Skip to main content

Lighting Design: Spreading the Word

Those of us who make productions need to be singing from the same page of the same hymnal before we can inform, entertain or enthrall our audiences.

Television may be about communicating with our audience, but there are times when we have trouble communicating among ourselves. One of the most difficult communication paths is between the lighting director or director of photography and other members of the production team.

Getting your ideas across to directors, producers, clients and production managers is vital to getting access to resources such as time, crew, and money. Establishing clear communications with set, costume, props, audio and effects designers is crucial if the package is to have any hope of working on-screen. Finally, making certain that your vision controllers and camera crews understand what you are attempting to achieve can save a lot of heartache during the shoot, and in editing and post.

One of the most frustrating days in my life as an LD was a multicamera studio drama shoot where the director, production designer and I had set up a darkly dramatic atmosphere in a World War II interrogation/torture room. There were pools of light created by overhead practical fixtures, and a very low level of base light--just enough to keep the pictures from dipping all the way into video black. Unfortunately, on the morning of the shoot, the vision controller was called away to cover another production, and was replaced by a guy who specialized in basketball!

The intention was to have the mysterious interrogator/torturer character pace in and out of pools of light and darkness to enhance the menacing effect and keep his face obscured from his victim. However, our vision operator frantically rode the cameras to ensure that we could clearly see the interrogator's face throughout the scene. When questioned about this, he indignantly explained that he was "covering up for your bad lighting."

He further offered to show me where to add more lights to the rig, as I clearly didn't know how to light for television. Neither the director nor I were particularly amused by the amount of effort required to keep the vision controller on the right track for the rest of the morning, until we could arrange for a replacement operator with drama experience. Our sports vision controller simply had no notion of what we were trying to achieve.


Our colleagues in set, prop, costume and even visual effects design have drawings, plans, models, sketches, photographs and often watercolor renderings and CAD flythroughs to communicate their concepts and intentions. The tools available for communicating the visual impact of lighting concepts are much less precise.

From years of teaching, I know that many college lighting design courses train designers and directors in techniques of pencil, charcoal and even India ink rendering, to illustrate lighting effects. Despite this, I have yet to meet a practicing LD who has the time or inclination to use such renderings in television production.

What LDs usually do is paint pictures with words or find images in magazines and books, or from Web sites that show the atmosphere or look we intend to create. In recent years, some LDs have started using Photoshop and similar image-manipulation software to relate how the set will appear under lighting.

Not surprisingly, Photoshop doesn't understand the physics of light and will allow you to stop light beams in midair; show beams of light without the need for smoke, dust or haze; pretend there are no reflections when a beam of light strikes a surface; or ignore the inverse square law.

This can lead to totally unrealistic expectations of how the actual pictures will appear.


I recently met an LD working on a very large architectural project who was having a problem meeting the expectations of the client. The client anticipated that his 40-plus story office block would look exactly like the Photoshop image that a salesman gave him during the process of tendering for equipment supply.

It's very easy to color a photo of a building in an even blue wash in Photoshop, but somewhat more difficult to achieve this from ground level on a real 40-story building in a crowded downtown area.

A little more than a decade ago, LD Gilray Densham at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Toronto, formed a project group to devise a CAD program to assist the CBC in pre-plotting moving lights before taking production into the studio.

The group become CAST Lighting, and the idea blossomed to become the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) software system, at WYSIWYG is almost universally used in productions involving moving lights, as it now allows LDs to design, visualize and even pre-plot the lighting cues for a production without even rigging a luminaire.

Top-of-the-line consoles from several manufacturers now include built-in versions of WYSIWYG for off-line show creation and editing. Many of today's complex stage, concert and television productions utilizing moving lights would not be technically or financially practicable without the vast amount of pre-production undertaken using WYSIWYG and similar programs such as Martin Show Designer.

Among WYSIWYG's most compelling features is its photometrically accurate rendering of the output of a huge range of luminaires, color filters and gobos. This ought to make it the perfect tool for communicating our design concepts to the rest of the production team. WYSIWYG comes very close to the ideal for many types of productions.

LD Bruce Aleksander, at ABC-Disney station KTRK-TV in Houston Texas, is a long-time CAD user who has discovered WYSIWYG possibilities for productions that don't necessarily involve moving lights.


"WYSIWYG is where I go when I need to lay out a show for other people to see," he explained. "If it's just a few lights that I'm going to hang with a crew, there's no reason to take the time to develop a formal plot. But if I need to communicate the plan to someone else, I head for the computer. Nothing does a better job of showing them what we're planning and how it will look when we're finished.

"There's never enough time to do anything in television," he said. "That's why it's so important to make sure that whatever you're doing is done right the first time. WYSIWYG helps me work out the problems (for myself and other departments) before a single piece of scenery is ever built or a light hung. I can help answer questions before the mistakes that result in wasted time and money. That's worth a heck of a lot more than the price of admission."

The price of admission is reasonably high for WYSIWYG, at $1,595 for the design-only version and $3,195 for the fully-interactive live simulation version. However, it doesn't take much saved studio, crew or facility time to add up to $3,000. However, it does take time to set up a production in the WYSIWYG system. The model used for the 2003 Houston Mayoral Debate took Bruce Aleksander around five hours to produce. He does admit that more time was spent building the virtual podium than designing the lighting.

For me, there is one other drawback to the current version of WYSIWYG. I am very fussy about the quality of the portraiture in my pictures, particularly the nature and depth of the shadows. The ray tracing method used for producing the rendered images in WYSIWYG works very satisfactorily for the relatively narrow direct beams of spotlights (fresnels and ellipsoidals) and beamlights (PARs, molefays and birdies), although it isn't very accurate for large area light sources such as cloudy skies, softlights and reflectors.

While WYSIWYG will let me communicate with everyone else on the production about how my lighting will affect the look of the pictures, I will still need my imagination to envision the final finicky details.