Step-By-Step Guide to Video Lighting Systems

By David Martin Jacques

Copyright © 2003 by David Jacques

Published in the March/April, 2003, issue of Church Production Magazine

Many churches have discovered that video technology can greatly aid in bringing people closer to the spiritual experience. By offering their congregations a “close-up” view of their services through the use of live and pre-recorded video, even smaller churches have found that video increases participation and increases the involvement of younger church-members. In addition, the close-up view of video assists older members in seeing and understanding the service. In my previous article: Basic Techniques of Lighting for Video (Church Production Magazine), I discussed the techniques and many of the considerations of lighting for video. This article will offer step by step guidance in setting up the lighting for your video broadcasts.

It is important to consider what type of video presentation you wish to present to your congregation. You may wish to project live images of the pastor and ministers. In addition you may wish to project images of soloists who perform during the service. I have seen churches project reactions from the congregation, especially if the pastor walks through an aisle to engage with the congregation. Churches also use video to project pre-taped images during spirituals. In any case, you should decide on how you wish to use your video before you start considering how you plan to light your service.

Most churches limit their live video area to what appears before the congregation (the pulpit, ministers’ chairs, choir, and orchestra). As mentioned in my previous article, it is imperative that you light the area with an “even” wash of light with a consistent color. In addition, sufficient back-light must be supplied to help create a three-dimensional effect for the video. You should also maintain the lighting intensity levels of the foreground and background so the background does not disappear in the video. To do all this effectively and efficiently, high-quality lighting instruments are usually required.

I recently completed a retrofit for a small church in Texas where we replaced approximately 100 conventional lights with six new Vari*lite VL1000 automated fixtures (you can read the details in my upcoming article in Church Production Magazine). Three VL1000’s where hung for front-light and three for back light and choir front-light. Their Pastor loves to roam around during his sermons, and the new lighting offered consistent lighting levels so that the video engineer does not have to open and close the irises as he once had to when the Pastor walked through varying levels of intensity. The engineer told me that he has never before seen such even light for their services.

Although automated lighting fixtures offer amazing lighting flexibility, it is not necessary to use this technology to create a smooth, consistent wash. You can also achieve this by using lighting systems that incorporate conventional lighting fixtures like Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlights (ERS), Fresnels, and PARS. In preparing your lighting plan, you should restrict your lighting systems to one kind of lighting instrument (for front light use only ERS’s, for back light use only Fresnels, for side light use PARS, etc.). If possible, you should also restrict your lighting systems to the same brand of lighting instrument. This is to insure that the light is of consistent intensity and color.

It is wise to inspect every light individually and manually align it to insure that it can achieve an even “field” of light (the width of the actual light projected from the lighting instrument). I have seen horrible fields of light from perfectly good instruments that were just out of alignment. It will serve your church to have your lighting instruments serviced and aligned by a reputable lighting technician before you embark on a new lighting plan.

Similar to what you would do for a theatrical performance, you should divide the actual physical space you intend to light into “lighting areas”. These are imaginary sections of the physical space that are usually 8-10 feet wide. I always begin with the pulpit as my main lighting area. Then work left and right 6 feet to my next two lighting areas, then another six feet left and right, etc. This creates an overlap of areas to insure a smooth transition of light from one area to another. I also create lighting areas for the choir, the orchestra, the baptistery, and any other area that may be covered with video. Don’t forget to light the walls, columns, plants, and other background elements, for if they are not lit, they will disappear in the video.

For my front-light system, I assign one or more lights to each area and focus them accordingly. I ALWAYS focus the ERS’s sharp and use a diffusion filter to achieve a soft edge (Rosco # 119 or #132 does the trick). The reason for this is to keep the light from the ERS’s consistent throughout the field, while creating a soft edge of light so that the areas blend into each other. When you manually soften the edge through the focus adjustment, the field of light becomes very hot in the center and very dim at the edge, which is not desirable for video lighting. The creation of soft diffusion filters allows you to have an even field of light with soft edges.

