By Alexandra Jacobs Wilke
James W. Dornemann ’99 thinks of himself as a problem solver at heart. As a light board operator for film and television, he is constantly tinkering and must keep up with the latest in technology to make sure that directors can get the shot they are looking for.
“My favorite thing is solving problems and finding solutions that work. Taking on a challenge and rising to that challenge,” he said. “Some of it is fairly easy stuff, while other productions are more complicated. I mean, I say ‘fairly easy,’ but how do you get a 60’ by 30’ lightbox on top of a crane to respond to controls? How do you light the shot when you are blowing up drones for an action scene?”
Dornemann runs his own company based in Atlanta, which he uses to rent out his lighting control equipment to production companies and work as a programmer on set. He has lit everything from big franchise movies like “Furious 7,” Marvel’s “Black Panther,” and an upcoming reboot of “Shaft,” starring Samuel L. Jackson, to ABC television dramas and a TV movie starring Dolly Parton. Dornemann is most proud of working on the Academy Award-nominated film “Hidden Figures,” which was all shot on 35-millimeter film, and on the hit Netflix series, “Stranger Things.”
“Any time a light blinks on ‘Stranger Things,’ that’s me,” Dornemann said.
Lighting plays a big role in the science fiction show, as in the first season where one of the main characters is communicating with his family through Christmas lights that his mother has strung throughout her home.
“They had to keep reigning me in, because there was more I wanted to do! I could have written letters, pushed images or text through the lights. But they just wanted flash,” Dornemann said. “Most of the work was just simple stuff done very well. We had to have enough circuits for each individual string light bulb and we had to get them flashing in the right direction at the right time.”
In other scenes, Dornemann used wireless lighting technology to remotely operate lights on the main characters’ bikes and in their flashlights. Nailing down those details can make a real difference for the actors and the direction of the scene, he said.
“One of my favorite sequences of the whole show was when Eleven was taking on the monsters. I was on a monitor, cuing lights as she walking down the hallway, with a gaffer behind her and a camera tracking her. She’s not always going the same speed, so I needed to make sure the right lights were in the frame at the right moment,” Dornemann said.
It’s that kind of craft that the alumnus is hoping to pass on to SUNY Potsdam theatre students. With that in mind, Dornemann has donated the latest in wireless DMX control equipment to SUNY Potsdam, in partnership with RatPac Dimmers by Innovative Dimmers.
“Back when I was a student, I always had those shows where I wished that I could just get light in this one spot, or I thought, if I only had the ability to do an extra little something like a spotlight or a wash there, I could do a lot with it. That was the impetus for this. I want the students to get their hands on the latest technology,” Dornemann said.
He recently visited his alma mater, where he met with several theatre technology classes and held an open question and answer session. He also set up the equipment he donated, walking students through the finer points of digital integration in stage and film lighting systems.
“Dornemann’s work in theatre technology and design has taken him on an amazing career path, and we were honored to have him share these experiences with our students,” said Professor Donald Borsh, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance. “James’ gift of wireless DMX control equipment will augment our current equipment inventory. Wireless transmission of data in the theatre environment is cutting-edge technology, and James is bringing it to the PAC.”
Dornemann has a broad background in theatre and film, and he credits the interdisciplinary education he received at Potsdam with seeing him through three different phases of a varied career—going from working backstage at one of the world’s great opera houses, to working in the studio at a 24-hour news network, to working on film sets and location shoots for major motion pictures and television shows.
“Students here can do the work that MFA (Master of Fine Arts) students do, as undergraduates, and in multiple disciplines too. There’s almost no skill that a student can’t take on. Anything you can think of in this field and in the arts in general, it’s here at Potsdam. There are not many other places that can give you such a broad-based approach. And it’s affordable. You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to go to school here,” he said.
After graduating from SUNY Potsdam with his bachelor’s degree in drama, Dornemann began working in technical theatre at Performance Space 122 (now Performance Space New York) before landing a spot on the list with the Local 1 chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. He parlayed that into working full-time backstage at the Metropolitan Opera.
“It’s one of the places where the multiple disciplines that I picked up at Potsdam really came in handy. When I was here, I was the student supervisor in the scene shop and I also worked in lighting and building a lot of the shows—I even directed. Having that broad-based approach really came into play at the Met. If they needed an electrician, I could be an electrician. If they needed a rigger, I could be a rigger. If they needed a carpenter, I could be a carpenter. I even did some work in props,” he said.
After eight years at the Met, Dornemann moved south, finding work at the Atlanta Opera. His supervisor there recommended him for a job with CNN, where he ended up becoming a systems integrator and later an associate lighting director. In his 10 years with the news network, Dornemann helped to install and run the latest studio lighting technology and also assisted with remote shoots—work that took him to President Barack Obama’s first inauguration and the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Being based in Atlanta also put Dornemann in close proximity to Georgia’s film industry, which now ranks third behind New York and Los Angeles for U.S. film production, thanks to the state’s tax credits and incentives. He began picking up work on film sets, starting with an indie feature directed by Billy Bob Thornton called “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” starring Robert Duvall, John Hurt and Kevin Bacon.
“The show that really kicked me off was an ABC show called ‘Necessary Roughness.’ My phone rang in the dead of night and one of the gaffers was like, ‘Can you come to work? We need a programmer tomorrow, if you can get your butt down here.’ I showed up, and the rest is history,” he said.
Now, he’s helping Potsdam students gain the skills they need to follow in his footsteps.
“If you dream it, you can do it. Besides money—and a lot of this technology isn’t that expensive—the only other limitation is your imagination. There’s almost nothing, in terms of effects, that you cannot accomplish in lighting one way or another now,” Dornemann said. “That’s why I wanted to get some of the cutting-edge gear into the hands of students, so they can see how it functions, and they can start thinking, ‘Hey, wait, I can do that.”