Shaping Light for Video in the Age of LEDs

Shaping Light for Video in the Age of LEDs
16 August 2018 on Customer Spotlight

Film Casualty spoke with Alan Steinheimer, a professional gaffer and lighting professional with decades of experience in the business. Alan just wrote a book about contemporary lighting and his experiences in the film business. There are some real gems of industry wisdom in this interview and we're glad we had the chance to speak with him.

Tell us about yourself. When and why did you get involved in the film industry?

I got out of college with a liberal arts degree in literature. It was pretty much useless for a job. My father was a photographer and because I was exposed to his profession, I decided that I would go to photography school. I moved to New York for the program and landed in a work-study job. The work was a documentary, and it resulted in an epiphany for me. I knew at that moment, film was going to be my work. It's the collaboration, a whole team of people rather than just a single photographer. I liked everything about it.

I finished my degree in visual arts and then jumped into freelancing. I did the usual crappy P.A. jobs, I tried working in audio & visual for a couple months and then eventually started working in production. It took a lot of time and didn't really know I was going to make a career in lighting for a long time but as I sifted through roles on set like camera and sound I realized my personality is most suited to the lighting department. Lighting was technical enough where I could study, go deep and become an expert. I like it. It has aesthetics and still requires creative choices.

Then, very slowly I built my business up. I started with a van with a few C-stands and now I ’ve ended up with a couple trucks! Having been in the business for now almost 30 years it has been amazing to see all the changes that have happened in the last three or four years. I would classify the last few years as seismic in the lighting department. There has always been a lot of evolution in lighting over the last 25 years but the pace of change in the last five has been phenomenal.

That’s why I decided to write a book.

That's excellent. Can you talk about how the lighting has changed phenomenally? Why was writing this book is important in relation to these changes. And, why should somebody buy this book? There's stuff changing constantly. I'm just so curious to kind of hear about your approach to the subject matter. And, what you're hoping that readers will take away from it.

I wouldn't characterize myself as a fast adopter. When it comes to lighting, although I'm not quick to change; I could clearly see that LED's were eventually going to be a great thing. The first LEDs were pretty crappy. They weren't very bright, they cost a lot of money, and they didn't look great. So, while I was holding off, I watched as LEDs seemed to enter into the hobbyist and prosumer markets. Then, ARRI SkyPanels came out. It was then that I realized LEDs crossed the threshold into professional use. 

I took a bit of a financial risk based on that observation and bought a bunch of SkyPanels and continued to add more LEDs quickly to my inventory. The advantages became obvious literally within a day or two. One was, I practically no longer had to worry about where I plugged in. Second, was the color options; the dimming without color changing. It was very obvious to everyone working with them that something important had happened. Once crews got used to LED's it was hard to go back. I would use Kino Flo's on shoots find myself disappointed. They don't have the control options that I had gotten used to on LEDs.

Since then, LEDs have only gone further and gotten better. 

I started writing the book while I was working on sets with lots of downtimes. I decided that I should write the book on lighting that I always wanted to read. Most lighting books are pretty old and I believe that LEDs have actually changed the aesthetics of lighting. In addition to LEDs, there are other trends emerging in the industry. Cameras are getting higher resolution, greater compression and the technology on the camera side is shifting. LED's fit into these camera innovations as well.

I wrote the book in a way that reflects real life lighting situations. I have tried to be more practical than the traditional academic approach of describing the instruments and what they do. My hope was to make an interesting read.

What else is this book about and who should be buying this book?

If you've been in lighting for five or ten years, this is probably not a book for you. It's for someone who's newer to the business. I've written it broadly enough that it might apply to a few other areas of production. In other words, crew members who are not necessarily doing just lighting. 

That said, I’ve included details about set and industry operations. Chapters that dig into common but difficult situations like deal memo's with production companies, 10 hour days versus a 12 hour days, when should a crew member negotiate for meal penalty, day rates, non-union versus union jobs. I thought it would be important to know what's it like dealing with a mom and pop production company versus a big production company. I want my readers to know about the business of lighting. That said, I think these topics are relevant to a lot of different crew members. Not just the lighting department.

Our audience over here at Film Casualty is specifically interested in purchasing insurance and learning about risk on set. What is your relationship with insurance for your business? Have you seen anything crazy happen on set?

While I don't address insurance in the book, my personal experience with insurance has been interesting. I've had close calls in many regards. I've had production coverage that a gaffer should have; a 1,000,000 General Liability for the last 20 years. But, I did have a period where I carried only $100,000 policy on my truck. At that time, I happened to have what seemed like a small accident but it then it turned into a large lawsuit. I ran into someone at three miles an hour after working on set for 22 hours. The claim escalated and escalated and finally got up to almost $200,000. And I started to think I was going to lose my business. You know, that event certainly made the whole question of insurance a far more graphic and important issue for me. Eventually, that settled for less than my policy covered. But, it wasn't too long after that, that I upped my coverage and got the full film production policy.

Accidents happen all the time, things like: taking a front bumper off of a car coming around a corner with a big truck. Taking someone's mirror off. You know, things like that.

So, but having insurance means I sleep a little easier at night. You know, like I said I had that one scare. I'm a little bit more aware as I go through life that insurance is a factor. I was recently on a two-day production. And on Sunday, the local production company that I was working for that has workman's comp and so on. I had an accident. A high hat fell off an eight-step ladder and landed on my forehead. I  rushed off to the emergency, 13 stitches and workman's comp has been taking care of me on that. So again, you know one of those incidents where it's like, "Wow. You know, good to work for a production company that has workman's comp." You know, I'm not sure if they didn't, where I would've been or what I would've been doing. You know, possible suing for coverage still.

Where can Film Casualty community members and customers find this book?

You can find more about the book at my website and a video interview with me. I go into more details about the book and have additional resources for readers there.

Awesome, Alan! Thank you very much for your time, we really appreciate it. 

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