Kino Flo lighting instruments have become such an indispensable part of most film shoots that it's difficult for many cinematographers and gaffers to remember a time when it wasn't so. Yet a decade ago, the portable fluorescent units were being produced and rented on a small, customized scale out of a San Fernando Valley garage, mostly for location lighting. Five years before that, the instruments didn't exist at all. Company founder and president Frieder Hochheim was a gaffer, and vice president Gary Swink was considering a career switch from theatre to film. The idea of fluorescent lighting in movies was anathema.
Now the company is a major motion picture player with dozens of employees, a 60,000-sq.-ft. (5,400 sq. m) facility in Sun Valley, CA, a sales- and rental-based product line extending to scores of lights, components, accessories, and kits, a global distribution network, and a trade name as synonymous with its generic product as Kleenex is with facial tissue. Plus it's an Academy Award winner. Yet despite its force in the industry, Kino Flo prides itself on being an end user-oriented company. And the end users seem to love them. "I don't leave home without my Flos," says Judy Irola, ASC. Oscar-winning Titanic DP Russell Carpenter, ASC, weighs in with, "I usually have a small arsenal of Kino Flos with me on every job I do." According to Woody Omens, ASC, head of the cinematography program at the University of Southern California (USC), "They solve problems that couldn't be solved before they were around. They filled a major gap."
The cinematographer most associated with the development of Kino Flos, Robby Muller, outlines some of the advantages of the portable fluorescent: "It replaced bounce light very well. On Barfly, we had a small location with a lot of glass, and I wanted to keep the soft fill light away from the direct light. With Kino Flos, I could take single-tube sources or smaller units, and put them all around, just out of camera range. They didn't generate any heat, and because they could run on normal house electricity, could go anywhere. Also, the sound equipment couldn't hear them. It was a big transition; it made the existing lighting much easier."
Barfly, released in 1987, was the breakthrough film for Kino Flo, but there were numerous small steps leading up to it. Hochheim, a Canadian native of German descent, studied film at Ryerson Polytechnical University in Toronto before working as a lighting technician at CBC-TV in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and as gaffer on films like Quest for Fire and Crimes of Passion. "I wanted to bea DP, and the only way to get into that, I felt, was to understand light. The only way to understand light, to my mind, was not by pulling focus or operating the camera, but by physically doing light." Hochheim's first project with the German-born Muller was Body Rock, in 1984. Their second collaboration, the 1985 TV film Finnegan Begin Again, shot in Richmond, VA, brought Swink and him together.
"Stage lighting was my area," says Swink, who studied theatre at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It wasn't until the end of college that I got involved with an LA-based film crew that had come to town. By the time Frieder arrived, I knew my way around a film set, and I was a pretty good electrician." Hochheim hired Swink to be his best boy electric, and the theatre lost a lighting designer. "It worked so well that I pulled Gary onto my next job," says Hochheim.
That project collapsed prior to production, but it left its legacy. "Chuck Minsky was the DP, and as part of preproduction, he wanted to mount fluorescent lamps," says Hochheim. "But he wanted to do it without all the heavy ballasts and other things associated with hardware store-type fixtures. So our idea was just to carve out a block of 4" foam, mount the lamps on it, and double-stick it to the ceiling. We ran out and bought some magnetic ballasts and slapped it all together, and... well, it just didn't work. The ballast just wouldn't drive remote lamps, not as long as they were standard frequency. And you could never get the lamps to fire unless they were at room temperature. It was a complete disaster."
The ballast issue was just one of the problems plaguing anyone who had tried to adapt fluorescents to film use since their invention in the 1930s. The metal fixtures were prohibitively heavy, and the spiking green color of the lights was seen as frightful. Magnetic ballasts were also noisy, and weighed 2lb apiece.
But Hochheim and Swink were intrigued, and by the time of No Mercy, in 1986, they had come up with a proto-Kino Flo in a reflective foam board fixture--a small interior car gag that was a predecessor to the Mini-Flo. On that film, says Hochheim, "I ran into an engineering group that was working on high-frequency fluorescents for copy machines," says Hochheim. High-frequency meant flicker-free, and the electronic ballasts the engineers were experimenting with were small, lightweight, and silent. "One thing led to another," Hochheim says. "We got some lamp samples from the engineers, and started pushing the envelope."
