Lights, Camera, Politics! Shooting the Debates

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Much discussion surrounds tonight’s debate as a must-see-TV event. Up to 100 Million viewers are expected to tune in, an audience that would rival that of the Super Bowl.

When event television becomes national politics, I start to wonder about those unsung heroes making it all happen. That’s right, I’m talking about the event production crew.

FILE - In this Oct. 21, 1960 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kennedy, center left, and Republican candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon, stand in a television studio during their presidential debate in New York. Polls found those who listened on radio awarded Nixon the debate victory. Those watching on TV gave Kennedy the nod. (AP Photo)

Oct. 21, 1960 – how quaint!

Since the famed Nixon-Kennedy showdown, the effect of a candidate’s on-camera performance has played a significant and contentious role in national politics.

Every news outlet is talking about this topic today, but I was wondering… how do they light these things? It must be quite a challenge to shoot so many simultaneous angles, live, in a huge (HUGE!) space, and make everyone look human – much less glamorous or presidential.

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TV trade site NewscastStudio put together a neat article about many of the technical and aesthetic considerations that come into play for such an important event.

“The distance between the talent and their light in a studio can be as little as ten feet, but in a large theatre or arena it could be a hundred feet,” says Lesli Tilly, who often works with Size on LDG’s large projects.

“Large, soft light sources from close up are extremely flattering for faces, but that’s impossible when the light source is 40, 50, or well over 100 feet from the talent’s face,” continues Size. “Soft source are uncontrollable, so we use point sources tailored specifically for their target — often with merely a beam spread of 3 feet by 3 feet!”

“One of the biggest challenges — and also for me one of the joys — is that like doing live theater, you have one chance. You rehearse, you prepare for everything, and still, there’s no guarantee that it’s all going to go according to plan,” said [gaffer] Tilly.

If that whet your appetite, the full article is certainly worth a read.

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Tonight’s new and improved debate stage design.

Also fun to peep while you’re at it:

a run-down on the updates to this new debate stage, an explanation of why they hold debates in empty arenas, and a clip of Colbert making fun of CNN’s VR Experience of one of the primary debates earlier this year.

That experiment turned out to be more of a teaser for a much more visually exciting application in SPORTS, but that’s another post for another day.

Watching the debate tonight? You have plenty of options this time around. Facebook Live will stream the event, a handful of Youtube channels will show it as well, even Twitter has you covered. I guess it’ll probably be on TV or something too if you’re into that kind of thing.

Now that we’re all up to speed on the important elements of the event (what finesse in that lighting, the smooth integration of the camera box into the rear wall of the set!) we’d love to hear your thoughts and questions relating to the production itself.

One big difference between this to-do and the Super Bowl? No commercials. At least, not yet…

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