Last spring, director Tedd Tramaloni asked John Gates to light the PBS program Inner Peace for Busy People and a companion video The Power of the Mind To Heal, based on author Dr. Joan Borysenko's book Minding the Body, Mending the Mind. Tramaloni and Gates had previously collaborated on PBS's Suze Orman: The Courage to Be Rich. Inner Peace also gave Gates the chance to work with set designer Mary Laurie Shea again; they had worked together on two similar PBS specials.
Gates is a big fan of pre-production, comfort, and communication, and his team had over four weeks from the initial contact to the time of taping the show. "What's great about that is you're already starting to communicate with the other people," Gates says. "Even if I can't design anything because we're not sure what studio we're going to be in, what the set design is going to be, you're starting that talk, being comfortable with each other. We were able, because there was a relationship with the set designer and director, to evolve the set rapidly. Pre-production is the cheapest money on any show. Once you start doing it, it's the most expensive time, until you have to fix it, then that's the most expensive time."
The director and designers had discussions with the program producers, and Shea designed an ethereal, open set with a surround cyc and set pieces with opaque, translucent, and transparent elements. These set pieces allowed the LD to add layers of color and soft-focus patterns, enhancing the dimensionality of the space seen on-camera and supporting the program content.
"The set designer was shooting at the same studio two weeks earlier," the LD says, "and she had very specific ideas about color. I went over there with some color, and we put a couple pieces of gel in, and we also looked at a standard pattern I found. It added another comfort level, so she was able to say to the producers and director, 'John and I looked at this and this is what we're going to do,' so you hit the ground running."
Gates rented a small package of ETC Source Fours for the subtle pattern projection. "There weren't any overt patterns where you would say, 'Look, he used a cloud pattern,' it was grading the color so it wasn't just monochromatic, to create more depth and dimension on the set. Essentially what you're doing is creating a setting that's believable and enjoyable."
For the rest, Gates used the conventional tungsten lighting package in Hearst-Argyle Television Productions’ Studio C at WCVB in Needham, MA. This included Mole-Richardson 1kW and 2kW Solarspots, Mole-Richardson 2kW Zip Softlites, and Mole-Richardson cyc lights, all controlled by an ETC Impression board. Three linear arrays of softlights made up the primary close-up camera angle and some fill for transitioning to over-the-shoulder shots that included the audience. Back crosslight and high-angle, low-intensity sidelight gave speaker Dr. Joan Borysenko a soft halo. Audience lighting consisted mainly of sidelight to keep glare out of their eyes while watching the speaker. There was also some high-angle, soft fill from the front and some backlight to separate them from the dark background seen on-camera.
A typical shooting schedule for a project like this has a three-day arc. "You work with a crew of four people, you basically have a day to put everything in," Gates explains. "You get to tweak a little bit the next day while they're setting up cameras, so by mid-afternoon the second day I've already roughed in all the looks, and now I can tweak a little, so the next morning when the director's drinking his coffee I can show him some things and still have time to react. The third day we shoot it. I was lucky enough on day two, once I had cameras up and I looked at a few things, I was able to see the talent on camera, which is the first time I meet her, so there's a whole comfort thing that needs to happen there."
Inner Peace for Busy People had its initial broadcast during the August 2001 PBS pledge week. The Power of the Mind to Heal is a companion videotape program available to members who pledge to their local PBS television station during Inner Peace broadcasts. Mike DiIeso was assistant LD; Mark Casey and Bob Colman were the electricians. With the exception of the Source Fours, all equipment was part of the Studio C lighting package, originally supplied by Barbizon Light of New England.
John Gates has lit everything from ballet to cooking shows, including "every president since Nixon" and even a stop on the Ladies Pro Bowlers Tour. He are some other nuggets of wisdom from over 20 years experience in lighting.
Gates on the set of PBS cooking show Ciao, Italia. "They're nice people and you get to do good work. That's a fun one."
How did you get into lighting?
The earliest story is I had a freshman high school English teacher who I was not getting along with, who suggested to me I would do better in his class if I tried out for the shows he was directing. But I didn't like the people I was acting with as much as the people hanging out backstage. Fast-forward to my first week of junior year, I get called to the vice principal's office. He said, "Someone told me that you know how to take care of the lights in the auditorium. The band teacher can't get the blue lights on. Can you go down and straighten that out?" And I did, and I've been doing it ever since.