On Barfly, both men agree, "it all came together." Barbet Schroeder's film, starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, was inspired by the life of poet Charles Bukowski, and took place primarily in downtown LA bars and tenement flophouses, cramped locations that the director wanted to photograph with wide-angle lenses. Though muffled magnetic ballasts were suitable for small lamps in the main bar location, the tenement sets, lit from outside with large HMIs, required a substantial amount of soft interior fill. "Since bouncing light would require a lot more square footage than the sets had to offer, the natural thing to do was start playing with the fluorescents," says Hochheim. Four-foot banks, run off electronic high-output ballasts that were boosted to operate lamps up to 75' (23m) away, were hidden all around the rooms, behind furniture and, dimmed down and handheld, near the camera lens for actor eyelight. Primitive louvers were created to control light spread. Most importantly, the lamps could be detache d from their fixtures for unheard-of flexibility of placement.
"Robby really embraced it, and he wanted to do more and more," says Swink. "We kept running out, so we would go to the local hardware store to buy everything they had, build it in the back of our trailer, and send it in." Hochheim estimates that 85 to 90% of the interior light on Barfly was done with the new high-output, flicker-free fluorescents. And word started getting out.
"Barbet Schroeder has a number of friends in the industry who came by the set to take a look," Hochheim recalls. "DP Bob Richardson was one of the visitors, and so were cinematographers Theo van de Sande and Fred Murphy." The instruments started developing fans in unexpected places. "It was the first time that sound mixer Petur Hliddal embraced fluorescents on the set, because they didn't interfere with his radio mics or his boom. Petur said, 'You're crazy if you don't do something with this, guys, because somebody else will.' "
Sure enough, after Barfly, gaffers and DPs started asking to rent the units. "We built more and more, working in Gary's one-car garage," says Hochheim. "We thought there was potential--maybe it could be like a small Italian bicycle shop. You have a couple of guys, you turn out something, and it's a great way to supplement your income. But the more we built, the more people wanted them."
Kino Flo was incorporated in 1987, but Hochheim and Swink kept a low profile. "We relied on word of mouth," says Hochheim. "We knew there was no way we could produce these in any kind of quantity if we started publicizing them." The gaffer and best boy continued working on films like Earth Girls Are Easy and The Handmaid's Tale, and in 1988 they hired Ray Goitiandia, who had a background in business and marketing, as general manager.
"I wanted to work in small manufacturing, and it didn't get any smaller than this," says Goitiandia, who remains with the company after 11 years. "I saw that Frieder understood the industry, had insight into what it needed. I figured, if this goes belly up in six months, I'm no worse off, and if it goes somewhere, I'll be in at the bottom." Says Hochheim, "Ray brought a business side, which focused us. I think had we not had his influence early on, we would not be where we are now."
"The first year or so, I was really the only person on the payroll," says Goitiandia. "When people would call for a Kino Flo, we'd make one and send it out. At the end of a show, the DP would go in one direction, the gaffer would go in another, and spread the word." A database of DPs, gaffers, and producers who had used the gear was slowly compiled, and suggestions taken. "Our marketing was to the end customer, because they knew exactly what they were facing when they went on location," the general manager says.
In the meantime, Hochheim and Swink, who say they were still making Kino Flos specifically for themselves, were perfecting the design of the lamp and fixture. "With the fixtures, the initial idea was to make something expendable, like gels are expendable," says Hochheim. "We were trying to keep the cost down, so our materials were whatever was the least expensive." Since fluorescents generate very little heat, materials could be relatively fragile. "We went from corrugated foam board to corrugated paper, with vinyl laminates for moisture protection. We saw that that was not adequate, so we settled on corrugated plastic. Even then, the thought was that it's an expendable item--but we find that most people are getting a lifespan of five to six years out of them."
