Illumination: Lighting Tips and Pointers

By Thomas McKenney

At a recent lighting seminar in Hollywood co-hosted by American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) and the Digital Cinema Society (DCS), Michael Goi, ASC Vice President, opens his presentation stating, “There is no such thing as bad lighting.”

Lighting is a tool, or collection of tools, that serves the story. Where to begin?  Many, including George Spiro Dibie, ASC, urge students to visit museums and study the great masters.  Look at the stories that unfold to the eye from canvas to canvas.  Look for the source of light in the paintings.  Note the shadows.  See the depth come alive from the two-dimensional still work.

In one fresco at the Vatican depicting the Ascension, the sun in the sky appeared so real, one tourist asked his guide to show him the lamp behind the artwork but Raphael created the effect long before electricity.  The feature, “Girl with the Pearl Earring” is a lighting tutorial showing Vermeer’s creative process.

Look at daily life.  Notice how a face is illuminated and falls off in darkness as a car motors through city streets.  Subjects don’t have constant light in nature.  Clouds pass in and out of the path of that big key light in the sky.  In a dramatic film, that light cue could build the tension of the scene.  That’s one possibility. What serves the story?

Goi darkens the soundstage and puts one light under the actress’s chin lighting her face from below. When she reads her line, “I love you,” Dibie jokes from the audience, “I don’t believe you!” Goi then asks her to read the second line, “I’m going to kill you,” and what looked at first glance to be terrible lighting instantly fits the script and serves the story.

Some films such as “Dick Tracy” and “Traffic” call for saturated, exaggerated, even cartoonish lighting and filters.  Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” was admired for being lighted so well, it didn’t seem to be lit at all.  Frederick Elmes and his crew took great pains to both capture and supplement natural light so as not to take the audience out of it. They served the story.

In this summer’s blockbuster, “Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Man’s  Chest” Dariusz Wolski and his crew made the most use of natural light to bring a sense of the real and the possible to the sea epic fantasy. Wolski confided to an audience after a screening that his regret or cringe moments lay in the blue screen shots necessary for soundstages to blend with the lighting shot at real locations.

Tips and Pointers:

  • Pour over artwork and other films.   Study the lighting and consider how it serves the story being presented.
  • Assess with the writer, director, and art department during pre-production what is the visual goal of the script and KNOW that script. Fight to put the majority of your budget in the images to be seen by the audience.
  • Do not fall in love with a particular piece of equipment, a particular shot or the heroics it took to accomplish a shot.  It is easier and quicker (and therefore cheaper) to set a large lamp and then flag, scrim and diffuse it down rather than to re-light.  Re-lighting costs time, tension and can sap the energy of the actors to be lit.
  • Further, to work quickly, attempt to use fewer lights and let them do double/triple-duty (or more) with bounce cards, reflectors and bounces off non-traditional surfaces such as tables practical to the set and stray plywood placed out of frame for a warmer bounce.
  • Experiment when and where possible, but have a plan from pre-production.  Storyboard with the director.  Find talented grips and gaffers and treat them like gold.  They are instrumental in realizing the director’s vision which should be to serve the story.
  • Remember the wisdom of Michael Goi, ASC on illumination as a tool of visual storytelling. Find what the script calls for because there is no such thing as bad lighting.

(Published in StudentFilmmakers Magazine, August 2006)

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