Presenting your newscast in the best light, part two

This is part two of Bruce Aleksander’s best practices for newscast lighting design. View part one here.

Balancing the video displays

People who sell video displays are proud of how bright, sharp and saturated their monitors are. As a broadcaster, you’re not selling monitors. They, too, play a supporting role. Arrays of monitors will need to be carefully adjusted to the appropriate intensity and matched to the same color temperature and balance. A lighting spot meter is handy for this, or a properly adjusted camera hooked to a waveform monitor will aid the evaluation. The brightest image on the monitor should be no hotter than a white piece of paper held up at an anchor position. Skin tones displayed on the monitor should never be higher than the skin tones of the anchors on the set.

This guideline will help keep the brightness within the desired range, generally not greater than a 30-to-1 contrast ratio. The monitor setting themselves will need to be performed by a video integrator or handled by the station’s Engineering staff. For best coordination, schedule this while your LD is still around to advise.

Out with the old & in with the new? It’s time to make a change.

The lighting industry is going through a major change, as we transition from incandescent (tungsten-halogen) lights to solid-state LED lighting. Fluorescent fixtures continue to be useful as a mature technology, and can often be refreshed with new tubes (of the proper color temperature) and made serviceable. The old incandescent fixtures were always better heaters than they were light sources. They put out 20 lumens per watt, versus 80-90 lumens per watt for the latest LED fixtures. It’s absolutely time to replace your hot incandescent lights with something more efficient. The energy savings of the new solid-state fixtures alone will quickly pay for the equipment. But there are more reasons to make the switch.

With the inclusion of multiple video displays on the set, we must match the color temperature of the monitors with the talent and set lighting. The native color temperature of the video displays is roughly “daylight”. In the past (when you were matching a couple of monitors), you had to use color-correction gel on the monitors to get them close to the color temperature of the lights. The results were never great, but it was close enough.

Now, LED and fluorescent fixtures come in both “daylight” (around 5600K) and “incandescent” (around 3200K) color temperatures. Now that daylight-balanced LED fixtures (and fluorescent tubes) are available, matching the color of the monitors to the studio lighting is a much simpler process. Another benefit of this change to “daylight” color temperature is the more vibrant appearance of colors that used to appear muted under incandescent lighting. Blues and greens will visually “pop”, instead of having the muddy appearance they had under incandescent light.

LED technology has made great advances in the past few years. The best of the lighting equipment available today has color accuracy that rivals daylight itself. The output of LED fixtures has roughly doubled in the past 5 years. The studios no longer need to be pre-chilled to keep the equipment working and talent comfortable. There’s no heat in the light beam to bake your anchors, so they’ll be more comfortable.

Another positive feature about LED lights is their long lifespan. An EGT is rated for about 700 hours of service. The LED fixtures are rated at around 50,000 hours. That’s over 10 years! In the old days of incandescent, every time a fixture had to be re-lamped it would get bumped a bit out of focus. With LED, the fixtures can stay in proper position for years before needing attention. That preserves the look and focus that is intended. That’s a big plus.

Choosing the equipment

You wouldn’t tell your surgeon which instruments to use. You’d let them pick the best tool for the job. Same goes for the lighting. Lighting fixtures are not created equally. There are many cheap and terrible fixtures out there that you’d do well to avoid. The best manufacturers have names that you’re familiar with – companies that stands behind their product. Innovative approaches in new fixtures and retrofits are worth checking out. Look for fixtures that have a CRI (Color Rendering Index) of at least 93. The higher CRI, the better the color. The fixtures with the best color quality will generally not be the ones with the most output, so don’t choose by output alone. How critical is audio in your plant? Would the sound of 60 small fans be picked up by your mics? Similar considerations will come into play for the power infrastructure, the lighting console control, and the physical support for critical positioning of the lights. Because the industry is going through a transition in sources and control, consider what you’ll need to handle a hybrid system with DMX controlled lights, older “phase controlled” dimmable fluorescent fixtures, and lights that need to have “constant” non-dim power. With careful consideration, some of your legacy lighting infrastructure and lighting fixtures can be re-used, if the budget requires more “value engineering:. But it’s definitely time to make a hard turn towards LED, and the occasion of getting a new set is the perfect opportunity to make that move.

Although I’ve done a number of beautiful projects where I had little input on the equipment selection, lighting your news set shouldn’t be a round of Top Chef Challenge. I advise you to bring in a Lighting Director before you commit to a lighting package proposal. Make sure they have the tools they need to do the job you expect. Some scenic design companies have Lighting Directors as an integral part of their team. I recommend taking advantage of that kind of “one stop shopping” if you can. The inter-coordination will be better, and any possible finger-pointing minimized because they’re working together.

How many lights does it take? What intensity do we light for?

One way to answer this question is by asking another question. How many brush strokes does it take to paint a picture? Each stroke of light is like a brushstroke of paint in this analogy. The number of “strokes” required depends on many things that can only be answered by survey information and a detailed understanding of what the finished “picture” will look like. How many people are standing where? What’s the camera angle(s)? Is there movement of the talent or the camera? Every position has it’s own needs, and working from that information gives you the answer of how many brush strokes it will take to properly paint it. That’s a pretty good description of what level of planning is required to estimate what it will take to light a set. Accurate answers may only be available after considerable conferencing and design work in CAD.

As for how much intensity is required – it’s based on the desired depth of field and the sensitivity of the cameras. The short answer for most cameras today is to light around 60 fc, with the iris set to somewhere between F2.8 and F4. Getting to the details behind that answer falls more in the realm of the Director of Photography. Suffice it to say that the goal is to impart more depth to the image. A shallower depth of focus helps create the sense of greater distances separating the main subject from the background. If the iris is too wide open (around F2), your camera crew will have trouble keeping your anchors in focus. If the setting is too small (around F5.6 or higher), nearly everything will look in focus – which will make the set appear flat. That is the short explanation on why we want to limit the depth of field.

In many ways, this is a great moment to be getting a new set and upgrading your lighting. And working with a Lighting Designer will help insure that you get the best possible results for your efforts and investment.

About Bruce Aleksander

Bruce is Devlin Design Groups primary Lighting Director and learned the fundamentals of lighting from the pioneers of television lighting. From that base, Bruce has gone on to win recognition for his work, including Emmy and Telly Awards, Promax/BDA Gold, Newscast Studio Set of the Year, and the Illuminating Engineering Society's international award for merit, for his work. Amongst Bruce's past and current projects are a national network series, symphony orchestra broadcasts, talk shows, network news remotes, commercials, promotions, telethons, cultural events, theater, and quite a few news sets.