Across the East River, just a subway ride away from Manhattan, a whirling dervish has been let loose in Astoria, NY-based Lifetime Studios. The dervish, unleashed for a taping of MTV's new comedy/variety/freak show Oddville, MTV, spins out of control unaware of his mark, and lands upstage of the bewildered host in an area lit only for props. It's up to lighting director Andrea "Sid" Curtis to help this Oddville performer and other unusual guests like him--the human bowling ball, the bartender who bites through unopened cans, the singing cowboy--to find their light, a task made easier by the studios' DeSisti lighting system. "We were able within 10 minutes to have lights focused on him just by using a pole-op stick," says Curtis, referring to the pole operation that can pan, tilt, and focus the lights in the grid.
While the pole operation helped Curtis quickly focus the stray dervish, the motorized system's self-climbing hoists allowed Oddville lighting designer Randy Nordstrom to lower and raise the grid in a fraction of the time it would take with a stationary system. "It truly simplifies life when you've got the movable hoists," says Nordstrom, who also designed the lighting for Our Home, a Lifetime Television talk show taping at the studios. "Most stages in town are fixed-grid, or at the very most they have some chunks of grid that are chain-hung. At Lifetime, it's really easy to put a show in and move stuff around. You can pretty much guarantee that you will get everything where you want, and you can trim certain chunks of the room at different heights, which helps with certain shows."
This kind of feedback from lighting designers and technicians is proof positive that the lighting setups, the only fully motorized grids available for hire in New York, are a major asset to the studios, according to Lifetime director of studio operations Mitchell Brill. "The lighting system provides incredible time savings, which equates to money savings for our clients," says Brill, who lists MTV, HBO, Jim Henson Productions, Fox, and the Children's Television Workshop among Lifetime Studios' clients. "Being the only facility in New York City with this system really separates us from the competition."
Setting itself apart with technology is part of the effort behind Lifetime's ongoing capital improvement program which includes upgrading the DeSisti motorized grids and instruments in the 8,000-sq.-ft. (720 sq. m) Studio 1 (where Oddville is taped) and the 4,000-sq.-ft. (360 sq. m) Studio 2, and the DeSisti instruments installed on a fixed-pipe grid in the 3,200-sq.-ft. (288 sq. m) Studio 3. Originally installed when the studios were built in 1988, the motorized lighting systems were a first for production facilities in the United States, according to William Liento, Jr., president of North Bergen, NJ-based DeSisti Lighting. "These systems had been in operation throughout Europe for awhile, but it wasn't being done here in America at that time," says Liento. "At Lifetime, it was really forward thinking on their part. They were one of the first in the United States to get into motorized rigging."
Lifetime's forward thinking in terms of technology became a selling point when it began to market its facilities to the New York production community. While the studios were originally intended to serve only Lifetime productions, the network's programming shifted to original movies and acquired programming, and by 1993 Lifetime Studios was born. At that time, Brill was hired to position the studios for non-Lifetime productions. "We designed the logo, the name, the stationery, the ads, and everything took off from there," says Brill.
Now Brill and his staff--senior technical supervisor Jeffrey Hartnett, technical supervisor Greg Pulgin, facility supervisor John "Tex" LePore, and manager of studio operations Tracie Brennan--are reinforcing the studios' identity through the acquisition and upkeep of state-of-the-art technology. Working with Liento, the Lifetime staff is currently upgrading the lighting systems by replacing 146 steel-on-steel gearboxes with brass-on-steel for quieter, stronger operation. Lifetime will also upgrade its house lighting inventory by replacing older 4kW and 2kW soft lights with newly designed 2kW units, and adding 1kW and 650W lamps. The lamp retrofit is expected to significantly reduce power consumption over time, and comes as a result of using three recently acquired Ikegami HL-59 digital processing cameras that operate at lower light levels.
"The nice thing about the [Ikegami HL] 59s is they can go down to such low light levels that we can shoot at 30fc and still make really good pictures," says Hartnett.
Liento adds that the motorized lighting system also makes it easier to use lower wattages. "They can use smaller lights because the cameras require less lighting, and because the hoists can bring the lights into position," he says. "As you lower the hoist into position, you're not as high up, so you don't need higher wattage."
On the console end of the lighting systems, Lifetime has installed a new Electronic Theatre Controls (ETC) Expression 2X console in Studio 2, a direct response to what lighting designers are looking for, says Hartnett. "ETC has made huge inroads for people who do lighting for television, in the sense that they really listen to what the lighting designers and operators want," he explains. "It's become the wave, and we've consciously followed it because we're a client-driven business."
