Amongst the multitude of reality talent shows being produced today, none has the breadth of performers as America's Got Talent. From a musical duet, to a gravity-defying human puppet show, America's Got Talent showcases it all. Behind the scenes, lighting designer Kieran Healy is tasked with creating a design that can not only handle such a variance in performances, but also support the live HD broadcast. To do this, Healy relies on automated fixtures from Philips Vari-Lite, including 24 VLX Wash luminaires provided by PRG.
“On this show, you have to be prepared for anything and everything,” began Healy. “Some performers will want fast and exciting, while others will want the lighting to be subtle so as not to distract those onstage. But no matter what, it has to look good on camera. This show definitely runs the full gamut of lighting.”
As one of the pioneers in lighting concerts for a live television broadcast, Healy first moved into TV studio lighting in the mid-1980's. At that time, camera technology was nowhere near what it is today, but with the majority of live broadcasts now being sent in HD, what was needed from the lighting rig when he first began is not necessarily what is needed today.
“It mystifies me that lighting instruments keep getting brighter. Cameras are getting so good at picking up detail in low light that bigger and brighter instruments are just not needed anymore.”
Healy has been the lighting designer for America's Got Talent since its debut in June 2006. Now in their 5th season, he has developed a consistent design plan for how the lighting comes to life during the “Final 48” round of competition in Hollywood.
“The design phase really starts with the set layout and camera locations which will ultimately define the parameters of the design. With typically 12-17 camera locations throughout the theatre, all angles have to be considered. If the director wants to cut to a wide shot of the theatre, a backstage shot of the host, or a close-up of the judges, we have to have the lighting to support the shot. Unlike other projects where a designer simply focuses on lighting the performance, we have to light all possible shots for a live broadcast. To do this, I count on reliable instruments and a great crew; Joshua Hutchings, Matthew McAdam, Darren Webb, George Harvey, Don Winters, and Steve Olenicjak. You really are only as good as your crew so my advice to anyone starting in this business is to surround yourself with the very best people”
Once Healy and his team have the lighting angles covered and possible shots clearly defined, they then move into the programming phase for the design. With so many different genres of talent being represented on the show, it is here that Healy faces his next challenge to balance an interesting and captivating lighting design with the needs of the performer.
“As a designer, I have creative freedom but I also have to remain responsible to the performer and their performance. An animal act will not want lighting that frightens or excites the animals, whereas a fire-eater will want the lighting to be energetic and powerful. We really have to take into consideration who the performer is and how we can best make it look great for TV. To do this, we need the lighting to be able to pull off many looks and this is why I chose the VARI*LITE fixtures.”
In his lighting design, Healy is using the VLX Wash, VL3000 Spot, VL6 Spot, VL2500 Spot, and the VL1000 Arc luminaires.
“I typically use the VL1000 fixtures for key lighting on the judges because of the great arc color temperature and their shutter capabilities. I am then using the VL3000 Spots for their intense beam and colors, and the VL2500 Spots for their pattern break-ups on stage. But my favorite light in this design would have to be the VLX Wash, I have seen colors and hues in this unit that are simply unavailable in any other instrument. I first saw the VLX during a product demo on the set of American Idol and I was immediately blown away with the fixtures color saturation, smoothness of beam, and the beautiful light that it produces.”
With 24 VLX Wash luminaires hanging in his rig for America's Got Talent, Healy is using them as the main wash fixture for his design. Just as he foresaw it would be during the original product demo, the VLX Wash luminaire is proving Healy correct by exceeding and crushing all previous expectations of LED lighting.
“I love the beautiful range of rich color that the VLX produces. Plus, it has a great flat field which is very important for TV. There are no hotspots and it has great beam size control. Simply put, the VLX Wash is a very useful light for all lighting designers.”
As the VLX Wash continues to make its way into lighting designs for high-definition broadcasts, Healy is proud to once again be a pioneer in the lighting industry; this time with the introduction of useful LED lighting for television.
“In the past, our experience with LED lighting was that it was not ready for primetime TV. We had used them for black-hole fillers, but had never actually used them in a practical sense. The VLX Wash is ready for primetime and it's exciting that the technology is finally here.”