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Old December 16th, 2003, 02:24 PM   #1
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Theatrical lighting

OK - here is the situation. I am currently shooting some community theater productions for the fun of it. I am using 3 or 4 Sony Hi-8 camcorders, running S-Video out of the cameras to a 4 input mixer, mixing on the fly and sending S-Sideo to a a JVC mini-dv deck (for ease of editing in case of a screw up).

The problem is, under most theater lighting - especially if the background is dark, the faces and white areas burn out. It helps some if I can get the lighting guy to drop the levels a bit, but most are not that cooperative (after all, that's his/her artistic look).

The cameras have a "Spotlight" setting, but I suspect that it is filtering before it is put on the camera tape, but downstream of the S-Video output that goes to my mixer.

A couple questions:

Would a screw-on ND filter help?

Would taping on S-VHS handle the contrast better than mini-DV?

Would a polarizing filter help?

Anybody have any other solutions?
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Old December 16th, 2003, 05:11 PM   #2
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Mike,

It sounds like you are not using manual exposure. You should be. The cameras' auto exposure will try to average everything to mid-grey, so if you have large areas of darkness they will influence the auto exposure more than the small areas of brightness. Just switch to manual and stop the iris down until there are no burnt out areas. If all the cameras are the same, set them all to the same stop. You may have to change the stop from scene to scene if the lighting is dramatically different. I try to vary the stop as little as possible so that the mood of the lighting is maintained in the video.

I can't see that any of the other things you mention are going to help - unless you have no manual control over the iris, but you can prevent the camera from turning up the gain. In that case ND filters could work if you had the right amount. However, I've never come across a Hi-8 camera with no manual iris control. There's always a first time of course.

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Old December 16th, 2003, 05:28 PM   #3
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Following along on Helen's good suggestions...

I've never used a Hi-8 cam so my suggestion may be worthless.

Managing your iris, as Helen suggests, the the way to go. Many Canon DV cameras feature a "Spotlight" exposure mode. It's a program (i.e. auto exposure) mode that essentially represents a center-weighted meter. As such, it assumes that you have a brightly lit subject in the center of your frame and sets your exposure according to that area. Perhaps your cameras have a similar program mode, although probably under a different name.

Just an additional thought. Good luck!
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Old December 16th, 2003, 06:15 PM   #4
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Thanks for the suggestions, unfortunately, these cameras are consumer grade with no manual iris control. See my original post about the "Spotlight" mode - doesn't seem to work.

Other ideas?
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Old December 16th, 2003, 06:21 PM   #5
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Sorry Mike. I did not read your original post closely enough. (Haste makes stupidity.)
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Old December 16th, 2003, 07:53 PM   #6
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Do the cameras have exposure lock? Could you fool the exposure system with a piece of well-lit paper or something filling the frame, then lock the exposure? I've done a similar thing using a torch/flashlight and a white postcard, messing about until I get the right exposure.

The other way is to use enough ND to force the camera to 'run out' of stop openings. This would only work well if the camera didn't turn the gain up after it reached wide open, and it would be fiddly to get the right amount of ND. Not really recommended. A way round would be crossed polarizers - adjustable ND.

Which model cameras are you using?

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Old December 18th, 2003, 10:03 AM   #7
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Helen - I'm using the Sony 118 - Hi 8 cams. They do have a manual iris control. Unfortunately, with frequent scene/lighting changes, and student camera operators, it is difficult! Was hoping for an easy solution, but as anything in the video world - it ain't gonna happen!
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Old December 19th, 2003, 12:34 PM   #8
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I'm currently doing post on a similar multicam-production, and I know just what kind of problems you are suffering. Lighting for theatre seems to be incredibly incompatible with video, especially as most lighting directors for stage seems to be fond of spots, and they use them whereever they can.

