Adults inspired to watch Teletubbies by the Falwell-fueled controversy over Tinky Winky's purported sexual orientation may find the show odd for other reasons. The four amorphous, brightly colored title characters with TV screens on their tummies are strange enough; but what about Teletubbyland itself? At the beginning of each show, a sun with a laughing baby on its face rises over a landscape of rolling green field, plastic flowers, and cavorting bunnies. The Teletubbies' home is inside a dome in the center of this field, and though the roof is clearly covered in Astroturf, the suspicion dawns: This eccentric environment, a melding of fancy and reality, is nowhere near a studio soundstage.
Not a conventional one, at any rate. "Even within the business, people find it difficult to realize that it is shot outside," says Chris Watts, lighting director for the United Kingdom-based daily children's program, which is in its third season on BBC2 and its second, in only slightly modified form for American audiences, on PBS. "People still feel it's shot in a studio, and that we Chromakey everything onto the background. What you see is what it is: It is an outside set, the skies are real."
Not only that--when the action shifts inside the Teletubbies' house, it really goes inside the house. "People also say, where do you go to do the interiors?" Watts says, adding that the false assumption is that there's a soundstage somewhere for producing the interior segments of the show separately. "But this way, when it rains, we can just slip inside. It's as simple as that." Since shooting only occupies the summer months, it was also deemed cheaper to install the set on-site rather than keep a stage on hold throughout the year.
This unusual set of production circumstances for a show of this nature cuts right to the heart of the Teletubbies concept. Devised by Ragdoll Productions head Anne Wood and co-creator Andy Davenport, the program is targeted at one- to three-year-olds and is developed based on extensive market research as to the tastes of such a crowd. Adults may find the baby-faced sun slightly sinister, and the Teletubbies themselves--Po, the small red one; bright-yellow Laa Laa and bright-green Dipsy; and, of course, the provocatively lilac Tinky Winky--weird with their round stuffed-animal bodies and Walter Keane faces. But toddlers love it all, including the real-world inserts that appear on the Tubbies' tummy screens, which are transmitted through the receivers (including Tinky Winky's infamous triangle) on their heads.
"They're meant to be technical beings," says Watts. "Kids are quite happy with high-tech: That's the world they're now living in. And when they're that age, they like saturated pictures because that's what they see in their picture books. That's why you've got the bright colors on the Tubbies, which are fantasy creatures that live in the real world." That idea of the "real world" is also a feature of other Ragdoll shows, including Rosie and Jim and Tots TV. "Rosie and Jim are puppets on a narrowboat on one of our canals, and the Tots on Tots TV live in a thatched cottage in its own little wood. Anne Wood and Andy Davenport wanted to break away, I think, from the false-looking sets that have plagued children's television, and they wanted to get away from animation. They want to give children who live in a tower block, who can't see a piece of green grass, their own playing field for half an hour. They felt they couldn't do that in a studio set, because it would never, ever have the feeling of open air and co untryside, no matter how you try to light it."
Hence Teletubbyland, occupying about four acres in Stratford-on-Avon, not too far away from the Tots TV cottage. It was here Watts was summoned on a spring day in 1996. The LD, a BBC lighting staff member before the network's 1992 downsizing, was accustomed to such gritty television dramas as Casualty, a more location-driven British ER, and The Bill, set in and around an East London police station. But he had subbed for a week on Tots TV, and when he returned to England after an 18-month stint helping to run the Orbit Communications studios in Rome, he contacted various potential employers, including Ragdoll. "They phoned me one Friday afternoon, and asked if I could be there on Monday and have a chat," he recalls. "From there, off to this rather wet field in Stratford-on-Avon."
What Watts encountered when he arrived at the site was a lot of mud surrounding a hole with a concrete base, the future dome site, at its bottom. "It had been just a flat field," he says. "There were five containers put down for housing the control rooms, camera and lighting stores, wardrobe, production office, and so on. When they dug out the area to put the dome into, the spoil of that was made into hills and put over the containers. Then they put lots of turf down for the grass." There was a model of the dome--it was going to be about 50' (15m) across, have two tunneled doorways, four windows, and a central supporting column and steel girders for the Astroturf roof, which comes to a peak of about 20' (6m). But it was difficult for Watts to visualize the interior, much less figure out how to light it. Things were going to have to be done somewhat on the fly.
"The power was the only bit of planning we managed to get in, really," says the LD. "One of the designers said, 'Where would you like your power to come out, so we can run pipes in now?' I really just needed four outlets around the site--one for the windmill [the magical spinning tower that sends signals to the Teletubbies' antennae], and three other ones, so I wouldn't have more than a 100' (30m) or 150' (46m) run between any power point. Then I wanted two just outside the dome itself, one at each doorway. So there are six power outlets, but if I need to I can always run a feed back to the lighting cabin."
