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Producing Conference Video Pt. 2: Lighting and Audio

Award-winning producer Shawn Lam looks at the art and science of stage lighting and the challenges of making lighting designed for performance work for video. He also discusses the meat-and-potatoes things you need to know for microphone selection and successful live-recorded conference audio.

Shortly before writing this article, I attended NAB, the world's largest candy store for video producers. There I got the opportunity to meet with experts from dozens of suppliers to see what is new and forthcoming when it comes to video technology.

Knowing that I had this second installment on conference video production to complete, I was paying especially keen attention to products that would be game-changers for audio and lighting in a conference video production environment.

There were new products in the lighting arena and I'll spend a bit of time on systems that are suited for stage lighting as well as for some for lighting a smaller venue, such as a studio or an on-location interview. I'll take a look at Vitec's Sola Fresnel for stage lighting and Pelican's very portable RALS system for interviews.

On the audio side I will cover microphone selection and more important than just listing fancy and expensive products you should know about but probably shouldn't all run out and buy today, I'm going to spend most of this article discussing the meat-and-potatoes things you need to know about stage lighting and audio for video.

Stage Lighting Essentials

Stage lighting is an art. Lighting technicians take their role in setting the mood and focus for the live audience very seriously. Unfortunately, stage lighting that is designed for a live audience is very challenging for a video camera because of exposure latitude limitations. Video cameras require a smaller contrast ratio than does a live audience-much smaller. Video cameras can handle a ratio of 30:1 and our eyes can handle an exposure latitude of 10,000:1-that is, we're able to see at the same time subjects that are 10,000 brighter than the darkest areas in which we are still able to discern detail, but our video cameras can only see a 30 times difference.

Unlike in video, live audiences don't have a director telling them where to look and when, so lighting is used in an exaggerated fashion to direct and maintain the audience's attention to the right person or place on stage. The problem is that on stage, bright lights can be uncomfortable on the eyes, and often times inexperienced talent will lean just outside of the light, especially when they are standing behind a lectern and trying to interact with the audience. Lights generally have a round throw pattern, which is narrowest at the top and bottom, and when the speaker leaves the light, the difference is hardly noticeable for the audience-as they can see both the parts of their body that are in the light and those that are in the dark-but for the video camera operator, this can be disastrous.

Depending on the overall light levels, the speaker can often fall into the shadows and partially "disappear" on camera as if they were wearing Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility. When this happens, and until they return to the light, there is nothing the camera operator can do but quietly chant lumos spells, secretly hoping it will fill in the shadows. All of my camera operators are muggles, so proper planning is the only real solution for us and, I suspect, the vast majority of you.

Good lighting technicians understand the difference between lighting for a live audience, lighting for video, and the most challenging, lighting for both a live audience and video at the same time. As a video producer it is important to understand the differences and so you can work with lighting technician to be ensure their light design is more video-friendly. While the objective of this article is not to teach you how to light a large stage, determine power requirements, and set-up rigging, I'll cover off the basics so you are equipped to work with the A/V company who is taking care of that. In my own business I like to take on as many of the roles I can on larger productions but almost always I subcontract the specialty trades to experts who are better skilled, experienced, and equipped than am I. Lighting and audio are the two most common fields that I sub-out.

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