The worst moments would be when an camera operator adjusts iris perfectly for an actor, but as he walks across the stage, some lighting technician cranks up a spot and puts it right on the top of his head, creating the ugliest burnt out image you could ever imagine. In my case, just to top it off, there was two main lamps covering each half of the main scene area, one with a CTB tone, the other with CTO, making white balancing an interesting task.

In retrospect, I should have included scripting not only for stageplots and the general action in each scene, but also for lighting (and some cameras would also benefit from focus remarks, as actors move across the scene in thight shots). I did actually make some technical remarks in our scripting after our first go. I always tried as best I could to relay shots, image direction and scene information all at the same time, but mostly, cueing shots was my top priority. Most often, I included some technical direction as I cued the next camera in the mix, but lighting conditions would sometimes change during the shot. The camera operators tended to hesitate when asked to adjust aperture and focus in a shot, in fear of "overshooting", and ruining the shot further. Any adjustments while in the mix would either way look bad. It really didn't help that lighting conditions sometimes could differ from one night to the other, as the show's director or technical personnel made additions or other changes to the technical setup.

Lighting in theatre is for the audience in the auditorium, not for the video camera, and as you say, most lighting directors refuses to change a setup for the camera's sake. You'll just have to make the best of what you got. The best solution would be to see the play a couple of times before shooting, and making notes of any difficulties that could arise. Tape the whole thing with one of your cameras, and look at the images together with the camera operators to get a better sense of how it's going to look.
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Old December 19th, 2003, 12:50 PM   #9
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You are all correct. Unless the stage show is properly "balanced," for television, you are fighting a losing battle. OTOH, a show that is properly balanced for an audience will generally work reasonably well for the new video cameras. This means that the overall key levels remain constant, with only the possible overexposure caused when two spots overlap momentarily. All spots should have the same color temp, usually 5600K or corrected to 3200. Certainly different colors can be used for an effect, which should be obvious to the viewer in the theatre, or on tv.

The real hero, or villain, is your lighting designer. If they don't have their stuff together, you are never going to get the desired results. Approach them in a spirit of co-operation when seeking their help.

Wayne Orr, SOC
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Old December 19th, 2003, 08:43 PM   #10
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<<<-- Originally posted by Wayne Orr : The real hero, or villain, is your lighting designer. -->>>

OK Wayne, I'll plead guilty to being one of those "villains" as I've be doing theatrical lighting since the early 1970's. It's only been during the past 3 or so years as I've gotten into DV that I realized how different the needs of video lighting are.

Unless a show was originally conceived for video it's very unlikely that it will shoot well on DV. I've come to realize that as a theatrical lighting designer, the effects that create extreme contrast are the ones we all especially like in live theatre. Like a blinding bright pool of light in the midst of a dark blue sea. The eye has no problem resolving such a range from dark to light, but DV's limited color space doesn't even come close. For that matter, neither does film. So as a lighting designer it would be counterproductive to limit my effects to something that will look good on video, unless of course that's a consideration from the very beginning. But now, as I shoot my own performances, I find that I'm often my own worst enemy! It can also be frustrating since I'd like to be able to capture these lighting effects on tape, or even on a digital still camera, and I find this impossible.

Several years ago we did a PBS broadcast of one of our operas, taped live during a performance. We spent a full day where an experienced television lighting designer worked through each of our existing light cues along with our theatrical lighting designer. It was a time consuming and expensive process, due to the crew cost. But it looked phenomenal on tape, and it really wouldn't have worked at all if we hadn't taken this step.

But anyway Wayne, I think you're being a little harsh to cast the LD as a villain and talk about them not having their stuff together. If you look at the original question, it related to someone shooting community theatre with cheap hi-8 camcorders that don't even have manual controls. It seems like an unreasonable expectation to have the LD change something that works well for the live audience in order to improve video under these conditions.
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Old December 20th, 2003, 03:49 AM   #11
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Just to add to Boyd's good words: at the low budget end of the game, I wouldn't agree to shoot a live performance of a play as anything other than a record of the play - but of course I'll make it as good as I can under the conditions.

