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A Little Light on The Subject

It was an endless, wordless battle, so they tell me: My grandfather strolls through the kitchen, hoists the window open and saunters on. He’s followed closely by my great-grandmother – his mother-in-law – who slams the window shut and mutters foul German oaths under her breath as she leaves. Like a Bavarian clockwork tableau, my grandfather re-enters, opens the window once more, inhales deeply and vents a few choice epithets.

After he’s out of the room, the old lady is back and – well, you guessed it – slam. Too much sauerkraut? A genetic legacy of stubbornness? In our family, we’ve always preferred words like "strong-willed" and "self-assured."

I can’t help but recall this charming ancestral legend – however, it’s in the oddest of locations: the edit suite. It seems that I’ve become party to acts of similar idiocy, and it isn’t fresh air at the root of things. It’s light.

Several times a day – so I’ve noticed – my partner Dave and I alternately douse, blast, tweak and sneak until the light levels in a given room are pretty much the opposite of when we entered. And like my forebears’ folly, nary a word is spoken; no doubt, each of us is thinking, "I wonder how he can possibly work under those conditions?"


So who was it, I want to know, who decreed that an edit suite must be lit like an anthracite seam at midnight? Sure, I know that it’s bad news to wash out the CRT with ambient light; that’s just common sense. I’d be the first one banging on the door of the booth if the projectionist left the movie theater lights up during the show.

But in my mind, an edit room is a different sort of place. It’s a workin’ sort of place, a room where you need light to read a script or a log, to find the third input on the mixer, or – sweet victory – to see that subtle wince cross the client’s face as you cut it the way she insists it should be cut.

There is no right answer to the lighting question, nor is one required. In building these rooms, we pay lip service to these differences in illuminative preferences by installing dimmers, track lights, torchières and halogen task lighting – any of which can be turned on, off, up or down. It seems like a subjective decision, but is it really?

When in doubt, I try to do what a real engineer would do: look for a published standard in an engineering journal. Well, the granddaddy of ‘em all is the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and while there’s no authoritative standard for edit suite lighting per se, they’ve got the next best thing: a Recommended Practice, or RP.


Okay, so it’s not really for edit rooms, but it details the ideal environment for screening rooms and that’s a pretty close match. According to RP166 (1995), the ambient light should be no greater than about ten percent of the brightest part of the picture. That’s not an awful lot of light.

And to further refine the viewing experience, one might want to splash a 6500K light source on the wall, lower reading lights to about 10-foot candles and limit other task lighting to 3- or 4-foot-candles. Mmm … nice. How about adding a big ol’ La-Z-Boy recliner and a little something to wet your whistle? Sounds mighty soothing.

But hold on a minute – that’s not what we build the rooms for. They’re not theaters. They’re not even screening rooms, except at the end of the edit when the client sits back to watch the whole show end-to-end. They’re part workshop, part art gallery, part computer lab and part office. They need lights. These are little TV factories and while it sure is fun to watch TV with the lights off, it’s not necessarily a productive environment.

I’m intrigued by some of the bright, daylight-washed sitting rooms and parlors that serve as nonlinear suites these days. Are they practical? Can you still do any critical viewing if you need to? I don’t know, but the promotional stills sure look great. On some emotional level, though, I guess I acknowledge the quest for a tomb-like abyss – devoid of light – where our alchemy is performed, where magnets and electrons and glowing phosphors forge ideas and words and images into stories.

It’s not important that the stories are about furniture stores and cholesterol treatments. What matters is that each time we sit down to edit, we’re intently focused on delivering our finest work.

I still want the lights up a little higher. I think I just set my coffee down on top of my Palm Pilot, I’m counting the function keys by touch to find "F8," and if you pass me your lighter, I may be able to read the reel number off this next tape.