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Old March 18th, 2010, 04:42 PM   #1
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Are all theatre lighting designers dim?

Just back from filming another theatre gig, this time a dance display.

Is there some convention in theatre lighting that prevents lighting designers/operators from EVER turning ANYTHING full up? The is the umpteenth time I've had to crank up the gain on my XH-A1 to capture a show.

I had said (as always) to the youthful lighting operator "remember - you are lighting for video as well as the audience. Do whatever you want (not my department) but KEEP IT BRIGHT!"

So after 5 minutes of 1/2 max on the master fader (I was on the rear camera just outside the lighting box) I went in to turn the damn thing up myself. Is noir in fashion on stage at the moment or what?

I'm not really just ranting. I don't have much experience of theatre lighting design, so it's a genuine question. Is it considered bad form to use lights full up or what?
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Old March 18th, 2010, 05:58 PM   #2
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It's considered REALLY bad form to touch a board you're not responsible for.

The lighting designer of a show, is in charge of the look. He works in collaboration with the director - to achieve the DIRECTOR'S vision of how the show is supposed to look to the audience IN THE THEATRE.

I don't know what agreement you had with the producer of the concert - it's possible you came to some sort of agreement well in advance of the show - that the design was to incorporate enough illumination to provide for video - if that's the case, then it should have become apparent in the dress rehearsal you attended before hand, no?

Theatre lighting can often be 'low' - the human eye being much more sensitive than the chips in your camera obviously. Additionally, your 'night vision' is impared by staring at a bright viewfinder,while everyone else is looking at a wider field of view on the stage. You are not seeing what the audience is seeing nor are you experiencing what they are experiencing.

The lighting designer's primary objective is to illuminate the stage and focus attention appropriately. He can also set or enhance mood with choice of color and intensity.

In short - unless you had some sort of agreement beforehand - and you were able to test it at dress rehearsal - I think adjusting his board was bad form. (Not to mention distracting to the dancers)
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Old March 18th, 2010, 10:43 PM   #3
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I just recently finished my second dance film. It is not just the live theater lighting directors, it seems to be people in dance, in general, like to have the dancers lit at a very low level. I kept trying to explain to the directors of the film that we could lower levels in post and yet both directors kept goading me that "the picture is too bright". Try as I might, I could not make either of them understand that "we can take the levels down in post, but if we underexpose the image, you will have a grainy, muddy and ugly picture." Neither film was a performance for a live audience, we were shooting strictly for the film. In spite of what I thought were too low levels, the first film has done well, won some awards and is playing in dance film festivals all over the world, I think it is playing in Tokyo in April. Thankfully, the dancers, direction and concept were pretty good, but it looked grainy and underexposed in several scenes.

I shot one of these films on the HVX200. The HVX200 looks terrible when underexposed, really grainy and muddy. The second film I shot on my HPX170 and it looked better but the director kept making me turn down my dimmer board, trying to make it "moody", he could not understand that he was really just making it look, "crappy", not moody. Now, in post, when he is having to really color correct, I think it is finally dawning on him that perhaps he should have listened to me. As a DP, I will usually give the director what I think that they want but in these cases, we really need to push to give them what they need, not what they want. They need a properly exposed "negative", it is childs play to lower levels in post, crush the blacks, simple. But if you have a crappy, grainy image, nothing you can do in post is going to make that picture look good.

If I shoot another dance film, it will be on my 5D MKII. No external monitor and my Z-Finder in place, I can expose the picture for how it should be lit. Ha, ha!

Dan
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Old March 19th, 2010, 06:07 AM   #4
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The 1/3" HD cameras are rather poor at lower lighting levels. Even shooting on film it has become common to shoot on higher ISO ratings than you find on these cameras. Theatre lighting levels may have got lower, I remember on some productions shooting at 100 ASA with a T3 lens, although it could be marginal and you could need to force a stop. The last theatre piece I shot on a Z1 it had 6db gain - not helped by the aperture ramping.
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Old March 19th, 2010, 12:48 PM   #5
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As Richard said, the Lighting Director doesn't care about your video he cares about what the Director and Producer(s) of the show want to present. I do several stage shows a year and one of the things you have to deal with is low levels of lighting and very high levels of contrast. Your camera, especially a 1/3" HD camera, is going to have limited sensitivity especially compared to the human eye.