Since the interior of the dome was not completed before July, rigging started on the Teletubbies exteriors in May 1996, and production in June. The weather was with the company. "We were very fortunate to have a good summer the first year," says Watts, who adds that he doubles as the show's amateur weather forecaster. "A lot of the generic material--the opening and closing titles, the middle bit where they go into the insert--are always the same, and 95% of that was shot the first year, when we had very good skies."
Subsequent summers have not been so kind, but the retreat of the interior is always available. "It's not like being on the West Coast where you know you're going to get sunshine for x number of days a year," the LD says. "You can't say, all right, this week we're going to spend three days outside and two days inside--by the middle of the week, you might find that the days you were going to spend outside it's going to pour with rain." Shooting a four- or five-minute sketch a day is generally the goal.
The lighting setup outside is fairly simple: "I tend to use only one light," says Watts. "I might use a 200W as well, just to put a spot effect onto the trumpet that comes up and down. The Tubbies themselves I only light when they come toward the camera, not from a distance. I try to favor the darker pair, Tinky Winky and Po, because Laa Laa and Dipsy really stand out. If they're in the foreground and the other two are in the distance, you've got quite a large differential."
The question at the beginning was, what should the key exterior light be? "All I could base it on is what I'd done in outdoor location drama beforehand, which is normally a 2.5k for the close-ups," says the LD. "On this, I thought, OK, let's go with a 4k HMI, I'll be bold. On the first day, we came out in bright sunshine. Now, the shapes of the Tubbies' faces are slightly pointed, and they've got a very heavy jaw shadow going down the neck. The director said, 'I don't like that very much, Chris, it's too contrasty.' I thought, a 6k's not really enough, I'm going to have to go with a 12k." That worked beautifully--as long as it could be moved to the appropriate spot. "The 12k needed three people to manhandle it, and the hills are fairly steep, so you can only get this blooming lamp into certain places safely."
Soon, electrician Andy Bates approached Watts and recommended the Arrisun 60, a 6k, for its five-lens versatility, its intensity, and its comparative lightness. The LD calls the lamp "a godsend. When I put it on narrow flood, it gives me the same intensity, at the same distance, as a 12k. If I go to full spot, I can burn a piece of paper at about 40' [12m]." Of the lenses, the LD mostly uses the narrow flood and wide flood. "Instead of throwing the light out at nearly 180 degrees, you're getting a beam angle of something like 11x29 degrees from 50' [15m] on narrow, and 20x38 degrees on wide flood."
The Arrisun 60 sits on a Manfrotto double-lift stand, which is lightweight enough to move around easily. But one problem remained--the slope of the hills. "One of my electricians, Robin Johnson, said, 'What we need is a hill wedge,' " says Watts. "So he made this wedge that sits on the side of the hill, and gives me a level platform for one of the feet of the stand. If I spike it into the hill, I can actually get the lamp level on any of the hills, or even on the dome if necessary." Sometimes, after the sun goes down and the LD wants to retain a sense of daylight outside the interior windows, it is.
If it's sunny outside, the 6k generally acts as fill light; if not, it becomes the key. "If there's sunshine and clouds, we try to shoot in only one or the other," the LD says. "That's where I have to guess what it's going to do for the rest of the day. If the sun goes in or out during a take, we stop and redo it." On long exterior shooting days, the crew follows the sun. "In the morning we tend to shoot always looking in a westerly direction, and hope to finish that by lunchtime. The sun may come around 60 or 70 degrees, but the 6k is powerful enough to in-fill the shadows. We move around the set, and in the evening, when the sun's low in the west, we're shooting eastward as far as we can; we tend to only go as far as northeast, because due east we run out of set."
The real complexity for Watts comes in lighting the interior of the dome. "When I first saw it, I knew I had to light everything with HMIs because of the amount of daylight that was going to be around from the windows," he says. "There were also requirements for the Tubbies to be able to start outside and come inside. Therefore, I had to think about color-correcting, and I thought no, I don't want to do that. We're going to go HMI. I wanted it very slightly warmer inside than outside, so on the main key I do actually use quarter-CTO, bringing the color temperature down to about 4800K. But my main concern with the interior lighting is to try to keep the saturation up on the ceiling, what with the light coming through the windows and the key light. The Tubbies speak for themselves provided you illuminate them adequately; my first priority was getting the color right."
