Jan-Feb 2003

"Is There a Lighting Man in the House?"

by Bill Klages

Recently, I attended a session of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Society Convention at the Pasadena Conference Center. A panel of well-known Cinematographers discussed digital mastering for feature films. A projection screen was adjacent to the panel that was to show applicable examples. There were no means available to separately light the panel members and still see the projected images. The moderator of the panel, George Dibie, president of the International Cinematographer’s Guild, exclaimed in frustration, "Is there a lighting man in the house?" He was surrounded by a panel of lighting experts and a room full of lighting professionals - ironic?

The problem with this particular situation is not isolated to one room in Pasadena or one convention venue; it exists throughout the country. There is no lecture or seminar room in any convention facility that provides any means of properly lighting the typical presentation. Incidentally, the same can be said of head tables in ballroom events.

Who is at fault in this dilemma? All of these facilities had a “Architectural Lighting Consultant”. Each facility boasts about its “state of the art lighting”. In case you are wondering what “state of the art lighting” is, it consists of two circuits for each space, overhead general fluorescent lights and a group of wide-beam angle down lights. Oh, I forgot, there is a wall box with buttons (“state of the art control system”), programmed to provide different lighting levels. They are usually set for “low”, ”medium” and “high”. Translate these settings to “might as well be off”, “not enough for note-taking but too much spill on projection screen” and ”noon day in the market for a visibly challenged cleaning crew”. Of course the plot thickens when, a half hour before your presentation and after having just finished a very heated confrontation with the building’s surly group of A/V technicians, you ask for the lighting person. “We’re really (not) sorry, but the person who knows how to program the system is off today”. You reply, in your most modest manner, “Never mind, I’ll do it myself”. I have big news for you. You won’t. Give up at this point. What devious, disturbed mind devised the “easy” programming of architectural control systems? Forget any thoughts about enhancing your beautifully programmed talk with a proper visual environment.

Is it so difficult to apply rudimentary theater to presentation areas? I suggest a little more lighting facility and a lot more common sense might do the job.
Let us address specifics:

1. We need lighting instruments to separately light the presenters or panel members. If a projection screen is involved, these units have to be capable of lighting a precise area. This requirement dictates ellipsoidal theater instruments with framing shutters. Plan on at least two (three is better) fixtures, located in positions that will provide visibility of the presenter to the guys who came in late and had to sit at the extreme ends of the audience. Light should come from left, center and right positions. The units should be at an elevation angle from the presenter’s eye level horizontal plane of 30 to 45 degrees. They should be placed in accessible positions that they can (and, hopefully, will) be focused for each session. Remember to de-focus the ellipsoidals slightly so the edges of the lighted area are not so sharp that they are a distraction to the audience. Make sure that the presenter’s background is not a white wall. Otherwise. he will be in silhouette! In fact, the interior designer should be tactfully instructed that 90% reflectance white is NOT the color of choice.

2. The audience lighting can be standard architectural down lights but with a narrow cutoff angle to minimize glare for the audience. However, they should be circuited so that units that spill light on the presentation area or screen can be turned off. The lighting must be able to be isolated on the audience only. Remember that, in addition to the ability for the audience to see to take notes, the presenter may also need to see the audience to connect with them or take questions.

3. The presenter may need some local work light, of low intensity, on his script or equipment controls. Carefully place these lights in positions that don’t blind the audience or throw a huge shadow of the presenter all over the back wall!

4. Other nice touches would be ability to control any down lights that are at entrances so that a slightly higher lighting level can be set for latecomer’s safety. Separate control of the aisles is also nice. It may also be advantageous from a visual standpoint to have control of lighting enhancing architectural details as soffits, valences, sconces, etc. And probably just as important, don’t forget a separate down light on the Coffee and Danish table.

I must mention that it is important that all instruments and lighting units be individually dimmer controlled with the ability to be easily grouped. In addition, the programming should be intuitive so that the presenter can not only set it up, but can also have control of different lighting settings during his presentation. If there is no programming time available and he must ad-lib, he should have the ability to manually adjust the different lighting circuits. Resist the temptation to have everything on three buttons, each 1/8” in diameter, 1/8” apart. While you are at it, please take the mystery out of the circuiting by giving instruments names that clearly describe their function, “Audience Reading Light” instead of “ Group 7, Room 101”.

Enough sermonizing. I hope that I am correct in anticipating that lighting professionals in the architectural field will take this as a challenge to provide sensible lighting facilities to the large group of presenters at every convention and seminar to improve the delivery of their message. I, for one, would be very grateful.