Retail and Broadcast Lighting Achieve a Happy Co-Existence in QVC @ the Mall

The new QVC @ the Mall studio/retail outlet may have its root in an anecdote told to architectural LD Paul Marantz. The shopping network offers guided tours of its main broadcast facility in West Chester, PA, where products are advertised and sold on sets representing a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and other rooms of the house. “It was explained to us,” says Marantz, “that even though it's just a big TV studio, people would ask, ‘Where's the home?’ In their mind, they'd taken all these different rooms that are sets and put them together into a house.”

The 2,500-sq.-ft. QVC @ the Mall — said Mall being the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN, often touted as the largest indoor shopping center in the US — is meant to be that house. Described by the company as “a three-dimensional expression of the QVC brand,” the facility, which opened in August, is possibly the first of its kind, in the United States, anyway: a retail store, masquerading as a home, which is periodically transformed into a fully robotic broadcast studio, where product can be sold, on camera, theoretically from every corner. “Nobody before this was retailing and broadcasting from the same square footage, from the same footprint,” says building architect Glen Coben of the New York firm Glen & Company. “They're across the hall from each other, or adjacent and visible to each other. This is taking the Today show window, and taking the window away.”

Easier said than done, of course. One of the biggest hurdles to pulling it off involved the lighting. Douglas Rae, who served as broadcast lighting and system designer on the project, had to come to a compromise with various other participants, chief among them Marantz, whose firm Fisher Marantz Stone was hired to give the space and its products a suitable retail sparkle. “Paul and I knew that it wasn't just going to be architecturally lit, and it wasn't just going to be studio lit,” says Rae, who is manager of the QVC lighting department in West Chester. “So how do we combine them? How do we light it as a studio and still keep the store atmosphere?”

STUDIO VS. RETAIL LIGHTING

The conflicting needs led to some “butting of heads,” in Coben's words. One major issue was color temperature. “Architecturally, they came in wanting to light with 5600K daylight blue fixtures — a lot of MR-16s, as you normally do inside stores, because you want everything to glisten,” says Rae. “For broadcast, I need more of a warm 3200K feel — I was pretty adamant about that.” Also, from Marantz's point of view, “when you do retail, you don't have to satisfy the television camera, which is a much less forgiving instrument than the human eye. So the kinds of shadows and things that you get with typical retail lighting, you can't have in a video picture. You have to have a much more clear, coherent, less contrasty kind of image — you have to cut down on some of the visual noise.”

The basic problem of furnishing potential lighting positions that would serve both functions fell partly to the architect. Coben says, “It was a project that needed to straddle two major concepts. One was a retail store that was designed to be like a home. The critical component of a home is the ceiling, but if you have a studio the critical component is studio lighting, therefore no ceiling. So we created this really interesting home that had been pulled apart at the seams. We looked at Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright, and created rooms that were very open from one to another. Those rooms have hard ceilings over them. But we pulled the rooms apart, and in the gaps, in the interstitial spaces between the rooms, the broadcast lights have their home.”

These fixtures, which are primarily responsible for front key lighting on the talent, are on robotic hoists. The system comprises transtechnik's pantograph suspension mechanisms and Licht-technik motorized yokes, fitted with Arri 2k studio frensels and ETC Source Four PARNels. “It's a scissors type of mechanism that comes down out of the ceiling,” Rae explains. “The fixture pans and tilts, and an automatic barndoor opens for broadcast mode.” Transtechnik, a German company that supplies a number of television studios in Europe, also provided QVC with Voyager touchscreen control consoles, and a Profibus internet gateway for controlling the system from West Chester. “The store is out there running, we have a laptop here, where we're running the same program; we log onto the system and actually look at what it's doing at any time,” says Rae. Strand's Reporter software handles the dimming throughout.

The broadcast lights lower in front of six basic staging areas with blocked camera positions. There is a kitchen, where pots and pans, utensils, and small appliances are displayed; a bedroom, which may feature towels and sheets; and a living room, which is more of an all-purpose space. Other rooms include a home office and a garage, containing related products. There is also a jewelry staging area, where the camera zeroes in on some of the lifeblood products of the QVC brand.

When the store is in normal retail mode — which is most of the time, since at this point there is no more than a half-hour of broadcast time originating from QVC @ the Mall per day — the robotic hoists are at rest in the ceilings between rooms, and architectural lighting is in charge. But because of the multi-use requirements, this is not ordinary retail lighting. Lightolier track fixtures are primarily used to light products; MR-16s are more in the 3200K range. Fisher Marantz Stone designer Margo Wilshire says, “The goal was for it to be functional, and not glaring or camera-sensitive when they're on-air.”

