A Window On The World


Most of us have seen several forms of the television news studio with windows on a city street, complete with its background of people on the sidewalk staring into and occasionally misbehaving in front of the television cameras. It all probably started before many of us were born, with Dave Garroway and NBC's Today show, which debuted way back on January 14, 1952. (I have been around for a few years, but no, I did not light Garroway.)

During one of my annual news lighting check-ups in July 2004 at WLS, the ABC flagship Chicago station, I was invited to a conference where the WLS State Street Studio project was presented to me for the first time. The project started with gutting and combining three retail spaces on the street level of the WLS building to create a more than 82' frontage on State Street. Architect Vojo Narancic's design called for replacing the traditional exterior masonry cladding with glass curtain walls (yes, straight vertical glass and lots of reflections). My job is always to light the show they are going to shoot and listen to a room full of suits; their explanations get less clear the more they talk. I finally asked Emily Barr, the production-savvy president and general manager of WLS and a good friend, why we were doing this pretty extensive and expensive project. Her reply was, “As much as this is our window on the world, it is the world's window to us,” — a bright light bulb moment for everyone.

Barr's simple statement guided us as we created a real news environment that truly supports all WLS newscasts, but also where the viewer on the street was a prime consideration. We did not build yet another television storefront operation. The on-camera talent for the newscast operation in the WLS State Street Studio actually face the street, with only a few exceptions.

For several reasons, primarily due to the view from outside looking in, I chose to use daylight-color temperature lighting for the approximately 2,800-square-foot studio portion facing east on State Street, right across from the Chicago Theatre that displays the famous large vertical Chicago sign. WLS broadcasts news in almost every day-lit part of every day, and the light outside the windows changes both in brightness and color rather dramatically from 5am to 11pm, the span of time within which most WLS newscasts take place.

My personal mantra for this project was, “Since everyone else has failed at this, if we fail, can it please be because we at least tried something different?” I definitely wanted to avoid what I called the “Today Show Syndrome” of orange and dark windows in the sunrise and sunset hours. That syndrome is created by correcting the windows when the outside light is very warm (at sunrise and sunset as compared to midday) and not very bright.

To keep the lighting on the talent consistent and attractive, we control the brightness of the windows in several ways. We installed a roller shade system with blackout material (with WLS graphics painted on the street side), plus a Neutral Density 3 and an ND6 (combine them for ND9), and a woven material (translucent but denser than theatrical scrim). What is used at the windows depends strictly on the needs of the newscast and often changes mid-broadcast as the light outside changes.

For this project, designing a lighting system comprising solely color-corrected incandescent sources — with their short lamp life and high heat — was a non-starter for WLS and for me. The relatively recent evolution of more color-accurate fluorescent lamps in daylight color made fluorescent fixtures a viable solution. General Electric's new Cinema Plus daylight lamp has a color-rendering index greater than 95. If actual daylight is 100, then 95 is really close, especially compared to the 85-plus CRI lamps of just a few years ago. This color business simply means that all colors, especially the on-camera flesh tones, will look attractive and correct. Accurate color, inherent and controllable softness, energy efficiency, low heat, and long lamp life are all good traits for television news lighting.

I used 101 DeSisti De Lux phase-control fluorescents in four configurations to light more than 25 talent positions in the studio (they keep finding new camera shots): a four-person anchor desk, a working weather center big enough for a walk-and-talk, at least three standing positions, two seated positions, the requisite Chroma Key area, a multi-person demonstration area, a five-person interview area, and numerous stand-ups scattered about. The four DeSisti models include two-lamp vertical, two-lamp horizontal, two-lamp cyc light, and four-lamp horizontal. Various aperture dimension grids allow fine control of the beam width to help keep the light where it belongs and minimize the ever-present reflections in those straight vertical floor-to-ceiling windows everywhere.

The Chroma Key area, placed in the bubble where the exterior wall bumps out onto the sidewalk, has a very restricted ceiling height of just more than 8'. Traditional-sized daylight fixtures would be too large to rig and light the talent (two of the weathermen are 6'4" tall). I turned to a color-accurate daylight LED fixture, the Litepanels Mini. About the size of a brick, it is absolutely dead-on daylight color, and it rigged very well in that tight space.

My favorite lighting workhorse, the ETC Source Four ellipsoidal reflector spotlight, handles all of the scenery lighting chores, using dichroic glass filters from Apollo Lighting for correct color temperature and extended life lamps to minimize maintenance.

The State Street Studio works well. The on-camera talent looks great, and often, more than 100 people cluster on the sidewalk outside the windows watching the WLS newscasts. When all is said and done, often more is said than done.

Boston-based LD John Gates of Gates Service Group specializes in TV and film lighting, as well as TV studio lighting design.

WLS State Street Studio Crew And Staff

Emily Barr, WLS president and general manager

Tom Hebel, WLS vice president of local programming and creative services

Kal Hassan, WLS director of engineering

Jennifer Graves, WLS news director

David Hewitt, WLS technical facilities manager and State Street Studio project manager

Joe Trimarco, WLS production manager

Jef Kos, WLS lead director

Jesse Ramos, WLS lead stagehand (IATSE Local 2)

James Lee, senior manager, Disney Core Services

Vojo Narancic, architect, Legat Architects

Tim Saunders, president, Broadcast Design International

Tobin Neis, Barbizon Lighting Company

Earl Thomas, DeSisti Lighting

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