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ESPN Does US Open With All-LED Lighting

NEW YORK—For the first time in its US Open coverage, ESPN built an all-LED lighting infrastructure for its outdoor sets.

The sports network commissioned New York-based Ferri Lighting Design & Associates to provide lighting design and direction services for the fourth and final Grand Slam tennis event, which took place at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center/ Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“With this year’s lighting, there were no compromises,” said Mick Smith, FLDA’s lighting designer and director responsible for ESPN lighting setups at US Open Tennis. “We were able to use LED lighting to properly light outdoor sets even at the brightest part of the day. That’s something that’s only happened recently as LED fixtures—and the ability to control them—have gotten significantly better.

“Since we wanted to have the open plaza and venue in the background, we didn’t

ESPN commissioned New York-based Ferri Lighting Design & Associates to design and build its first all-LED outdoor studio at this year's US Open. put a scrim or panel behind the talent,” Smith continued. “The challenge at this event is that lighting conditions range from extremely sunny to overcast and from high noon to nearly midnight. So you need to have adequate lighting to achieve the right exposure and light levels as well as a very flexible lighting setup to manage changes in light levels.”

FLDA lit three set areas at Arthur Ashe stadium: the ESPN domestic stage (also known as the “Fountain Plaza” set) at the stadium entrance that featured a desk for four commentators; a separate ESPN international set outside the stadium which also had a desk for four commentators; and Suite 200, a balcony/press box where anchors stood facing the interior with the tennis courts in the background. Located in Flushing/Queens, New York, the USTA National Tennis Center/Arthur Ashe Stadium has 12 tennis courts and seats 23,200.

“Since this is an outdoor venue, we needed to light the talent at ridiculously high foot candle settings to compensate for the backgrounds,” said Bruce Ferri, president and senior lighting designer for FLDA. “Two years ago we needed to use HMIs because they were the only suitable solution out there, but if there was a heat wave, the set would feel unbearably hot for the talent. The key advantage to LED lighting is that we can turn them off when the talent isn’t on-camera and get the LED lights on quickly when the director wants to throw it back to them.”

This is a significant improvement over HMI lighting because the HMI’s would require about three to six minutes to heat up to the proper color temperature, while the LED’s are virtually instant on, Ferri said.

“Since the director could go to the anchors live at any time, we couldn’t afford to turn the HMI’s off and as a result, the talent would become extremely uncomfortable and fatigued sitting under those hot lights, especially in the sunny 95-plus degree weather typical for the US Open,” Ferri said. “LEDs definitely kept the talent and set cooler this year.”

Chris Strong, ESPN technical manager overseeing the four majors of the Grand Slam including the US Open, agrees that the importance of LEDs in this outdoor venue is greatly due to the quest of reducing heat around the set and the need to bring them from an off state to full power quickly. “Other forms of lighting cast a fair amount of heat and with the summer temperatures in the 90-plus range, we needed every edge to reduce the heat on the set,” Strong said. “As with any outdoor venue, LED lighting is always questionable as the sun is hard to deal with. Though HMIs have always been the best option for outdoor lighting, LEDs have come a long way in a short time.”

Strong added that LEDs now are able to match the capability of HMIs, with the advent of focused LED lenses and higher output instruments.

“The bonus is you can add a second or third [unit] due to size and power consumption should you still require more punch,” he said. “They’re also very quick to ‘bring up,’ something not as easy to do with HMIs or other forms of light. Aesthetically the lights also gave Ferri a quick handle on colors, [and] if the director wanted to warm up the stage, it took seconds to do it. If they wanted to color the lights in another direction, that was doable as well. Ease and quickness of doing this was key and thus gave our set a better look. ”

According to Pat Grosswendt, cofounder and chief technical consultant for the Americas for Litepanels in Van Nuys, Calif.—the manufacturer of Sola 4 LEDs used to light US Open sets—“LEDs are cooler because the heat they generate is not projected forwards toward the talent. The heat’s dissipated away from the fixture by fans, heat sinks, or other means designed to keep the fixture cool.”

In addition to the Litepanels Sola 4 fixtures, Ferri used Robe Robin 600 Led Daylight Wash; Chroma-Q Studio Force D XT; Prism Reveal Profile Junior Daylight; Color Kinetics IW Blast 12-inch TR; Aadyn Punch, and Aadyn Jab fixtures. They also used ETC Ion 2000 lighting control systems to set up and adjust the lights on both the ESPN domestic and international sets. The ETC Ion systems, one of which was situated in a shady spot underneath the main stage (in Fountain Plaza), offers the ability to pre-program lighting pre-sets for easier live operation.

“As lighting conditions changed, we often fine-tuned the LED light levels while shots were live without impeding the broadcast,” Smith said. “The ETC Ion 2000 lighting controller has a very user-friendly touchscreen interface to control all the LED lights on the set. But I also set up a wireless network and brought out an iPad so that I could remotely operate the controller to adjust and focus the lights from the stage without having to run up and down or climb a ladder.”

According to Ferri, at least 50 percent of FLDA’s business is LED-related, including installing new LED fixtures as well as replacing conventional lighting with LEDs.

“Converting to LED lighting is definitely a trend in broadcast studios,” Ferri said. “One of the key incentives is that LED lighting uses a fraction of electricity compared to conventional lighting. In a brand new installation, a studio can see a return on investment in just two years by saving on HVAC construction and operating costs,” said Ferri. However, the ROI for an established studio converting to LED fixtures would take longer because they would already have committed to a high level of HVAC and electrical service.

FLDA handles much of ESPN’s studio lighting needs, including the new Sports Center building at the network’s Bristol, Conn. headquarters, as well as their Miami, Charlotte, S.C., Los Angeles and Mexico City studios. FLDA also designed the lighting for ESPN’s traveling NASCAR set (“The Pit Studio”) that is also all LED.

“Since the advent of the technology, the broadcast industry’s transition to LED lighting is now moving at a faster pace due to advancements in the quality, performance and energy efficiency of LED lights, according Litepanels’ Grosswendt. “Our LED products don’t have contaminants like mercury and all of the components are recyclable. And the fact that today’s LEDs can create high-quality lighting very efficiently makes it very advantageous, appealing, and planet-friendly.”

FLDA Lighting Directors Jeff McRoberts and Kevin McCarthy also worked on designing and building the all-LED set.