Reality Check: Lighting Reality-TV


When asked what was the most unusual challenge he had encountered as lighting director of Trista & Ryan's Wedding, Darren Langer pauses for a moment. As with all reality TV programming, there are several to consider. There was all that rooftop trussing (thirty 20' verticals) to install atop The Lodge at Rancho Mirage in Palm Springs, CA, where the couple tied the knot in a luxurious ceremony that cost ABC almost $4 million to mount. There were the wrangles and tangles with producers and cameramen, but these, lighting crewmembers note, come with the territory. Perhaps it was the blistering pace, which lighting designer Oscar Dominguez, who shared wedding duty with Langer, likens to “jumping onto a moving freight train”?

None of the above. Langer answers: “Trista.”

For those of you who may be seriously media-deprived, Trista Rehn is the jilted runner-up from The Bachelor who found true love on her own spin-off, The Bachelorette. “She wanted everything pink, pink, pink, pink,” Langer says, “and that's not our favorite color. It was her wedding, but, at the same time, it was a TV show.” In the wind-up, a little color correction gave her something of what she wanted and spared 17 million viewers from having to fiddle with their TV hue settings.

Such is the reality of reality TV. Since the runaway success of the first installment of Survivor in 2000, non-scripted shows thrusting average Americans into Trump Towers and tarantula pits have been blazing new trails across television. At first, lighting was not part of the bandwagon. Says Dominguez, “The producers weren't thinking in traditional TV terms; three-camera sitcom style didn't apply. It was more about just getting enough light on people's faces so they could be seen.” Notes lighting designer Bob Barnhart, whose “real-life” credits include All American Girl, Blind Date, and Iron Chef America, “Producers of these shows have to have a feel for what's going on as the situations develop and go with them, and the lighting can't go with them that fast, not as quickly as a camera can move. But a hand-held light mounted on a camera is always going to come out looking like the TV news.” Visually, that's a little too much reality, even for the big fat obnoxious fiancé.

As many of these shows climax with an elaborate set-bound ceremony — a concert, a wedding, a firing — producers started calling designers like Dominguez and Barnhart, who specialize in lighting TV awards and music shows. To help the remainder of the programs look less like episodes of Cops, they have gradually expanded their expertise to the houses, huts, and coffins where the adventures take place. Designers and technicians say they've experienced a period of adjustment within this quirky new genre.


All American Girl, which aired last year on ABC, was a pageant-type program that began with 200 contestants. By the time Barnhart arrived, the number had been winnowed to half that, and many of the rest were eliminated in contests that took place in Disneyland and Hollywood. “All that stuff was on the fly, with me and six guys,” he recalls. “We had maybe a day's notice, as if we were doing a movie of the week. There was no time for pre-lighting so we started that day and tried to stay ahead of production. We did a survey the week before so we knew where we were going and could order the kind of generators and gear we needed, so we could start putting it together really quickly.” Reality intruded. “Then the producers looked at it on camera and decided that they wanted to move in another direction, so everything was switched.”

On the run with the all-American girls, Barnhart traveled with a generator and a 5-ton and a 3-ton grip truck loaded with fresnels and Chimera hoods for keylighting, “plus a lot of toys: Incandescent tube lighting, PARs for highlighting trees, Christmas tree lights that were hidden to give everything a glow, and China balls for soft, natural keylight.” In his natural element in the stage segments, the LD (accompanied by four followspot operators, a gaffer, a best boy, two moving light techs and a board operator) used a traditional system of Vari*Lite® VL5s, VL7s, VL1000s, and Martin MAC 2000s, plus PARs, strobes, and two boards, an ETC Obsession, and a Vari*Lite Virtuoso, sourced from VLPS Los Angeles and Fourth Phase.

A close working relationship between lighting and production personnel makes reality bearable, says production designer Steve Bass, who worked with Barnhart on studio shoots for All American Girl. “I built everything right to the grid, and Bob was still able to find space for his equipment. On a standard glamorous stage, not a gym, I had to build monkey bars and a climbing wall for an athletic competition, and the process was off-the-cuff and a little absurd. Bob's collaboration on lighting it was certainly helpful.”

Communication is at a premium on a reality shoot, but with the lighting personnel dashing from room to room as the shows run their course, there are enough humorous moments to fill a blooper reel. Says Barnhart, “The production assistants get these little digital video cameras, and they roam around to catch the behind-the-scenes action. The participants don't know what's being shot…and I have no idea what they'll look like. I'm in a room lit to my taste, and this DV cameraman will walk in and shoot from the opposite angle. Then that gets edited in and becomes part of the show. If only those segments came with a pop-up reading, ‘The lighting designer didn't know that person was standing there.’

“It's particularly tough if you're involved with team events that are happening all at once. One time, I was lighting three different dinner scenes in three separate condominiums, all very moodily, with candles. I went into one of the rooms and there was this cameraman in there who had a sun gun mounted to his camera, so it looked like the Channel 7 news. He said, ‘It's too moody.’”