Studio 1 is equipped with a Strand Lightpalette 90 console that was acquired several years ago, but still "serves beautifully," according to Hartnett. With Oddville, for example, the Lightpalette facilitated some of the show's motion-controlled set pieces. "The Lightpalette 90 allows you to do both DMX and AMX at the same time," explains Hartnett. "They had a number of motion-controlled objects like a spinning chandelier, a spinning hand, and other motor-driven elements. They can control these DMX-operated devices at the same time they're running the dimmers through the AMX."
The Oddville lineup also includes a musical segment which requires the lighting to shift from the more fixed talk show setup toa freer concert-style approach. To add movement, LD Nordstrom brought in six High End Systems Trackspot(R) automated luminaires and "went a little over the top with color," he says, but the technical feat was the quick turnaround of the lighting looks. "At the end of each Oddville half-hour there's a different band, which means they light two acts each day, three days a week of shooting," explains Brill. "That's six adjustments which take a matter of minutes versus hours. When a new band comes in and they need different lighting, they can lower a hoist, add a light, and get the job done in 15 minutes while they're setting up, as opposed to two hours."
It's during the band performances that lighting director Curtis has another opportunity to use the pole operation to full effect. "I use it very often for the bands," she says. "We get a lot of last-minute surprises, and it's great to be able to get out there with the pole and move the lights around and open the barndoors so easily. I can use the pole while the band is out there without worrying about getting a ladder out."
Another feature of the system is that each hoist has built-in circuits for tech power and video and audio drops. Besides the motorized system, Hartnett and facility manager LePore are quick to point out that the studios provide a lighting and grip package. "Most places give you the bare bones and you have to bring in everything you need," says Hartnett. "We have to be a step above places in Manhattan because there is this mentality that you take a jump over the East River and it's a problem. So we position ourselves with stuff that makes it really attractive to come over here."
Liento says many television studios are realizing the benefits of user-friendly lighting systems. DeSisti has 95 studio installations around the world, including motorized systems at Nickelodeon in Orlando, the New Jersey Network in Trenton, ABC (TV Studio 2) in New York, WTTW in Chicago, and WPIR-TV Channel 6 in Puerto Rico. The company also plans to open a Hollywood office in October to meet growing interest on the West Coast. "The West Coast follows a film tradition and they're slower to make changes in their production technique than the East Coast," says Liento, who adds that the next step will be robotic systems, which his Italian parent company, DeSisti Lighting srl, has already installed in Germany, Holland, and Spain.
"One of the robotic studios used to do three shows a week and now they do three shows a day. That's an incredible change," Liento says. "Imagine the additional revenue from being able to produce that much."
While there may be some discussion about whether such fast turnaround would eliminate jobs, Liento points to how these systems can help generate more work. "If you're in a television studio that can do three shows a day, you have a lot of other jobs you're producing. It's not going to eliminate work, it's going to produce more work and more revenue for the studios," he says. "And there is a need for new product. There is a need to fill up 120 channels 24 hours a day, and the people who can produce more efficiently are the people who are going to do well."
Brill agrees, and welcomes a steady stream of production traffic even as it forces him to do some creative scheduling when it comes to the lighting upgrade. "Knock on wood, we've been busy enough that we've had to wait to get access to the stages and retool the gears between projects," explains Brill, who is ushering in Bear and the Big Blue House, a Jim Henson production made for the Disney Channel, after Oddville. "We just try to juggle our schedule to find openings to get in here, so this will be an ongoing process, but it should be completed by the end of the year. We laugh because, if I had my way, there would never be time to get in here."
Director of studio operations Mitchell Brill
Senior technical supervisor Jeffrey Hartnett
Technical supervisor Greg Pulgin
Facility supervisor John "Tex" LePore
Manager of studio operations Tracie Brennan
Studio 1 8,000 square feet 30' to the ceiling 25' to the lighting grid Audience seating for 200
Studio 2 4,000 square feet 21'2" to the ceiling 16.5' to the lighting grid Audience seating for 100 people
Studio 3 3,200 square feet 15'2" to the ceiling 14.5' to the lighting grid Audience seating for 50 people
Selected Lighting Equipment Fully motorized DeSisti lighting grid with self-climbing hoists DeSisti lighting and grip complement Strand dimmers Strand Lightpalette 90 console (Studio 1) ETC Expression 2X consoles (Studios 2 and 3)