Daniel Villeneuve csc on Lighting Dark Scenes
Create and Capture Cinematic Emotion
Daniel Villeneuve csc has been shooting for film and television for over 30 years. His craftsmanship being recognized two years running in both 2019 and 2020 with nominations at the Canadian Screen Awards for best photography, drama, for the television features, “Sleeper” and “Mean Queen”.
What were your favourite scenes to light in “Sleeper” and “Mean Queen”, and can you tell us about your use of lighting, shadows, and colour for these scenes?
Daniel Villeneuve csc: In “Sleeper”, possibly the most interesting scene to light was the one where a woman breaks into the couple’s house. She searches the darkened house with a flashlight as the main light source while the people who live there are about the come back home. It starts in the backyard, goes through the kitchen, up the stairs, the hallway, in a bedroom and back out the same way just in time as not to be caught…of course. Lights were strategically placed outside the location and gave some sense of exterior street light coming in the house, but most of the actual lighting for the scene is really from the prop flashlight, therefore, requiring some planning with the performer as to where to shine the light and where not to.
Fortunately, now with LED flashlights, we can get a good light output in a small device.
When simulating exterior street lights, it is becoming more and more of a question about what colour to have those lights. A few years ago, street lights were pretty much universally the very deep and gloomy yellow/green of sodium discharge lamps. But lately, and thankfully, more and more street lights are being upgraded to photographically more appropriate and more reliable energy saving LED sources. In “Sleeper”, we went with a mix of pseudo-sodium using gels because the actual street lights seen in some night exteriors were still sodium based, and clean tungsten, justifying that decision on the fact that there could be some mix of street light and some light from neighbouring houses. We also “attributed” a decorative yellow light source to one of the neighbours. The flashlight was pretty much daylight, casting a nice blue light.
I had asked for some smoke in the house so the light beam would show, but I think that when doing that, it is important to have the smoke level at a bare minimum so that its presence does not become questionable.
In “Mean Queen”, the most elaborate and challenging lighting set-up was for the night scenes in the forest. It evolves around a derelict shack in a remote area where someone is being held captive. Night scenes in a forest are the type of scenes that I find will require the most lighting efforts as trees and leaves will just gobble up whatever light that we try to put in there.
Fortunately, for us, we were shooting in very early spring, so the leaves were just coming out, and we did get a fairly good light level and coverage from our lights.
We had a fairly wide area where we elected to situate the action. We chose a location where, while looking as if deep into the wilderness, we were very close to the end of a dead-end street where we parked a large construction crane in which we put, if memory serves me well, three Arri M40 HMI fixtures and used them as our main giant “magic movie moon” light source. In coverage, in order to stay back lit as much as possible, we did a lot of what we call here, “French reverse”, where the actors are put against believable backgrounds that are not necessarily the ones they would have if shooting conventionally, using the motto that, “a tree, is a tree, is a tree”, moving the actors while the camera moves just enough to get a different looking background, very convenient, but somewhat confusing for the crew. I take pictures to keep track. In that situation, moving our light source would have been impossible, and even if it were possible, very time consuming. It also becomes one of those instances when everyone is, more or less, magically back lit, but sometimes I just do not concern myself too much with that, going for looks over logic. Again, smoke was used to get more depth and this time, given the setting, it was a plausible thing.
If you could share “3 Important Do’s” and “3 Important Don’ts” for lighting dark scenes, what would they be?
Daniel Villeneuve csc:
Do use adequate lighting within the means available. I think that with cameras getting more and more sensitive lately, I now shoot with a RED Gemini that can be set at 3200 ISO with no noticeable adverse consequences on the look, there are some ‘individuals’ in the business who think that we magically do not have to light anymore, actually many have been making that wild and frivolous claim for several years now. While it is true that the very large, power-hungry lighting units from a few years ago can now be replaced with smaller more efficient ones, it is important to remember that we do not light scenes just to get illumination that yields proper exposure, we are using light to create a mood, to make statement, to bring the audience into the scene, and that endeavour goes way, way, beyond just getting an exposure level. So don’t get suckered into the lazy, “we don’t need lights anymore” approach. Even though a scene might be destined to be dark in the final on screen result, try within the available means to get a good amount of exposure that will be easily made darker in post. This is easier and yields better looking results than trying to make underexposed scenes become brighter.
Do strive to separate background and foreground with light and/or colour. Sensors or film need light to build an image. But on the other hand, I will never hesitate to let parts of a set go dark or to let an actor walk in a dark area, but I will then endeavour strongly to get a relatively bright background, so they stand out against it or, on a different tack, try to get some sort of back light or edge light. A dark, unlit actor walking against a dark, unlit background just yields dark on dark.
Also, keep in mind that in many production situations, the DP will not be the only one deciding on the final look. As much as we would like to evolve in this perfect creative bubble where directors always get final cut with no comments and DPs have the final say on the look, in many instances, producers, faced with many imperatives that they must juggle, will also have their say in the look, so getting more exposure than necessary gives one the leeway to make some allowances in colour timing to help meet those many imperatives.
Do keep the ISO as low as practical. While it might also be tempting to get more exposure in night scenes by simply increasing the camera’s ISO setting, seems logical after all, keep in mind that in most modern cameras (RED, Alexa, Sony) that have a single native base ISO, usually 800, increasing the ISO will yield a brighter image, yes, but that is only done as meta data, information that tags along with the clip and tells the rendering software to increase brightness, the sensor just gets the same basic exposure or perhaps even less, and while the image does look brighter, shadow detail might get gradually somewhat compromised. So, when shooting night scenes, as much as it is possible, one should strive to counter intuitively reduce the camera’s ISO setting, hence making the image darker and by requiring a wider aperture, protecting the details in the shadow areas better. The opposite should be considered when shooting in very bright settings where protecting highlights detail can be a priority. When sufficient lighting was available, I have often shot night scenes at very low ISO settings, knowing that while the images look dark and moody on the monitor, I have an extra stop or so of exposure “reserve” in my back pocket that can be called upon later in post, even if it is only to add some detail in just a portion of the image.
