Lighting for electronic field production (EFP) must surely date from the first portable broadcast-quality video camera system: the Ampex VR-3000. At 50-odd pounds for the battery-powered 2-inch quad recorder alone, the term "portable" was possibly a slight exaggeration. Nevertheless, this was a video camera/recorder system that could be taken into the field for production work.
What differentiated this form of production from all that had gone before it was the combination of portability and immediacy. Large-scale events could be covered live-to-air by fully equipped, outside broadcast remote facilities, provided there was time for moving crews, trucks and setting up of the necessary program links.
Major production work was shot on film, in a style not entirely different than movie production, while news events were covered on 16mm film with rapid processing. The style of production that these new cameras enabled was all about speed. Get in. Shoot fast. Get the tape back to the replay machine.
This encompassed such things as interviews with the coach after the game, late-breaking news stories, segments for topical comedy shows, prize inserts for games, shows and commercials for "Honest Phil" on his used car lot – showing this week’s "bargains."
PILING ON THE PROBLEMS
For the lighting director, technician or engineer – my title was lighting engineer in those days – the problems were an amalgam of those faced by the movie director of photography, the news cameraman and the studio lighting director.
The tube camera suffered from the same lack of sensitivity and limited contrast range as its larger brethren. Available light sources were frequently mixed in both color temperature and color rendering. Setup time was negligible. The lighting crew was usually one person and the power sources were whatever utility outlets you could see: if you were standing still long enough to plug anything in.
The lighting instruments assembled to meet the demands of these conditions were also a mix of those used by other productions. That collection included sun-guns and open-faced quartz heads from news and documentary production, molefays and reflectors from movie production, as well as inkies and pups from the studio.
The most conspicuous absence from the list was an efficient daylight-matching source that could be run from available power. While the molefay, when fitted with FAY lamps – overrun lamps with dichroic correction to bring them to 5600K – produced something akin to daylight, it was not very efficient.
The FAY lamp has a rated life of 20 hours, and every pair of lamps in these multiheaded beasts required their own, separately fused supply socket. Everything else had to be corrected with color temperature blue filter and the consequence was the loss of half of the light.
The only battery lights then available used tungsten lamps – and would just last for a brief post-game interview with the coach in the stadium. Forget about having enough side-fill on the close-up of Honest Phil for three attempts at the phrase "and what about this classic ‘58 Chevrolet Impala," as he tried to vault into the driver’s seat.
From a picture-quality standpoint, the most devastating absence was the unavailability of a softlight source that could go into the field.
Although soft reflectors and bounce boards were available, the absence of grips and the speed of operation frequently ruled out their use. The advent of the umbrella reflector as part of the Lowell Tota system was the first opportunity I had to take softlight out on an EFP shoot. It’s just a pity that the damned things fell over so often!
The later development of the wide range of softbox systems from such companies as Chimera, Lowel, Westcott and Photoflex has made softlight at reasonable levels available even to those of us with little time, no crew and scant available power.
More recently, the development of color-accurate, broad-spectrum phosphors for fluorescent tubes has precipitated another major step forward in the quality of what we can achieve with EFP.
The combination of these phosphors with high-frequency electronic ballasts has resulted in a new range of very portable high-efficiency softlights with flicker-free output from such companies as Balcar, Kino Flo, Lowel, brightline and many others. (The tubes for these fittings are generally available to match either studio or daylight color temperature.)
Add to these the simple – but very effective – soft egg crates to control the spill, and the LD in the field has tools as powerful as anything in the studio.
Perhaps the greatest revolution has occurred in the area of the battery-powered luminaires. The batteries themselves have undergone a range of developments in terms of cost and charge characteristics since the VR-3000’s silver oxide batteries, which achieved reliability for the price of a small motorcar.
The commodity rechargeable cell systems that are at the heart of field production equipment and portable appliances today are mostly invisible to us in their reliability and availability.
The other half of today’s battery-powered luminaire is the metal halide discharge lamp – most particularly HMI – that has been steadily improving in stability and efficiency for about three decades.
The vastly improved efficiency of electronically ballasted metal halides compared with tungsten filament lamps has made the battery light a practical possibility for field production. That they also happen to run at a daylight color temperature is a major convenience for most applications – ‘tis a far cry from my 150 W, late ‘60s’ Sun-Gun!
The strangest thing about it all is that today, increasingly more field production is electronic, as movie producers begin to adopt high-definition video cameras for principal photography. We will find that, while the streets are closed for shooting a movie with a full crew, 30 trucks, 6 caravans and a fleet of buses – around the corner we will be using the same camera and one fluorescent lightbank to shoot a segment for this week’s local lifestyle program.
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