Everything Is Illuminated

While television, documentaries and feature cinematographers might use a lot of the same lights, how they approach lighting each project takes a lot of creativity and planning.

HDVideoPro talked to three different DPs about how they plan and plot their work. Cinematographer George Mooradian explains how he brings his feature sensibility to the often-hamstrung work of multi-cameras on his Emmy-nominated series According to Jim. Prolific documentarian Lisa Wiegand shows how a streamlined lighting package is the cinematographer’s best friend. And, finally, Bill Roe, ASC, looks back on a 12-block night-chase sequence in downtown Vancouver for The X-Files: I Want to Believe feature—probably the biggest shot he’s ever done without using the “big” tools (Musco or Bebee) he would have preferred.

George Mooradian

The Multi-cam Plan

Since sitcoms are usually shot with a live audience in bleachers across from the stage area and four cameras in between, lighting can be a bit of a challenge. Cinematographer George Mooradian’s two shows, The Bill Engvall Show and According to Jim, are shot with heavily accessorized Sony HDW-F900 cameras sitting on Vinten heads. “The two outside cameras—A and X—are responsible for close-ups and overs, while B and C—center cameras—cover transitions, cross masters and clean singles, which cover more movement,” he explains.

Mooradian’s lighting starts with the basics—a grid of steel pipes suspended from the ceiling with chains. The grid starts right above the walls so the translights can be lit or “natural” light can come through the windows. The pipes are honeycombed in 3×3-foot sections, set about three feet, seven inches above the wall. The setup starts in the outer area of the set and moves inward. “Our number-one light is a 2K or ‘Junior,'” he explains. “It is the workhorse for the main and average sets. We have one in each corner and two on either side at 45-degree angles throughout the set, shooting northwest to southeast, and northeast to southwest. These lights come toward the lens. Mooradian adds, “We then have 1Ks, Babies or Tweenies, that face back into the set to isolate a refrigerator or doorway, or something specific that is either blocked by a piece of set design, or where we need an extra kick for an actor’s eyes or a joke.”

He continues, “In addition, we have set-specific lights on stirrups that we can hang down from the ceiling and into the set, depending on the location and story line.” It seems that, as the seasons go by (they’re currently on their fifth), the lights get closer and closer to the actors, sometimes to the consternation of the fisher boom operators. “But we work it out,” Mooradian laughs. “We all agree that the lighting, if not a character in the shows, can certainly help bring out the character in the actors and the story.”

“I’m kind of the opposite of most sitcom cinematographers,” he adds. “I like to turn lights on and then subtract light until we get a feeling for what is going to happen in a scene.” It’s something that Mooradian wants to do, the minute he gets to the Jim set on a Monday. It has taken him a long time to get used to the fact that the lights aren’t even turned on the first day of a new show. “Producer Bob Heath laughs at me and says that I am used to running a 100-yard dash. But, a sitcom is like running a marathon. You take weeks to finesse, not one day or one morning.”