Indeed, the ceiling of the dome is richly illuminated in a color Anne Wood requested as "aqueous blue"--actually, Lee 116 Medium Blue-Green gel. "It's a fairly peaceful color, and one that tends to come out well on most cameras," says Watts, who adds that the solution to the question of the ceiling was long in coming. "We tried painting it and that didn't work; we tried illuminating it with white light, and that didn't work. It looked like the interior of a circus tent." Finally, pipe work was suspended from the ceiling to give the dome texture, and the LD devised a "ring of light" to encircle the central column near the top. "It's a bar about a foot down from the ceiling, and a foot from the central column. From that I hang four 1.2k HMIs with 116 over them, and eight 1k floods."
On the floor is another ring of gelled lamps, set into 16 recesses behind a steel groundrow. "I didn't want just a flat light coming up, so I chose PAR cans rather than a large soft source like a striplight type of fitting," Watts says. "I chose 500W wide-angle PAR cans, so I've got a tungsten beam of light coming up--way off the HMI color temperature, so the two blues come off rather differently. I could have put an extra half-CTB over the PAR cans, but that would have meant losing a lot of intensity. So I just stuck with the 116, and put a little bit of brushed silk over it to diffuse it very slightly. And I put half-CTO on the HMIs for color correction. The two blues don't match totally, but it works quite nicely--the blue at the ceiling end tails down to a slightly greener blue around the edge, so instead of being one flat color, it's two colors that merge into each other."
The PAR cans are the only instruments in the dome on dimmer. "I only bring them down to about 75%; it saves changing the gels every day," says the LD. "If I put long-nosed PAR cans there, the gels would last longer, but I have to use short-nosed ones because of the space. If I'm doing more than three days a week inside the dome, then I change the gels every three weeks."
Watts' lighting package also includes a 4k and two 2.5k HMIs, purchased from Strand, and four 575Ws, four 200Ws, the eight 1k floods, and the four 1.2ks, which are Arris. For key light on the Tubbies, the LD typically uses 2.5ks with quarter-CTO on low stands. But coming up with the most effective diffusion has taken some experimentation. "The first year, I used a trace frame with full white diffusion on it, because I didn't want any hard shadows," he says. "What happens when you diffuse the light? It goes everywhere. So what I had to then do was put flags in to stop the light going everywhere, and make up another frame with black wrap on the top and bottom. Then I could vary the slot of diffused light between the two bits of black wrap, and I could vary the distance between the two frames."
With three stands--one for the 2.5k, one for the trace frame, and one for the black wrap frame--lined up in a row, space became an immediate problem. "When we're shooting towards the windows, at the table area, say, the camera goes right in the middle, with a wide angle so you can get all the Tubbies in," says Watts. "I want my light at that position, or a couple of feet either side, because I want to light all four Tubbies without the foreground pair shadowing the background pair. So it was always a great fight for space. The snag also being that you run out of height because the central column is in the way, and I couldn't get the trace high enough to not get reflections in the window."
This is due to a structural problem no one considered--the windows are strictly vertical. "If they had been angled very slightly so that any reflections wouldn't be bounced straight back to the camera, it would have been ideal," the LD laments. "But a lot of the dome was built before anybody had an idea what was going to happen inside. You live with it--you can get around anything with flags and a little bit of work."
The second year, Watts tried a different approach. "I got away from the trace frame and black wrap, and went to using a reflector board, Arri Soft Diffusion," he says. "It's got various silks or reflectors you can put on the front of it. The one that I use all the time is a particular silver reflector which is woven so you can actually get a directional soft light. There's a prism effect that will spread the light sideways, but not up and down, or you can turn it around and make it go up and down but not sideways. I use it in the horizontal mode, and I'm getting a wedge of light which at 20' (6m), with the reflector 18" away from the 2.5k, comes out in an arc of about 90 degrees, and about 12' (4m) high. That way I can get my key light soft, but also keep it off the ceiling.
"It's very flat lighting, but one of the things we have to keep in mind is that we're dealing with kids between one and three," Watts continues. "Their perceptions of pictures are from books, which are two-dimensional. You're dealing with shape, not modeling: you're not really going out there and thinking of key-to-fill ratio, backlight, etc. I'm trying to make sure that all four Tubbies are a) evenly lit, and b) lit without shadows of their colleagues going onto them. That's why I'm tending to light down the access of the camera, or between the two cameras if they're offset. There are only about six places I actually put the lamps. With the configuration of the four Tubbies around the table, if I start getting into crosskeying, I'll end up with shadows going in every direction, and I'll be desaturating the ceiling, muddying the corners. It won't look clean, and you're trying to make it look as clean as possible. Why put up six lights when you can do it with one? We're using two Sony 700 cameras, one on wid e angle, and the other on close-ups. And they're giving cracking good digital pictures."
