Lighting designer Michael Franks leads his team once again into the NFL
Published Wednesday, June 10, 2009
by Bryan Matthews

As many talented college athletes sat eagerly awaiting the announcement of their name at Radio City Music Hall, the real work for the 2009 NFL Draft had already been done.  Quietly behind the scenes, lighting designer Michael Franks has been leading the team from Michael Franks Productions through a full-scale design, installation, and event coordination.  To fill out his team, Franks once again enlisted the assistance of Scharff Weisberg, who has been working with Franks on the NFL Draft for four years, and together they drafted a greatly maintained moving light rig with the only automated luminaires that could combine consistency, power, control, and reliability while maintaining the conservative budget.  They chose VARI*LITE® automated luminaires.    


“I did my first NFL Draft in 1996 and it has certainly come a long way,” began Franks.  “My role in the project consists of both designing and producing the lighting side for the NFL, ESPN and the NFL Network through Michael Franks Productions.  Our company provides full-service lighting for the event which includes lighting design, acquiring all the necessary gear, hiring the crew, installation supervision, and, course, lighting design and direction during the live event.”


As Franks and his crew began working on the initial design for the draft, they knew that there would be certain requests from producers of both ESPN and the NFL network, who would be televising the live two-day event.


Franks continued, “The producers from both networks will often have requests, and I always ask them, ‘Is there anything you’d like to improve on?’  We are always looking to make changes or improve from previous years.  This year was the first year ESPN broadcast in High Definition, so I knew we needed to have superior intensity control.  Primarily a lot of what we do as lighting designers is invisible to the producers, but they know that whatever their needs are, they will be satisfied in the end.”


As he was creating the complete lighting design for the production, Franks began to find ways to improve on the event from years past.  With 13 previous drafts under his belt, Franks knew that this year would be a little different.


“I looked for areas that we could improve the efficiency of what we are doing.  This year economics really played a big factor.  We had to try and achieve the same quality look of what we had previously done, but we had to also stay within the most current budget.


A tighter budget wasn’t the only challenge that faced Franks.  He also had to overcome the challenge of keeping a consistent and even lighting design which would play well for a live audience as well as football fans watching across the nation on the NFL Network and ESPN.  


“The event has to have a unified look for all the different viewers.  The live show which is seen by the audience in Radio City Music Hall has to then translate onto the ESPN and NFL networks and each network has approximately 10-12 cameras.  Both networks also have various interview sets throughout the theater; ESPN has four areas and the NFL network has four as well.  We have to make sure and balance the light levels the same so that the backgrounds are similar to each other.  The colors and the patterns that we project on those backgrounds have to be unified.  That’s a big part of the challenge.”


With an auditorium that reaches 160 ft. from stage to back wall and a ceiling height of 84 ft., how does a lighting designer create a unified studio appearance?  And how does the designer then keep the look up and running for two days?  This is another challenge that Franks and his team are familiar with, yet one they were able to successfully conquer.


“This whole show is shooting what appears on-camera to be a close-up studio location, but we’re in a very large theatrical venue.  We have to keep the close-up looking beautiful given the challenges of being in a room where some of the throws are over 150 feet.  Reliability and consistency are key elements for the lighting gear since this is a live event that goes on for 12-13 hours all day Saturday and Sunday.  I have to hang fixtures that are going to be reliable and be on for that length of time without failing or breaking down.  I find that with the VARI-LITE fixtures there’s a reliability factor that’s worth whatever one has to do to make sure we get VARI*LITE luminaires. “


Understanding that VARI*LITE luminaires were a key element to achieving maximum success in the design, Franks did not hold back in filling his lighting roster with the exact lights he wanted on his team.


“VARI*LITE luminaires were 99% of the moving lighting rig.  We had five other automated fixtures, but primarily all the moving fixtures are VARI*LITE.  I needed the reliability, the large selection of attributes, the great color patterns, and the optics which are superior to other fixtures out there.  A lot of moving fixtures can do similar things, but there’s only one company that is the top-of-the-line when it comes to certain aspects, Vari-Lite.”


Now that Franks knew exactly which manufacturer’s fixtures he wanted to use, he began to narrow it down to the types of fixtures needed to surpass the challenges ahead.  As he scrolled through the Vari-Lite catalog, Franks chose the VL1000™ Arc and Tungsten, VL3500™ Spot, VL3000™ Wash, VL3000™ Spot, and VL500™ Wash luminaires.


“The VL1000 Arc and Tungsten were used for key and backlights during the on-camera interviews and then some were used for a stage wash.  I found that being able to wash the stage and key light with moving fixtures not only saves a lot of focus time, but also enables me to get an even intensity that is difficult to get with most conventional fixtures.  The VL1000 gives me the flexibility to adjust and tweak as necessary without having to spend time sending an electrician up to the truss. It gave me the ability to back light or key light an area that might change at the last minute.” 


With the key interview and stage areas appropriately lit, Franks turned his attention to the background lighting for the ambiance and overall picture of the room as it would be seen both live and on television.


“The VL3500 and VL3000 Wash luminaires were primarily washing the theater ceiling and walls because the range of throws varied tremendously.  I needed to use the same type of fixture to keep the consistency and these lights have a very broad zoom range.  The ability to zoom out very wide and still have the punch is one of the reasons I specifically use the VARI*LITE wash units.   They have a great punch for the zoom lens.  I don’t think any other fixture would have given the desired effect.”


To create the patterns that would be projected throughout the room, Franks needed a spot fixture with a great range of stock gobos that are desirable to the producers of the show.  For this, Franks put the VL3000 Spot in the game.


“The VL3000 Spot luminaires provided the wonderful scenic backgrounds to give some variety behind the close-ups for the main sets.  Since we had a slightly different rig this year that gave us better angles and altered some of the truss configurations, we were able to use both truss and floor locations for the fixtures.  The angles that we were able to get from both high and low trajectories looked phenomenal and gave us exactly what we needed.” 


With a live show, a lighting designer never knows when the need to light an alternate location will arise.  Franks needed a fixture that would allow him to light both backgrounds and interview areas on the fly when needed, and for this he chose the VL3500 Spot luminaire.   


“For the VL3500 Spot luminaires we took full advantage of the shutter controls.  With this one type of light we were able to back light or provide a combination of lighting talent and backgrounds wherever and whenever it was necessary.”


Now that his lighting design was complete and the challenges had all been surmounted, Franks, his team, and the producers from both networks were very pleased with how the 2009 NFL Draft appeared live and on-camera.  While staying in budget, Franks created a new and interesting lighting design that ushered in the newest stars of the NFL. 


“I think this year was a vast improvement.  We were able to achieve more efficiency in terms of the install as every piece of equipment we had was utilized in the design.  This year we really streamlined and there was never a problem with the VARI*LITE luminaires.  I think these fixtures are far superior in terms of reliability and consistency.  We will definitely be using VARI*LITE luminaires in 2010.  They were flawless.”


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