Let's say you're a gaffer on The Sopranos, spending one of your precious workdays in Paterson, NJ, lighting location scenes. It's winter, and there are only about eight hours of viable daylight: The trouble is, a productive day of shooting is rarely less than 12. Since your stage sets are at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, NY — that's two rivers and an island full of traffic away — you move to a nearby interior location to fill in an extra scene or two. Perhaps that interior is in a house or restaurant, and presents space challenges, or power problems. Unfortunately, prep time has been limited; after all, when one show is being shot while another is in preproduction, it's not hard to see which is going to demand most of your attention.

This is no hypothetical situation; it's part of the normal routine when lighting TV series that regularly venture outside the studio. “Basically, television lighting on location comes down to time,” says Kurt Johnson, gaffer on CBS's popular new series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. “Television is completely different from commercials and features in that way. A feature may shoot a page and a half a day; a commercial, 20 seconds' worth in two or three days. We shoot six to eight or even 10 pages a day. We have to be ready for all eventualities. And what it comes down to, in terms of making a lighting package, is efficiency.”

Lighting Dimensions talked to gaffers on three TV series, two of which are New York-based (The Sopranos and Law & Order), and one that shoots mostly in Los Angeles (CSI). Everyone agrees about the nature of location lighting for hour-long episodic television. Whether you're toiling in suburban New Jersey, the streets of Manhattan, or the desert edge of LA sprawl, a workday is going to have to encompass a certain number of pages and, often, a certain number of different settings. But each lighting technician approaches the efficiency goal in his own way, and with his own package of equipment.


The hit HBO series, which began airing its third season of episodes in March, frequently exceeds the eight-day standard shooting schedule for hour-long TV. But gaffer Kevin Janicelli, who has been with the show since it started, points out that The Sopranos has more content per episode than network series that fill out their time slot with commercials. “We often shoot nine or 10 days,” says Janicelli, “but we never do less than a seven-page day, and sometimes 12 or 13 pages. I started on Law & Order, I've done a lot of TV, and this is right up there with the worst of them. We average at least 14 or 15 hours a day.”

The gaffer estimates that The Sopranos operates on roughly a 60-40 average ratio of location to studio work. Standing sets at Silvercup include the downstairs and upstairs interiors of Tony Soprano's house, his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi's office, Uncle Junior and the late Livia Soprano's houses, the Vesuvio restaurant, and the backroom of the Bada Bing strip club. The Bada Bing's front-of-house is shot at Satin Dolls in Lodi, NJ, a location that is permanently rigged for the show. “I have a dimmer package in there that's off in the backroom,” says Janicelli. “All our lights are cabled and up above their show lights in a grid.

“It's a totally different lighting package on location,” he continues. “It's primarily HMIs, everything from an 18k down to the 125W Pocket PARs.” Camera and lighting equipment for The Sopranos is supplied by Camera Service Center, an Arri USA Inc. subsidiary in Manhattan. Though the facility carries equipment from all the major manufacturers, The Sopranos uses Arri products almost exclusively for daylight and tungsten lights, in a deal worked out by Silvercup Studios. “I do have a tungsten package on the truck,” says Janicelli. “Schedule-wise we generally do exteriors until it's dark, and then go inside and do night interiors.”

The other common fixture the gaffer carries is more of the handmade variety. “We find ourselves going into a lot of restaurants or pizza places,” he says. “In a lot of scenes, the guys are sitting around a table eating, right? The trouble with these places is, the ceilings are so low that conventional lighting doesn't necessarily work — I can't hang zip lights, or stuff like that. So we've taken 4' striplights and added a few wrinkles to them. Instead of spacing the bulbs, we put on a 4' fixture with 16 sockets, so each bulb is one complete line. Then we get those up into the ceiling, either by screwing them in or tying them, and that's what we start with. If we have the room, we'll drape diffusion below. Then our accent pieces around the edges, to get walls and backgrounds, again are these striplights, but with no diffusion.”