In a perfect world it takes some amount of light even to make darkness on screen. When it is not possible to light, documentary, run and gun, etc., I will then not hesitate to use the high sensitivity dual ISO on the newer extremely high-performance cameras available nowadays that have the dual base ISO ability. I have been shooting with RED for five years now and the past two with the Gemini which easily handles 3200 ISO, Sony and Panasonic also have dual ISO cameras that are outstanding performers. Once we get in this realm of high ISO, many night environments, especially in urban settings, will yield sufficient light for exposure, but let’s keep in mind that the DP can still have an influence on the outcome, even though there is no actual lighting involved, by choosing locations, camera position, framing and lenses wisely.
Do not let actors’ eyes go completely lifeless in very dark close-ups. One small and simple device that I find useful when shooting dark scenes is to have an eyelight. I find that even in dark faces, having the slightest glitter of light reflecting in the actors’ eyes adds a better perception of their performances. I use a very small array of bi-color LEDs about 1 inch by 5 inches velcroed on the mat box with a controller, also velcroed to one side and powered through the camera battery. In a pinch, I will use an iPhone. There are even apps for phones and tablets that let one dial in a colour and adjust brightness level very easily, and they can become a useful light source.
Do not let the overall scene lighting make a prop flashlight look as if it is not required. Another thing that I find important in night scenes where a flashlight is being used is to attempt as much as possible to make the flashlight by far the brightest light source in the shot, the scene should not look so bright that the audience questions why a flashlight is being used in the first place. Nowadays, just a single flashlight, in many instances, can do a lot of actual lighting.
Do not adhere to any rules, experiment for yourself on your own projects, make mistakes and learn from them. In the preceding topics, I might be trying to share a few of my “rules”, we must always remember that there are no rules, some might just be used as stepping off points to experiment, basic guidelines to explore further and further.
Always be ready to embrace the “happy accident”. Sometimes unforeseen circumstances can create magical visual situations, and they are often difficult, if not impossible, to replicate.
You’ve recently shot several TV movie thrillers. Can you talk a little bit about cinematic emotion in thrillers? How do you create tension and suspense using shots, angles, and motivate camera movement? What are some examples?
Daniel Villeneuve csc: In shooting crime thrillers, or any movie for that matter, one of the first things to consider is the perspective from which we wish to show the action. It will often be from the principal character’s perspective and one of the most powerful tools to control the viewer’s perspective, their perception of the action, aside from, obviously, camera placement, is lens choice. Not the actual lens brand of course, but focal lengths.
Lens choices should never be overlooked when telling a story with a camera. Different focal lengths will have a direct effect on the distance the audience feels from a character and how they will identify, or not, with their situation. A simple example can be the same close-up shot on 40mm lens with the camera about 4 feet from the actor, or with a 100mm lens where the camera will be around 10 feet away. Both shots would have the actor roughly the same size in the frame, but with the 40mm, the background will be relatively in focus or at least with many details discernible, as an audience we will see the environment the character is in better and we will also feel, although for many it will be on a subconscious level, the close proximity of the camera, we will feel we are “with” the character. Using a 100mm does quite the opposite, the background will be very out of focus and the audience will feel the character is more isolated in his world. Both are good choices; I prefer to use the shorter lenses usually, but that is never cast in stone.
It is also important, in my opinion, to be consistent with lens choices and shot sizes throughout the film for a given situation while, perhaps, if appropriate, using different focal lengths strategically, according to the circumstances or character shown throughout the film to make subtle visual statements.
Even when shooting with a zoom lens, which is most of the time lately to reduce material handling on set due to the pandemic, I will still use it at mostly the same 3 or 4 lens settings in order to keep a consistent look. I find that I can shoot practically an entire film using 27mm, 40mm and 65mm. 18mm and 100mm will be used seldomly if I must due to locations constraints. But 90% of the time, it works with the three aforementioned focal lengths.
Camera height relative to the actors is also an important tool to create tension in a scene and change perspective, in most cases, I think it should not be used too obviously. Often a little over or under the horizontal plane will go a long way in creating a mood.
You’re currently in pre-production on a project. What projects do you have coming up on the horizon?
Daniel Villeneuve csc: For the past two years, after shooting many dozens of crime thrillers for TV, I have found myself in the completely different world of romantic comedies (romcoms), where the plot usually revolves around girl meets boy, girl gradually likes boy, girl gets boy. It is a completely different game from crime thrillers visually and, in my opinion an even bigger challenge technically. While crime thrillers can be somewhat gritty and dirty looking, romcoms, of course, have to have a very “clean” look, but without going into the “let’s put lights everywhere” approach, at least not for me. So, I try to always maintain some dimension, some contrast to the light even though we still have to be in a fairly softly lit world where the cast looks their best. I did two romcoms in the second half of 2020 despite the COVID pandemic. I have already finished one in 2021 with one in pre-production right now and another one after that will take me all the way to early September. There is perhaps a feature at some point in the fall, but in a freelance world that is like light years away.
Interview conducted by Jody Michelle Solis. Associate Publisher for StudentFilmmakers Magazine (www.studentfilmmakers.com), HD Pro Guide Magazine (www.hdproguide.com), and Sports Video Tech (www.sportsvideotech.com) Magazine.
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