Whose Vision Is It Anyway?

OK, I am prepared to acknowledge that television production is a collaborative process (I originally wrote collaborative art form, but I was worried about sounding too pretentious). Indeed, I find it very stimulating and rewarding to work with others toward realizing a shared vision. Sometimes it's hard work to find any sense of a vision in the amazing trade-ins being offered at Honest Dave's Used Autos, or the 10th season of a slowly declining game show. Nevertheless, almost every production represents an opportunity for its production team to continually refine its vision, no matter how imperceptibly.

Yes, I'm the guy who moves the softlights on the news set by two inches on Saturdays and Mondays because the weekend anchor wears glasses. On low-budget shoot-and-run drama, I celebrate when the talent completely blows a line, because I can tweak the look just a little bit further, while they regain their composure for the next take. I even take perverse pride in making the most beautifully lit zero-budget, zero-talent commercials out there on Honest Dave's auto lot. But all of this takes collaboration and sometimes quite a lot of persuasion from my colleagues.

If what I do is going to make it even slightly harder for the boom swinger or the camera operator, or the dolly grip, I find I really have to get in there ahead of time and sell them on the idea. Directors, producers, the creative people from the ad agency, and especially the clients are usually easy to convince, provided that what you're trying to achieve appears to be in their interest as well. There are however, two distinct groups of people who may fail completely to understand the notion of working collaboratively: set designers and vision controllers.

I have always found production designers to be a slightly strange subspecies of humanity. Please don't get me wrong here. I have been friends with quite a few designers since I started out lighting high school musicals, an interest that led to my original lighting career in the theater and later a move into television. It's just that I've met too many designers who believe that lighting exists either (a) to illuminate every detail of their gorgeous set and/or (b) to correct the color of the sets and costumes when the director complains that they look nothing like the sketches or the model.


I really enjoy becoming immersed in creative collaboration with the director and other members of the design team. It makes my days on the set fly by, as I attempt to add my touches to a process that began weeks or months before in a design meeting. As the last ones to make an input into the images, we lighting directors/ directors of photography bear the final burden of fulfilling the expectations of the entire design teamæwell, almost the final burden.

When shooting electronically, there is of course another stage in the process of getting that image onto a recording medium: that ever-shrinking box of optics and electronics that captures the image. With developments in electronics, that camera has been getting progressively more transparent to the photographic process. It has become smaller, lighter, more sensitive, more adjustable, more automatic, more stable and more reliable, but in the end the box is still being driven by the camera operator and the vision controller. This is the point in the process where we need to apply the most skill if our vision for the pictures is going to survive.

Automating almost any process is a recipe for mediocrity. When it comes to the use of auto-iris, auto-gain, and yes, even auto-white balance in production cameras, this borders on travesty. These functions are, of course, the very backbone of ENG for news, current affairs and most recently reality television, but they have no place in other forms of production. I fully comprehend why an ENG camera operator must be able to switch on the dreaded "zebra," line up the shot and follow the story as it unfolds in the viewfinder, but that is the antithesis of the designed, confined and rehearsed nature of most television production.


Much of my concern in this area stems from my proclivity for darkness in my pictures. I have been very fortunate to work with some directors and production designers who understood, and even relished, having parts of a scene four f-stops below the engineering department's version of an acceptable exposure. I find it very tiring on-location dealing with EFP camera operators who only run on "auto-everything" and in the studio, re-educating vision controllers who leave the camera irises set to automatic during rehearsals and then "compensate for the bad lighting" when it comes to the take.

My current pinup directors of photography are Dennis Smith, for his establishment of the often moody images in "The Practice," and (I hesitate to say this in refined company) Marvin V. Rush, for the richness, and dare I suggest truthfulness, of his work in "Enterprise," the current series of Star Trek prequels. I see the broad acceptance of the images in these and other contemporary productions, as a sign of the decline in the engineering mindset that claimed the need for apertures of f-11 at -3dB gain to keep the pictures at acceptable quality. Although I dislike signal noise as much as anyone, I claim for us the right to have some parts of our images lurking just above picture blanking.

Perhaps I should point out that I am talking about dramatic production here, not bright and cheerful styles still mandatory for furniture commercials, game shows and awards presentations. In my defense I should confess that at one stage of my life, I was burdened with the nickname of "Captain Kilowatt," a comment of the scale of my outside broadcast lighting for awards presentations, beauty pageants and musical spectaculars. I simply want the right to use darkness when it's appropriate, not to compel others to follow me into the darkness.