Live scripted performances on broadcast TV are fascinating—even more so when they rejuvenate an iconic film like “The Wiz.” Most viewers are interested in how the actors deliver in their high-pressure, real-time roles and the choices made in telling the story.
The sometimes overlooked heroes of live performances, however, are the lighting designers. In a live production with so much rich scenery lighting designer Allen Branton had his work cut out for him.
With the live event in the rear-view mirror, A.C.T Lighting, Inc. seeks to give “The Wiz Live!” lighting its due respect. The performance featured Clay Paky Alpha 800 Profile and Sharpy fixtures in the rig and grandMA2 light consoles for lighting and show control and both lines are distributed by A.C.T.
Stakes were raised. Kevin Lawson, one of three lighting directors with Felix Peralta and Darren Langer, explains that NBC’s two previous live theatrical productions—Peter Pan” and “The Sound of Music”—involved multiple soundstages; the pirate ship and Neverland set pieces for “Peter Pan,” for example, were erected on separate stages.
“The choice was to make “The Wiz Live!” more theatrical, set in a stage box. There was an LED scenic back wall and three LED portals that opened and closed and an extensive amount of automated scenery that tracked in and out.”
Different scenes required different looks. Branton and his lighting team collaborated with production designer Derek McLane to establish the mood and look for each scene. “He had very beautiful scene by scene renderings, then we worked out from there with the songs that added dynamics,” he says.
“Oz was a fantastic place but Kenny Leon still wanted it to have some rules: You couldn’t do something just because it looked cool; it had to be grounded in some reasoning. That connected things more with the characters and made you believe in the story.”
Lights are seen, not heard. Fifteen cameras recorded the live production, which enjoyed a rebroadcast before Christmas.
“We had to be flexible with the rig so we could light all the actors and scenery,” says Lawson. “And because there was no studio audience and there was live singing, everything on set had to be quiet. That weighed into our choices of lights. We couldn’t have fixtures that sounded like a jet engine overhead.”
Lighting vendor Atomic Lighting ran tests in its Lititz, Pennsylvania headquarters to compare potential fixtures for the show.
“They did decibel readings of fan noise, the lights at rest and moving – where they fell in the noise spectrum,” Lawson explains. “That’s something we don’t care about for live rock shows or award shows, but on a small stage with live singers it was crucial.”