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Lighting With Video

In a recent LD@Large, John Featherstone spoke of his distaste for the trope of the lighting versus video mentality that pervades parts of our industry. Any production where IMAG is used needs to have a crew that understands the intricacies of lighting for not only the stage, but also for video. I’ve worked with tours and productions that use IMAG many times in my career, and these are some of my strategies for dealing with lighting for video from an LD’s perspective.

On my current tour, I have a pretty awful scenario as far as mixed sources are concerned. I have some 700-watt wash movers, some RGB LED washlights without a white emitter, as well as some standard 1200-watt spots and some ellipsoidals for front lighting on the band. I light the lead singer with followspots exclusively. Thankfully, our video director Robbie Lutrell is not only a genius behind the video switcher, but he and I have a great working relationship that allows us both to get what we want to see out of the show.

Thoughtful color correction is one of the secret sauces of having a great-looking show with IMAG and lighting working in harmonious perfection. Since cameras can only see one color as “white” at any given time, part of our job as lighting designers is to try – within the physical constraints of reality – to match the color temperatures of our lights to ensure a consistent spectrum for the cameras, preventing an unsightly orange or blue cast to the picture.

Followspots can be especially difficult to correct. There are a great many venues in the world that have incredibly old, poorly-maintained, barely-working spots with dusty, dirty optics and rusted components1, and those of us unlucky2 enough not to get to carry our own spots can look forward to correcting these before every show. I find myself most frequently reaching for various percentages of CTO gel, some minusgreens, and extremely light frosts for the followspots. I usually end up mixing the minusgreen and one of the CTO filters to get the look that I want, depending on the color temp du jour. A lot of lighting people I’ve seen over the years seem to prefer a frame of Rosco 33, but I’ve always found it a little too pinkish for my tastes – I like something with a little less color. The Rosco minusgreen filters (I usually throw in a 1/8th, and occasionally, a 1/4) work very well for this, enhancing skin tones without becoming too pink. Your mileage may vary.

Placement for spots is also important – at least a 45° angle from my lead singer seems to work the best, for a few reasons. One (not related to lighting), he really likes to see the audience, and when the lights are at a side angle, it makes it easier to see the smiling faces of those paying to see you. The other reason is that this closely mimics a textbook three-point lighting setup, taught in introductory theatre design classes the world over. It flatters the talent on stage, keeping harsh shadows to a minimum, and adds a bit of depth and modeling for the IMAG to work with. When this isn’t possible – say, if the followspots are ten feet off dead center, either side – I’ll drop in a very light frost to soften the beam a little.

There’s also color correction on the band to bring the color temperature down a little, while keeping it from becoming too cool – I personally dislike the look of an incandescent gelled up to 5600K. I do use some correction on my incandescents, but it’s not too heavy – I keep most of the heavier correction on the followspots, because I’d rather bring those down to match the incandescents rather than the other way around, and one generally has the horsepower to spare with a followspot.

Thankfully, color temperature is less of an issue when we’re throwing around lots of saturated colors, so I really only worry about correction on the rest of the lights when they’re in open white and shining at a person. For instance, we have one song where the LED washes are in a dark blue, and two of the 700-watt movers shine in a CTO color from behind. This particular lamp is notorious for having a bad green spike, and I have to roll in the fixed minusgreen filter, some magenta, and some of the CTO filter to get anything close to a natural look.

Vastly different light requirements for a scene can be a headache, too. There have been shows in the past that my director and I have worked on where I’ve lit scenes in a very unusual manner – strong angles, relatively dim saturated colors and very little white light. In instances like these, my relationship with Robbie allows us to compromise – he understands the art of what we’re doing better than anyone, and he trusts me to make those decisions. Conversely, if he gets on com and asks for something, I trust his experience. If I glance up at IMAG in the middle of a show and notice that a band member’s front light is a few IRE too hot, I’ll back off the light a little bit instead of waiting for him to do it from the control units.

Generally speaking, CCDs like to see a lot more light than the human eye needs to resolve a scene. Sometimes, there are compelling artistic reasons to have an under-lit scene – beams of light cutting through the darkness surrounding the singer can make for a powerful statement, but the cameras will certainly be unhappy, and that might be okay for a song depending on the context of the production. Much of the time, though, when there isn’t a compelling artistic reason to keep things too dark, it’s always best to give the video guys the light they need to make their show look good. Cameras can usually deal with more illumination, but they can only open their irises so much before they have to gain their signal up, which results in a grainy picture. Intensity palettes are a great help in any situation with cameras being used on stage to give consistent lighting from night to night, and they have another advantage unique to conventional sources – having consistent intensity prevents color shifting as the filaments are dimmed.

Shows where the video and lighting crew aren’t cooperating are no fun to watch. Dark faces, unbalanced color temperatures, and sudden jumps and dips in illumination levels swing the IMAG wildly from overexposed to dark shadows playing guitars. And that brings me to one of the most important elements in making any show look – in every way – its best: cooperation.

The cooperation and collaboration I enjoy with our video crew isn’t just because of the friendship I enjoy or respect I have for the people on it, it’s also because as LD, the show that happens on the big side screens is my responsibility too. Video can’t do their job effectively unless the lighting team understands their needs, and also understands that a well-lit cohesive show is a better experience for the audience than one in which the performers look like crayons and the camera ops can’t focus because they can’t see. There’s more than one show happening every night, and it’s up to everyone to make sure they happen cohesively.

1. 2. First day of tour last year, I had old carbon-arcs that vented inside, leaving the ops in a literal cloud of smoke.

2. This may be a matter of personal taste.

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