Oscar Dominguez's brother, gaffer Gus Dominguez, says the programs are like marathons. “Depending on the [reality] show, it can be incredibly hectic. You find yourself running around and lighting things right to camera and rolling right at that second with no time. The creative process from the director down is so fast — the art director is putting in trees and plants, the set designer's out there throwing stuff in that needs to be lit, and we're usually the last ones to get everything done. What we hear is, ‘You've got five minutes to get out of the house, because we have eight cameras rolling, and they'll catch you and your guys in there, which ruins the reality.’”


Oscar Dominguez has clocked so many hours on Bachelor and Bachelorette programming, including a Spanish-language version of the latter for Telemundo, that he is practically the Dear Abby of reality illuminators. His career, however, has a darker side: Fear Factor, on which he has served as lighting designer since the end of its third season. “We're everywhere in LA county on that one,” he explains. “The bulk of the show is always in some really rundown, semi-abandoned warehouse that I never knew existed. For one show, where the participants were in Plexiglas coffins and had spiders poured on top of them, I lit the space — a creepy, hundred-year-old basement — entirely with Maglite Flashlights. But the worst thing about Fear Factor is the smell from those foul fish concoctions they try to make people drink; I've had crew guys walk off the set to throw up because it was so overwhelming.”

Adds Gus Dominguez, “Fear Factor is more strictly episodic. We have our lists and schedules ready, so we're not coming in cold. We know when we'll be dropping a car off a parking structure downtown. The problem is that you have to light a large stunt, wrap it all up that night, and then, be gone.”

Careful planning, where possible, saves time and frustration. Langer says Oscar Dominguez plotted the Bachelorette wedding meticulously, deploying Condors with 20k units for frontlighting the happy couple as they walked up the aisle and another Condor to keylight the 300 invited guests. “The wedding [had] multiple crews in multiple areas,” Dominguez says. “I had two gaffers, two best boys, and 20 technicians running around, one crew for the reception, one for the wedding, and one for the front of The Lodge. There was also a crew with the ENG guys — my directive to them was ‘stay in focus.’”

Dominguez also strategically placed units to anticipate where the participants might accidentally end up. “We still try to keep the lighting as unobtrusive as possible. A non-actor can understand a guy with a camera running around, but it's hard to stay real with a gaffer coming at you with a light meter and yelling.”

While maximizing time is important, conserving the budget is equally crucial. Trista may have had 30,000 roses flown in from Ecuador for her nuptials and a few Vari*Lites for special illumination, but the lighting crew had to make do with a lot less in the field. For a Bachelor-type show, a multimillion-dollar home has to be lit to TV specifications from five to seven weeks, and given the tight budgets. “Home Depot and Ikea basically become our vendors,” says Gus Dominguez. “It's really, really expensive to light such a large space for two months, and the owners don't want us doing any drilling. So we come through a drop ceiling and build a grid inside a couple of rooms. On the load-in, it's a pretty massive crew: there's a lot of area to cover and a lot of distro to set out. Once a show is up and running, it's usually a best boy, a board op, two electricians, and me, which is more than enough.”

Not everything goes according to plan. One night on The Bachelor , a series of outdoor fixtures, rigged on a hillside and running very hot, exploded when a cold drizzle set in. It happens, and the crew looks for simple, inexpensive alternatives. “I call us lighting MacGyvers,” says Langer, referring to the TV hero who used duct tape and chewing gum to escape sticky situations.

Once everything is in place for a night's shoot — and that can take a while on a house “set” — Oscar Dominguez creates looks that harken back to earlier traditions in TV lighting. “On The Bachelorette, the easy way out would have been to fill the house with soft light and just go with it, but we ended up using fewer large instruments, so it was almost a throwback in design aesthetic. On the first Bachelorette, we had one keylight, and we lit the entire area to feather in the slightest amount of fill light. During the concluding ‘rose ceremonies,’ we did a cross-type situation where her key was his backlight and her backlight was his key, that sort of a vibe, because they're opposing each other. We just cracked in a slight amount of fill and utilized a few Chimera lanterns, and that was it. It's a classic style, lighting a woman's face with one light.”

Though the harsh video look is out, reality lighting veterans say producers would be happy just to get everything down to one light. The more successful a show is, the more the producers try to cut costs. Says Oscar Dominguez, “It's an education for them. Aesthetically, we're making progress, but we just don't have the budget to really knock these out of the park. One day, they'll realize they can't keep cutting the bottom line.”

Barnhart, unlike Dominguez, is always a bridesmaid and never a bride regarding these shows. Few of the matchmaking programs with which he's been associated have ever made it to air, “because nothing happened on the dates and the matches were never made.” Producers, he says, need a stronger grip on reality when devising them.

But for all his efforts, fruitful or wasteful, in this field (which accounts for about 10-20% of the total projects handled by the personnel interviewed), Barnhart says his sympathies lie elsewhere. “The most humorous thing to me about reality TV is when the editors are handed 5,000 hours of tape to make a show out of it. They're the true heroes of this genre.”

Robert Cashill, a former editor of LD, thinks a year or even a day in the life of the publication would make for a riveting reality show.