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Lighting Design for Safety

Image of a video light with the burned fabric of a softbox

Video Lighting safety isn’t really the most exciting subject around, especially when it comes to all the fun things on a shoot. But haphazard sets can injure talent and destroy gear.

Video lighting safety isn't exactly the first thing you think of when you wake up the morning of a big video shoot, either, but it is always something you should consider before each job. If you carefully plan each job accordingly, safety won’t need to be the first thing on your mind when you wake up because you will have the components of your video shoot well under control.

So you are beginning to land some fairly big accounts and are a bit perplexed as to how to approach some of the projects. Things are becoming complicated and you are finding yourself in some questionable situations which demand more attention than simply running your camera. Do you step back, and instead focus all your work as a freelance camera operator, or do you jump in and offer a complete package including cameras, grip, lighting and maybe even some basic scouting?

Well, working as a camera operator is pretty easy once you have the skills, so what if you take the route of offering full production services and offer to scout and secure locations, book catering, direct talent, offer basic production services and all the rest? Well if you are already at that point then you have learned -- hopefully not the hard way, that video lighting safety is without question the most important "tool" in your "kit."

We know video lighting safety isn't exactly the reason you get out of bed each day but if things go wrong then safety, or the lack thereof, could become the reason you wake up at night. It's best to understand how to operate safely each time you shoot, whether it's a theatrical event at school or a family outing, and not just professional production services.

So where do you start?

How about with your own equipment? Think about it. You have the utmost respect for your cameras, lights and other equipment. Each time you go out on a video shoot you carefully handle your equipment, make sure it's not sitting in the sun or bouncing around the back of your car and you make sure the high-value items like cameras, lenses and mics aren't out in the open while you're scouting around and looking for the best angles.

Over time you have gained a respect for your expensive equipment and it's become second nature to protect it. Well it's a good idea to let safety become second nature and to protect everyone on set because mistakes can be quite dangerous and incredibly expensive. And with today's litigious society, anything can go wrong. Over the years I have become vigilant when it comes to protecting my set, particularly if I am working public production services. For some shoots I even insist that there be security guards assigned.

Safety is often on the minds of your industrial clients who may require you to attend a safety presentation before the shoot. When this happens, you’ll need to plan for that extra time and also include one extra hour in each bid to allow for such necessities. I have been on assignments where we were required to park all of our vehicles pointing out, so that in the event of an emergency, no one would have to back out of their parking stall - you get the point! If your clients are obsessed with safety then you should be too.

Too Many Moving Parts, so Build a Corral

When working in public you are exposed to many variables over which you will have no control and you will find the public to be quite annoying if they have access to your set. The best thing to do is not let them near your set in the first place. The next best thing is to make your set as minimal and compact as possible and make sure you can see everything that's going on. Try to use furniture as a barrier to restrict foot traffic, and if the environment doesn’t have enough chairs or tables, you’ll want to adapt the lighting design to include extra lights and sand bags -- even if you don't plan to use them. Light stands make great barriers. You don't need to plug them in but make sure there are no dangling cords. When you set up for an office interview or some other setup where there will be employees or talent on camera you’ll want to create an entrance and an exit to the set using whatever you can find at the location.

Diagram showing talent with lights and cameras. The entire area is “corralled” by camera cases, light stands, and other gear to keep bystanders out.
Consider using chairs, trash cans, plants or floor lamps to corral everyone and make sure there are no obstructions or cords to trip on. It's a great ice breaker because everyone jokes about it, but it's serious business to make sure no one gets hurt. On location, lighting design serves two purposes. Bring plenty of extension cords so that you never have to run a light cord across the floor where the talent or employees enter and exit the set. You’ll want to make sure that all light stands, mic booms and reflector stands are well sandbagged on indoor jobs and always weighed down on outdoor jobs. I never make the talent duck under lights to enter the set. If the lighting design requires them to duck, then move the lights, let the talent in then replace the lights. Also never rush the talent when they are moving around the set because they can become disoriented and trip or bump into your equipment.

Shot of an open scissor clamp and another in use hanging a video light from a ceiling grid.
And speaking of equipment, it is absolutely essential that every reflector, soft box, umbrella and scrim is secure and not capable of falling down. If you have an opportunity to tour a large studio, take a look at the lighting design in the ceiling where all the overhead lighting is mounted and you will notice that everything is secured with iron pipe clamps and “tied” with additional cables designed especially for the task. As a matter of fact you might visit Matthews Studio Equipment just to see the hundreds of lighting accessories available and to see just how specialized this industry has become. Each of these accessories is specifically designed to allow a grip to safely place a light, reflector, scrim or whatever, no matter where the lighting director wants it, and in many cases,  even if it’s raining and the winds are blowing.

 

You’ve Been Sandbagged

Speaking of wind did we mention sandbags? Well sometimes they just aren’t enough and you need a person to hold your lights, scrims or reflectors. They should understand your concerns with safety and understand their responsibility to the lighting design when assisting you. They should respect each situation as potentially dangerous because you, as the set director, are using them to hold equipment because it is safer than relying on light stands or booms. As long as you are relying on assistants to hold or stabilize your equipment you might want to consider a set of walkie-talkies so you can effectively communicate without resorting to hand signals, yelling or worse, smoke signals which might really happen if something starts a fire!

Shot of a large tungsten light with two fire extinguishers on a nearby table.
Oh and yes, fire extinguishers are your best friend. Always have two on complicated sets involving cooking, candles, welding or anything that makes flames. Why two? One for each side of the set. A simple candle can set a small reflector on fire which can then set fabrics ablaze, so always be aware and never leave anything burning without someone there watching the set. This is particularly relevant when working with hot lights but even if you don't use tungsten lighting, you should follow basic fire safety.

 

The thing to understand here is that things go wrong and small events can quickly spiral out of control so it is always best to understand your equipment, the environment and maintain respect for the potential dangers when shooting. If you develop and stick to a few simple rules and procedures on set and with your lighting design, you can always rest assured while you are behind the camera. Good lighting safety will let you concentrate on your scene and keeping the rest of the video shoot going smoothly, everyone can do their job, the client will be nice and relaxed and the talent can performing flawlessly.

 

Contributing editor Terry O'Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.

Tags:  October 2013
Terry
O'Rourke
Wed, 09/04/2013 - 12:00am