I went to Carnegie, and I went to Emerson and got a speech degree, as an acting major, but I was helping put myself through school working in live performance, so I went out with a rock group, I went out as a tour electrician for the Boston Ballet, I worked with a number of dance companies and so on, and by the time I got out of school I found my initial instincts were right, I didn't want to be an actor anymore. By that time someone called me and said, "I want you to come work on a film with me," and I said, "I don't know anything about movies," and they said, "That's OK, you know about electricity, just don't blow anything up."
I ended up going to a company to help them out with a concert series they were doing one summer; I was supposed to help them for a couple months and I didn't leave for seven years. It was like going to school and getting paid for it. I was literally a "pick it up here and put it over there" kind of guy, never had a lighting course, never had anyone critiquing my work except for the people I was working with.
When I was working in television, a lot of lighting outside the major production areas was ruled by the engineers, and they had a very narrow vision of what lighting should be, and I wanted to bring the sensibility that we had in live performance to television--you didn't have to just blast light to make a picture, but I didn't know technically what the video person knew, so I had to learn that so that I could talk to them and work with them to create lighting. I needed to learn how to test camera systems to see what their latitude was from under-exposure to over-exposure, where the colorimetry fell apart, and it was the same lessons I was learning at the same time in the film world, where they would routinely test film stock.
Spring of 1992 I was called by connections with a good friend, David Quaid, who's a cinematographer, member of the ASC. They needed a fill-in teacher at Boston University in the School of Communications, someone to teach a one-semester lighting course for film and television. I've been doing it ever since, because I really enjoy that. I fit it in around my schedule, I take students with me on jobs. They've been on commercials, major feature films, multi-camera network shows, single-camera industrials, so they get exposed to a wide range of things. They watch work and I'll talk to them during a meal break or after the work day is over. These are people who are going to be directors, they might become camera people or screenwriters or producers, and some have gone on to cinematography. It's just an exposure to the real working world.
How does one light the Ladies Pro Bowlers Tour?
I approach things by finding the problems at the same that I'm finding out what we want to do. One of the things that helps you in television is that they tell you where the cameras are going to go. You are lighting for the viewer, which essentially is the camera.
A friend of mine has done a number of things including the relighting of Yankee Stadium and the Boston Garden and so forth, and he said you have to ask questions like "Is this a pitcher's park or a batter's park?" How does that affect the lighting? If you light it from the sides, when the ball travels from the pitcher's mound to home plate, you can see the rotation of the ball. If it's lit more from the front it flattens out that contour. Well, one of the first things I lit was dance, and if you want to enhance the movement of the dancers, sidelight gives you all the highlight and shadow on the muscles, limbs, turns, and lifts, and you use frontlight as fill to get rid of the dead line down the middle. Then you look at bowling, and you've got two things: What will show the ball movement and pin drop, and what won't obscure the vision or glare in the eyes of the bowlers? So, lighting bowling like lighting dance. We're trying to reveal and enhance movement, separate movement from non-moving things, and the director knew what he was doing, obviously, he knew where to put the cameras to show that. So, between knowing where the cameras were, knowing what the bowler was going to do, the analogy of lighting dance and lighting bowling.
Your designology says, "He has lit every president since Nixon."
Lighting candidates has changed remarkably because the technology has changed. Everything used to be very set piece: They'd come in, make a speech, and leave. And the equipment was very rudimentary.
I learned an important lesson the odd way. I was on the road with President Ford when he was running against Carter. He was a nice fellow. They changed the style from just doing set piece speeches to doing a question-and-answer with the audience, what we started to call the "town meeting." So, all of a sudden, instead of just lighting a couple of rows of the audience next to the camera position for cutaway reaction shots, I was lighting microphone stand positions at several points in the audience, and after the first one the word came back, "The President liked the lighting tonight." I thought, how would he know it's good lighting or bad? So I'm going, well, something was different, what's different? Oh my God, I'd forgotten the President! He couldn't see the people in the audience! And all of a sudden, tonight he could see the people in the audience. And I started thinking about that whole thing and thought, "This is Lighting 101, how did I forget this?"
We spend our life trying to avoid putting lights in people's eyes, and for TV and film we put lights in their eyes. Giving people a light area to look into is much more comfortable and much less disorienting. Don't ever forget why are you here. Make this guy look good, and if he can't see people he won't feel good, and if they feel uncomfortable they're not going to look good, they're going to look uncomfortable.
Gates is a lighting consultant and designer with over 20 years of experience. His company, Gates Service Group, provides lighting design for television and film. He can be contacted at email@example.com.