The set design of production house Pyramedia's Prince of Poets and Million's Poet programmes demonstrate the importance of lighting technology in broadcast production. Digital Studio spoke with the lighting design and operating team behind these productions.
With US $270,000 up for grabs and contestants performing for five scrutinising judges, a studio audience and millions of viewers across the Gulf, you would think it impossible to add to the tense atmosphere inside Abu Dhabi's Al Raha theatre.
However, that is exactly the challenge handed to Pyramedia's lighting design team. As a lighting designer and production manager working in the live events sector, Nigel Holbrough has gained vast experience of the pressures associated with operating lighting rigs for live performances.
Paul Nancollas has 10 years experience in broadcast engineering and another 10 years as a lighting director including a stint with ITN's flagship programme, The News at Ten, in the UK.
More recently the pair has been working together on Pyramedia's Million's Poet series, combining their experience of the two industries.
"There is a lot of crossover between lighting for concerts and events and the Million's Poet install, largely because it is broadcast live from a theatre," claims Holbrough.
"From a lighting control and operation point of view, it's the same thing. There are scheduled operations you know you want to happen, things that will be led by a visual or verbal cue and other action you have to take to cover something totally unexpected."
Holbrough points out that lighting a theatre production only involves lighting for the benefit of the audience, whereas for TV a host of possible viewing angles and camera positions must be considered.
The Million's Poet set includes a desk for the panel of judges who face the stage and have their backs to the audience. This immediately alters the dynamics of the lighting set-up.
"We have had to put some light into the audience because they appear in the reverse shot with the judges. Also if the camera wants to take a reaction shot of the audience, they need to be sufficiently lit. In a traditional theatre show, however, you are unlikely to ever light the audience," claims Holbrough.
Nancollas adds that the steadicam can go anywhere these days. "As a result, we have actually had to light the backs of all the sets in case the camera crews wander back there," he says.
The sets for both the Poets shows incorporate a large numbers of LEDs. This technology has progressed from its early use as a low resolution display screen to a far more flexible prospect, offering video quality graphics and sophisticated effects in almost any shape or configuration desired.
"We have 2500 LED fixtures in the stage design, each with 10 diodes. That's 25,000 individual points of light. 95% of them are from Schnick-Schnack Systems. They are brilliant, they are high brightness, coherent LEDs and are so small you just see the overall colour, you don't see a red, green and a blue one, just a dot in the colour you programmed," says Nancollas, who is also the lighting designer for the Prince of Poets programme.
The strips of LEDs line window frames in the fort-shaped set with broader groupings of fixtures used to provide borders and other patterns on the studio floor.
Each fixture is connected to the lighting control desk, which sends a video feed enabling smooth, coherent moving patterns to course across the surface of the set.
"Because the lighting surface can be used in such a broken up shape, rather than just as a rectangular block, you generally feed it abstract shapes and animations. These can be as lively or mellow as you wish and in the colour of your choice. You can feed the larger surfaces an image, such as a photograph and it remains coherent," says Holbrough.
"When you start integrating LEDs into a set, the level of collaboration between the lighting designer and the set designer goes through a quantum leap. Previously, the set designer would create a set and you would view it as a 3D shape to be lit. Your lighting was there to mute or highlight that shape. Once you introduce LEDs, the set becomes a source of light in itself that is being controlled by the lighting control desk. That means you have to collaborate more deeply, and from a much earlier stage, with the set designers in terms of what the end product is going to do in conceptual terms. You also have to discuss the physical practicalities of how you are going to incorporate the lights into the stage."
Nancollas agrees wholeheartedly with this sentiment.
"The lighting director and the vision engineer sit next to one another in the studio for a reason; it's a symbiotic relationship now. There is no point in me turning the lights down on the set if he is going to have the cameras close their iris. We have to be in cahoots," he adds.
Prior to beginning work on a set, Holbrough and Nancollas work through a checklist provided by the show's production, of all the elements that will require a dedicated lighting design.
"We start with the Al Hosn Palace themed set, we give it a mood, that mood needs to be able to change. It has to suit the recitation part of the shows, then while the competitors are being critiqued, the mood has to change again and the focus must switch to the panel of judges. When the audience votes and the tension is mounting in the theatre, the lighting must alter to reflect that feel," explains Holbrough.
The choice on offer from LED-based installs also permits far greater flexibility than was previously available from traditional fixtures. One studio installation can be used for various purposes and provide greater versatility than a lighting rig based entirely on traditional bulb fixtures is able to supply.
"They are so cheap you can put a lot into a set and still afford redundancy. You can say, today we'll just use the ones on the outside of the set, next show we'll use a videowall then we'll use a video floor. Getting a ladder out in order to move lights around now seems prehistoric," says Nancollas.
In addition to being broadcast live, the shows are also re-cut for trailers, highlights and follow-up programmes.
This means that a heightened level of consistency must be achieved in the lighting scheme, a concern that is not as pressing in the live events sector.
This is not difficult to accomplish given the permanent nature of the Poets series' lighting installations however.
As well as no longer having to physically alter a lighting rig to configure a new set-up, the video driven LED content also allows for a more dynamic approach during filming.
"If you want to create different moods, instead of programming thousands and thousands of elements you can use Final Cut Pro or After Effects software. You choose some of the lighting elements and some fantastic pictures and just play it out as video. Your graphics can go from conception to appearing on stage in just a matter of minutes," explains Nancollas.
Although the nature of light produced by LED technology means they are unable to throw a beam of light in the same way as a regular spotlight, the technology has advanced to a point now, where it is of additional use to broadcasters and can produce better image results on-camera than previously possible.
"Used up-close in a chat studio, newsroom or in an interview situation, where your distance from the light source to the target is less than 10m, there are now LED products that can replace the traditional tungsten key lighting used now. LEDs used to produce a very monochromatic light and if this narrow band of wavelengths was not compatible with the CCD or whatever pick up the camera was using then you could not achieve natural colours in the shot. Camera technology is now a lot more forgiving and LEDs are now capable of providing a much smoother colour rendition. The combination of these two factors has boosted the use of LEDs in the broadcast industry," explains Holbrough.
Nancollas points out that modern camera technology also allows them to turn down the brightness, something he looks to exploit in order to gain a better overall visual for the show.
"We try to keep light levels below 1000 lumens. I don't want to give the CCU operator an easy time shooting at F4.6 or 5.2. Then everything is in focus and it tends to look rather boring. We want to make the cameras shoot below F3 to throw everything out of focus and make the look far more interesting. It's not so distracting this way, if someone is at the front of the image performing, we look to create certain elements of stress to disassociate them from the background. This way the viewer can concentrate on them," says Nancollas.
Overdoing the lighting is one trap that the pair says too many lighting designers fall into with many using the latest equipment because they have it, rather than because the job needs it.
"This is a cultural show, it's produced by Pyramedia for the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH). The set uses visual elements of Abu Dhabi's oldest building, Al Hosn Palace, which is obviously of high cultural significance. You have to respect this," notes Nancollas.
"You can't just install moving lights everywhere and make it pink and red and green and turn it into a disco. You have to produce something that reflects the cultural aesthetic of the show. Sometimes it's not about what you do, but about what you don't do."