The history of lighting dates back to a distant time when there wasn’t any artificial lighting at all. In fact, in the early days, some film studios were designed with a rotating open roof to allow the maximum amount of natural light to fill the stage. Film companies moved to Hollywood in droves, where natural light was plentiful. Inevitably, directors wanted to film in the evenings, and they had the audacity to want a little “visual mood” in their scenes. Thankfully, along came Thomas Edison, followed closely by Mr. Mole, Mr. Richardson, and the Kliegl Brothers. Suddenly, the “electric” lighting industry was born.
» Simply the Basics
We’re not talking about the lighting requirements for rental and staging, with our moving heads and DMX controllers. Instead, this is about the evolution of lighting gear for film and video. Nothing fancy, it comes down to the three basics — key, back and fill. The physical tools of the trade have evolved significantly since the early days, particularly in the realm of portable lighting gear, but the basics of lighting techniques have remained the same.
All of these remarkable new electric lights had a few things in common. They all had filaments, they drew a lot of electricity, and they all got hot — egg-frying hot. None of the lights were mounted on the film cameras themselves, but instead, they lived on fixed or rolling stands, or hung from the grids. The manufacturers added barn doors, reflectors, scoops and Fresnel lenses, and all was good — for almost 100 years. Even as the video industry evolved from the 1950s into the 1980s, lighting gear remained a solid rock of consistency.
» Still Heavy, Still Hot
The first glimmer of change occurred in the 1980s — in sync with the introduction of the portable video camera. Two new micro-industries were created as a result: electronic news gathering (ENG) and electronic field production (EFP). They’re still thriving today.
These new battery-operated portable cameras required small, portable, battery-operated lights for field acquisition. The lights mounted on top of the cameras, and yes, they drew lots of electricity, got very hot, and the batteries didn’t last very long before requiring a charge. Even worse, the batteries took the form of massive belt packs — heavy enough to keep a scuba diver down for hours.
Even though they weren’t very bright, these little spots worked fine, and besides — the lighting requirements weren’t very stringent for a basic head shot of the news reporter. Throw a key light on the talent, roll tape, get the story, and make the news director happy. Typically, these lights also had barn doors and small dichroic filters to change color temperature. This tech lasted for years, until a major change occurred — one that really shook up the studio lighting industry.
» Getting a Little Cooler Now
In 1980, a new company called Videssence appeared on the scene at the National Association of Broadcaster’s (NAB) trade show. Their technology adapted fluorescent lights for the television studio by eliminating the fluorescent flicker through the use of new electronic ballasts. Concurrently, Videssence developed a fluorescent tube with a different chemistry, eliminating that awful green tint that occurs when shooting under fluorescents. On the positive side, they were very bright, and you could easily “white balance” for excellent colorimetry and true flesh tones. On the negative side, the light was flat — period. No barn doors, no Fresnels, nothing to focus — flat city. For a chroma-key (green screen) set however, flat was remarkably good, turning a negative into a positive.
Almost immediately, every television station owner and news director got the message: high brightness, low wattage, low heat generation, and an unbelievable savings in electricity. These Videssence guys were green before green was even a concept. Imagine a television station with an electric bill of over 40 grand per month for incandescent studio lighting. Imagine that dropping to two thousand a month. Imagine happy accountants.
Soon, imitators appeared on the scene, signaling the success of the new lighting tech. This advance did not put the Mole-Richardson’s out of business, however, because they still cornered the market on Fresnel-based lighting, and LDs could easily add a Fresnel to a set lit with fluorescents. Today, one could easily say that the majority of television studios are lit with fluorescents.
This technology had a positive effect on the EFP and ENG as well. Imagine a 60 Minutes-type interview shot in an office or a hotel room. Flat fluorescent lighting was certainly acceptable and, more importantly, you weren’t going to fry the room with heat or blow any breakers.
» Getting Seriously Cool
Fast forward to the new century where, coupled with amazing advances in digital video, portable video lighting fixtures comprised entirely of white LEDs appeared on the scene. Just like fluorescents, these little LED arrays run very cool, they’re extremely lightweight, and a small panel of 140 LEDs (for example) puts out light that matches and exceeds the output of a camera-top incandescent.
As pioneered by a company called Litepanels, these LED arrays barely draw any power. In fact, you can run them on AA batteries for hours. After the initial investment, cost of ownership is extremely low, because the LEDs themselves almost never burn out. The company even offers large studio arrays, LED-based Fresnels, units with variable color temperature controls and — the coolest trick of all — integrated dimmers in the panels themselves. I’ve written about shooting video with DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras in previous PLSN columns, and for the pro shooter, these LED panels are ideal.
And yes, just like Videssence, imitators have signaled the success of the technology.
» From Electric to LED
In just over 100 years, we’ve gone from electric to fluorescent to LED, and the next broadcast trade show may signal yet another advance in lighting. To date, the heat problem has been solved, the weight and power consumption problems have been solved, the flicker and color temperature problems have been solved — so what’s left?
Most ENG and EFP shooters are hoping that the next advance is in price — because the LED arrays are expensive, due mainly to the fact that the LEDs are hand-picked for precise color temperature.
One thing remains, regardless of the advances in lighting tech — and that’s the basics. Whether the light source is a 10K Fresnel or an array of LED-based panels, the rules for visually good film and video lighting haven’t changed. You can have the coolest LED fixtures in town, but if you don’t know your way around key, back and fill, well — we’ll just have to call in another LD.