For a proper video version I shoot a performance done for the video, scene by scene, either working with the lighting designer or adjusting her scene pre-sets in her absence. Takes ages, of course, and it wouldn't have the live ambience. That's the alternative to the PBS approach that Boyd mentioned. As the saying goes: 'Cheap, good, quick. Pick any two.'

Best,
Helen
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Old December 20th, 2003, 12:09 PM   #12
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A challenge to Boyd and Helen

I guess I didn't make myself clear, Boyd. Mike is not going to have Boyd O. or Helen B. show up and fix the lighting for the video shoot he is doing with the students, so he needs the co-operation of whomever is the lighting director of the stage production. We all agree that the cameras should have the iris locked, and the white balance pre-set, but this is to no avail if the key is 2.8 one moment and then 5.6 the next. The audience may not be aware of the difference, but the cameras certainly will be, if they are set at 2.8. This is what I mean by being in "balance." And if you approach the lighting designer with this kind of problem, and he turns a deaf ear, then he is a "villain" as far as you are concerned. Likewise if one spot is a different color than the other(s). Not uncommon for low budget productions, similar to Mike's situation.

Of course, you have to be able to explain your problem in terms other than, "the picture's too hot." That really means nothing to a lighting designer who likes his own work. For instance, Mike said that the faces bloomed in front of the black background. That could be either an exposure problem on Mike's part, or a balance problem if that particular scene is two stops hotter than the rest of the show. Won't do any good to set exposure to this scene, if the next lighting cue drops the overall key by two stops. This can happen easily if in the first look the spot lights are the key source, and in the next cue the stage lights become the key source, as the spots go out. A similar situation can happen with white balance: in the first scene the uncorrected spot lights key at 5600K, and the next cue the spots go out leaving you with 3200K as the source. Without the co-operation of the lighting director, you are swimming against the tide.

I have an idea. The following is a rather lengthy response I wrote awhile back to someone who wanted to shoot a stage show with multiple cameras on consecutive evenings. It certainly is not the final word, and maybe you and Helen can add your own comments and corrections, and turn it into an article for DVinfo on "How to shoot a live show." This question comes up a couple of times a year, and it would be nice to have a reference to point to. Whaddayathink?

Here is my post:

Multiple cameras on multiple evenings is the right idea. I'm just going to bang out ideas, and you can make of them what you will.

Let's say you have three cameras each night. On the first night you need to set your white balance and exposure for the shows. You will not change these items unless something very dramatic happens. You cannot be responsible for the lighting, so you are at the mercy of the stage crew. Before the show, get the three cameras close together not too far from the stage. Ask the lighting director to give you a "key" light center stage, at the show level. Tell him you are setting your exposure and white balance to this level and hope he will maintain it throughout the show. This light should be color corrected to 3200K. If not, you will have some differences in the light as people move around the stage. Not your problem. White balance to his show light. No colored lights, please. OK. White balance and set exposure for the three cameras. Error on the side of slight overexposure. Now, leave the exposure and white balance alone. Do not be fiddling during the show, or you will have hell to pay in post. If the lighting seems dark, hey, that's what the lighting director wanted. If all the lights suddenly go blue, same thing. You have an advantage in that you know some of these players and they will hopefully cooperate with you. Talk to them now, and if they don't understand something, let me know. The big thing is to correct all spot lights to 3200K, and to maintain a consistent key light level.

Now position each camera for the show. For the first night I would position one camera very wide to show the proscenium arch, if it will have light on it. Go even wider if it looks good. After the show begins, titen this camera in to go edge to edge on the stage. Put a little audience in the bottom of the frame.Leave it. This is your fallback. At the end of an act, or the show, widen back to see the proscenium again, and the standing ovation.

