Myth: Your Video Will Look Just Like Your Live Stage

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

A Lighting Designer offers his opinion

This myth confounds even the pros—people with big budgets, big salaries and formal training. Tony Hansen, Lighting Designer/System Consultant for Techni-Lux, Inc. in Orlando, Florida, has lit his share of worship and secular productions. He’s out to bust the myth.

“I remember the most important lesson I was ever told about lighting for video,” Hansen says. “I was a grip on a television shoot down in South Beach; the Red Cross Holiday Music Spectacular at the Jackie Gleason Theatre where they shot the Jackie Gleason show. We had a major lighting designer working the show who had done things like the Olympics and the Academy Awards. I managed to go out and sit with him for a little while. I remember asking him: ‘How do you light for both the audience and for the camera?’ He actually stopped what he was doing, turned, looked at me and said, ‘You can’t. Just pick one.’”

But how can this be, when we see professionally lit productions, like concerts and theatrical performances, and they transfer decently onto camera? There has to be a way to do it, or at least fake it.

Many skilled lighting and video folks have had to make the best of a very difficult situation when it comes to recording live events. Because there is apparently no way to capture the intricacies of the beautifully lit stage on video the same way as our eyes perceive it, the best we can do is follow what should be some unbreakable rules of lighting for video.

Before getting into the rules, the first consideration should be your game plan. Do you want your stage to be expertly lit for atmosphere and emotion within the room? That’s a good goal. Do you want that same emotion to translate seamlessly on video? Now we may have a problem.

“I can’t tell you how many churches I go into that tell me, ‘We’re putting in a half-million dollar video system and we have twelve par cans,’” says Hansen. The intention is there, but you are setting yourself up for failure. You’ll be capturing superior quality video of a lackluster stage.

On the other hand, if your goal is to have an adequate look for your lighting on stage as well as a decent capture of that stage look on video (notice how the word “pristine” is not used) then that is an attainable goal. It requires balance, and compromise.

You have to start with your vision and work the technology in, as opposed to purchasing technology because you think it will solve problems for you. It won’t. It’s great to dream big and have a lot of vision, but you have to be realistic about the limitations.

Hansen uses audio as a comparison—something lighting people seem to do a lot when they need to simplify an explanation. “You can have the best sound system in the world with the best microphones, but if the singer is garbage, the output is garbage. There is no such thing as auto-tune for video.”

So, there’s a good place to start; make sure you have a well-lit stage in the first place. Now, let’s talk rules.

Rule #1: Use Top Light
We’ve already readied our ego for the fact that we won’t be able to accomplish a seamless capture of the mood on stage for our video. Now, it’s time to work towards doing the best job we can with tools we might even have.

Let’s first look at how the stage is lit. Is it lit for the performance, or for the video capture? Have you considered top-light?

“The number one problem I see [in lighting for video] is top-light and total lack thereof,” says Hansen. “Top-light is what defines the video. That’s what everybody seems to skip. People keep forgetting that video is a two dimensional medium. The way we offset people is top-light. That’s how you do layers.”

There are issues with top-lighting, which is perhaps why some choose to not give it the attention it deserves. To do top-lighting the right way, you’re talking about placing fixtures in what can be a very obtrusive place. The fixtures could get into the camera shots, the throw beams could get into the eyes of the people in the front row… Top lighting runs the risk of simply being in the way of everything. But it’s integral to create that sense of dimension for video.

“When I do stage lighting that I know is going to be on video, my top-light is usually twice as bright as my front light,” says Hansen. “That’s how important it is. It’s not just a little light. That halo of light is what sets the person off. It’s what gives you alleys of light to set people off from the rest of the stage. Top light is how you keep the pastor from looking like he’s disappearing into the choir.”

Rule #2: Don’t Use Too Much Light
Referring back to the whole “Garbage in, garbage out” concept, adding more of something bad generally makes a problem worse.

“The second big problem is too much light,” says Hansen. “People come to me and say ‘Oh it looked horrible; we added more light and it looked more horrible.’ Well, yeah. What did you learn?”

Using too much light can over-saturate your subjects and your stage. People will start looking glossy, and they’ll start squinting.