The striplights are either fabricated from wood in the show's shop, or welded from aluminum by an outside company. Both designs have detachable hood grids for directional control, and are used with 4' bags made by Chimera. “With those and Chinese lanterns, or the muslin ball which is a Chinese lantern shape, but with higher wattage and muslin skirts, no location can beat us,” says Janicelli. Like other TV gaffers, he has also been known to use lighting balloons in larger locations.

Janicelli says that the lighting companies have been responsive to the demands of location production, particularly for the fast-paced world of television. “Arri certainly addresses it,” the gaffer says. “Their Pocket PARs will hide anywhere. We use them for daylight car rigs. They have a great little battery system; if they put the camera in the backseat, we just throw the battery in the trunk and go. We also hang the tube in locations — you insert the light like a Kino Flo bulb, but it's much more intensive.” In addition to Arri, Janicelli says, “Chimera has jumped in with it, and Mole-Richardson is trying to make things lighter, smaller, and more powerful.

2 Arri106 18k HMI fresnels
2 Arri 675W HMI fresnels
4 Arri 125W HMI fresnels
2 Arri 6k PARs
4 Arri 4k PARs
4 Arri 1,200W HMI PARs
4 Arri 675W HMI PARs
2 Arri Pocket PARs
2 Chimeras107 with soft tubes
1 Lowel-Light108 kit
Mole-Richardson109 tungsten package
Circle Number on Reader Service Card

“We shoot six to eight or even 10 pages a day. We have to be ready for all eventualities. And what it comes down to, in terms of making a lighting package, is efficiency.”

“They used to say, as the film stock gets faster, we'd need less and less light,” adds the gaffer. “We were going to be out of a job when Kodak went to ASA 800. Well, what happened was the opposite. A prime example is a DP I worked with, John Bailey. He gets a very rich, saturated look, because he uses a lot of light to beautify the picture. The film stock got faster, and he said, oh, now I can shoot at an 8, and put the same light in.”

Janicelli, who has worked in both television and features during his two-decade-long career, says that a major difference between shooting locations for the two comes down to prep. “The equipment is the same, but on a movie, whatever you want a lot of times is rigged. Even if you're on the fifth floor somewhere, there are lifts, there are scaffolds if necessary. It's not like you're not going to then use Chinese lanterns or balloons inside if it's a big location, but there's a lot more prep time to it.”

On a typical episode of The Sopranos, “we have a week for technical prep, where we scout most of the locations. I'll send guys over, and we'll start roughing in a look. There are times when we do go in cold, but it's rare.” To ease up the workload, during the second season Janicelli elevated John Oates, his rigging gaffer, to full gaffer, and split the episodes with him. Picking up his cue this season, “They took it to a two-DP system. We have Alik Sakharov, who started the show, and Phil Abraham. This gives the DP a chance to prep with the director, which allows them to economize in terms of shots and angles.”


1 Sunray110 18k HMI fresnel
6 Arri106 4k HMI PARs
6 DeSisti111 1.2k HMI PARs
6 DeSisti 1.2k HMI fresnels
1 Arri Pocket PAR
1 K5600112 Joker 200
Mole-Richardson109 tungsten package
Kino Flo113 package
Circle Number on Reader Service Card

One quirk of being on a hit series — especially one that inspires a near-cultish following — can also become a distraction on location. “We have camp followers, people who seem to turn up wherever we are in Jersey,” says Janicelli. “You can usually find Soprano Sue — she has a website about our comings and goings, and she shows up with digital camera in hand for a live feed. But I can tell you, it's better to work on a hit than not.”

Janicelli was the original gaffer under DP Ernest Dickerson on the 11-season-old Law & Order. “Ernest did six episodes, then Constantine Makris came in, and I think I did 12 episodes with him,” he says. “They wanted a whole new look on that show, with less toplight, and more light from the side of the frame. They treated the studio sets like a location, with working elevators and doors. It made it very difficult. Not that we don't do that on The Sopranos, but we've made our own lights that we can stuff in corners. That's the difference.”


