Teachers have a distorted perspective on reality sometimes. We just get so use to "doing more with less," "accommodating" low-performing students, using gear until it’s used up and digging into our own pockets to buy supplies or feed a hungry kid on a field trip. When administrators tell us we're on a "tight" budget we know that it often means don't spend ANY money.
So it's understandable that we get a little shocked when we ask a supplier for a bid on equipment and they actually tell us the truth. When the guy from the lighting company tells you it will cost between $40,000 and $80,000 for a studio light system, he’ll just have to excuse us a few minutes pause as we gasp for breath.
"Are you nuts?" we ask. "We're a SCHOOL for Pete’s sake. Don't you know what is meant by BUDGET?"
After a spell we regain conscientiousness and then go back to figuring out how to work with something less expensive. My video and broadcast program gets an average annual budget of about $4,000 and I feel lucky to have it. This last year our three art teachers got about $1,000 to split between them and in comparison with many other video teachers around the country I’m downright blessed. Nevertheless, it would take me about 10 years to buy even the least expensive lighting system and then only if I didn’t buy anything else. Now, to be fair I also get a portion of Carl Perkins money each year and we apply for many grants, etc. Just the same, the big-ticket-item shelf is often out of reach.
For more than eight years our studio was a 9x11 conference room with an eight-foot drop ceiling. We used light bulbs in thrift store fixtures and hardware store reflectors, a couple white umbrellas and about four Lowell TOTA lights to get the job done. In a room that small I could teach 3-point lighting but the kids could barely do it. We had a blue screen wall but it was nearly impossible to light it properly.
Then came our high school remodeling project and a bad economy. In our case, the economy worked in our favor. We had been asked for a wish list for a new facility and, being an under-funded video teacher, my list was a long one. The district pared everything way down before sending out a bond proposal to voters. After all, voters tend to frown on funding schools with any fancy frills. So the public approved our basic bond but it contained a lot less than what anyone wanted. Then came the bad economy and construction companies hungry for work. The construction bids came in very low and all of a sudden all the teacher wish lists were back in play again.
Though my new studio doesn't contain everything, it does feature about $50,000 in lights and lighting controllers. I realize I'm very blessed but here are a few things I learned to think about since starting to work with a good lighting package.
1. HEAT. Our old studio used to be almost unbearable to work in after a while. If you get big lights or a lot of lights you have to think about the heat they can generate. Does your new studio have good strong airflow without being noisy? Most of our new lights are photo florescent which are bigger but give off much less heat. I was originally wary of florescent lights because of the nasty ones I used to have in my classroom, but I must say that these are very nice and have made the images from our studio cameras look much, much better.
2. SAFETY. The studio lights we have now are designed to be safe. They are connected to the lighting grid three ways to prevent them from ever falling and since they don't get hot there is less chance a kid will burn him or herself or light fire to the place by closing barn doors or draping something on top of them. Students are not allowed to climb ladders at our school so I have to do any moving of fixtures but now that we have our lighting grid designed it pretty much stays where it is and we just turn them on and off. Twice in the past I had hot TOTA light bulbs explode throwing out tiny pieces of glass. Luckily the safety cages were in place and nobody got hurt but I feel a lot safer for my kids now with the photo florescents.
3. DIMMERS. All our lights are connected to a dimmer board that gives us much more control. I don't know how we ever lived without it. Many of the lights also came with intensifiers that can direct the maximum amount of light possible from the fixtures. With a good light package lighting is also very even. I can turn on all 24 ceiling and five floor lights in our studio now and barely get a shadow. If you buy inexpensive dimmers you can sometimes run into problems with them making noise or adding a buzz to your audio system.
4. GELS. The ability to add color gels to your lights is a nice feature. We have a large green-screen curtain and adding back lights with some soft magenta gels really helps give better edge definition to our on-camera talent.
5. GREEEN AND/OR BLUE SCREEN. If you are going to use chromakey make sure you set up your lights to get strong, even lighting of your background first. Then work on lighting your foreground subjects. And don't forget that important back lighting. The smoother and brighter you light your green or blue screen the better it will work for you. If you have a big screen to light you are simply going to need more lighting to pour onto it. The way we found that works best is to put lower output fixtures closer to the curtain to light the top half and brighter fixtures with intensifiers pulled back about three feet to light the bottom half. We also purchased a large piece of green screen floor fabric that we have just started to use. Once again, strong, even lighting is the real key to good chromakey.
6. WHEELS. Floor lights can be heavy and when they are fully extended they can be top heavy. Several of our floor lights are on wheels to make them easier to move.
7. REPLACEMENT BULBS. Don't forget to stock up on spare bulbs in case they burn out at just the wrong time.
I'm sorry but it's because of teachers like me, and my impossible wish list, that the lighting company guy gives you such an honest but outrageous price. Because of the timing of our bond I ran into a great piece of good luck while many others were running out of luck. I am very thankful for what I have but realize I need to take especially good care of it because we may not get a new one for another 40 years. That's how long ago it was when we last did a major remodel of our high school.
Yes, you can certainly light a studio for less money but my advice is to add smart lighting to any new studio space. If you have to build slowly at least put your precious money into good stuff that will last and make sense in the future. If you're like me your dreams are always much bigger than your budget. And no matter how much we get, our wish lists just keep growing. Regardless, as valiant video teachers we all understand that given a computer-controlled mega-laser light generator or a couple flashlights and a kerosene lantern, the show must go on.
After more than 30 years in radio and television production, sound design, advertising and journalism, Chris Douthitt is now in his ninth year as video and broadcasting teacher at Oak Harbor High School on Whidbey Island in Washington State. "I started here with one class per day, two computers, four VHS cameras and a cart I could wheel in and out of a classroom," said Chris. "Now it's five classes per day, 30 new iMacs, a studio and control room and our own 24/7 cable TV station broadcasting to nearly 12,000 households. It's very, very cool now but a lot more work." Additional information on the OHHS video program can be found at http://ohhs.ohsd.net/~video or www.wildcattv.org.