Television lighting designer Ted Wells has been honing his craft since the early 1970s. He starting out in Topeka, KS where, while still a student, he got work at the local PBS station and the CBS affiliate. He didn’t even have dimmers at the PBS station, but came up with lighting cues using a breaker panel, which no one at the station had ever seen done before.
After that, he got a part-time job at Nashville’s Opryland Productions in 1974, starting out as a followspot operator on carbon arc spots in the Opry House. He quickly moved up to gaffer, then on to lighting designer. After three years, Wells was the full-time head of the lighting department for Opryland Productions. While there, he worked with a wide range of television talent from New York and Los Angeles. Those connections would be important to his career over the next 40 years.
From Opryland Productions, Wells went on to work with The Nashville Network, from its inception until 1999. He then went to Los Angeles for work and, after a year, was invited to join Bob Dickinson and Bob Barnhart at Full Flood, a consortium of lighting directors and designers.
Wells has since worked on most major awards shows, several Olympics and called followspots in multiple languages. PLSN spoke with him to discuss his career so far, who he has been influenced by, and what he thinks about the industry today.
PLSN: Who were some of your key?mentors?
Ted Wells: I had so many. I was so fortunate because Opryland Productions, and the Grand Ole Opry house, was one of those places where people liked to come, and I worked with so many LDs on so many different types of shows. The first big influence in my life was Bill Klages. I was fortunate to work on lot of shows with him.
Then there was a lighting designer with CBS by the name of Ralph Holmes, who they brought in to do a series called Dance in America for WNET. We videotaped every major dance company in the U.S. in a five-year period, including New York City Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Pilobolus, Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey and the Joffrey Ballet.
Ralph was a big influence on the way that I looked at the use of light for television, because it was unconventional in TV terms. A standard wash was more the method back then; but this was a lot of cross light for dance; very interesting. Dancers would move in and out of light with the use of pattern projections. He used the dark spaces so well. It wasn’t what was lit so much as what wasn’t.
Leard Davis also taught me a lot about lighting for boom mikes and the use of breakups to create dimension on shows like Hee Haw. I’ve worked with people like Billy Knight, Red McKinnon, and George Riesenberger.
The second biggest influence on my work in lighting was Bob Dickinson. I have worked off and on now with him for 30 years. Certainly, Bobby has had as big of an influence on me as anyone. He is so dead-on, instinctively, about what light should be, and the approach that should be taken. He changed the look of contemporary lighting and the use of atmosphere and made light architectural. I have never seen him give up on a project. He always continually tries to make it better. I can’t express my admiration enough for him and his artistic eye.
What were some influential productions that you worked on?
The Dance in America show on PBS was so different from anything else that had been done at the time. It enabled me to be the lighting designer on a dance piece that was choreographed by Peter Martens and George Balanchine for CBS cable— Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze.
I ended up being the LD on it at quite a young age actually—I was in my late 20s at the time. The Russian production designer, Rouben Ter-Arutunian, hated me at the beginning, because he thought that I was just a young hillbilly who had no clue of what I was doing. He kept insulting me the whole time, but I did the design for it; got it focused and made Mr. Balanchine extremely happy. I believe Ter-Arutunian was happy with the final product, since he walked up to me and said “It was good.”
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
I got two pieces of advice, and I count both of them equally in their value. One was to be available, be helpful, and have a good work ethic, because attitude and desire will take you a long way. You can be extremely talented, but if you don’t have the other qualities, it doesn’t matter who you are; ever.
The most valuable piece of advice in terms of lighting was, it’s about the face. The television medium is about close-ups. I think that’s why people watch TV — to see those close shots of the faces of the performer or actor. It’s about being in close with them, so it is important to make sure you always get the face right. The background will always take care of itself. The background is just painting. Don’t take away from who the performer is — it’s okay to bring huge energy to the moment with lighting, but don’t overpower the performer.
What surprised you most about your career?
That I was in the right place at the right time; that’s probably the most surprising thing. I come from a family of artists; my mother was a very accomplished artist, and both my sisters and brother paint. So I was taught about light and painting early on. I didn’t have a talent for painting with a brush, but I always enjoyed the quality of light, no matter where I was. I always found it fascinating.
Once I found work in TV, every place that I would look at, whether a room, an exterior of a place, nighttime; I would always think, “How would I create that for TV?” I seem to have the ability to know the right method to take; though we all make mistakes in the course of our career. Wrong choice of instrument; wrong choice of position; and certainly we use the wrong choices of color occasionally.
