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By: Holland Wilde

Re: "Light and Structure":  Seminar Session Oral Text

Broadcast Designers Association International Conference

Washington DC, 1995

I am not a lighting designer.  I am a set designer.  I studied some lighting in grad school, but I chose to concentrate in scenery and costume design, since they seemed most closely related. 

Early on, I learned two simple rules about light.  One: You can't stop light.  Two: Light does not turn corners.  That may sound simple - but, it took me a long time to discover that.  Then, the next semester, I learned that light cannot exist without shadow.  It was only by the third year that we learned light really does just three things:  Light illuminates.  Light colors objects.  And light invokes emotion.  Hey, grad school was tough.

These are essential-fundamental lessons, however.  And their mastery is quite Zen-like.  Light is ethereal.  Invisible.  And, when best applied, should not be noticed by the viewer, only sensed.  As a set designer I can't speak about how to do great lighting.  I know nothing about volts and watts, foot-candles, or light meters.  But, I do work regularly with lighting designers and I have strong opinions about what good lighting is and does.

The biggest problems I face with lighting is the color theory ‘business’.  And by that I mean video trashes color.   But, let’s start at the beginning.  First off, I design the scenery.  Then the set gets painted.  Then colored light gets thrown all over it.  Then the studio cameras are "painted" or "tweaked" or whatever - but the color gets re-adjusted all the same.  Then, the controllers and engineers get hold of the image and muck it up a little more.  Then, it finally gets pooped out around the community - through bridges, around buildings, and under flight patterns - only to be picked up in a household somewhere on some poor old 19" Zenith TV stuck inside a hideous colonial styled cabinet.  So it's no wonder color can be such a headache.  It never comes out the way you intend.

Every step of the way there are serious compromises.  And so the part about throwing colored light onto colored paint is quite an intriguing process.  It's never what you expect.  I work extremely hard to compose the color palette only to watch it fly out the window when it transfers onto video.  In my studio we color test all our design palettes with a Hi8 camera and a consumer TV to try to replicate the viewer experience by observing the color shifts first-hand.

Illumination, on the other hand, is straightforward. Lights up lights down...next lesson.  TV news used to imitate this kind of typical room light.  Straight and even with no nonsense.  However, today you can witness news lighting moving into what has been, historically, theatrical lighting.  It's not enough any more to simply light the talent ... stations want dramatics.

Just watching Tom Brokaw, for instance, over the course of a month or so, one can see a never ending progression of tonal light washes over the world map behind him.  The continents change from bluish -to rosy -to sandy -to looking like bloody pork chops hanging on the wall.  I'd like to know the network's reasoning for this frequency of change.

My hunch is it's probably something like... you know, the subways rattle the building... the lights shift around up in the grid... and the network has two union LD's who alternate throughout the week.  One guy prefers the McNeil-Leher lighting approach, while the other fantasizes about designing opera lighting over at the Met.  All the while, the floor directors, having so much on their plate everyday dealing with important issues, they just ignore that part of the daily checklist.

I suppose that if this trend toward "Vegas lighting" were to continue we could really see some high dramatics during the course of a newscast in the very near future.  News is so fast becoming irrelevant to a citizen's honest attempt to gather information that without trumped-up production values news becomes even less than entertainment - it's more a cult of personality.  So why not, for the next book, try flooding the news set with dark red light during that OJ murder update.  Or maybe flash a scary up-light, from under the desk, to compliment that new feature story on rape...or how about collapsible Styrofoam set walls to crumble onto the anchors to empathize with the Oklahoma ("Tragedy in the Heartland") City bombing.

Theatrics as you can see have no place in News.  But, emphasis most certainly does.  In fact, I design for emphasis on every project.  Emphasis with lighting is sculpting, highlighting, accenting.  These make the difference between a 2-D and an a 3-D space.  Volume is carved with light.  If you don’t know what key and back lights are ....well the back light is the one that sculpts.  It rims and separates the talents from the background and punches them forward.  It provides depth.  In ballet and dance 80% percent of the lighting comes from the extreme sides.  This sculpts the body.  Exaggerating the human form.  It elevates the performers into individual pieces of artwork.

The very same things can be done for scenery.  Columns can be sculpted with a slash of light down it's length.  Overhangs can be molded.  Corners can be sharpened.  Flat surfaces can be broken up...all to strengthen visual interest and to help compose individual shots.

But, this type of lighting, while essential, can can quickly turn into gimmickry.  Thin fingers of light fanning across a wall for no reason.  Gobo or leaf patterns emanating from nowhere.  Squares of light imitating some expressionistic window pattern across the studio floor with nary a window in sight.  This approach and it's compliment of tricks are the easy way around a tough design problem.  These are the types of solutions when an LD can't think of good solution.

