Grading “Above the Clouds”

Recently work began on colour grading Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie I shot for director Leon Chambers. I’ve covered every day of shooting here on my blog, but the story wouldn’t be complete without an account of this crucial stage of postproduction.

I must confess I didn’t give much thought to the grade during the shoot, monitoring in Rec.709 and not envisaging any particular “look”. So when Leon asked if I had any thoughts or references to pass on to colourist Duncan Russell, I had to put my thinking cap on. I came up with a few different ideas and met with Leon to discuss them. The one that clicked with his own thoughts was a super-saturated vintage postcard (above). He also liked how, in a frame grab I’d been playing about with, I had warmed up the yellow of the car – an important character in the movie!

Leon was keen to position Above the Clouds‘ visual tone somewhere between the grim reality  of a typical British drama and the high-key gloss of Hollywood comedies. Finding exactly the right spot on that wide spectrum was the challenge!

“Real but beautiful” was Duncan’s mantra when Leon and I sat down with him last week for a session in Freefolk’s Baselight One suite. He pointed to the John Lewis “Tiny Dancer” ad as a good touchstone for this approach.

We spent the day looking at the film’s key sequences. There was a shot of Charlie, Oz and the Yellow Peril (the car) outside the garage from week one which Duncan used to establish a look for the three characters. It’s commonplace nowadays to track faces and apply individual grades to them, making it possible to fine-tune skin-tones with digital precision. I’m pleased that Duncan embraced the existing contrast between Charlie’s pale, freckled innocence and Oz’s dirty, craggy world-weariness.

Above the Clouds was mainly shot on an Alexa Mini, in Log C ProRes 4444, so there was plenty of detail captured beyond the Rec.709 image that I was (mostly) monitoring. A simple example of this coming in useful is the torchlight charity shop scene, shot at the end of week two. At one point Leo reaches for something on a shelf and his arm moves right in front of his torch. Power-windowing Leo’s arm, Duncan was able to bring back the highlight detail, because it had all been captured in the Log C.

But just because all the detail is there, it doesn’t mean you can always use it. Take the gallery scenes, also shot in week two, at the Turner Contemporary in Margate. The location has large sea-view windows and white walls. Many of the key shots featured Oz and Charlie with their backs towards the windows. This is a classic contrasty situation, but I knew from checking the false colours in log mode that all the detail was being captured.

Duncan initially tried to retain all the exterior detail in the grade, by separating the highlights from the mid-tones and treating them differently. He succeeded, but it didn’t look real. It looked like Oz and Charlie were green-screened over a separate background. Our subconscious minds know that a daylight exterior cannot be only slightly brighter than an interior, so it appeared artificial. It was necessary to back off on the sky detail to keep it feeling real. (Had we been grading in HDR [High Dynamic Range], which may one day be the norm, we could theoretically have retained all the detail while still keeping it realistic. However, if what I’ve heard of HDR is correct, it may have been unpleasant for audiences to look at Charlie and Oz against the bright light of the window beyond.)

There were other technical challenges to deal with in the film as well. One was the infra-red problem we encountered with our ND filters during last autumn’s pick-ups, which meant that Duncan had to key out Oz’s apparently pink jacket and restore it to blue. Another was the mix of formats employed for the various pick-ups: in addition to the Alexa Mini, there was footage from an Arri Amira, a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera (BMMCC) and even a Canon 5D Mk III. Although the latter had an intentionally different look, the other three had to match as closely as possible.

A twilight scene set in a rural village contains perhaps the most disparate elements. Many shots were done day-for-dusk on the Alexa Mini in Scotland, at the end of week four. Additional angles were captured on the BMMCC in Kent a few months later, both day-for-dusk and dusk-for-dusk. This outdoor material continues directly into indoor scenes, shot on a set this February on the Amira. Having said all that, they didn’t match too badly at all, but some juggling was required to find a level of darkness that worked for the whole sequence while retaining consistency.

In other sequences, like the ones in Margate near the start of the film, a big continuity issue is the clouds. Given the film’s title, I always tried to frame in plenty of sky and retain detail in it, using graduated ND filters where necessary. Duncan was able to bring out, suppress or manipulate detail as needed, to maintain continuity with adjacent shots.

Consistency is important in a big-picture sense too. One of the last scenes we looked at was the interior of Leo’s house, from weeks two and three, for which Duncan hit upon a nice, painterly grade with a bit of mystery to it. The question is, does that jar with the rest of the movie, which is fairly light overall, and does it give the audience the right clues about the tone of the scene which will unfold? We may not know the answers until we watch the whole film through.

Duncan has plenty more work to do on Above the Clouds, but I’m confident it’s in very good hands. I will probably attend another session when it’s close to completion, so watch this space for that.

See all my Above the Clouds posts here, or visit the official website.

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Grading “Above the Clouds”

The Art of Single Source Lighting

Can a scene be lit with just one lamp? It certainly can, and in fact some of cinema’s most stunning and iconic images have been achieved this way. A single source image can be realistic or stylised, flattering or scary, but is almost always arresting. Even if you decide the look of a single source is too extreme, and add more lamps, building the lighting around that one key source can still be a very useful approach.

Let’s consider some of the ways in which a single source can be used.

 

Front Light

Front light is not very common in cinematography because – and this will be especially true without any other sources – it produces a flat image. Often we think of front light as being devoid of depth, though in fact it does reveal depth because things closer to the camera (and therefore also closer to the light) are brighter, while distant backgrounds are darker. An example is the sequence from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which the frontal spotlight and the resultant dark surroundings represent the protagonist’s memories being erased.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – DP: Ellen Kuras ASC
“Out of the Past” – DP: Nicholas Musuraca ASC. This one’s a bit of a cheat because there appears to be a second light on the background.

