LEDs in Los Angeles: How New Streetlights Will Change the Town Forever


Mark Brocher

A seismic shift in Hollywood has just occurred, and film critic Roger Ebert is not happy about it. The year? 2002.

That year marked the release of George Lucas’ film “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.” What made this movie different was the deliberate choice by Lucas to shoot it entirely with digital cameras, as opposed to the industry standard 35mm analog film camera. According to Ebert, the ushering in of a new digital era and the effective abandonment of 35mm film marked an unwelcome change to moviemaking and Hollywood as he knew it.

Today an equally drastic revolution is occurring in Hollywood; however, it is more of a literal transformation than merely an existential one. Indeed, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s initiative to replace the city’s outdated low-pressure sodium bulb streetlights with light-emitting diodes (LED) will literally change the look and feel of Los Angeles, according to Forbes.

The first phase of the project, which started in 2009, has so far seen the installation of LEDs in 141,089 of Los Angeles’ streetlights. A further 70,000 more replacements are expected in the upcoming second phase of the project. Los Angeles joins other major American cites–including Austin, Las Vegas, San Antonio, and New York–that have planned or started the conversion of their streetlights to LEDs.

Supporters of this change, including former President Bill Clinton, believe the positive effects of the conversion will reduce Los Angeles’ carbon emissions, reduce Los Angeles’ energy use, and save millions of dollars that would otherwise have been spent on powering the less-efficient low-pressure sodium bulbs, according to Forbes. In fact, since the switchover was started, Los Angeles has been able to save $7 million a year in energy costs and $2.5 million a year in unnecessary maintenance costs, reduce energy use by 63.1 percent, and prevent 47,583 metric tons of carbon emissions from being released into the environment.

However the opponents of this change are represented by the very industry that has come to define Los Angeles and Hollywood. These new streetlights will make the city forever appear different on camera and in film.

Since different lights produce different color temperatures, or different mixtures of blue and orange wavelengths of visible light, they also produce different hues or colors perceptible to the human eye, according to Cambridge in Color. For example, since the existing low-pressure sodium bulbs in Los Angeles’ streetlights produce visible light with a tungsten based filament, the spectrum of light they produce is more orange than blue, resulting in their distinctive yellow hue. Inversely, since LEDs produce visible light by passing electrical currents through a semiconductor, the spectrum of light they produce is more blue than orange, resulting in their distinctive blue hue.

For this reason, the yellow hue of tungsten streetlights have been described as “warm,” while the blue hue of LED lights have been described as “cool.” Cinematographers feel the warm hues match well with the warm qualities of 35mm film, and the cool hues are better suited for the cool qualities of digital cameras, according to Gizmodo.

Opponents of digital cinema feel this change is being forced on them, and that they may no longer be able to capture the timeless look of Hollywood. This camp includes Michael Mann, who deliberately moved filming of his film “Collateral” to Los Angeles for the express purpose of capturing the way the city looked at night, according to Gizmodo. Understandably, the conversion of Los Angeles’ streetlights to the cool blue hues of LEDs threatens to shape both the way Los Angeles appears in movies, and the very technology those movies are shot with.

While film critic Roger Ebert may have deplored this brave new digital world, the switch to LED streetlights invariably represents a much brighter future for Hollywood and the city of Los Angeles.