For the most part, I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, and I was fortunate to have enough of an eye that I could use in lighting for television.
Talk about your use of technology as a television lighting designer...
Technology has changed so much in the course of my 40-some years. In times of yore, long, long ago, when we would design, for instance, awards shows, we didn’t have moving light technology. We had to design for multiple set configurations, so there was so much thought process put into where a light hung; what type of light it should be; what the gel on it should be; how many would be in a given area. You really had to pay a lot of attention to the changes of the set positions and have lighting positions that could accommodate them. The technology that exists today in terms of moving lights is such that you can just pepper an area with lights that move and change color; you still think the process through, but it’s so much easier and faster.
Technology has made life easier. For older people like me, I’ve had to get my head wrapped around the new technology—media servers, LEDs, movers, and the rapid pace at which productions are accomplished now. The other technology change that has made life much easier is the speed of hi-def cameras. They also make the work even more fun, because we can work at levels and contrast ranges that we just never had before. We don’t have to key at 200fc; we don’t have to use 10kW instruments, we can use a tiny little 75W birdie as a keylight. It’s amazing, the technology of cameras. We had to create the contrast when I started in the 1970s and people like Bill Klages go back into the 1950s and 1960s. Bill was one of the first LDs to create contrast with light for television. Film cameras could always see far more contrast than the TV camera. I think that it was a 30:1 ratio, basically, in terms of contrast for a TV camera. Film was something like 250:1, and our eye, of course, is infinite.
What’s the most memorable challenge or project that you can’t believe that you pulled off?
I would refer back to the ballet for CBS cable; every challenge was there for me. The set design itself—this was before moving lights keep in mind—was white cloth, and on seven foot centers all the way up and downstage. So every seven feet there was another white proscenium cloth. White was always bad back then for television; the tubes couldn’t handle it as effectively as the chip cameras do now. And the fact that the production designer had absolutely no confidence in me and kept questioning every decision I made. I filled every square inch of hanging space available with lights to be able to create the different looks that Mr. Balanchine wanted for his ballet. That was the most intimidating; I had to at least appear confident, whether I felt it inside or not.
Also the Vancouver Winter Olympics, I was working with Bob Dickinson. It was a 100 percent solid white surface, and the challenge that we had was that we were working at extremely low footcandle levels. I had to keep the followspots off the surface, because it was all projection. We had to put followspots on the ground, just barely peeking above the surface of the floor, and the operators had to be just spot-on, truthfully (pardon the pun) to pick the person up and keep the projection pure. We were working at 17fc; you could barely see the spots. The only way that they could stay on the person, especially if the person was flying, was by looking at the ceiling of the dome to see the image of the person’s shadow. It was scary.
In China, I had to find an interpreter to work with the followspot operators when we lit the Special Olympics. I had to train this young lady who was also the manager of a boy band in China. She knew English slang but I had to train her on the followspot; on what it did; when I would give certain commands, this is what would be happening of the followspot. I had to write out all of the cues for her and she translated them into Chinese and she called the cues simultaneously with me; she was that good.
You have a well-deserved reputation for handling followspots for television. Are there any tricks of the trade that you would share with us?
In big arena shows, being organized is the biggest thing. In a stadium show like the Olympics, I lay out a grid and divide the field of play up into letters, and I assign positions based on the face of a clock. I start big — North, South, East and West. Then I go to letters broken up into quadrants, and then I go to a numbering system of positions on the field of play. I create an 8x10” reference sheet that I laminate and give to the operators.
Also, being aware of the abilities of each of your followspot operators — you get that sense pretty quickly as to who can be the “go to” followspot operators.
One other thing — keep your same cadence and vocal tone, especially with foreign-speaking operators. As soon as you get overly excited, they completely don’t understand what you’re saying or what’s going on. Cadence, tone, knowing the key positions, and being organized in your layout.
You’ve had a great career with all that you’ve done and who you have worked with; anything else that you’d like to say?
I am not particularly comfortable in the limelight. I am thankful that I’ve had a wonderful career. I am truly surprised and shocked that I have been fortunate enough to work on the projects that I’ve gotten to work on with all the amazing talented LDs over my career. They all taught me something, and I don’t care how small the project was. I don’t think that I’ve ever come away from a show that I didn’t learn something on.