Swink, who is lead designer of the company's equipment, worked out a ball-and-socket mount plate for the fixtures, which varies from a traditional yoke mount and allows greater ease of manipulation. "At breakfast one morning, I looked up and saw that the restaurant had speakers mounted with ball-and-socket arms," says Swink. "I read the name off the bracket, and we called them, and tailored it to what we needed." Harnesses conduct power to the lamps, which are coated with clear polycarbonate sleeves to protect users from glass, mercury, and phosphors in case of breakage, and attached to the fixtures with releasable nylon cable ties. "You can take them apart, and stick the bare bulbs anywhere, which is a great advantage," says Ellen Kuras, ASC, another Kino Flo fan, who used them on her two recent features, The Mod Squad and Summer of Sam (see "Heat wave," page 60). A removable reflector and louver joined the mounting plate and lamp harness in the fixture housing.
As demand for the company's product grew, Hochheim and Swink started working on new products and applications full-time. The 4' and 2' 4Bank System design soon evolved into a Double System and Single System. Smaller was the general trend, and soon gaffers and DPs were swooning over the 9" Mini-Flo and the 4" and 6" Micro-Flo, which are perfect for car interiors, miniatures, tabletops, and camera lights. At the other extreme was the 10-lamp Wall-O-Lite with onboard ballast, ideal for broad output in locations or as bluescreen/greenscreen frontlighting. With the introduction of the Image line of studio fixtures, Kino Flos became known as more than location lighting tools.
>From the beginning, Hochheim and Swink built on bank loan seed money with rental profits, which were poured back into product development and manufacturing structure. For five years, says Goitiandia, "We were experimenting with a lot of different prototypes and fixture designs, and we wanted to keep it rental-only while we worked out the bugs. At first, we rented directly to productions. It got to a stage where Kino Flos were showing up on everybody's feature and commercial lists, and rental houses started sub-renting the equipment. Then they asked, 'When is this stuff available to purchase?' " Kino Flo was granted a US patent for its portable fluorescent lighting system in 1992, and about a year later, the company's products became available for sale.
"As soon as we started selling," Hochheim continues, "we started building an international distribution network. We opened an office in London, and contracted with distributors in Paris and Germany to handle our products and give customers the kind of service they required, which to us was a very big thing." Though sales now account for about 75% of Kino Flo's business, Goitiandia says, "We've always kept the rental department so we can have a direct tie to the end customer, and produce customized products for them. Also, we can try things in the rental department before making them available for sale. But now we're more of a support for the other rental companies that have Kino Flo equipment." The general manager says there are now about 75 employees at the Sun Valley headquarters.
>From early on, Hochheim and Swink had been concentrating on designing full-spectrum True Match fluorescent lamps: the KF55, balanced to daylight, and KF29 and KF32 balanced to tungsten. Earlier, a noisy "dog's breakfast" of gel had been required to offset the traditional instruments' green-spiking tendency. "The physical structure is one thing, but without the introduction of color-correct full-spectrum lights, I don't think this product would have gotten as far as it has," says Hochheim. "The process took a number of years. Allying ourselves with a lamp company that was willing to work with us, I had to translate film terminology to lamp engineers used to working with mathematical and phosphor formulations--translate what an f-stop is to lumens, and relate spectral sensitivity curves of film to the spectral distribution of a lamp. Just because a lamp is considered high-color-rendering, that doesn't necessarily mean it relates well in film. I think a daylight lamp came first, and then we developed a 3200K l amp that got accepted."
Hochheim credits the True Match system for Kino Flo's 1995 Oscar, a Technical Achievement Award voted to Hochheim, Swink, and engineers Joe Zhou and Don Northrop. It was at that ceremony that presenter Jamie Lee Curtis departed from her script to give a testimonial for Kino Flo. She recounted that she herself had become a Kino Flo fixture on the 1994 film True Lies, shot by Russell Carpenter. "I took a Micro-Flo and taped it to the side of Jamie's face, to light Arnold Schwarzenegger's face when they were kissing," says Carpenter. "She loves Kino Flos--when she saw how nice she looked, she said she was going to buy stock in the company." (Unfortunately, Kino Flo is privately held.)