Most theater productions (including dance productions) are all about mood. There will be a lot of scenes or dances that will provide almost no light as far as your camera is concerned. You do the best you can in those cases or get a more sensitive camera. remember that the audience is in a dark theater so their eyes are going to adjust and to them the light levels seems perfectly fine. By cranking up the lights all that will happen is a huge amount of spill and then the audience and areas that the director doesn't want lit will become noticeable.

If you are going to continue to shoot theatrical shows you're going to have to learn to live with it. Again, I'm sure the lighting tech doesn't give a damn about you or your video. He takes direction from the Lighting Designer and Director of the production. I'm sure he got chewed out because you turned up the lights and hopefully his director understood that he didn't do it on his own. It still was his fault because he did let you turn them up. If it were me at the board I would have very sternly told you that if you had an issue to take it up with the director and have the director instruct me to turn up the lights.

Also as Richard mentioned it is very bad form to touch equipment that is not yours or that you have not been made responsible for. I know many producers and directors who would black list you for doing what you did and would never allow you to film one of their productions again.

Dan was facing a much different situation. I've done some theatrical performances that were specifically set up for film production. In those cases I was able to convince the directors (and sometimes the more difficult person to convince was the choreographer) that it will look the way they want in the end if they just trust me. Of course it took me doing test footage for them to prove that it would look like what they wanted.

I use to shoot with a Canon XL H1a and XH A1 and have since moved to a Sony EX3. The 1/2" sensor makes a world of difference.

Garrett
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Old March 19th, 2010, 01:57 PM   #6
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OK, that's all helpful.

Richard and Garrett, you are right of course but the situation was not quite as I may have let it appear.

The show was in a school theatre. Sound, video and lighting assistance was called in by the organisers of the dance event at short notice. There was no lighting plan and no rehearsal with lighting. I spoke to the young man who had the lighting dumped on him and explained that as the lights had not been set, he would have to do the best with what was there but keep it as bright as possible because of the video. He agreed, then promptly forgot, or ignored it. He was not present at the placing brief rehearsal in the afternoon.

I had put on some lighting at the organisers' request for the placing rehearsal/run through so the dancers had already tried out on stage with the lighting turned fairly far up. At night when the lighting operator took over, there were areas of the stage (and some of the dancers) unlit at times. It looked to me that they were actually being adversely affected by the low levels of illumination, and it was much less bright than when I had operated the lights earlier. So I wasn't be completely selfish in intervening.

I know how I react if someone attempted to butt in on a sound desk that I am operating, and would certainly not interfere with lighting in a normal theatre situation.

Dan, that is a useful insight. In filming musicals and plays, I have found there are occasional problems where it is just too dark for my cameras, but have learned to live with it as the lighting design is effective for the audience. I do try to explain that if the production is to be filmed successfully, then video needs must be considered.

Brian and Garrett again, I know the XH-A1 is not at its best under these conditions. I keep my gains at -3, 0 and +6dB and hope not to have to use the +6 but it seem to be needed more and more often.

Unlike professional productions, in amateur or educational circles unfortunately it can't be assumed that everyone else always knows their stuff, or even that there are always the clearly defined roles that exist in theatres. I've had to intervene when well meaning but inexperienced choreographers have had the chorus singing with their backs to the audience and the director was giving the chorus and the sound desk a hard time because the volume of the singing dropped. Another regular occurrence is expecting scenery to be shifted and actors to go on/off stage in pitch blackness. Health and safety wins over art in that scenario.

Thanks for the advice, though, I have a better understanding of the situation.

Believe me, I would be quite happy not to have to regularly bail out productions who decide at the last moment that they need a sound system/audio recording/video and haven't factored it in to the production. Being blacklisted from these gigs seems quite attractive actually.
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Old March 19th, 2010, 02:29 PM   #7
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Hi Colin,

I totally feel for you regarding the school situation. I often do either local dance studios or school plays/productions. They actually can be pretty lucrative since very body want's to have a video of their little Johnny or Jenny doing their bid performance so I put up with the frustration level and production challenges.

Please don't take what I posted harshly. I've just had my fair share of run ins with various directors or producers and mostly it's the smaller groups or high school director who is the most problem. I think it's because they don't have a good idea of the differences and what is needed to get good video. They see these shows that are produced for TV or Video and don't know that the performance they are seeing was specifically lit for filming purposes.

the Canons (XL or XH cams) can actually do OK with low light. Not great but when I did use them I could get some really great footage. As you noted, the biggest problem is with really dark areas.

