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Light savers: Production lighting is integral to impactful services

By Raj Dayal

Today’s churches include innovative services and events that showcase advanced multimedia technology. As important, if not central, to the sound and video capabilities in worship centers is lighting design and production. Lighting systems are complex and integral to how a worship service or event is experienced. Church Executive spoke with Tom Stanziano, lighting director for Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen Ministries in Houston, TX.

How long have you served at Lakewood and what type of training did you receive?

I graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1993 with an Associate’s degree in music and video. After years spent in the cruise industry, I moved on to theater production. In 2001 I received a call from a friend to go to Houston, TX to conduct training and program a lighting console for a church. I had no idea about Lakewood or what it was about.

I was asked back several times and in 2003 I joined Lakewood Church fulltime. In 2004 while working as part of the Lighting Design Team for our new facility, I started working on a design for “An Evening with Joel Osteen.” The production has turned into a muti-city tour traveling to 18-20 cities per year. Last year we took our service overseas and visited Ireland and England. In July 2005 Lakewood moved into a 16,000-seat facility which was once used as the home of the Houston Rockets.

Explain what lighting design is for those who may not have any idea about it, and how it is being implemented at Lakewood.

There are many considerations to having a lighting plan. First, leaders have to decide what their facility needs are going to be. Is it for television? Will they have projectors and screens for image magnification? Will the lighting be used to only light the platform, band and choir? Will churches have any live productions, concerts, dramas or pageants? These are all questions leaders need to ask before a design can even be considered.

Once the purpose is established, a plan can be created. A lighting design consists of many things: lighting fixtures, dimming, a console to control the fixtures, power, DMX (interface protocol for stage-lighting), placement, color and texture. There are plenty of options associated with each. Budgets usually play a big part in the design process. A design can be easily scaled down from wants and needs but still provide the system expandability without compromising the flexibility.

At Lakewood our design is largely based on a live television broadcast, much like an awards show. We had to add additional catwalks and trussing to achieve the hanging positions for both conventional fixtures such as pars, ellipsoidal and fresnels (spotlights) and intelligent fixtures. We are able to work under any criteria from television, dramas, image magnification and live concerts.

What type of equipment is used for services, productions, conferences and touring? In what ways do these differ?

At Lakewood Church, we are using Par cans for audience light, back light and general washes. We include ellipsoidal for isolating the band and texture. We use fresnels for front lighting the audience and 40 intelligent fixtures for the live concert look. We are also using a color mixing fixture to change colors on our main curtain. Our ceiling is lit with LED fixtures. We are able to use hazers (similar to a fog machine but produces droplets that are barely visible) to enhance the beams on the intelligent lights.

Our facility is a 16,000-seat television studio; every area needs to be lit accordingly and consistent from the platform to the ceiling and everywhere in between. Every lighting scene is carefully selected for what will work for television. Sometimes what looks great live doesn’t transmit well to broadcast.

On the road we use more intelligent fixtures for the live concert feel and few conventional fixtures to light the audience.

The road is more forgiving because we aren’t shooting for television, but we still have cameras for the screens so it still has to work well for that. It really is more of a live show than what we do at home. I can play with more created effects that wash the audience, much more movement to enhance the music, everything you would expect from a live show.

What options do churches have as far as putting together a good production lighting system on a limited budget? What are the essential components?

There are many options for the budget minded, even though Lakewood is a large church we still work within a budget. I am always searching for the best deals, but knowing what is needed and having a good relationship with vendors does help. Using people that you trust could save significant money.

The key to any good lighting system is the infrastructure: power, dimming, console and DMX. If growth of any size is anticipated, putting in additional infrastructure elements will save thousands of dollars later. If you have enough places to plug in a light, it is easy to add  a fixture but it not so easy to add dimming or even power without a huge expense.

How many people are on staff for lighting, paid and volunteer?

I am the only full-time lighting person. I have an assistant, four follow spots operators are needed weekly for our services, and I have five additional techs that operate consoles in our auxiliary rooms. Everyone at this point is a contract employee.

How does the lighting production interact with the other aspects of worship services, productions and conferences? What planning is involved?

Most of the productions, whether its youth or main sanctuary, has some sort of lighting. I interact with all of the ministries to assure that each event is successful. We will meet about an event and talk about what is needed; we all give input from catering to parking. I am given the theme and I put a plan together. We all work together even though we have different areas of expertise. For the main service, the team will meet once a week and discuss music choices, what worked last service and what didn’t, and how we can make it better.

What are your most important concerns as it relates to making sure things run smoothly?

My main concern is the television broadcast. We strive to maintain quality; we make mistakes but we learn from them and move forward. I tend to be more critical on my performance since our broadcast reaches more than two million people a week; I view it as I could be the reason people change the channel. I am part of something that changes lives and it is my responsibility to make sure everything looks great. I don’t take that lightly.

What should pastors and administrators know about their own production teams that can help make services, productions and conferences better?

I would advise pastors and administrators to look for passion in the team. If they are passionate about what they do and see the big picture, they will totally commit to it and have that same desire to change that world.

What is the most important goal of successful lighting design at Lakewood?

Consistency. When people watch Joel Osteen on television they expect to see Joel standing in front of the globe. It needs to look the same each and every time.

Photos courtesy of Mike Overlin, Yamaha Corporation.
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