William Klayer is now chief lighting technician on Law & Order; he is in his 10th year on the NBC show, and sixth as gaffer. During most of that time, Makris has been chief DP. Klayer says, “The only thing that's really changed is that we're probably one of the most efficient operations that you'll ever see on a film crew. We don't have a prelight crew. I scout the show ahead of time with the next director and the key grip, Carl Peterson; the director of photography doesn't go on the scout, because he's busy shooting. We see what the options are in a location, and we have to second-guess what the DP would like to do. Then whatever day they schedule it, we go in and pretty much light it from scratch at that time. I could count on one hand the number of locations that were too hard to do on the day of shooting.”

On an eight-day schedule, Law & Order usually spends four on stages at Chelsea Studios, and four out at various spots around the city. Perhaps more than any other show on television, Law & Order makes use of New York's real-life grit and grime. “One thing that has changed,” says Klayer, “is that for the first three or four years I was on the show, they always found the body at night. Then they realized people find dead bodies in the daytime too. So we have many more day teasers now.”

The stage sets for the series are the police squad room, the DA offices, and generic hospital and courtroom sets. “We used to shoot the court scenes in the Tweed Building, behind City Hall,” says Klayer. “That room was very claustrophobic; there was one door in and out.” Now, location work is primarily done for the show's first half-hour, when the cops are out investigating the crime. Shooting is often done on the West Side, which is more accessible to Chelsea Studios. Inwood, in upper Manhattan, and Riverdale, across the river in the Bronx, frequently serve as all-purpose outer-borough locations.

“We've pretty much used the same location lighting package since I've been on the show, with minor alterations,” the gaffer says. “The real workhorse lights are my half-dozen Arri 4k HMI PAR lights, and lifts, if the location requires it. Then we drop down to DeSisti 1200 PARs and 1200 fresnels. I've got an 18k, but that comes out much less often. Everything we have is out of Panavision, a rental deal I inherited on the job. We have a ton of stuff on the truck: Besides the HMI package, we have a Kino Flo package and a full Mole-Richardson tungsten package. I love the Mole-Richardson stuff, especially for location work, because it's built really well.

“I also carry a couple of ETC Source Fours,” Klayer adds. “They come in very handy in small spaces, when you can't set up flags. Those are part of my own kit. And I carry a Pocket PAR and a Joker 200, which are really nice if you need a little fill light and a little bounce in a tight corner just off-camera. I also have more practical bulbs, both daylight and tungsten, than you could ever want. I have to carry what I need on location all the time, because once we're out, we're out. It's kind of like, make love not war, but be prepared for both.”

Day exteriors for the show, says Klayer, are rarely lit “unless we're in a dark building entrance and stepping outside.” At night, Law & Order continues to aim for the look established early on by Makris. “We don't do the typical blue light out of the sky,” says the gaffer. “New York City at night is not lit by moonlight. We usually put three or four Maxi Brutes in lifts, depending on the distance and how much area we have to cover. The night work has gotten a little more contained over the years; we'll pick a direction to look in, and rarely flip it around. We also won't spend a whole night doing night work; we'll do four or five day location scenes before the night scenes. I do have a prelight crew to get the night work roughed in, but it's still all done on the day. I'll have another crew get a second equipment package out of Panavision, set up the lift, and run cable. Then that all gets supplemented by the location truck package.”

For interior locations, Klayer prefers to light through a window. “I personally want as few lights as possible in the set,” he says. “If it's an office building, I prefer to change out to a color-correct bulb, but sometimes you get these huge offices with hundreds of bulbs, and if we don't see a whole lot of windows, we can shoot that cool light and correct it at the lab.” Kino Flos, he adds, are good for scenes of people sitting at a desk. “They give you a nice fill light, or you can gang up a couple of the 4' 4Banks which work as key light if you're not seeing a big area.”

Power can be a challenge in some locations. “I try to run my power off the generator, but when you get up in the high-rises, you're doing tie-ins, tapping into the building's main electrical panel,” he says. “We shoot in a lot of city buildings, in which case we have to hire a city electrician; if it's a private residence and other unions are involved, they'll set up the power for us. I don't need a ton of power to do the kind of work we do.”