When there is too much light, it’s usually too much front light, which hearkens back to rule number one; that there is no top light. So people keep throwing more and more light at the front.

“The problem is usually that people can’t see the pastor over the choir, or over the backdrop or whatever,” says Hansen, “and so they throw more light at him. And now they really can’t see him over the choir. Well, of course not—because they’re throwing all the light at him from the front—the same angle the camera is shooting. They keep throwing more and more light at [the pastor] to try to make him stand out, and they won’t. If you keep throwing the light from the front, you’re not setting up an area.”

Rule #3- Don’t Light the Audience
As part of your lighting for video goals, an aspect to strongly think about before trying to make it happen: lighting the audience.

“Churches try to get the reactionary shots from the audience, because they see it all the time on TV,” says Hansen. “The thing is, on TV, camera people don’t get reactionary shots during the show. Ever. They get reactionary shots in the half-hour before the show. They turn all the audience lights on and all the big blinders in front, and some second-rate comedian leads the audience through what he calls ‘warm-ups’. And they get people to laugh and applaud like the producers want you to do during the show. But guess what they’re doing with the cameras while he’s doing that? They’re filming audience reaction. All the reactionary shots for every TV show is pre-shot, pre-canned and pulled up when needed. They are not shot live.”

This adds a whole other level of complexity to the video capture of your service. It’s hard enough to capture a decent look on stage for video, as we learned earlier. Imagine now having to properly light the audience so that you can capture B-roll of reactions to the sermon or the worship.

“The next time you’re watching a live comedy special, watch as they get the shot over [the performer’s] shoulder out in the audience—their faces are black,” explains Hansen, “And yet inevitably, they’re going to do a cross-shot of the cute blonde girl laughing, and she’ll be perfectly lit. It was pre-shot! That’s not saying that the audience wasn’t there and the reaction you’re hearing isn’t the audience, but the reaction you’re seeing isn’t being shot at that moment.”

Although it would be an excellent augmentation to the tone and the mood of the video to be able to catch people’s reactions to what is happening on the stage in real time, the complexity of getting the proper lighting for the audience as well as the stage may be beyond the scope of your production budget.

“Churches tell me: ‘We want to get the reaction to the sermon. We want to get it during the show.’ Why? Nobody else does. ‘Oh, we want that shot!’ No you don’t! Nobody else gets it. I have never seen an over-the-shoulder shot of a performer that has zoomed into somebody’s expression in the audience in a tight shot. It doesn’t happen. Maybe in the daytime out in some field you could do it, yeah. But you’re not going to be able to get that kind of a focus pull in your room, because your light levels aren’t going to work.”

Myth Busted?
All we can do is apply these rules, and keep experimenting with our lighting looks for video until we reach a happy medium. It is also helpful for us to keep some general principles in mind.

“What does video record?” asks Hansen, “Video records reflected light. If you don’t have quality reflected light, you’re not going to get a quality video.”

“I have had some very famous lighting people tell me the stage doesn’t need to be as bright as it is, to be comfortable for the audience,” Hansen says. “The cameras don’t need that much light anymore. It helps with contrast, certainly. But they don’t need it. The reason we keep stages as bright as we do now is so it’s comfortable for the audience, not the camera. The audience expects the stage to be ‘x’ amount brighter than where they are.”

If the stage doesn’t have to be excruciatingly bright, you may be able to purpose some of your existing lights for other things, such as top-light. Also, as long as you have struck the right balance between an engaged congregation and a tasteful look on stage that translates well for video, you’re living the dream.

Hansen offered us some parting considerations for wrestling with this refuted myth. “You can tell when a show is lit for the audience and the cameras just happen to be there, and you can tell when the show is lit for the camera and the audience is the studio audience.”

You have to make a decision as to whether you want an exceptional stage look, and excellent video capture, or an acceptable balance between the two.

“You have to spoon feed a camera the lighting—it ends up looking more deliberate. That doesn’t mean it looks bad, it just doesn’t look like it would for an audience.” Hansen says, “The human eye is willing to forgive a lot. The camera isn’t.”

Kevin Rogers Cobus is Editor of TFWM. Tony Hansen is Lighting Designer/System Consultant for Techni-Lux, Inc. in Orlando, Florida