One dance recital I shot was in the high school theater. The stage lighting was extremely uneven and they just left the back, black curtain as a backdrop. No back lighting at all (and they wondered why all there numbers looked so drab). It was an oriental themed ballet recital. The dancer had extremely shinning outfits (all super shimmery silk) and their makeup was very white in the oriental opera style. At one point they did a number where the dancers had these dimly lit lanterns and all other lights were turned off. Then about half way through the number the dance went from slow to very fast and they would blast every light on the stage. I had a horrible time trying to control the cameras and I thought they were going to burn the retinas of the audience.

As far as being blacklisted I'd rather just turn a job down. If I know the stress level is going to to be too high or if the group won't work with me to the point where the end product will look horrible, I'll just graciously decline to film them. I've discovered it's not work putting out something that is going to reflect poorly on the work that you can do.

Garrett
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Old March 20th, 2010, 05:53 PM   #8
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I can assure you that although you can get away with tampering with a school lads lighting, if you did that in a professional venue you'd be thrown out!

Quote:
I don't have much experience of theatre lighting design
I don't suppose the theatre sound man does video, or the stage manager knows much about recording studios either!

As a Lighting Designer, it has nothing whatsoever to do with brightness. In fact, a single actor staring into a candle flame with the stage lighting out looks bright to the audience, where as a full up state can look dull and not bright at all!

Painting with light is a good description of what a designer actually does. It reveals form, it creates emotion, it stimulates and can reveal truth or release tension - it's ART!

It is not about providing enough light for a video. It can be, of course, and when I light for video I ask for a monitor - then, and only then can I see what the cameras can. So you have to crank up your gain, and suck it up!

Yesterday I did another dance show myself, 3 cameras and a wobblycam - and loads of saturated colour flashing away and lots of shadows and even a few truly dark patches. The pictures are great - one camera with a long lens at the back needed some gain, but the others were fine.

As for asking the lighting op to reprogramme and change what he did (which was rather good, I thought) - I wouldn't have the cheek - it would be an insult!

600 people got a good show, I doubt they will sell 600 DVDs.

Oh yes - these 600 people also paid. when I do TV work in theatre where we do have TV lighting and cameras getting in the way, and the product will be sold or broadcast - they get in for free!

Sorry to be so cross, but it does make me really angry that video people seem to assume that they are so important and it is so obvious that "do anything you want, but keep it bright" is impossible. If it is bright it is boring and from the lighting perspective, a failure.

How would we feel if the stage manager didn't let any of the cameras be placed in the best shooting position.

You can bully a schoolkid - but when I get this kind of request from a video crew, who frequently can't be bothered to go to a rehearsal because they don't get paid for that! - they get what I think I can get away with. And if this means the number starts with gloom that grows as the music develops, then that's how it stays. It's quite unprofessional to change lighting between rehearsal and performance, it unsettles everyone.

As for taking over other departments equipment yourself - that's unprofessional, unforgivable and patronising.

Sorry for the harsh words, but this stinks.
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Old March 20th, 2010, 07:39 PM   #9
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Thanks for your reply, Paul. Certainly food for thought there.

I may have convinced you that I am an arrogant b......, but at least I did ask advice from more knowledgeable participants on this forum.

I have filmed shows with 4 cameras successfully under similar conditions to the situation you describe, but in the case which was the subject of my post to the best of my knowledge the video was requested before the lighting was even considered. So my excuse is this was a show which I was asked to video, then the lighting made my job much more difficult. There was no great lighting mood plan, in fact no thought put in to anything other than the actual dance routines.

I agree that your "harsh words" may be justified - but I went to the rehearsal, the lighting guy didn't, in fact I had to run his lights for him - not quite the usual scenario I hope you will agree. It wasn't I who changed the lighting between the rehearsal and the show!

In over 40 years of working in theatres as band musician, musical director, sound mixer, sound designer, and more recently camera operator, DOP, director, producer and Uncle Tom Cobley, one area that I managed to avoid having to think much about until now is theatre lighting. I thank you sincerely for sharing your views. If I hadn't been prepared to learn from others more experienced in this area then I wouldn't have asked for advice.

