date, I have been nominated for Emmy 16 times. I have a sports Emmy for the 1980 Winter Olympics, a shared Emmy for The Golden Girls, and an Emmy statue for The Cosby Show. Additionally, I've be awarded 3 ASLD lighting designer awards. At least ten Directors of Photography got their start from my company, Alan Walker Associates. I have, to this date, done over 2000 half hour episodes of sitcom programming. I've also been asked to teach which gives me great fulfillment and reminds me of the wonderful academic collaborations I left at WHA in Madison.

 

So, I guess that the point is: follow your dream and pay close attention to the doors that open for you.

 

Alan Walker

Director of Photography   •  818 421 5880