This brings me to another point. If you are in the position to purchase lighting equipment and you must go the conventional route, then I suggest that you purchase high-quality ERS’s. All the major manufacturers produce these models and they all do a good job. The reason why I now shy away from Fresnels is due to the fact that with diffusion filters you can make an ERS project a soft beam of light similar to a Fresnel, and at the same time have the flexibility of framing the light with shutters.

Once I assign all my front light, I then assign a back light to each area. This is to create the three-dimensional effect that is necessary for video presentation. This back-light will also illuminate people when a camera is used from a rear angle. This is where Fresnels and PARS can be incorporated effectively if you do not have the luxury of using ERS’s. Although it is not as critical as front-light, I strive for an even, consistent wash of light from this system.

Although not necessarily required for every video application, I may add side-light to create modeling. This is probably the most crucial angle of light as it must be placed and focused carefully so that unsightly shadows are not created on the subject’s face.

Finally, I add light to architectural elements that I want the video to pick up for background. It is good practice to test view the image through the camera to see what is seen and what isn’t. This way you can add light where you need it and take it away where you wish to hide things.

If possible, all these areas and angles should be able to be controlled separately so that you can balance out the light. It is also important to remember that if you reduce the intensity of an adjacent area it will change colors due to “amber-shift”. This is why I subscribe to the “less is more” theory. Remember, it is not the brightness that video needs, it is the consistency. I watched a taping of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno a few weeks ago and the low intensity of the lighting was surprising. Compared to an old Jackie Gleason Show taping I saw in the 70’s, the Tonight Show was downright dim in comparison. This is because today’s modern cameras are quite sensitive to light and do not require the intensity that the older cameras needed. High intensity is not nearly as important as consistent intensity.

You should carefully consider the color for your lights as video does not react well to saturated colors. I use either no-color at all or a very light color correction filter (Lee 202 or 203). I gel every light within a system the same color and do not alternate from area to area. For instance, all my front lights may be clear except for the Rosco 132 diffusion gel, my back lights may have a combination of Lee 202 and Rosco 119, and my side lights may have a combination of Lee 203 and Rosco 132. I may also have several systems of side and back light with different colors. In addition I may add a system of darker blue back light with Rosco 68 and Rosco 119.

You can see how the numbers of lights can easily multiply using conventional lighting instruments. One way to add flexibility in color is to add color scrollers to your lights. These devices remotely change color through a motorized scroll of several colors attached to the front of a lighting instrument. The problem with color scrollers is that they are noisy and are somewhat limited in the choices of color. One advantage of using automated lighting instruments is that you can change colors at will for effects and color balance. Many new automated lighting fixtures have sophisticated color changing mechanisms to change the color of the light. Some, like the High End X-Spot and Martin MAC 2000, have dedicated color wheels specifically designed to balance the color for video.

Once you set up and focus your lights, it is now time to set your “looks” for the service. Most contemporary services are divided into segments. It is important to support these segments with varied lighting atmospheres to support the flow and power of the service. I usually program a separate atmosphere for the walk-in music (full orchestra and choir), the greetings (add the pulpit), the solos (a spotlight “special” and back-light on the soloist with and without choir), and the sermon (highlighting the pulpit along with any other areas that the pastor walks through). I also set up various color washes that can be quickly called up to support musical and spiritual dynamics.

I use a similar approach when using moving lights for my atmospheres. The difference in that I focus the lights into various “focus points” for where lights are required. I then call up these focus points and write cues for each segment. You can then either write consecutive cues that move the focus of the lights and color, or you can program the different atmospheres into “groups” or submasters so you may follow the service on-the-fly. I also group the color changers in these lighting fixtures into submasters so that the operator can add color quickly to support the music.

As the service progresses your operator should be careful not to have the lighting cues abruptly change focus and color. This creates havoc in the poor video engineer as he/she has to constantly ride the gain to so not to over and underexpose the camera.

Finally, make sure that no light from your lighting instruments are hitting the video projection screens. These screens are designed to reflect light and an improperly focused lighting fixture can destroy what you worked so hard to achieve.

Video can be a very powerful tool in supporting the message of the service. Remember, the camera only sees what is lit. These video lighting techniques will aid the “eye” of the camera in delivering the message to the eyes of your congregation.