Every weekday shortly after midnight, when many designers are just getting to bed, Peter Greenbaum is waking up to begin another day lighting an American icon. For the past four years, this native New Yorker has been lighting The Today Show, the most popular (among adults) and longest running morning show in the US.
Through his work, he has lit presidents, prime ministers, Nobel Laurates, film stars, rock icons and just about every other type of celebrity, always with a sharp eye for detail honed over the course of his career as a theatrical and dance lighting designer in New York and Europe. Greenbaum’s passion for lighting dates back to the third grade when a teacher asked him to turn on the lights for a school play, and rather than plain white illumination, colors appeared.
By junior high school, Greenbaum was picking up odd jobs lighting events. After college, he tried being a stockbroker, but the allure of lighting was too strong to resist. He returned to lighting doing theatre work in New York before being brought to Vienna by noted choreographer Bertl Gstettner. A three-year stretch of high profile European dance design projects followed, before he returned to New York and The Today Show, where his work brightens mornings for some five million Americans every day.
We caught up with Greenbaum in New York and asked him to share his experience lighting the early morning institution.
The Today Show is on the air every morning at 7 am. What time do you get to work? Can you give us an idea of what your schedule is like?
“It is not your everyday schedule! I wake up every weekday morning at 12:30 am. By 1 am, I am out of the house driving to Rockefeller Center. Fortunately, traffic is light, even in Manhattan at that time. I’m in the studio by 2 am. Sometimes when we have specials, I have to be at the studio by 1 am, so everything is backed up an hour.
“Our show ends at 11 am, and I try to be heading home by 11:15 am, which isn’t often the case because we have breaking news or post tape shows. When I get home, I spend time with my wonderful wife Christine and daughter Natasha, then get to sleep early and start it all over the next day half past midnight. It can seem like a rough schedule, but I genuinely love what I do, which is true of most everybody at The Today Show, from the cast you see on air to the people behind the scenes.”
So what is your routine like once you get to the studio?
“Before I even get to my desk, I stop by the studio floor and look at what’s set up. I then go down to the control room and go through emails and paperwork to look for the day’s segments. Once I’m ready to go, I go upstairs to the studio floor and start lighting segment by segment. The stagehands are there setting up as I light. My electrics team, a ladder crew and my programmer then work with me to light each vignette or segment.”
How do you decide on things like background colors, light angles and other parameters for the day’s lighting design?
“I look at the location as well as the message behind the particular segment that’s being televised. Background colors are crucial to creating the mood on live TV. When making choices about how to light a particular segment, I always try to anticipate whether or not the people in the segment will move – and move in unexpected directions. I’ll also look at whether or not there’s a good chance that more people will join the segment once it’s in progress. My philosophy is to have something in my back pocket at all times – just in case. Have more as opposed to fewer options is always better for a lighting designer or lighting director. The fixtures are tools that help you be on our creative toes.”
What about color temperatures? There’s such a wide variety of guests on The Today Show with different skin tones, how do you ensure the color temperature is right?
“I will tweak levels depending on the person, but as a rule I prefer to keep it cool at 5600° K. The deciding factor is that everyone has to look great on the wide shot. If there’s an issue that’s when its going to crop up, so that’s what you always keep front and center in your mind when tweaking color temperature.”
As lighting director how do you collaborate with the program’s director?
“Everything comes and goes through the director. He sits at the helm. It’s the hierarchy. Producers will always include the director when chatting with me. Ultimately if he says ‘let’s use blue,’ it will be blue. But I’m hired as the Lighting Director and therefore my goal is to create the best looking picture as possible. Every segment is different, from a band segment to a demo segment, an interview to a game show. I am lucky to have such a varied background with experiences in all facets of the industry. I draw on my past every day. Bottom line is that I deliver a clean show 99% of the time.”
Only 99 percent of the time?
“Ha ha – nobody’s perfect!”
What’s the biggest challenge in your job?
“The biggest challenge, I think, is balancing out the overall look of the show. We have the sunlight blasting through the windows, we have people of all different complexions and we have every type of surface imaginable, from plexi to stainless steel. I need to make sure throughout all this, the people look beautiful. Sometimes this may mean washing out a space and creating a nice backlight for a different guest. I just have to make sure my angles are covered. The camera still dictates what the eye will see.”
You do so many shows over the course of the year, yet you’re known for always remaining enthusiastic and bringing a fresh look to your work. What’s the secret?
“I try to start each day with the idea that it is something brand new. This is true, each day is something that none of us have ever seen before, so with this in mind I work really hard to avoid using the same looks over and over. I get inspiration every single day from everything I see, from the colors of the Empire State Building in the middle of the night when I’m driving to the studio, to the colors of the day driving home. As a lighting designer, you draw inspiration from everything you see in the course of your daily life.”
In addition to your in studio work, you’re also responsible for lighting The Today Show Citi Concert Series, which features a Who’s Who list of stars. Even though the outdoor stage at Rockefeller Plaza is relatively small, we’ve always been impressed with the big production look you’re able to create at these mini concerts week after week. How do you approach designing for this?
“That’s my favorite question – and thank you for the ‘big production look’ compliment. I appreciate it. This is obviously a fun part of my job. As far as how I light the concerts is concerned, it starts out with the performer. I try to match the type of lights I’ll use to the style of music. Color and movement are the most important elements that go into the look.
“As you know our concerts can go from ballads to dance music. I light all the stages with HMI to make video level, the rest is for the eye. I appreciate all the people out on the plaza, but bottom line is we are The Today Show, national TV. The camera is what puts the looks out there. I always try to make the cameras twinkle. Star filters in the lenses make the pictures memorable. It is always a pleasure to have the NBC Special Effects Guru, John Greenfield and his team, most notably, Ray Croce, on site to collaborate with when it comes to the atmospheric nuances of the show.
“Whether I want to see the beams from the Rogue R1 FX-Bs or washes from the Nexus panels, John and his team help me achieve the look I’m after. Bottom line is, whether watching on TV or live on the Plaza, I want the experience to be like you’ve just experienced a live concert in any venue that you can think of. I always try to build the energy and the excitement of the band with the lighting. We have big names on stage and one of the most respected names in the history of US television, because it’s The Today Show, so I want everything I do to be perfect.”