Sorry - being naughty here but can't resist this
Quote:
How would we feel if the stage manager didn't let any of the cameras be placed in the best shooting position.
Try asking that on the wedding forum!
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Old March 21st, 2010, 04:32 AM   #10
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I suspect the only way you can ask the lighting designer to increase the lighting levels is when you're filming a non public performance set up for the production. During a public performance you usually have to work their levels and you have to ensure that your camera is capable of shooting at those levels.

Dark areas need fill light, but you can't do that with the public present. Anyway, if there's no dramatic action in the dark areas of the stage, why worry? Just let it fall off into darkness.
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Old March 21st, 2010, 06:03 PM   #11
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Colin - thanks for not exploding. No offence meant, but I've been lighting theatre shows all my life, and been recording them since the mid 90s - and this just comes up from time to time.

Bryan hails from Belfast, and I've been involved with a couple of big productions there at the Opera House that have been shot for TV. The house crew there are quite used to the BBC showing up, and having to come in on their day off at 7/8AM to spend the morning adding extra lighting to the two hundred grands worth already up in the air. The Lighting Designer spent three days in rehearsal setting the looks he wanted for the show, my role being the production/company manager, paying for it all! (Luckily with somebody else's money, of course!)

The TV LD comes in, sits with the show lighting op and then adds to each look to help the cameras. The result, on screen looks great. Sitting in the audience - yuk!

In schools, certainly in the UK, it's quite common for lighting to be dreadful. Very often the 'head of technical' is 15 and keen, but a bit clueless - so I know how things probably were.

I grabbed a couple of stills from a college dance show to show the other snag - moody lighting that doesn't work on video (as in this topic) plus wearing black clothes against black backgrounds - something that for me is even worse - they just don't stand out!

In this case, it wasn't actually dim lighting - it was chases - red, blue and gold lighting, flashed in sequence - but because only a third is ever on, it is dim, and if the incoming lights are slow, then the gaps between are even darker. It looks good, but dreadful on camera.

The only proper way to cure it is to integrate the video elements much earlier. A very difficult job.
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Old March 21st, 2010, 07:19 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by Paul R Johnson View Post
Painting with light is a good description of what a designer actually does. It reveals form, it creates emotion, it stimulates and can reveal truth or release tension - it's ART!

It is not about providing enough light for a video. It can be, of course, and when I light for video I ask for a monitor - then, and only then can I see what the cameras can. So you have to crank up your gain, and suck it up!
Now if ONLY we could get someone with your talent at lighting AND diplomacy to explain to clients why the video doesn't look like the stage play/dance did...

I used to do dance recitals and live theatre and would kindly ask the lighting tech AND lighting director AND director to turn up the stage lights "just a smidge" in technical rehearsal so at least when the video was darkish I would at least have something to fall back on in terms of "I asked and was told no by these three people".

Sigh... when cameras are actually made using human eye surrogates as imagers this will all go away...

And thanks for the input Paul.
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Old March 21st, 2010, 08:54 PM   #13
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Ah yes, black against black. Wonderful! Now if they would just use black makeup and black stockings we could simply shoot with the lens cap on.

Had to shoot an event once - the whole group wore black suits with white shirts, the stage floor was black, the backdrop was black. the chairs and risers were black. Looked like little white triangles topped with faces and holding instruments on the video. Looked OK to the audience however.
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Old March 22nd, 2010, 04:56 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by Paul R Johnson View Post
Bryan hails from Belfast, and I've been involved with a couple of big productions there at the Opera House that have been shot for TV. The house crew there are quite used to the BBC showing up, and having to come in on their day off at 7/8AM to spend the morning adding extra lighting to the two hundred grands worth already up in the air. The Lighting Designer spent three days in rehearsal setting the looks he wanted for the show, my role being the production/company manager, paying for it all! (Luckily with somebody else's money, of course!)

The TV LD comes in, sits with the show lighting op and then adds to each look to help the cameras. The result, on screen looks great. Sitting in the audience - yuk!
On those occasions the audience is usually regarded as extras by the TV company. You also can have cameras in the front of some audience members and Jimmy Jibs floating around.
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Old March 22nd, 2010, 05:18 AM   #15
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probably not dim just uncooperative.

Alan
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