Off-Color Television

Recently I was approached for some (free) advice by a group of young enthusiasts who were setting up a video production facility. Among other questions, I was asked for a definitive list of diffusion materials and color filters they should stock for the use of their clients. The actual request went something like "please pick out about 20 gels and a half dozen diffusions that will suit most jobs." On further interrogation the requirement was narrowed down to cover only corporate documentaries, small commercials and music videos. Of course, this being the 21st century, their facility is based around professional DV cameras, so the gear will be working both in their studio and on-location.

After regaining my breath at the audacity of this request, I started to give it a some serious thought. After all, I do like the concept of minimalism and simplicity in life. Indeed, when I was teaching, I had a lot of fun shooting zero-budget video features, using only as much equipment as would fit in the panel van along with the student lighting crew. It occurs to me that their request is the lighting version of that old party game: "What three books would you take with you to a desert island?" (OK, maybe I do need to get out more.) The most difficult part of this challenge was to keep in mind that I wasn't choosing these gels and diffusions for me, but for everyone who would use the facilities.


The idiosyncratic choice of diffusion is a phenomenon I have noted during a lifetime in lighting, and especially since taking up writing, as I have had the privilege of interviewing many lighting directors and DOPs. Everyone, it seems, has a couple of favorite diffusion materials that they are absolutely passionate about, and frequently will use nothing else. Personally, I will admit to a certain fondness for Lee's 216 White Diffusion and 228 Brushed Silk, Rosco's 3010 Opal Tough Frost and 3000 Tough Rollux. I also like anyone's Full Tough-Spun, so long as it is at least double thickness. However, when it comes down to it, I will use anything at hand to solve a problem. I'm certainly not above using a Maglite bounced off a piece of Styrofoam packaging, or a 60 W household bulb inside a $5 rice-paper lantern from Ikea.

(click thumbnail)This setting from an Australian children's show is an example of the most lurid aspects of color TV.Correction filters are a different matter. Unless you really have an axe to grind, the basic Color Temp Orange (CTO) and Color Temp Blue (CTB), corrections, when used in conjunction with a smattering of Neutral Densities, HMI and Fluoro filters, will cover just about any mixed source situation. I have always been a little skeptical about the need for such filters as an 11/32 CTB. That's either a measure of my lack of imagination, or my acceptance that supply voltage, lamp age, time of day, season, weather and the LD's personal aesthetics, render the science of correction into something more akin to a black art.

My final approach for the suggestion of both diffusion and correction filters was similar. I selected half density versions of a light frost and a heavy frost, and half density tough spun. In the correction area, in addition to such certainties as full CTB for tungsten sources, full plus and minus green for fluorescents, and CTO/ND.6 for Windows, I suggested a few quarter density corrections. My reasoning is that it's much simpler to use two or three layers of a filter or diffusion to get the desired effect than to start poking pin-holes through the material to reduce its effect.


When it came to selecting color effects filters, I'm afraid I was totally at a loss as to how to make any meaningful recommendation. Between the major color effects filter manufacturers, there are now well over 500 unique colors available, along with several hundred deliberate duplications. Certainly, this is a vast improvement on the 50 or so colors available to me when lighting my first productions at high school. However, I have my doubts that even an experienced filter salesman could identify all of the colors currently available, much less any poor working LD or DOP. Even by taking a methodical approach and removing from contention all colors with impractically low transmission values, and all those that lie outside the gamut of the color television system, the choice is still staggering.

In sheer exasperation, I opted for some approximately secondary colors for cyclorama mixing, and a selection of popular shades from the mid-saturation primary and secondary range. I know that these colors will probably not be sufficiently cool for anyone wanting to shoot a music video, but they will probably be useful for educational, corporate and commercial production. I guess it depends on whether their clients are fashion victims or determined pragmatists.