See if you can place a second camera in the center of the audience about eye level. If not, go for behind that last row. Use this camera to follow the action in group shots, panning with the performers. What you are doing with the cameras is learning the show this first night. Don't worry about mistakes, as you have two more nights. If you have a third camera, it can be close to the number two camera, or somewhere else where it can get closer shots, such as waist shots. This should be the best operator, as he/she will have to worry about focus and framing more than the other two, and have a great sense for musical theatre. Be sure to check that the camera's have enough lens for the position. Can they get tight enough?

If there is any way, you can rent a wireless p.l. system, such as RTS, it would be great. Someone who knows the show could be cueing you as to what is coming next, for instance, "Willie enters from camera left, to center stage, and sings, crossing to girl stage right on chorus." If it is not too loud in the house you might get away with walkie talkies with an earpiece. The show's stage manager is a possible contender for this role.

Next night, more of the same. Bring the wide camera down into the house if everything went well the night before. Number two camera can stay as is. Now the operators should know the show better and can clean up some moves. Same with the close up camera. Start getting more bold. Could try tightening with the music on some shots. Number one camera down in the house now also shooting tighter coverage. (you can finesse these to the show's requirements) Just don't try to get every little nuance, cause it ain't gonna happen. Cover your butt. Don't place cameras at oblique angles that look into the wings and see nothing but black and stagehands. After each performance talk about what you got and what you missed. Its OK to shoot the same coverage over. Sometimes you get better performance. Remember KISS.
Tape changes. Would be nice if they have an act break that you could change during. Otherwise, try to schedule during a big production number where you would be on a wide shot from that Number one camera the first night. He could shut down for a couple minutes early, then start up again so he had enough tape to cover the change. A tape change should take less than a minute. Everyone should know when the change is to take place. You can also stagger the tape changes so only one camera is down at a time.

Audio is a real problem. It would be great if you could get a house feed to at least two of the cameras, and stagger their tape changes so you get the entire show. The third camera could have a feed from a mic down center close to the stage. Good luck riding the gain. This would also give you audience applause, which the house will not cover. I would not be too concerned about stereo, unless you get a lot of help from the house. You can create some stereo effects in post. Hopefully you can hand off the audio to someone else who knows their stuff. Be prepared to tape down mic cables to the floor for safety. You can use that duct tape you bought for homeland security.

Cameras placed in the audience should be set on a tripod low enough that they don't interfere with people seated behind, but high enough to avoid heads in the foreground, until they pull back wide to see them. One seat is plenty of room for one camera. If the house has two aisles, a camera in or near the aisle usually works well. Honor the fire marshall. He's the boss.

If you get a chance, it is always nice to have one or two cameras shoot the audience applauding, but usually the light falls off dramatically past the first couple of rows. Remember the possibility of a standing ovation. Pan shots are great for bows. Also good during big chorus numbers.

You need a good tripod if you have to do pans at the longest focal length your camera can provide. Check it before the event. This is more difficult. Most zoom lenses are subject to an anamoly called portholing; that is, at the very last couple of millimeters of the zoom range, when the lens is wide open, or close to it, you will see the picture quality degrade, as the lens is "starving for light" these last couple of clicks. But I don't think you will have this problem if they are using good spotlights. You will know when you set your exposure as per my suggestions above. Anything at 2.8 or lower can be trouble.

You might want to have a small flashlight if the house is especially dark, for changing tapes and checking camera settings.
Stay away from filters.

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Old December 21st, 2003, 10:16 AM   #13
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Wow - Thanks to all who have contributed. Using the equipment I'm using and the rather small end production of my wife's community theater group, what we have is certainly not PBS quality, but "good 'nuff".

Thanks to the ideas provided from those of you with more experience, I hope to move from good 'nuff to pretty good next time out.

I'm putting together this ability bases on very low budget. Unfortunately I got spoiled - The first time I did this years ago, I borrowed all sorts of gear and people to make it come together. (3 pro betacams, 1 pro svhs, grass valley switcher, the head camera operator for the local CBS affiliate, the sports photog for the local Fox affiliate, and 2 professional camera ops from my office) We mastered to BetaSP. All in all, I had about $100,000 worth of someone elses gear!

