A Real-World Environment at the USC School for Cinematic Arts
Philips Strand Lighting supplies the dimming and controls in four new sound stages
Thursday, April 12, 2012
by Philips Strand Lighting

University programs worldwide seek to prepare and educate their students to become successful in whichever field of study they choose. At the USC School of Cinematic Arts, students are given the opportunity to find their specialty in the practices of film, television and interactive media. For those who choose the studio lighting path, a few trips to the sound stages inside the Cinematic Arts Complex will be necessary. Waiting for them inside the new facilities are Light Palette control consoles and a complete dimming system from Philips Strand Lighting.

“To get the full story, we need to start at the beginning,” said Doug Wellman, Assistant Dean, Facilities and Operations, “Our head of staging, Herb Hughes, and our local Strand Representative, Harry Forman, were instrumental in the original building of the Robert Zemeckis Center here at USC. In the original build, they did a retrofit conversion of all the dimming systems to a Strand Lighting system and it worked so well that we wanted to have the same dimming in our new sound stages.”

“When we started planning the new complex, we wanted to again work with Forman and Associates for the dimming and controls systems,” added Herb Hughes. “Knowing that they were familiar with us and our existing setup we were able to have all the correct systems in place from the very start.”

With the planning underway, one of the criteria of the controls package chosen was that it had to be future-proof. With the introduction of new technologies, Hughes wanted to make sure that the controls package chosen could adapt as more lighting equipment is acquired by the school over time.

Hughes explained, “I have been with USC for 15 years and the students here are just beginning to experience lighting and doing artistic work with light. When we set up our control consoles and dimming, we try to set them up for the application of all lighting technologies they will see in the field because while we may not have them now, we most likely will acquire them as some of the older models become obsolete in the rental houses and studios. So when setting up the new sound stages, we had to set them for today’s lighting, even though we may not use it until tomorrow.”

Another attribute of the controls and dimming system was that it had to be reliable. In an educational environment, studio space is in very high demand, and the controls and dimming system would be put to the test from the very start. With round-the-clock activity, the systems at the Cinematic Arts Complex run an average of 70 hours per week.

Said Wellman, “All of our stages work five days per week for 12 hours per day and our controls products are definitely put to the test. The Strand systems are working great and are extremely reliable.”

Hughes agreed, “In one of our original sound stages, a Strand dimmer ran continuously for about 15 years due to the power distribution set-up. We noticed this only because the lights began to go on-and off, so we called a Strand technician who quickly found that this was happening because the fan had gotten clogged and the heat sensor was telling the dimmer to shut down. I would say that’s a pretty great example of how reliable a Strand dimming system can be.”

The final attribute of the controls system was that it had to be intuitive enough to challenge the students, but simple enough to allow them to understand and apply their understanding quickly.

“About every six months we get a new bunch of students and we need to be able to show them quickly how to pick a light off the grid, relate that to the dimmer, patch it in, and then set its density,” explained Hughes. “We do a lot of single camera and some multi-camera looks and while we don’t have the opportunity to use a lot of moving lights, with the controls sophistication, it is a great tool to teach them for when they start working in a commercial application.”

“We have both undergraduate and graduate production programs,” added Wellman. “There are typically 600 students between the two and as they progress they find which education path they would like to take. The lighting programs are attached to the Cinematography path which is where they are able to work with the lighting and dimming systems. The Strand Light Palette consoles do exactly what they are supposed to do in that they provide the student with whatever they want, without getting in the way of their creativity. The set-up and operation of the boards is relatively easy which allows them time to focus on how they are getting their lighting looks and working with light itself. So they idea that a board can be both versatile and simple at the same time is a big advantage.”

Now fully complete, the 200,000-square foot Cinematic Arts Complex includes two 2600-square foot studios and two 3200-square foot studios, one of which is designed specifically for multi-camera applications with four HD cameras, built-in seating for 60 people and a separate control room with complete with controls and monitors. And as the students have now begun working and producing, the USC School of Cinematic Arts is once again pleased with their decision to utilize a dimming and controls system from Philips Strand Lighting.

Hughes concluded, “Of course there are competitive products and manufacturers, and the question did come up of ‘why we wanted a Strand system’. And my answer to this was very simple, pick up the phone and call any studio in Hollywood; Fox, Paramount, Disney, Universal, Studio City, Culver City; and find me one studio that does not have a Strand dimming system. And as for how the students are picking up the Light Palette console, I recently walked into Stage 1 and it seriously felt like I had gone back to Disney. The student production was as well-done as any I had worked on at my 42 years at Disney and the lighting looked great. These are the perfect compliments for any dimming and controls system.”

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