One of the world's most esteemed practitioners of television lighting (since it was radio, he jokes), Bill Klages is a multiple Emmy winner, including awards for his lighting of the Tony Awards and the Grammys. He supervised the concert lighting for Ray, the recent biopic about Ray Charles, and has designed the lighting for innumerable television projects. He recently started lighting houses of worship, turning his trained eye to the challenges of properly illuminating church services for broadcasting. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux queries Bill Klages on his recent conversion.

LD: As a television lighting designer (primarily), how did you get involved in lighting houses of worship?

BK: More and more churches are delivering their message through television. Many of them realized that, in order to upgrade their broadcast product, they required the assistance of professionals with a lot of experience in broadcast production, not only in lighting, but other disciplines as well.

The upgrading of the broadcast product takes many forms. Generally, it is the scenic environment that needs to be altered. I include lighting in the scenic environment. In my opinion, the professionals that are a necessary would be a television art director and a television lighting designer.

LD: You have designed the two largest houses of worship to date: The Lakewood Church in Houston, TX, and the Mormon Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City, UT. What were the biggest challenges you faced on either or both of those projects?

BK: If television is to take priority, every element must be tailored for the camera. Not only does this apply to the lighting and staging, but to everything from carpet to make-up to decoration. A bountiful supply of flowers, and greenery just won't do it!

The television system has a very narrow range of brightness that it can reproduce. This is just as true today as it was from the very beginnings of the electronic camera. As a result of this very limited dynamic range, the produced image differs greatly from that perceived by the eye. The end result is that everything is greatly exaggerated. Desired shadow area may be invisible. White flowers may appear as white blobs with no definition. Low contrast scenes as seen by the eye may have too much contrast when viewed on television. This is also disturbingly true in the reproduction of color as well. That beautiful “red” that you are so enamored of may not appear as you envision, but as an ugly, over-modulated signal.

As a result, the brightness range of the scenic environment (which, as I mentioned, includes the lighting) must be controlled quite carefully. In this area, there is no substitute for experience. The monitor, correctly adjusted, of course, will be the indicator of the success in adhering to these very narrow constraints.

This control of brightness means little if the scenic environment is poorly conceived and executed. I would expect the television art director to refine the basic architecture of the space into an environment that is photographically appealing, as seen through the camera lens. The staging of the production is a very important consideration as well. The nervous percussionist above the left shoulder of the pastor can become the star.

Particular emphasis should be placed on the predominant view: the camera frame that is the main shot when delivering the message. This could be (and usually is) the center-line waist shot of the pastor. This shot must be perfect. No question that lighting on the minister must be as flattering as possible. But in addition, the background should also be as interesting, flattering as well, but equally important, not a distraction (as the percussionist). Choice of a suitable background is not an easy task, particularly if I add an additional requirement that the background has a signature look that the viewer sub-consciously identifies with the particular church.

LD: What are major concerns in successfully lighting a house of worship?

BK: Always, the biggest concern is that there are proper mounting positions for lighting instruments. This is not to lessen the importance of venue design, camera positions, or any of the myriad of other things that go to make up a striking picture. But without the infrastructure, nothing will work. In my opinion, considering the issues of church's minimal staffing and their safety, a catwalk system works best and is the most efficient approach. Its placement and configuration must be carefully designed. If done properly, the actual instrumentation and lighting will follow quite easily.

In evolving the lighting plan, I feel sorry for the lighting person whose solution for television lighting is a Chimera® fixture, or the designer with theatre background who considers an ellipsoidal fixture at an elevation of 45°, fitted with bastard amber, as the do-all approach. In all church situations, throw distances will be long. So the solutions must be in keeping this fact. The catwalk system must create mounting positions that will give the lower elevation angles that are necessary for properly lighting people for television. Choice of the actual instrumentation must use appropriate methods for such long throw situations. There are very few secrets in the basic rules of obtaining a good visual result under these conditions. Don't be misled by proponents of a “new” approach. Nobody as yet has reinvented the basic methods. Simplicity, as well as restraint, should always be exercised.

The next consideration must be exposure. How much light? The conflict here has to do with two factors: shooting of the congregation and the appearance of the service to the congregation. We need the congregation lit for camera for inclusion in our production, establishing them as part of the venue and service as well as for closer reaction shots. But it is also important that the congregation is subjected to as little glare as possible and does not suffer any discomfort. [Note: In keeping with the low glare requirement, this would be vertical down light…not too flattering, but necessary. I suggest that certain areas of the congregation be lit separately for shooting closer shots.]

For sake of discussion, let's say that 50 footcandles represents a workable intensity. This value is dictated by the practicality of achieving this intensity and still keeping power and air conditioning requirements within reason. It should be pointed out that camera sensitivity has never been an issue. In order to accommodate the limitations imposed by the camera's dynamic brightness range, the platform area's lighting intensities for the pastor, choir, orchestra, and scenic elements would be the same order of magnitude. As a consequence, the platform area will appear low in brightness to the congregation. This resulting “flatness” is part of the price that you pay when you declare the television result as the primary goal.

LD: What inspires you in your creative goals?

BK: Probably the satisfaction of doing a good job and getting the result visualized. However, in the area of church production, I like to involve the church's media personnel heavily in the process from the outset, to ensure that they get as much information and understanding as possible. Therefore, when I leave the project, they have the basic knowledge to change and improve the initial lighting plan. I like to think I give them proper direction so that their skills will grow as a result. I get great satisfaction when this is successful.

LD: What piece of equipment can you absolutely not do without?

BK: Joke: the encouragement of my wife. Serious: probably the speed resulting from doing all the design and redesign in AutoCAD. I also use it as a quick visualization guide for illustrating camera views. In addition, as simple as it may seem, the light meter is an essential. The meter will give you an indication of what lighting intensities are before you see it on camera, providing a guide to adjustments that you may make as refinements. Your eye generally is a poor judge of lighting intensity differences as well as absolute values and will give little indication of what the camera will see. The meter will give you some security. As far as lighting equipment goes, our cup runneth over. However, although the today's menu of types available is large, choice should be dependent on the appropriateness of the unit to the application.