The wider shots, showing roughly 3/4 of the interior when the Teletubbies chase each other or the Noo-Noo, their intrepid vacuum cleaner, around the central column, have tended to be a headache for Watts. "The camera's set up in one of the tunnels, and shooting towards the column, so you're seeing from the bed area around to the toaster area," he says. "You're seeing two windows, the ceiling, the whole thing. On that one, I'm using virtually my whole lighting kit." The LD can throw in gobos with the "Tubby pattern"--a circle with fans spinning--on the floor to break up the area, and he also may vary the color a bit, using Lee 115 as well as 116, on tubes under the steps around the central column rostra.
"Being a dome shape, it goes to zero at the corners," says the LD regarding the interior. "Normally on a four-waller, at least you've got a wall going up to its full height. So I'm limited to how far back I can get a light. And I can't light from the outside in." This relates to Watts' biggest challenge of all on Teletubbies--the window treatments. One problem is the tendency of conditions outside to be changeable, with sun going in and out and rendering whatever balancing solution the LD has come up with suddenly ineffective. Watts recalls one August day when it went from cloudy enough that he left the windows free of neutral density, but put .3 ND on the key light, to so sunny that he had to put 1.5 ND up outside. "Fortunately," he says, "the Tubbies don't work quite that quickly, since it gets fairly hot in their costumes. They have to have breathers."
Finding the proper ND surface was the big vexer. "ND on filters is not rigid, otherwise it wouldn't bend, but it's not pliable either," says Watts. "It rattles around. You get your electrician to put some .3 over that window, and they put pins or staples on it. As soon as the wind blows, it starts to billow, and if you've got lights inside the room, nine times out of ten you're going to see a reflection. Also, from a sound point of view, you hear it rattling. What I wanted was something you could just stretch ever so slightly, to give it a bit of tension to keep it from moving around so much. I've written about this in as many places as possible, and Rosco England approached me about it, but nothing has come of it."
Watts' solutions have varied. "I use Rosco scrim quite a lot, either the black and silver or the one that's black on both sides. Those are great, because they can billow around and you don't get reflections. The double black one is better; if you use the black and silver, it can look fine, and then the sun moves around to an angle and catches the silver, giving an edge to each of the little holes in the scrim. The double black gives you about 11/2 stops of ND--you could double it up, but as soon as you start putting another layer on, you're going to worry about patterning on the camera.
"Another thing I've used quite a lot on the windows are double black nets, which are similar to scrims but it's a very soft material," he continues. "So I might put up a frame of acrylic ND at .6, and then I put a double black net over the top of that, giving me about 1.2 worth of ND over that window. And of course, net is very easy to put on and take off, so if the sun is really bright, then I might end up with a .9 ND plus a double black net. I made up frames that fit inside the windows, and on those I've got scrim, I've got .6 ND, and I've got .9 ND. And then I've got a double black and a single black net, so I can mix and match between any of those. My vision engineer, John Case from Transmission (TX) Ltd., the people who provide all the technical equipment and crew, keeps his eye on the windows, and tells me when I need more or less."
The doorways to the dome present another problem. Watts explains, "If they're running around from inside to outside, then I ask the director to shoot it at more of an angle, so I can at least get a net halfway over the doorway. Or, what I tend to do is put two double black nets over 3/4 of the doorway, and they've got the rest to run in and out. That goes over the exterior of the dome basically, and they've got a passageway, the tunnel, to run through before they get to the door. Of course, what they're trying to do is relate the outside to the inside, so I can't put net over the whole thing."
Watts concludes that most of his work on Teletubbies has been trial and error, and will undoubtedly continue to be so when he returns to light the next round of shows in May. "From the beginning it was, today's problem is this, and you had to go and work out the problem," he says. "You come back after the first year, and change things a little bit, and last year a little more. Three years down the line, you look at it and think, I'm quite pleased with that, it works."
And if it doesn't, Watts might just consider asking Tinky Winky to pull something out of his magic bag.
Lighting package (1) Strand 4k HMI (2) Strand 2.5k HMIs (8) Arri 1kW floods (4) Arri 1.2k HMIs (4) Arri 575W HMIs (4) Arri 200W HMIs (1) Arrisun 60 6k (16) 500W wide-angle PAR cans Lee 116 Medium Blue-Green gel Rosco scrim Arri Soft Diffusion