Seven kids per show. Two or three shows taped per day. What better way for a lighting designer to come up with a different look for each kid than to add video images to create an infinite number of unique environments for NBC Entertainment's PAX TV show, America's Most Talented Kids, produced by Mindless Entertainment? California-based lighting designer and CEO of Team Imagination, Inc. Michael Veerkamp did just that during the show's second season, taped at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex in Los Angeles.

“This really was a technology-driven show,” says Veerkamp. “We had to come up with 14 to 21 performance looks for each production day.” Considering that the set for the show was a neutral gray, Veerkamp was able to bring in all the color through the lighting and video. “There was not a lick of color on the set,” he recalls. The upstage wall had six choices of backdrops, including a star drop and red and blue velour cycs. “Some of the set pieces were used twice,” Veerkamp notes, “such as a Mylar slit drape with a scrim in front of it and little stars behind it.” The stars were created using strings of small peanut lights, little Christmas lights in the shape of peanuts. “It's a cool effect,” adds the LD.

There were, however, two projection screens facing the audience, with parents on one side, judges on the other, and the kids performing in the middle. The screens offered Veerkamp a blank canvas to play with. “The color was added by the lighting,” he says. “It was like a lighting designer's Crayola box.”

His rig included 120 automated fixtures from Martin Professional, including 26 MAC 550s and a mix of MAC 2000 Wash (16), MAC 2000 Profile (18), and MAC 2000 Performance (24) units, all run from two Martin Maxxyz lighting consoles. “I like the MAC 550s,” says Veerkamp. “We've used them a lot in television, and Martin has now solved the problems we were having with the dowsers.” Additional automated fixtures include 12 High End Systems ColorCommands and 12 High End Systems Studio Beams®.

Veerkamp also points out that there were probably only 60 conventional fixtures in the entire rig. These included 36 ETC Source Four® Parnels to light the audience, plus 20 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and 27 Colortran ellipsoidals as key light for the talent, as well as four Strong Super Trouper II followspots, a few MR16 mini-strips, and cyc lights. The lighting pipes were all moveable, so they could be flown in to different levels to help vary the overall look of each act. The gear list also included four Reel EFX fans, two Reel EFX DF-50 hazers, two Martin 24/7 hazers, and one High End Systems F-100 fogger. The lighting supplier was Cinelease, Inc. of Burbank, CA.

Veerkamp and his team used two Maxxyz consoles to program and operate the show, working in tandem, with board operators Ed Motts and Danny Zacharias. “Our work day concluded with a meeting following our production day with my programmers, gaffer, talent coordinators, and producers. During this meeting, I would view a tape of the next day's talent, and while watching the tape and getting insight from the talent coordinators, I would create the look for each performance, including the lighting looks and cues, effects, set pieces, and video projections to be used.” This schedule lasted for 11 days with just one day off. Veerkamp also listened to a CD of each kid's music to get into the groove for each performance before picking the lighting looks, which could be anything from a slow motion projection to swirling, twirling video images.

During the night, the programmers worked an additional four- to six-hour shift, creating the cues, which Veerkamp checked the next day during the sound check for each kid. Changes could be made only during a five-minute break before each kid did a second sound check. Then, the tape would roll. “Since this is a ‘talent contest’ and governed by all of the obvious rules for fairness, we have to treat each kid with equal attention,” he says. “As you can imagine, the intensity is significant, and we make a huge effort to give each kid a well-programmed performance and a unique look. The kids and their parents are not allowed to talk to us about their production values.”

The key to so many different looks was the addition of a Martin Professional Maxedia Digital Media Composer. This allowed Veerkamp to control the video projections with the lighting console and to write cues to seamlessly integrate the lighting and video projections.

“The Maxedia came with 100 or so stock pieces of content, and we added another 50 or so,” he says. “The ability to cue video playback in the projection screens with my lighting and to do it so seamlessly is mind-blowing. The ability to take an image — let's say it was red — and then have the typical designer ‘gee I wish it were blue’ moment and then watch for a minute or so as the operator went in and changed it was awesome.”

Veerkamp also discovered that every piece of content could be manipulated in so many ways that he had a large catalogue of looks and effects in his back pocket at all times. “It's also economical to use a digital media server, and we were on a very tight budget. The Maxedia has brought the media server into our market for TV shows that don't have big budgets,” he points out. “You also have more visual control than from a video truck. Now, you can make changes on the fly, use multiple images, and change the colors of the projections as the color in the lighting changes.”

From Veerkamp's point of view, projection is becoming more and more a part of television production. “The addition of video projection to the lighting designer's bag of tricks is going to increase in importance in the coming years,” he predicts. “As projection becomes more important, we can't let it get out of our court. It's one more element in the look of a show that should not go to another production designer. If it's plugged in, it falls under my realm of responsibility.”

What more could a designer want? “More projection surfaces,” says Veerkamp, who has totally embraced the concept of digital media. “I'm new to the world of adding projections into my bag of tricks, but I have to tell you now, I'm pitching it to every producer that will listen.”

Team Imagination, Inc. Lighting Design of America's Most Talented Kids, Season Two

Produced by Mindless Entertainment for NBC Entertainment & Paxton Entertainment

Lighting designer

Michael R. Veerkamp

Project manager

Elijah Dotson

Maxyyz programmers

Ed Motts
Danny Zacharias

Maxedia programmer

Michael Nevitt

Video controller

Stuey Pruden

Master electrician

Jennifer Seay

Electricians

Jonathan Bancroft
Michael Mallison
Michael Roberts
Peter Smurda
Jeff Truman
Steven Volpe

Gaffers

Chris Boehm
Kraig Brown
David Meagher

Drafting & pre-production

Simon Cleveland

Assistant to the lighting designer

Kyle Salazar

Lighting Equipment List

Control
2 Martin Maxxyz
Consoles
1 Martin Maxedia Digital Media Server
Lighting Instruments
26 Martin Mac 550
18 Martin MAC 2000
Profile
24 Martin MAC 2000 Performance
16 Martin MAC 2000
Wash
12 HES
ColorCommands
12 HES Studio Beams®
4 Strong Super Trouper II
36 ETC Source Four® Parnels
20 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidals
27 Colortran Ellipsoidals
4 MR16 Mini Strips
38 Sky Cyc
4 Reel EFX Fan
2 Reel EFX DF-50
Hazers
2 Martin 24/7 Hazer
1 HES F-100 Fogger