Most importantly, overall illumination for the store comes from what Marantz calls “luminous ceilings”: basically, skylight-style white glass panels of various sizes and shapes installed over the rooms, and framed by the wooden hard ceilings. Above the panels live Legion Lighting fluorescent light banks with a two-circuit feed and Lutron Hi-Lume dimming ballasts. “Because it's an architectural setting,” says Rae, “and they had some things lit, there had to be a compromise. In other words, we had to use their lights for our broadcasting situation. So we came up with these fake skylights. Then it became a whole thing of, do we use broadcast tubes or regular tubes? That's where I brought Strand in, and went to a Hi-Lume ballast. We did standard tubes that the building uses for general lighting, and then I added 3200K tubes to use as our backlights. We actually shift from the store's regular lighting and bring in this.”

LONG-DISTANCE CONTROL

When it's time for a broadcast from QVC @ the Mall, a store employee goes into the control room, which is in a balcony built into the “house,” and hits a button on the touch screen. “We broke everything down to six areas on the plot,” says Rae. “In each of these areas, we've given them options, as far as different levels of lighting, depending on what the product is. If we're selling a lamp, the key lights may be lower. If we're selling a jewelry product and want more detail, we may bring the key lights up brighter. There are about three or four looks per location, times six, so there are about 24 options for them to go to. The system is capable of many, many more, but you have to realize that the people who are running the cash registers are running this lighting system.

“So they go to a standby mode, which brings the lights down to a safe location from the ceiling, 8' or 9' off the ground,” the LD continues. “The lights all fan out, and do a little show thing — they pan and tilt and wiggle, and all the barndoors open. Then they get to choose what location they're going to.” At the same time, the overhead light banks shift to broadcast circuit and 3200K color temperature, the cameras move into place, and an audio announcement to the store customers is triggered.

That all of this can unfold without so much as a technician on site was key to QVC's low-maintenance approach, and largely attributable to the Profibus system. “It's a machinery-controlled system that gives you real-time feedback,” Rae says. “As the light moves, you can not only see on the screen that it's moving, but you know exactly where it is at any point: It's an exact feedback as it's happening. That's why we used it and not ethernet or DMX interfaces.” (Ethernet is used for communication between control systems.)

Rae has many fail-safes and backups built into the system. “I incorporated a relay, because the Profibus is so exact,” he says. “The lights have to reach a certain level down, which triggers a relay to allow the dimmers to come on. If somebody turned on the lights when they're up in the ceiling, we could physically start a fire, because you're dealing with an architectural grid — you've got 20 2kWs right next to woodwork and drop ceiling and ductwork and pipes and electrical conduit. So these lights have to come down perfectly before they even pan or tilt.” With the Reporter software, says Rae, “we can dial into the dimmers every aspect of what they're doing.” And if, for any reason, the Voyager system shuts down, he has a Strand 510i show controller on hand in West Chester to take over and virtually control the dimmers.

The architectural lighting in QVC @ the Mall is fully integrated with the broadcast lighting, both in terms of control and visual impact. According to Rae, the store, with its inviting facade, front yard, and basketball hoop over the garage door, stands out in a unique way in its Mall of America location, a main rotunda that simulates a cul-de-sac. “You view other stores and you see this daylight type of look,” he says. “When you see QVC, it has a warm glow. People don't know what it is, because they don't know that lighting makes a difference.”

The glow partly derives from an unusual architectural feature of the store: the exterior walls are translucent. “The architect's inspiration was to make the walls out of glass clapboard,” says Marantz. “It's clapboard and studs, and the merchandise is between the studs; you look through this cast-glass wall, and it's very beautiful. So the metaphor is the home, but it's transparent.”

The architect is similarly complimentary toward the lighting designers. “What Paul and Doug did as a joint effort is really magnificent,” says Coben. “QVC is a brand that brings product to your home, but it's also a broadcast brand. The lighting is a key element in transforming that environment. The core customer, who has seen this on TV, and is going to the Mall of America to see this live and in action, has a built-in expectation that they are going to see some behind-the-scenes things. So it's magical when those lights come down.”

Contact the author at jcalhoun@primediabusiness.com.