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Morning Light: John Gonzalez on Lighting the MORNING JOE Show

Posted on August 31, 2015

We met John (Gonzo) Gonzalez when we visited Saint Joseph’s Co-Cathedral in Brooklyn, NY to admire his stunning work illuminating historic church’s alter with crystal clarity by using a 5° lens on Ovation E-190WW LED ellipsoidals from a position more than 140’ away. That was when we became aware of this talented New Yorker, but unbeknownst to us, it was not the first time we saw and admired his work. Like millions of other Americans, we were treated to his meticulous lighting design many times over breakfast when MORNING JOE was on our TV.

Gonzo has been the lighting director for the popular and influential MSNBC/NBCUNIVERSAL morning program since 1996. The job is undoubtedly glamorous; presidents, prime ministers and a host of other celebrities have come under his lights, but it also involves a lot hard work, starting at 3 am every morning no less! Most of all though, it puts this affable LD on the cutting edge of broadcast lighting trends. We caught up with Gonzo and asked him to share some of his insights.

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Can you give us some background? How did you get started on MORNING JOE?
“I have been with MSNBC/NBCUNIVERSAL for the past 19 years, since 1996. I started working with the IMUS IN THE MORNING for about 10 years and then MORNING JOE, where I’m the lighting director for the past nine years.”

So what’s a day in the life of a network morning show lighting director like? How do you start your day and get the set ready?
“My day starts at 3 in the morning when we bring on line the Network’s Studio 3A. I prepare Studio 3A for its day of programing. We check about 1000 lights for burn outs. I make sure about 100 monitors are working on the set walls and floor. Then I the run my macros on the board and check my Subs that light my MORNING JOE set. I then finally check all my six cameras and prep them for show. I do both jobs, video/lighting. Details are obviously very important when you’re doing TV lighting, especially live TV. If something isn’t working right you want to know about it before you go on the air, not when you’re live!”

With all the variety of guests on your show, how do you ensure that the color temperature is always right?
“We rely on the purchase of lamps that are calibrated for 3200 Kelvin. This is a television/film standard temperature for the average flesh tone, be it white, brown or
black. Candlelight is an example 3200 Kelvin.”

What if you couldn’t have 3200 Kelvin?
“I would use 3000 Kelvin if I could not have 3200 Kelvin. When it comes to flesh color rendering, nothing else will work for film or television.”

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How is it working with show directors?
“The show director and lighting director build a lighting design from the preproduction meetings where elements are pitched that have lighting needs or concerns. From here the talent and set and camera positions are placed, and a ‘show look’ becomes reality. The relationship is honored between both the director and lighting director because of their creative interest.”

What are your thoughts about using LED ellipsoidal fixtures? Will they ever replace incandescent?
“Yes, yes and yes. It is a matter of time. I believe in the next five years LED ellipsoidals and Fresnels will become the standard. I use them and I encourage all my clients to switch over. Buy LED!!!”

Has the arrival of HD television changed the way you light?
“Well I launched our network MSNBC/NBCUNIVERSAL at 30 Rockefeller Plaza with HD. Our sets got wider and more detailed. With this in mind, you have to cover the set for a wider look and your lighting will be more obvious in the shadows. So, my advice is to light your shadows in a way that has some fill appearing to be grey or absolute black. Separation is the best look. Separation of your true blacks to greys and whites. HD is all about detail, which is the definition in the word ‘HIGH DEFINITION’ or ‘High Detail’.”

How do you use backlighting on the set? What role does it play in your designs?
“Backlighting is a way to separate. You can separate your talent from the set by having a backlight. You can separate your set by lighting it at a different level than your desk and or foreground. Backlighting is all about separation.”

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What about front lighting? Has the arrival of HD changed the role it plays in your designs?
“Light balance is what becomes more obvious when using HD or LED lighting. Using a camera view with a high resolution monitor just adjust your side fills at a lower level than your key and feather the key at a higher level than the fills. Look for the shadow line that separates the front from the sides and backlighting. This is the line you erase with adding in the side fills. You would do the same with the backlighting by increasing the level so it’s obvious. Then take it down a bit so it’s not.”

How have LED video panels changed the way you design for TV?
“We use video projection as a background for our MORNING JOE show. We also have some sets with video walls or LED video panels. The best way to use this technology is to control its video and saturation levels through a color corrector to match a look (source) that you have sent it for the camera look.”

Do you have a favorite color of light to work with on the set? Do you have a color that’s most challenging?
“A light blue is my favorite color for a studio’s background. This color seems to present a better flesh tone on faces on camera. Other colors like red or white and yellow affect the color rendering of the flesh tones on camera.”

Colors look different on TV screen than they do to the human eye, so how do you evaluate the effect of a colored light when you see it on the set? Do you rely on the camera more than your eye?
“The camera is the final look. You light for the camera. You do eventually know what to look for and that is what a career is built off of.”

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Do different cameras show the same color differently?
“Yes. Cameras are like LED lights. The manufacturers produce their products to be competitive, and it is very hard to make them compatible.”

What is the hardest part of your job?
“Not having enough time to build a look. There is never enough time to make things work the way you want. So, you look for the best work practices and ideas that allow you to get as much done to build the looks you want in the time that’s allotted to you. After a while you’ll know how your studio works; the crew, sets, cameras and lights. I have about an hour if needed to do special lighting other than our normal look.”

Do you have any example of special lighting that goes beyond your normal look?
“No. From time to time we change the look of MORNING JOE’s graphics, and the lighting can change with it — mainly background LED color.”

Do you create a different look with lighting for breaking news as opposed to softer human interest features?
“Our BREAKING NEWS look is turning the LED walls red. I believe on the network’s relaunch, this red may be omitted.”

Any other advice on lighting for TV?
“These are great times, and we will see changes that will make the present state of our industry seem old fashioned. The waiting for technology is over!!! This is our time to shine, and shine it will with all the new technology of LEDs bringing us to the 21 century.”