I'm now trying to duplicate this champagne production with a koolade budget, and using amateur camera ops to boot!

Thanks again and please keep the ideas coming!
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Old December 24th, 2003, 12:04 PM   #14
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I shoot live events often. From multi-camera recordings with the budget to do it correctly to those crazy ones that want you to do I-mag with just one camera, no thanks. I must say my experience is not in theater, it is in corporate AV. We do, however share many of the same problems.

Just a few thoughts on working with lighting directors:

Half the time, for me, it is back to that old story about how you approach them, how well you understand their position, and how well you explain your needs.

Lighting boards are configured much like audio boards. For example, very few lights are ever run at 100%, the key lights or brightest lights are set to 80%, everything else that is used to design the look is brought down from there to attain all of that color and contrast.

With that in mind, if you approach a LD and tell him his key light is too bright and ask him to bring it down you will get nowhere, that is the equivalent of asking the sound engineer to turn down the volume, it aint going to happen. If you approach the LD and explain that you have a contrast problem and ask him if it would be possible to increase the levels in the dark areas that you know are causing you so much trouble you may find that same LD to be much more cooperative because he has so much more he can work with from the bottom up and not touch his key lighting.

Boyd, this the AV world, is it similar in theater?
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Old December 24th, 2003, 02:48 PM   #15
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<<<-- Originally posted by Steven Digges : Lighting boards are configured much like audio boards. For example, very few lights are ever run at 100%, the key lights or brightest lights are set to 80% <stuff deleted> Boyd, this the AV world, is it similar in theater? -->>>

I think your assumptions about light boards and lighting design are way off the mark. It would be absurd to generalize about what sort of levels are used. When we set lighting levels we just run things up and down until it looks good, there is no real method to the madness. Then during rehearsals we adjust, making things brighter or darker. Many lights will end up at 100%, plenty of others will be at 20%. Also remember that gel color has a lot to do with intensity. A light with R80 (primary blue) gel will probably run at 100% most of the time, since incandescent light has very little blue in it to start out with.

Everything except the cheapest "church basement theatre" will have a computer controlled light board these days, and hundreds of lights are used (probably between 250 to 350 in one of our shows, which are relatively modest in the world of large opera companies). Light cues are created that record the intensity of each light along with a fade time and possibly other information. Creating these cues is a time-consuming proposition, and it's very expensive since many union crew members are needed. It isn't all that easy to change these recorded cues at the last minute, and we lighting designers get more spooked about making changes the closer we get to opening, since we're afraid the change may have an unexpected consequence that will create a new problem. It's the old "if it ain't broke don't fix it" syndrome.

Now if videotaping the show is something that's planned and discussed from the very beginning you may find that the lighting designer is cooperative. But you had better be at all the level setting sessions and rehearsals to provide some input. Now if you just show up on the night of the show, or at the final dress rehearsal, and ask the LD to start changing levels then I would expect a less than friendly response.

It doesn't matter whether it's a large professional company, a school or community theatre. The lighting designer puts a lot of thought and effort into setting levels that work well and balance the overall stage picture. It's not reasonable to expect them to start changing things for you at the last minute.

You also have to remember that the LD will be looking at the entire stage picture as it's seen my someone (typically) halfway back in the auditorium. It's their function to direct the audience's focus to the important part of the stage. This will probably be at odds with your priorities when shooting video, where the camera is used to direct the audience's focus.

Now that doesn't mean that you can't get good results, but I think you'll get much farther by learning how to effectively use your camera's manual controls, and how to improve the picture in post, than you will in trying to convince the lighting designer to change their cues.

Now for my own part, since I'm shooting video of my own lighting designs these days, I have become more aware of some of the issues. This will be in the back of my mind as I light the show, but frankly it isn't a priority. That would be rather misguided since maybe 15,000 people are going to see the live stage show and the archive video is just for our own internal use.
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