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Lighting for Live Production: LED Setups on ‘American Idol,’ ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘America’s Got Talent’

Besides being popular primetime reality TV competitions, Dancing with the Stars (DWTS), America’s Got Talent (AGT) and American Idol (Idol) have something else in common: they’re pushing the envelope on the use of LED fixtures as both a light source and scenic element.

Dancing with the Stars lighting director Simon Miles
in the Stars green room, lit with Gekko karesslites

While LED lighting wasn’t considered ready for primetime a few years ago, lighting professionals associated with these shows—Simon Miles, lighting designer for DWTS; Kieran Healy, lighting designer for Idol and AGT; and Darran Webb, lighting director for Idol and AGT—are now using them alongside conventional studio lighting.

Spotlighting Benefits
Compared to conventional studio lighting, LED lights throw less heat, consume less power, require less maintenance, streamline production logistics, mitigate fire and burn hazards, and reduce production costs.

“LED lighting has revolutionized the look of the set,” says Healy, who won an Emmy in 2009 for outstanding lighting on American Idol, the famed singing competition now in its tenth season on FOX. “While the ‘moving light’ was a significant revolution, LED lighting is a very significant new revolution.” Moving lights can be programmed and computer-controlled for precision lighting effects.

“On shows like Idol, there is no scenery, per se,” says Healy. “LED technology, including LED video displays of content residing on servers and LED lighting accents, plays a big role in creating the dynamic look and feel of the show.”

Technical Limitations
Simon Miles and Darran Webb agree with Healy that LED lighting is revolutionizing their craft. But all three are quick to point out that despite the rapid advancement of this technology, LED lighting still poses technical limitations that are significant for live television.

Among the problems are inconsistencies between factory batches, difficulties matching color temperatures between LED fixtures, insufficient brightness, and an inability to spotlight subjects, especially from a great distance. RGB (red/green/blue) LED lights can cause multiple shadows and may be prone to color shifts and inconsistencies in color temperature that can be especially evident when lighting people’s faces, although gels and filters can compensate.

Dancing with the Stars

But solutions are arriving rapidly. For example, LED lighting manufacturer Prism Projection has incorporated a proprietary LED color and optics engine within each fixture that automatically measures and adjusts its color and intensity to ensure consistent performance.

Research and development by major lighting manufacturers is also producing a flood of LED lighting products, including light boxes, luminaires, strips (such as Pulsar Light ChromaStrips), and even LED “tape,” whose lights are mounted on a flexible, conductive backing that can literally be pulled off a roll and run along surfaces and façades.

Influx of Eye Candy Lights
On DWTS, Simon Miles says they mix and match different kinds of LED lighting for colorful, dynamic looks that can’t be achieved using conventional lights. “We run really innovative LED lighting—such as German-made Schnick-Schnack LED strips, and LED panels for displaying RGB light or video—as perimeter accents around our studio’s grand staircases, orchestra pit, balconies, skyboxes and judge’s desk. When you set products like LED tape, strips or panels close together, the sources give the illusion of a continual band of light.”

Miles considers this scenic application “internal lighting,” as opposed to studio lighting. But DWTS also uses LED fixtures for studio lighting. For example, Gekko Technology’s karesslite fixtures are used off-stage in such areas as a skybox set where dancers go to be interviewed after their performances.

“By stacking several karesslites, you can build a really huge light aperture in a relatively easy fashion, versus having to hang several big, hot, heavy lights,” says Miles. “Compared to conventional lighting, LEDs maintain a soft source light while consuming much less space and power. Since they don’t throw off a huge amount of heat, they can be placed in close proximity to people or in small spaces.”

With the exploding popularity of LEDs on the set comes changing production requirements. Miles says that DWTS recently approached Production Resource Group (PRG), the maker of their PRG-V676 lighting control board, to request that they double its channel capacity to 4,000. “It’s an upgrade they were planning,” Miles says, “but they accelerated its development in response to our pressing need to program and control an increasingly complex lighting scheme.”

Dancing with the Stars

Planet Friendly
Recognizing the eco-friendly appeal of LED lighting, most manufacturers either offer LED fixtures now or plan to soon. Philips, a major player in the LED lighting market, has many products used on these primetime reality shows, including ColorBlast 12 LED fixtures and iColor Cove QL LED strips, both from its Color Kinetics line, and Vari-Lite VLX Wash and VL Spot luminaires.

Darran Webb, the lighting director/gaffer for AGT and Idol, says, “Since LED lights don’t generate heat, you can just leave them on, even in small rooms. This means you don’t have to station a tech near the lights to turn them on and off as they’re needed, or blast the air conditioning for relief from heat build-up.

“More importantly, you don’t have to worry about powering them,” Webb adds. “We can arrive on location and just plug LED lights into regular wall outlets.” Idol sends field crews on location—for contestant auditions in hotels and stadiums nationwide, for example—often on short notice. Webb says, “We don’t need to wait for the house electrician to access the breaker box, or lug in heavy generators to supply the huge amounts of power conventional lights need.”

While LED lighting was fairly expensive a few years ago, the prices are now comparable to conventional lights. But Kieran Healy notes, “Keep in mind that the overall cost of production is lower with LED lighting when you factor in their lower power consumption; faster, easier setup; and reduced maintenance.” For example, an LED fixture can last 20,000 hours, compared to around 500 hours for a conventional bulb, and gaffers can move them quickly without risking serious burns.

“The next big thing we’re looking for is LED moving lights capable of delivering high light output, no shadows, and focus-ability comparable to today’s spotlights,” Healy says. “But I’m confident that in the next couple of years we won’t be using anything but LEDs.”