Television and radio personality Ryan Seacrest (of American Idol fame) recently took up residence in the heart of Hollywood. On Air with Ryan Seacrest premiered on January 12 in national syndication. Seacrest serves as the anchor for this live, one-hour daily news/variety show, which features a blend of entertainment news, celebrity guests, live musical performances, and lots of fan interaction.

Distributed by Twentieth Television, the show broadcasts from a brand new studio in the center of Hollywood. Veteran television lighting designer John Conti (Judge Judy, The Sharon Osbourne Show, Dinner for Five, World Poker Tour, Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA) is handling the show's lighting. Vice president of programming Debbie Norton and executive in charge of production Bruce Catania brought in Conti to prepare the facility for its close-up.

“It was a commercial establishment at the corner of Hollywood and Highland,” Conti says. “The producers wanted the camera to look out the windows and see the Hollywood sign behind Ryan and all the activity on the streets below.”

As soon as Conti and his lighting director, Jeff Worn, saw the studio during construction, they realized they were facing quite a challenge. “Half of the stage is backed up by 30' tall windows,” Conti says. “Luckily, Jeff and I had just installed the WAMI in Miami studio in South Beach, which had a similar type of challenge with the windows. The main question was how to make it work so there would be enough light on Ryan's face to make him a little brighter than the outside, especially with the sun on full-blast in the middle of the day. So, that's what we attacked first.”

Conti and the producers — Seacrest, David Armour, and Adam Freeman — went through different testing procedures to darken the windows. Eventually, Mega Plex of Burbank, CA, tinted the windows per Conti's specifications. “We made comparisons between the filters that we use on television and the filters that they use and tried to get them as close as possible,” Conti explains. “We ended up going with what we call a .9 neutral density on the windows. Basically, it comes out to what we would have used from either a Lee or Rosco book.” That brought the light levels down inside.

“With video operator Mike Snedden's help, we were able to correct as much as possible,” Conti continues. “We went back and forth looking at swatches of gels for weeks. Once we tinted the windows, there was no going back, so it had to be right. When I'm lighting a show, I usually have levels from 30 to 60 footcandles. Here, we have 300 to 350 footcandles on Ryan's face inside because we're competing against the sun, and they also wanted to be able to see the Hollywood sign outside and take reverse shots and see inside. That was a real problem for us. Lighting-wise, making the level inside compete with the exterior, we would have to tint or darken the windows to the point where I was afraid you wouldn't be able to see back inside on a reverse shot from outside.”

So, Conti worked with production designer Bruce Ryan and his assistant, Dave Edwards, to create a frame from a small section of non-tinted windows from which to do reverse shots.

For the inside lighting package, Conti originally considered using only HMI lamps to match the color temperature outside. “The producers and director Bob McKinnon wanted to have the option to not just leave the lights up at full at all times, so that took out that option. Obviously, there isn't much you can do except turn HMIs on and off,” Conti says.

“So, we have a combination of LTM 1200 HMI PARs — for overall fill to bring our color temperature up — and Mole Richardson equipment. The difference is that we use half CT Blue to correct the tungsten look so that we can get the level up to at least 300 footcandles. Now, if they have some type of music onstage, we can take out the audience lights or bring the levels down a little to create at least a bit of a different look.”

On stage, Conti is using 15 VL2416 wash luminaires and 10 VL2202 spot luminaires and a Virtuoso DX control console. “The other big challenge was that we had to make everything — even in the hallways — corrected for daylight fluorescents because they go all over the place on this show,” Conti explains. “We have a couple of handheld camera lights called day cams, which are excellent little units that we put on top of the cameras so we can track Ryan anywhere. Two of the cameras also have Chimeras on the front to make them a little softer. Pretty much every lighting unit we use is corrected for daylight. We also put some Kino Flo units in the control booth with the director because that is often the opening shot of the show.”

Outside, Conti has a 1970s-type rock and roll, 30' by 40' box truss rig for the stage. “We do a lot of shots in the Babylon Court, which is the mall area at Hollywood and Highland,” Conti explains. “That's where we have live bands playing, and there is also a giant couch where tourists hang out. High End Systems was nice enough to allow me to use a couple of its new ColorCommand units, so I put them out there to see what they could do. They are DMX-controlled. They're like PAR cans with color changers on the front. So, instead of changing gels, the lights will do it automatically. Eventually, I hope to make the whole system ColorCommands because, even though they don't move, they give me great looks out there.”

Conti is also using a Virtuoso board outside with a Hog® II PC as backup and HMIs for front and fill light. “Depending on where the sun is and what time of year it is, we need to make sure we have it all covered,” Conti says. “We also have a Sony Jumbotron on the side of the building, and Ryan will sometimes go out there with a guest. So there, we also have a couple of HMI PAR cans. It's quite the challenge because we travel a lot. We have to be ready to go with anything at anytime.”

“I'm impressed with how well Ryan has handled everything because we change things constantly,” Conti concludes. “On top of everything else, we have a couple of 200W HMI hand-held PARs that we keep out because he might start running somewhere at anytime, and we have to be ready. We've tried to make sure we have any and all situations covered. Granted, we occasionally still get caught, but that's part of the excitement of doing it live.”