“There Is No Such Thing As Video Lighting” by M. David Mullen, ASC

Pictured above: Kate Bosworth in “90 Minutes in Heaven”.

There is no such thing as video lighting, nor DV lighting, digital lighting, HD lighting – anymore than there is Fuji lighting versus Kodak lighting. I mean, what exactly is “film lighting” when that term covers the look of movies from Singin’ in the Rain to Seven? Learning to light is one of the biggest challenges for the beginning filmmaker and involves developing three separate skills: (1) the ability to see, to be sensitive to the artistic possibilities of natural light and available artificial illumination; (2) the ability to imagine how lighting can transform a location or set; and (3) the ability to tell a story in images.

You develop the first skill, using natural and artificial light, through observation of the world around you and by exercising your own inherent visual taste. You will begin to see how the shade in daytime is cooler in tone than the direct sunlight, or how a shiny piece of furniture or flooring may reflect the blue in the sky seen through a window, or how sunlight through leaves creates out-of-focus circular patterns on the ground. You’ll notice how light reflects and bounces off of surfaces in rooms to create secondary sources on objects. You’ll become sensitive to color temperatures of different sources of light.

It can be helpful to take digital or film photographs of these natural lighting effects that catch your eye so that you will begin to understand how they will be reproduced when you are shooting. You may also find it informative to carry around a light meter and check the levels and the contrast range of natural lighting effects.

In terms of developing your visual imagination (without which there is little reason to become a visual artist!) it helps to surround yourself with art, study the light and colors of paintings, and study the lighting in movies that you respond emotionally to. It even helps to read literature and constantly visualize what you are reading as if it were a movie playing in your head.

Filmmaking often involves these two methods of “seeing.” Firstly, seeing the real world and capturing it (perhaps with some creative alterations) and secondly, seeing an image in one’s mind and reproducing it. So when shooting on a location with a certain amount of available light, you envision how you can take advantage of this natural light while also visualizing what the location would look like if you started from scratch and provided all the light yourself. Often what you end up doing is a combination of these two seemingly opposite approaches – capturing natural light while enhancing certain aspects of it, if not outright recreating it.

But the overriding concern is with the story, which will drive your decisions. The challenge may involve a point of logic, for example, a scene may need to be set as the sun is obviously going below the horizon. (Maybe you’re making a vampire movie, and this is an important element of the suspense of the scene.) Or perhaps the story is set during a power black-out, and the characters only have flashlights and candles for illumination. But beyond story logic, the true challenge is how to visually support the emotional undertones of the scene. Perhaps you need to create a feeling of dread or alienation, or suggest the warmth and safety of a family, or the dangerous passion of a romance. In fact, you may need to create a logical source of light for the scene that actually is there more for the emotional tone it creates. An example is in the Hitchcock movie, Vertigo, where you have a hotel room lit by a green neon sign outside the window. The green light is there for symbolic reasons, evoking the memory of a “dead” character, but it has been logically motivated.

Now some people will say that video lighting is different than film lighting because of the narrower contrast range that video can handle. But this is only true in fairly insignificant ways. Obviously, if you wanted the scene to look like a painting by Vermeer with a room lit by soft daylight through a large window, you’d use a big, soft light coming through that window – regardless of whether you were shooting video or film. The only difference is that with video, you may have to expose more for the brightest highlights and perhaps adjust your fill light to compensate. But if you were shooting reversal film, or bleach-bypassed film, you’d also be adjusting your contrast range, so it’s not particularly a video-versus-film issue. The only particular lighting tricks that work more obviously with film and less well with video involve using large amounts of overexposure, combined with relying heavily on the latitude of color negative to hold detail in the brightest areas of the frame. But conversely, sometimes digital cameras handle lighting tricks better and involve a lot of very soft but underexposed light – a low-level murky look, which can make an image look somewhat mushy and grainy on some film stocks.

Often when someone says they don’t know how to light a scene, it’s because they haven’t exercised their imagination on how the scene should look – not because they don’t have the right technical knowledge. Technical knowledge is only a tool to execute a creative idea. It can’t supply that idea, only you can. Once you have an image in your mind, you can answer half the questions about the lighting yourself, in terms of the color, direction, and texture of the light.

My ultimate advice is to study good lighting wherever you find it – in real life, in movies, in paintings, and in photography, regardless of whether you are shooting with a cheap consumer DV camera or a 35mm Panaflex. I think you’ll find that even in the most expensive movies ever made, the best-lit moments often use the simplest lighting technique. It may even be a face lit by a ten-dollar Chinese lantern from an import store. So don’t feel that to learn how to light for DV, you need to limit yourself to studying other movies shot on DV. Not when you may also find inspiration by stepping out of your door and looking around, or by going to an art museum, or by watching your favorite movie on DVD.

David Mullen, ASC, was an Independent Spirit Award Nominee for best cinematography for Twin Falls Idaho in 1999 and for Northfork in 2003. His filmography consists of over 30 film titles, including Akeelah and the Bee (2006), The Astronaut Farmer (2006), and Shadowboxer (2005).

 

 

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