I'm of the school where lighting should have motivational sources.  If I want a light to halo a wall I'll probably supply a light sconce there to provide a logical reason for light to gather and pool in that area.  If I build a window or door I know I'm offering the LD an opportunity to express himself.

The same is true for time of day.  It is extremely hard to achieve realistic dawn-to-dusk time shifts.  We all know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  But I live on the ocean in Boston - and the harbor is directly to my west... I observe these two occasions in full bloom virtually every day and I can attest they are radically different.

But, TV cannot transmit these subtle idiosyncrasies.  The garish contraction of colors through video limits any attempt at nuance.  An oft-repeated request from clients is for differentiating morning, daytime, and evening newscasts.  They all hope it can be done simply and cheaply through lighting.  Inevitably, however, the solution they return to is the obligatory alternating city photographs in the background.  Day shot for day and night shot for night.  Apparently, they too have seen far to many disastrous attempts at bad lighting.

It is similar with cameras and depth of field.  We humans evolved with stereovision.  Cameras, unfortunately, have one.  The only way for the viewer to truly establish depth of field is for the camera to truck side to side.  Only then can you see elements stacking up in perspective and judge the depth of a room accurately.  The Italians discovered that in the 1500's when they perfected forced perspective.  And it is again today, the biggest hurdle vexing virtual scenery.  It's hard building machinery that can crunch enough math, fast enough, to enable realistic scenery regeneration - in real time.  And that is the main element for establishing reality.

However the biggest discussions I find today revolve around fluorescent vs. quartz lighting.  There are definitely two schools out there, and set designers are caught in the middle.  Personally, I hate fluorescent light.  But it is becoming increasingly popular.  At first I could not understand the attraction...then I found it curious...now it's obvious.  But I suppose, a metaphor to illustrate the differences between fluorescent and quartz lighting would be to compare human operated cameras to robotic cameras.

The older technique has higher artistic values - where slight incremental adjustments are more easily achievable - and the newer way is just the opposite. Fluorescent lighting lacks sophistication.  There is very little art to the design.  Its strength is its ability to light wide areas evenly like cycloramas or chromakeys.  But the light is simply a broad shot-gun blast.  You can shutter them - and they are dim-able and gell-able...but the inherent nature of the light itself renders it very difficult to control accurately.

The light beam also has a unique quality about it.  On camera, fluorescents tend to make sets look like radio shack commercials, where the light is hazy and thick in the air.  It looks like someone has smeared Vaseline in the camera lens.  Also the light appears to fall off after several feet.  It almost dies in mid-air.  So the lighting instruments need to be closer to the object being lit.

But, I completely understand why so many stations get drawn into fluorescent lighting.  As with any fluorescent - shadows are almost eliminated.  Any bone-head can get on a ladder and hang a couple of fluorescents and squeak by.  Also, the talent love it. It softens all of those jowls, wrinkles and crow's feet. It can make some anchors look 10 years younger.  And, they are the stars...so when they like something, it's a lock.  However, the same things that make the talent look like a million bucks, unfortunately, makes scenery look like TEN dollars.  Rooms are flooded with bright flat white light and the backgrounds are flattened into nothingness.  The result is a dull, washed-out, lifeless look.  I've experienced this on several occasions. It's exasperating.

Engineers, oddly enough, also play a strong hand in choosing fluorescent lighting - they usually control studio budgets.  And, the lights look new and shiny.  They appeal to that state-of-the-art fanatic.  They come with long involved spec sheets that demonstrate (on paper, at least) how efficient and color-correct they are with temperature equations, paraphernalia, stats and the like.  Plus, they are fluorescent - they consume less energy and produce less heat so a station's air conditioning bills are decreased.  I mean this is the kind of stuff that turns on an engineer.  They take this kind of stuff home and crawl into bed with their wives and fall asleep reading it.  But, there is no artistic reasoning involved.

So where I come down on the subject is to urge clients to mix and match.  Light only the talent with fluorescents and light scenery with quartz.  And this now is a compromise many stations are following.  It still is a compromise, but at least each light can do what it does best.  And in today's fast paced TV environment, that's about as much as one can ask for.

I'd like to end by saying that lighting is extremely crucial to set design, yet it is rare when the two work perfectly together.  Invariably one points to the other if the end results look weird.  But since lighting is usually the last in the design ‘food chain’, it often gets dumped on.  I cannot tell you how many times I've heard someone say - (and - believe me - it's never a lighting designer) - "hey don't worry 'bout that, we can fix it with lighting".  That's a dangerous proposition.

Lighting is imperative to the final look yet so few people master it's technique.  It is the most overlooked step in the process.  To prove this point, I cannot think of a single lighting designer among the ranks of the BDA membership.  Nor is there even an awards category for their work.  But then, who among us is even knowledgeable to judge.   Thanks.