Late nights when I feel the need to escape the US media circus and its coverage of DT’s New World Order, I often toggle to my local PBS station, where content still holds sway over spectacle. Around a tiger oak table, host Charlie Rose and his guests sit, conversing about an array of issues, basking in an even wash of light, with a coal-black backdrop behind.
“What’s the deal with the table and the black?” Nancy Gibbs once asked Rose in an CBS interview on the show’s 25th anniversary.
“The deal was poverty,” Rose answered. “I bought that table myself. I knew that if I could put a table in the room with not much light and a couple of chairs, I could have a real conversation.”(1)
Twenty-five years later the conversations continue, the tiger oak table still reigns and the deep black backdrop still looms like an infinite void behind Charlie and his well-lit guests. Having spent the week reading about TV lighting, trying to grasp the difference between a foot candle and a lux, I began to wonder how the “Charlie Rose” lighting designer manages to make Charlie & friends “pop” out so brilliantly from the pitch backdrop without even the slightest hint of spill.(2)
Believe it or not there are several lighting geek chat rooms and dozens of YouTube videos that address this very conundrum–and as many opinions about how to achieve it as there are pixels in a LG Optimus G. Below I offer a consensus step-by-step for how to light “the talent” in front of a black velvet backdrop:
- Most important–the “Black Velvet,” a massive, wrinkle-free, light-absorbing black velour or felt drape, large enough to cover the area behind the active set at every camera angle. Regular fabric, even flat black with no sheen, still reflects a small amount of light, making it look grey, whereas velvet, velour, felt and other fabrics with a nap (3), absorb light, allowing a backdrop to look coal-black even with an array of high-key luminaires aimed at the subjects.
- Next–Space, at least eight feet of space between the backdrop and the subjects, so as to avoid any spill from light sources targeting subjects. (4)
- Key light–comes from a diffused source, some say soft boxes (3), some say fluorescents, positioned on the side of the subject so as not to spill onto the backdrop, but as close to him/her as possible while remaining outside the frame.
- Fill light comes from the opposite side as the key light, also diffuse, also close to the subject, with soft boxes or fluorescents.
- The back light or rim light comes from slightly behind and to the side opposite the key light, usually from high above at a steep angle, probably a fresnel on spot setting. Flags or barn doors can be used if there is any spill light showing on the back drop. (5)
Specific luminaires and techniques vary from one lighting designer to the next but these are the basic steps to achieving the “Charlie Rose” Black Infinity look. (4)
You may think this offering off-track, given my customary political rants, but not knowing how something works–be it lighting “Charlie Rose,” Senate Confirmation Hearings or the US Constitution–always arouses my curiosity and inspires me to search for answers.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
–Walt Disney (6)
Check out a more generic technique video titled: How to create an all black background with three point lighting filmmaking tutorial (5)
- Gibbs, Nancy; CBS Interview with Charlie Rose; 25th Anniversary: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/charlie-rose-pbs-show-25th-anniversary-history-iconic-table-interviews/
- Spill light. (n.d.) Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture. (2012, 2002, 1998). Retrieved February 3 2017 from http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Spill+light
- Wikipedia; Nap in textiles: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nap_(textile)
- Feldspar, Jim; Lighting for” Charlie Rose” Show;
- Allsop, Aaron; Filmmaking Tutorials; How create an all black background with three point lighting filmmaking tutorial
- Disney, Walt: Brainy Quote https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/waltdisney132637.html?src=t_curiosity
- Wedmore, James; Black Backdrop Tutorial – DIY Video Studio Background; https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=BE8cBdlFrgE