“I have to carry what I need on location all the time, because once we're out, we're out. It's kind of like, make love not war, but be prepared for both.”

“I have to carry what I need on location all the time, because once we're out, we're out. It's kind of like, make love not war, but be prepared for both.”

Sometimes, as in the first episode this season, Law & Order descends into the subway system. “In that case, we pretty much just augmented existing lighting by matching up the Kino Flos color-wise,” says Klayer. “This station wasn't even shut down when we were using it. We did have an entrance that was closed off for our use, so we were able to park the truck right there and run cable down.” At other times, the crew has substituted an Amtrak or New Jersey Transit platform under the World Trade Center for the subway. “In that case, we're down three or four floors, so we're tying in and using their power.”


Shooting in Los Angeles is customarily a different story. As Janicelli, who has done his share of work on the West Coast, says, “There are a lot of location restrictions in California — where you can and can't go, and how long you can be there. They like to stay on the lot as much as possible.” On certain shows, of course, that isn't possible. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which follows the work of forensic specialists on murder cases, is one such series.

Actually, CSI is set in Las Vegas, which is considered part of its appeal. Yet most of the shooting for the show takes place in and around Santa Cruz Studios in Santa Clarita, CA, on the northern fringes of the LA metropolitan area. “We've been to Vegas twice this year,” says gaffer Johnson, whose previous credits include short-lived series like Gun, Cracker, and Get Real. “We'll start an episode here, go there and finish it, start another episode there, and come back.” Filming in the gambling mecca can also increase the show's inventory of stock footage: Images like sunsets over the Strip that can go into any episode. “That helps add a realistic flavor to the show,” says Johnson.

Mostly, though, the CSI company spends its location days in the California suburbs. “It's wide streets, SUVs, moms with kids, and houses in the half-million to million-and-a-half-dollar range out in the high desert, with rolling hills and no trees,” is how Johnson describes the newer neighborhoods in places like Valencia and Newhall. “Which, interestingly enough, looks like areas outside Las Vegas.”

Johnson ordinarily sends his best boy out to scout locations two to five days ahead of time. “He'll get an idea where we can put the generator, and then I'll talk to the DP about the shots. Normally, we just get there and do it. The schedule often changes right on the spot, but we always seem to get it done.” In such locations, power tends not to be much of a problem, except for the sound man. “There's always the fight with him about how far away the generator should be, how much cable I can lay, and how much current I can draw being that far away,” he says. “We come to a compromise; the generator is usually a couple hundred feet away. I can light our set pretty well with 600 or 700A, maybe 800.”

The gaffer says the series' studio-location split is about 50-50. At Santa Cruz Studios, which is best known for playing host to the entire run of Melrose Place, standing sets for CSI include a crime lab, a police station, an autopsy room, and a hospital setting. The lighting package, Johnson says, is “one big package,” with some overlap between the stage and location instruments. “The location package includes HMIs for daylight work, and the stage package is mostly tungsten. There are some permanent lights on the stage, but most of my lighting all fits on the truck. When we come back to the studio, we unload the tungsten on carts, and bring it onto the stage.”

Johnson achieves the location efficiency he referred to at the beginning of this article mostly in a simple way: “I have some very large efficient lights, and some very small efficient lights, and I have very little in the middle.”

The most conspicuous large light is the Softsun, a 50,000W xenon monster from Lightning Strikes. “It's a new light, about a year old,” says the gaffer. “It's about 2' high, 4' wide, and 2½' deep. It gives you huge fill for the daytime, where I might use it in a front yard, with a couple of actors 10' or 15' away. At night, I can put it in a Condor 80' (24m) in the air and light a strip of desert 200' (61m) wide. Sometimes, it might go in a Condor in the daytime, stay low, and go high at night. Also, in wintertime, we run into problems. Last night, we were in a bungalow, and we knew it was going to get dark before we were finished. I took the 50k and pointed it at the houses nearby, and if you looked out the window it was daytime — it's broad enough and bright enough, and it's a single source, so you're not getting multiple shadows. It's like I turned on a little sun in the driveway next door. Every time the production manager comes to me and says, that thing's expensive, I say, we shot two and a half hours in the dark last night, and he changes the topic.”