Carpenter first used Kino Flos on the 1990 film Solar Crisis, and says that since then, "They've become a tool for me on pretty much every job I've done." The DP recently shot a Lexus commercial using Kino Flos in Hydro-Flex Inc.'s underwater housings for a greenscreen effect, and on Titanic, he often used the Wall-O-Lite or 4Banks filtered with Lee 216 white diffusion for Kate Winslet's key light. "Also, we used Kino Flos in a sort of unconventional way. Because there was so much running through narrow corridors in the movie, I needed to light the actors in a flattering way, but on the move. I found that if you brought a 4' tube close enough to a person's face, it actually made a very nice wrap of light. So we attached one out of its harness to the end of a sound pole and ran with it. We called these our light sabers. We also had our 'hammerhead' configuration, which was a few 2' tubes made into a T on the end of a pole for a frontal fill light."
Versatility is obviously one of Kino Flo's virtues. Muller, for example, completely faked a window light on Until the End of the World by hanging a Wall-O-Lite as fill. And Omens, an Emmy winner for An Early Frost who has recently concentrated on teaching, talks about using USC's Micro-Flos in student projects as candlelight augmentation. "We just hide them behind the candles, because they're only 4" long," he says. "It's pretty hard to hide any other kind of light like that." Omens and Irola, who also teaches at USC in between her commercial, feature, and television projects, both attest to another quality: the company's generosity. "Frieder has been extremely good, and so has his staff, in helping students," says Omens. "They take the time to explain the instruments, how they are packaged, how you transport them and set them up."
Recently, Kino Flo has expanded into other realms, from broadcast and virtual studios to fashion photography and architecture. The Diva-Lite 400 and 200, portable softlights with onboard dimming ballasts and universal input for EFP and ENG applications, have brought the company into the digital video arena. Other relatively new products include the Flathead 80, an eight-lamp instrument similar to an Image 80, but with a pair of remote ballasts and a removable center mount arm for location use. The 6'x6', 16-lamp Blanket-Lite, which can roll up for transport, and be attached to an aluminum frame, stands, or grid, is a particularly popular new rental. "You can walk it into a room and set it up," says Hochheim. "To create that quality of light using any other technique, you'd have to drop so much hardware into that room that you couldn't fit a camera." Mega ballasts, which operate 6' and 8' systems, are used for these units.
Kino Flo's potential continues to grow. For several years, the company has been US distributor for Dedolights, which in turn represents Kino Flo in Germany. A licensing agreement has also been struck with Cine Power, a UK-based company working on rechargeable battery systems. In 1997, the company obtained UL safety listing for broadcast, video, and film set lighting, the first of its kind for portable fluorescents. And very recently, Kino Flo developed a custom onboard DMX control system for the Image Studio series.
"Our primary market always has been and always will be the motion picture market," says Hochheim. "Obviously there are crossovers, and if we view ourselves as a lighting company catering to the imaging industry, that opens up a lot of areas. The high-color-rendering lamps are now being accepted by museums, for example. But the product is still driven by the motion picture industry. We have people out in the field on a daily basis, on the set, interacting with filmmakers." Swink adds, "DPs have always been open in talking to us about what they need, and they know we'll respond."
Illustrating the company's accessibility and personal touch, Irola recalls a recent shoot in Berlin: "The producers ordered my Kino Flos, and whoever sent them sent the worst European copy. I called Frieder in LA and he got what I wanted to me overnight from Munich." This also raises another issue, or more of a non-issue: competitors. "We've had a flurry of competition," says Hochheim. "You just work harder. I think innovation is good; imitation is not good." Says Goitiandia, "There are companies that have tried to make their own version of our products. The only thing is, we design our own ballast, we design our own lamp, we design our own fixture."
Though Muller jokes, "Frieder stopped gaffing when he found out it would be a nice thing to sell," the fact remains that Hochheim was sidetracked from his initial goal of becoming a director of photography. On the other hand, he was admitted to the ASC a few years ago as an associate member, which increases the feedback he gets from active cinematographers. And there are other compensations. Hochheim says, "I think if I didn't have a family, I might not have taken the risk of going into this." Swink elaborates: "It was a way of getting off the road."
"I miss it for all of an hour when I'm on a set," Hochheim concludes. "But then at 2 in the morning it's nice to know I can just walk away from it." And he's amazed at what his "Italian bicycle shop" has turned into: "Neither of us figured we'd be sitting here doing this. We thought we'd just have our garage with stuff stacked to the rafters, put stuff out there, and do pictures in between. It didn't quite work that way."