Setting up, working with and tearing down studio lighting equipment can be some of the most dangerous tasks of your video production.
Throughout the years, we have presented many ways to light your subject and improve your lighting skills. However, one area of lighting we have not covered is lighting safety. Burns, falls and crashing equipment should not be something you need to worry about. In this column, we will take a look at ways you can make your lighting projects safer for both you and your talent.
One of the best ways to impress your clients is to set up a well-organized, safe environment for your video shoot. This means that you take the time to dress your cables, safety-chain your hanging lights, weigh down your light stands and practice safety when handling your lighting instruments. Being in a hurry to set up should never be an excuse for sloppy and unsafe sets. Plan a little extra time to ensure that you, your crew and your talent are safe. In today's litigious society, knowing that your safe environment will mean fewer accidents will give both you and your client piece of mind.
What Do You Do With All Those Cables and Cords?
Dressing your cables is one of the first ways to ensure a safe set. This means securing your cables to the light stands and floor, so that they do not trip your talent, crew or any audience members present. One easy and very efficient way to dress your cables effectively is to use carpet runners with rubber bottoms and trim on the sides. You often see this type of runner at office building entrances, to stop people tracking mud, snow or other debris into the building. Place these runners over your cables and secure the edges to the floor with a strip of gaffer's tape (available in any theatre or video supply store), to create a smooth surface for people to walk over. While this might initially be expensive, it is a great option for productions with audio cables to cover and fairly heavy traffic through the set. If you are covering both audio cables and power cords for lighting equipment, leave at least 6 inches between the two cables, to eliminate any possible interference in the audio line from the power cord.
Another very effective way to dress your cables is to gaffer-tape them to the floor. DO NOT use duct tape! Gaffer's tape sticks to surfaces without leaving behind any nasty residue. Duct tape always leaves residue and will gum up your cables very quickly. To gaffer-tape your light cables, begin by taping the cable to the light stand. Leave a little slack in the cable, so that you can raise the light if needed. Be sure to wrap the tape completely around the stand once. Helpful hint #1: Before you secure the end of the tape to the pole, pull about an inch more of tape, tear it off and fold it over on itself to create a pull-tab for easy removal. Now, with the power cable sitting between the light stand legs, place a piece of tape across the power cable, securing it to the floor. Pull the cable tight, and place another piece of tape across the cable, right below the power outlet. Be sure to have enough slack between the tape and the outlet, so that the cord is not pulling out of the outlet.
Next, beginning at the first piece of tape, place a piece of gaffer's tape lengthwise on top of your cable, with the cable sitting exactly in the middle of the tape. With your fingers, press hard on each side of the cable, to securely fasten the tape to the floor. Slowly roll out the tape and cover the cable in one long piece. A word of caution here: gaffer's tape is made of sturdy cloth and, if you rub too hard on the tape, you may get a rug burn on your fingers. It is better to press than to rub. Once you have the cable covered, check to make sure it is secure. In heavy traffic areas, you may want to add another strip of tape on both sides of the cable. At the socket, take a narrow strip of tape, loop it around the plug and tape the plug to the outlet. The tape will look much like the ribbons you see on cars supporting the troops or some other noble cause. Place two ribbons of tape around the plug head, so that one ribbon's ends go up and the other ribbon's ends go down. This will secure the plug and keep it from accidentally pulling out. Follow this procedure for all of your lights, as well as any audio cables lying around.
Helpful hint #2: when pulling up your cables, lightly step on the end of the cable next to the beginning of the tape, and pull the tape up from the cable before you pull up the cable. If you do it the other way around, the tape will wrap around the cable, and you will find yourself dealing with another aspect of gaffer's tape: it sticks really well to itself! If you find yourself in this predicament, grab the beginning of the tape underneath the cable and, with your other hand, pull the cable up so that it rips through the gaffer's tape at the top. Once you get it started, step on the torn tape underneath the cable to secure that end, and slowly pull the cable through the tape, using your other hand to make sure the cable is not sliding inside the groove you have created by letting the tape surround the cable. If the tape bunches up, you will never be able to rip the cable through, because you will be fighting another gaffer-tape design feature: it is very strong when twisted into a rope or in layers.
If you are hanging your lights from a grid, dressing your cables means tying them up to the grid with string or gaffer's tape, so that they do not hang down and cause unwanted shadows.
How to Prevent Burnt Fingers and Other Bodily Harm
Unless you are using the newer fluorescent lights, your lighting instruments get really hot. We're talking frying-pan hot! A good set of welder's gloves will prevent painful burns. However, common sense will also keep you from burning your own fingers and your talent.
Always set up your lights at the height and in the direction you want them, open the barn doors, if any, and place your gels in their frames before you turn on the lights. Once the lights are on, carefully focus them. If you do need to rearrange the barn doors or move the lights, be sure to wear your gloves or turn off the lights and let them cool before you start adjusting them.
If you are using open-face lights, place safety screens on the lights, so the hot pieces will not fall on your talent if the lamp should break. If a lamp should blow during a production, turn off the fixture and wait for it to cool. Carefully replace the lamp and safety screen. NEVER touch a quartz-halogen lamp with your fingers. The oils from your finger will get hot, etch the glass and create a weak place, which may cause the lamp to explode. Always wrap the lamp in paper or plastic when placing it into the light fixture. Make sure the lamp is securely seated, and remove the paper or plastic carefully. Avoid touching the lamp in any way. Always let lighting instruments cool down before putting them away. As soon as you finish the last shot, turn your lights off, and take the time to put everything else away before coming back for the lights. If the lights are too hot to touch, they are too hot to put away. Again, be careful! Don't touch the light if you can feel heat coming off it. Be patient! Don't think that, because you have gloves, you can put the hot light away. It may burn your light case and start a fire if you get in too much of a hurry.
Crashing Light Prevention
What do sandbags and safety chains have in common? They are two relatively inexpensive ways to prevent your lights crashing down around you. Any time you set up a light on a stand, you should place sandbags on the stand's legs to help stop the light falling. What about the wind when shooting outdoors? What about set pieces and cameras accidentally bumping them? An ounce (or several ounces in this case) of prevention goes a long way towards creating a safe set.
If you hang your lights from a grid above the set, place a safety chain over the grid, and attach it to the light in such a way that the light will not fall if the hanging mechanism fails.
One note of caution when working with hanging lights: be careful using ladders. Always place the ladder behind the light, and away from the talent, so that you can focus from behind the light, not in front. Also, make sure that your ladder is placed well below the light, so you don't hit that light when you move the ladder to go to the next setup.
Dr. Robert G. Nulph teaches video and film production at college level and is an independent video/film director.
Side Bar: Always on Your Mind
When you are using lights, safety should be first, last and always on your mind. Lights are perhaps the most dangerous pieces of equipment you will use. Treat them with respect and care, and always be careful when setting up. A safe set is a comfortable set. Be safe and enjoy!
Figure A shows what a pull tab would look like when applied to the end of a wrap of gaffer's tape. Pull tabs help speed your breakdown after a shoot. Figure B and Figure C show you how to keep cords from tripping your crew. A final measure of safety, Figure D, helps keep the cord flat against the ground. Figure E adds additional protection from plugs being accidentally yanked from the outlet. Use the technique demonstrated in Figure F to remove the gaffer's tape applied in Figure D. Remember to only step lightly on the cord and don't pull too hard and too fast. Keep the carpet on the floor where it belongs.