Other big lights on CSI are a 7k xenon and 6k HMI PARs from LTM. “The 6ks are just rockets,” says Johnson, who adds that he finds LTM HMIs with a Power Gems ballast to be most reliable. On the other end of the size spectrum, the gaffer relies most heavily on 400Ds, a recently introduced 400W daylight instrument from Dedotec. “HMIs are finicky lights; this is unfinicky,” he says. “It's got a 6" lens in it, so it's its own diffuser, and it makes the field extremely even: You can take your meter and go from one side of the circle to the other and it doesn't fall off more than a quarter of a stop. It's 400W of usable light” — not much less than a 1200 HMI PAR with diffusion.


1 Lightning Strikes114 50k Softsun
6 LTM115 6k PARs
6 LTM 1.2k PARs
4 Dedotec116 400D Dedolights
2 Arri106 Pocket PAR
1 Xenotech117 7k xenon
1 Xenotech 4k xenon
Mole-Richardson109 tungsten package
Kino Flo113 package
Circle Number on Reader Service Card

The Softsun and 400D work together in many situations. “Outside in the daytime, an actor is walking towards the camera with a 50k coming from one side,” explains Johnson. “When he gets to the camera, 4' behind it is a 400D aimed right at his face, with no diffusion. It's just the right amount of light to fill his face against the sun. It also has spot and flood, so I can take it inside a house, into a dark hallway, put it on full spot, and aim it down into the floor, as if there were sunshine coming in a back window. It's a precision instrument, a tiny knife that cuts really well.” The 400D and its ballast are also light — about 2½ lb.

Apart from the Softsun, which Johnson rented in a special deal with Lightning Strikes as “the first person that's had one of those on a television show,” the lighting for CSI, including a Kino Flo package and Mole-Richardson tungsten package, is supplied by Santa Cruz Studios. This is a common arrangement in Los Angeles. “I have gotten equipment from Hollywood Rentals and Cinelease and other companies,” says the gaffer, “but normally, in a studio deal, you may be required to get your equipment from them. This is one way they make money.”

When the show initially went on location to Las Vegas, Johnson rented his lighting locally. But “because you are only there for a short period of time, and because they don't do studio work on a continuing basis, you pay top dollar for the equipment. The next time we went, we took our 40-footer.” The city presents other shooting challenges. “There are lights everywhere, it's exciting,” says the gaffer. “In fact, it's so bright that occasionally we don't even light it.” But, also everywhere on the prime Vegas locations are people. “In Los Angeles, you get a permit, you have police, you have an area that's sort of your area,” he says. “In Las Vegas, you can buy a location, but you still don't own it. If this person wants to get to that slot machine, they have to be able to do that.”

For a recent episode of CSI, the crew was filming a scene in which a man gets shot in an elevator to one of the bridges across Las Vegas Blvd. “We get all set up in there with a camera, a camera assistant, a special effects guy, and an actor playing a dead guy,” says Johnson. “We're all ready to go — and here comes a lady in a wheelchair, whose eyes opened wide when she saw this guy lying there in a pool of blood.”

As is the norm with television, production on CSI may give greater emphasis to efficiency than artistry. The lighting style favored by DP Jonathan West — lots of hot edges, with numerous flashbacks that are visually manipulated during video processing — just happens to reconcile easily with the demands of schedule and budget. Says Johnson, “We're not doing beauty lighting. We do have some really good-looking actors in the show, so we may take our time with them a little bit. But we don't do hour lighting setups; we don't do 20-minute lighting setups. Our average lighting setup is 10 minutes. If it's longer than that, we're taking too long.”

The gaffer could be speaking for anyone lighting for TV when he says, “I wish I could wait until sunset every day, and film the farmhouse from Tucker with the lights on inside and the sun setting. But we don't have that kind of time.”