(Moving) Lights, Camera, Action!


Working on the set of a film or TV show presents its own set of challenges, different from live events. As technology advances and these markets start to embrace moving lights as viable products for feature films and broadcast and cable programming, there are a lot more opportunities for designers to use LEDs and older tungsten and metal halide lights in new forms. I‘ve experienced some of the pros and cons of each of these three different types of lights and encountered some of the following questions specific to on-camera applications.

First, what are the advantages and disadvantages of LEDs?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the advantages of using LEDs in any application are low power consumption, low wattage, and little heat. LEDs are still in the process of evolving to be more effective for film and TV, but in the next year or two, they will come into their own for these markets in the same way they have for special events. Disadvantages have historically included a lack of a color-rendering index (CRI), no amber or 5,600K LEDs available, and a quality of white that’s usually inferior to tungstens or HMIs.

Typically, LED fixtures for TV have been additive color-mixing RGB units primarily used for scenic lighting. People on camera can’t usually be lit with LED fixtures because additive color mixing tends to produce a bluish hue and has a poor CRI.

What recent LED developments have been introduced, and how will they improve use on camera?
A new generation of added-white LED fixtures has begun to solve these problems and fill the gap in LEDs for film and television. They include Philips/Color Kinetics iWhite, Gekko Technology Kelvin Tile, and Martin Professional Stagebar. Stagebar has added amber and white LEDs, while iWhite has added LEDs of 5,600K white and amber LEDs of around 2,800K with controllable color temperature levels to help achieve better whites. The Kelvin Tile has white, amber, cyan, and RGB LEDs for color temperature mixing.

There’s also an interesting new product out from Vari-Lite, the VLX, a moving head LED unit that is extraordinarily bright and has white LEDs in it so you can get better colors. It’s RGB plus white.

For television, a lot of people will use new LED fixtures for fill, but few of them are ready to be keylights. That said, ETC’s Selador Series features fixtures based on its x7 Color System that have been used as keylights on projects including the ESPN NASCAR studios.

Why are tungsten fixtures still good choices for film and TV?
Tungsten sources are great from a “green” perspective because when they’re off, they’re off, unlike metal halides. They make excellent keylights and are very good for high-speed film. I once worked with a film shoot where the 600fps film produced a flicker even with the “flicker-free” metal halide lights. The only solution was tungsten because the light from a tungsten lamp doesn’t create a flicker at all; we ended up using a tungsten moving light and followspots.

Are there any drawbacks to tungstens?
One disadvantage is that more lights are necessary because they generally aren’t as bright as the equivalent wattage HMI product. Another concern is color shift. As tungsten lights dim, you get a color shift if they are on a dimmer, and that’s a concern because you want a steady color temp light, or the colors on camera can change in undesirable ways. The only company that has really addressed this in the tungsten range of moving heads is Martin Professional. Its MAC TW1 has a built-in shutter so you can dim it without having the color shift. The Barco/High End Systems Studio Color also has a tungsten lamp replacement that can be used with its internal shutter.

What are other good tungstens for film and television?
Some other good tungsten-based moving lights are the Vari-Lite 500TD (with pastel and CMY color modules), the VL1000TID, and the VL1000TSD (with a shutter mechanism). At Scharff Weisberg, we have supplied a number of ETC Source Four Revolutions for The Daily Show (LD, “Daily Dose,” July 2007),and Coemar’s iWash Halo looks very good on camera.

What’s the attraction of metal halide?
Metal halides are preferred by most LDs when shooting for/in daylight because they most closely resemble daylight color temperature. Units with electronic ballasts/flicker-free ballasts are better because magnetic ballasts can produce on-camera flicker. The majority of manufacturers are now making moving lights with electronic ballasts, and a new key green feature is that they have “step down” ability: When you “dim” them, they step down to a lower wattage and use less energy. With older units, you’d have them on, and they’d just keep pulling the same amount of power even if they were dimmed to nothing.

Some units that stand out in this respect are the Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash and Wash FX. The Wash can dim down to 1,200W or even go to a standby level of 900W. The Wash FX can also dim from 1,500W down to 1,200W and to 900W when in standby mode. These are really nice options because they offer significant power savings for a light that will be on 12 to 15 hours a day. The PRG Bad Boy uses the Philips MSR Gold 1200W FastFit Lamp running at 1,400W and can be set to 900W or 1,200W.

Some other metal halide units that have energy-conserving abilities are the Martin MAC III Profile and the Coemar Infinity. The MAC 700 has this capability as well—it goes from 700W to 400W—but it’s not automatic. But that level of controllability for TV is nice if you’re in a low-power situation but still have need of the MAC 700 feature set.

Do metal halides have disadvantages?
The biggest issue I’ve found with them has been fan and motor noise. Vari-Lite has addressed this issue with the VL1000 Arc, which is probably the quietest arc moving head out there with fans only on demand of high levels of internal heat. I’ve been told it’s the only light most designers will use in spaces such as Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. The VL500 Arc is also very quiet. Martin’s MAC 700 has a quite mode, and the MAC III Profile has a custom fan/cooling system that pushes all the air out the bottom, making it relatively noise-free for its size. Also worth mentioning is the Vari-Lite VL3500Q—Q for “quiet”—and the VL2500 has always been very quiet.

What other features are critical in moving lights for film and TV?
It’s important for the lights that we’re using in film and TV to have color-correction. That’s basically a color-mixing wheel, but it allows you to correct the light more to daylight or more to tungsten CTO or CTB (Color Temperature Orange or Color Temperature Blue). Lights with this capability include the Vari-Lite VL3500 and VL3000 Washes/Spots, the PRG Bad Boy, the Martin MAC 2000 Spot/Wash, MAC III, and MAC 700 wash.

What lights should we be looking at for the future?
Another great up-and-coming lighting product is the Xenon moving head. It will be quite an amazing product when television LDs and film gaffers start to get their hands on them and manufacturers begin to make them small enough, as Zap Technology has done with a couple of its products.

I think it’s important that designers and shops support and work with manufacturers as they develop these new technologies. It’s not always an easy transition; lighting for TV and film has been done one way for many years, but we all want new technology to be more efficient, green, and work well.

Chris McMeen is vice president of Scharff Weisberg Lighting. He previously spent eight years at Boston’s High Output, Inc, where he started as a shop tech, became an assistant rental manager, rental agent, and sales director before being named division director for theatre and special events in 2001. He has worked on films and television shoots such as Inside Man, Dan In Real Life, MTV’s TRL, and The Colbert Report.

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