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Wednesday, 28 April 2010 00:00

LEDs Light the Way

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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DP Christian Sebaldt, ASC on the set of Several years ago I produced a talk show that was taped at a popular movie theater in Hollywood. From a production perspective, as a talking-heads show it was a fairly straightforward shoot with three stationary cameras and one roving camera. Because we shot in a commercial theater with a live audience and a number of people on stage for each event, it was an ongoing challenge to properly light the stage. The lighting had to be arranged in a way that didn’t tax the auditorium’s limited wattage while being as unobtrusive as possible for the audience. It also needed to be set up and broken down quickly and cleanly.

At the time, we used the kind of tungsten lighting that had been the standard for decades –– it was heavy, taxed the wattage of the auditorium’s outlets, and took hours to cool down to be packed away at the end of the night. If we were producing that show today, we’d use LED technology to do the heavy lifting on stage. While LED technology has been around for decades, until a few years ago the combination of low luminescence and a limited range of color temperatures prevented it from becoming a practical alternative to incandescent and fluorescent technologies. Not anymore.

My experiences with that talk show now has me excited about the new generation of LED lighting kits, which would have made my life (and my production team’s life) much easier on location shoots. LED lighting offers some great advantages over tungsten, beginning with a power requirement that’s a fraction of what tungsten lights consume; an operating temperature that makes the light fixtures cool enough to handle with your bare hands (even while they’re on); and a projected life span of 30,000 hours or more while maintaining consistent color temperatures over the life of the fixtures (this contrasts with incandescent lamps that begin shifting their color temperatures almost immediately).

More and more companies are now making LED lighting products. Some are LED specialists who have pioneered the use of this technology on-set, while others are stalwarts in traditional lighting technologies who have chosen to leverage their expertise to develop LED products that meet the demanding needs of their clientele. To get a feel for where the market currently stands, I checked out the offerings of some prominent players in the LED arena. Here is a representative sampling of some of the newest products out there.

Nila is focused on the high-yield end of the market. Nila President Jim Sanfilippo says their products are best compared to par and HMI lighting units. Each JNH module shoots out the equivalent of a 200W daylight (HMI) or 350W tungsten fixture, while drawing only 65W. The company’s flagship JNH line of lights could be called the “Lego of LEDs” due to their ability to stack together in line in configurations of up to five and up to a 2x3 six pack providing up to 1200W daylight (HMI) or 2000W tungsten light-equivalent output, while drawing only 390W of power.

Cinematographer Christian Sebaldt, ASC has been shooting movies and television shows for over 20 years. He was just nominated for an ASC Award for the Television Episodic Series/Pilot category for “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - Family Affair,” a Jerry Bruckheimer Production. Sebaldt was one of the first people to field-test Nila’s SL and Boxer lights. The Boxer is a 250W fixture that puts out as much light as an 800W HMI and comes with a DMX-controllable dimmer, while the SL is a direct replacement for a 6000W tungsten space light that draws only 850W. Even though the SL is built as a safe light, Sebaldt used it as a par. “I use the Nila lights on ‘CSI’ as a quick backlight on the actors or for splashes along the walls in the background,” says Sebaldt. “They are strong, but very compact and easy to hide. Sometimes a last-minute little accent light is needed on the set and, since they are easily dimmable, they come in handy for that as well.” Sebaldt recently shot the feature film Don’t Fall Asleep with a digital SLR on a very low budget. “We had to shoot in a house built in the 1930s with limited power resources, and we couldn’t use a generator,” he says. “With these lights we were able to completely light the set using existing power from the house.” Sebaldt also used the SL as a backlight source with 150 feet of extension cord to have an exposure on the street where they were shooting.

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