Light Falling on Deaf Ears

I recently wasted part of an otherwise perfectly good evening watching a few segments of the four-and-a-half hour Academy Awards presentation. From time to time I torture myself with these broadcasts, just to see what the people with big budgets are doing. Like many other viewers, I didn't last very long in front of the television, before all of that sincerity and bonhomie became too much for me. It was, however, long enough for me to reassure myself that big budgets and an audience of squillions still doesn't guarantee the lighting will be right.

Despite my strong reservations about the aesthetics of placing six-foot-high musicians in front of a screen showing movie excerpts of 40-foot-high actors, this was not what I found most disappointing about the segment showcasing the Oscar-nominated songs. What really surprised me were the beautiful, optically accurate, images of a followspot beam reflected from the floor onto the projection screens. I was surprised, because everyone (producers and set designers included) learns the simple law of reflection at high school.

This problem could have been foreseen and solved very early in the production process, without any need for input from a lighting director. I have no doubt that when the matter was eventually raised at rehearsals, the LD was told that it was too late to fix the problem, despite the solution being as simple as dropping a square of black cloth on the stage behind the talent.


Please don't get me wrong. My reason for raising these matters is not to find fault with a particular producer, director, designer or lighting director. The Academy Awards broadcast simply underlined for me that there are always problems to be solved during the production process, and even the best-resourced productions can get things wrong. What has bothered me since my very first day in a television studio some 30 years ago is that almost without exception, these problems are avoidable. All that is needed is proper communication between members of the production team.

Some examples spring to mind. Few occasions require hanging a set in such a way that prevents the lighting rig crew from having access to the lighting grid. Practical power outlets on double-sided sets are generally much easier to wire in the construction shop than when the set is already in the studio; built, painted and dressed. Large areas of highly reflective finishes are easier to deal with in the design and construction phase than when the set is in the studio and the production about to go live to air. Camera portals in sets are more conveniently constructed in the workshop than clawed out on the set by the props crew during a meal break. Shooting a commercial for black velour garments against a black infinity background would generally be regarded as an ineffective way to display such a product.

The above situations (from life, of course) are each cases where someone on the production team had the information to avoid what would later become a problem but didn't pass it on. Perhaps it was because the team didn't realize the value of the information. Maybe it was because they didn't want others on the production to know what was about to happen, in case they tried to stop it. (I suspect that is the story behind the advertising agency producer and the black on black commercial, and possibly many other kamikaze pieces of "art.")

However, I believe that the majority of these problems are simply the result of the production pressures, budget pressures and time pressures on the members of the design and production team. The irony is that if the team took time to communicate with each other, many of these pressures could be eliminated by sensibly solving the problems before they ever get a chance to arise. If we get the set color right, then we have probably already solved what may have been problems with makeup, costumes and shot composition. If we know where the cameras are going to be, we can make sure that there is lighting for shots from that direction and conversely, sufficient flagging in place to avoid lens flare.


The need for frequent production meetings in the 20th century model (where a group of people get together in a room to discuss the items on an agenda) is now past. An initial meeting for introductions and discussions of the broad concepts behind a production is still essential, but beyond that the 21st century offers other means. E-mail, fax, voicemail, Internet personal messaging, voice conferencing, text paging, telephone text messaging and teleconferencing allow a variety of communications among individuals or ad hoc working groups. These technologies have also virtually eliminated the need for the participants in a discussion to be in the same time zone.

In effect, the production meeting for a project can become one long intermittent discussion, which individuals join and leave as necessary. There has never been a better time for good communications in the production process.

As an aside on the Academy Awards, I was pleased to see that Andrew Lesnie won the cinematography Oscar for his work on "The Fellowship of The Ring." I have liked his more-than-real style of photographing fantasy ever since "Babe," the first film of his "pig" period.