More common is three-quarter front light, which gives some modelling on the face, and is consequently seen a lot in portraiture, both modern and classical.

Photo by Shane Francescut, www.theweeklyminute.wordpress.com
“Portrait of Doge Leornardo Loredan” – Giovanni Bellini (1501)

 

Side Light

Light from the side can be the most informative, revealing shape, texture and detail. As a single source, it produces incredible chiaroscuro – contrast between light and shade. This shot from the The Godfather is a great example.

“The Godfather” – DP: Gordon Willis ASC

Here is a more complex example from classical art. I saw this painting at the Guildhall recently and it inspired me to write this post. I love the way that the soft light comes in through an unseen doorway to the right, illuminating the wall and modelling each of the people differently according to the angle it reaches them at.

“The Reading of the Bible by the Rabbis” – Jean Jules Antoine Lecomte du Noüy (1882)

 

Toplight

Perhaps the most famous use of toplight is in The Godfather‘s opening scene, where the characters’ eye sockets are rendered black and hollow by the steep angle of the single source.

“The Godfather” – DP: Gordon Willis ASC

A ceiling lamp hanging over a table is one of the most frequently seen examples of single source top-lighting.

“Mud” – DP: Adam Stone

Often the table or things on it – papers, white tablecloths – will reflect back some of the toplight, filling in the shadows. Film Riot investigates the many variations of this set-up in their episode on single source lighting.

 

Backlight

There are many examples of scenes lit only from the back. It’s a beautiful look, creating mood and mystery, revealing form without details, reducing people to simulacra. The optional addition of smoke helps the light to wrap a little and lift the shadows.

“Blade Runner” – DP: Jordan Cronenweth ASC
“Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince” – DP: Bruno Delbonnel AFC, ASC
“The Man from London” – DP: Fred Kelemen
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” – DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC
“The Social Network” – DP: Jeff Cronenweth ASC

It’s not uncommon for a DP to begin lighting by setting a backlight to give form and depth to the scene, then seeing if and where other sources are necessary, to illuminate faces and other important details.

 

OMNIDIRECTIONAL

Most film fixtures shed their illumination in broadly one direction, but of course most light sources in day-to-day life aren’t that discriminating, throwing rays all around them. In the form of practicals, such omnidirectional lights can create very interesting images, particularly when they are handheld.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC

When people are grouped around an omnidirectional source, each one is modelled differently. Characters in the foreground, between the lamp and the camera, become silhouettes, while those to the sides are rendered in chiaroscuro, and those in the background are lit frontally. This creates a wonderful feeling of dark-to-light/near-to-far depth and dimensionality. 17th century Dutch masters like Gerrit Dou and Gerard van Honthorst painted such effects beautifully.

“The Match-maker” – Gerard van Honthorst (1625)
“The Denial of St Peter” – Gerard van Honthorst (circa 1618-1620)

Having recently re-equipped myself with a 35mm SLR, I’m planning a photography project inspired by some of these candlelit scenes. Watch this space!

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The Art of Single Source Lighting

Lighting with LED Screens

Gravity’s LED light box

LED lighting has found its way onto most sets now, but there is another off-shoot of LED technology which I see cropping up more and more in American Cinematographer articles. Sometimes it’s lighting, sometimes it’s a special effect, and often it’s both. I’m talking about LED screens: huge LED panels that, rather than emitting solid, constant light, display a moving image like a giant monitor.

I touched on LED Screens in my article about shooting on moving trains, and moving backgrounds do seem to be one of the most common uses for these screens. House of Cards has been in the news this week for all the wrong reasons, but it remains a useful example here. Production designer Steve Arnold describes the use of LED screens for car scenes in the political drama:

We had a camera crew go to Washington, D.C. to drive around and shoot plates for what you see outside when you’re driving. And that is fed into the LED screens above the car. So as the scene is progressing, the LED screens are synched up to emit interactive light to match the light conditions you see in the scenery you’re driving past (that will be added in post). All the reflections on the car windows, the window frames and door jambs is being shot while we’re shooting the actors in the car. Then in post the green screens are replaced with the synced up driving plates, and it works really well. It gives you the sense of light passing over the actors’ faces, matching the lighting that is in the image of the plate.

The green-screen stage used for a car scenes on House of Cards, complete with LED screens for interactive lighting.

This appears to be the go-to method for shooting car scenes now, and more exotic forms of transport are using the technique as well. Rogue One employed “a massive array of WinVision Air 9mm LED panels” to create “an interactive hyperspace lighting effect” (American Cinematographer, February 2017).

The hyperspace VFX is displayed on a huge LED screen on the set of Rogue One.

Production designer Doug Chiang comments on the use of LED screens in the Death Star command centre:

We wanted to see things on the viewscreen where traditionally it would have been a giant bluescreen; we wanted the interactive reflective quality of what you would actually see. Even though we ultimately had to replace some of those images with higher-fidelity images in postproduction, they were enough to give a sense that the quality of light on the actors and the reflections on the set looked and felt very real.

One of the first major uses of LED screens for lighting was in the seminal stranded-in-space thriller Gravity. Concerned about blending the actors convincingly with the CGI backgrounds, DP Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC came up with a solution that was, at the time, cutting-edge: “I had the idea to build a set out of LED panels and to light the actors’ faces inside it with the previs animation.” (AC, November 2013)

Gravity also featured a scene in which Sandra Bullock’s character puts out a fire, and here once again LED panels provided interactive light. This is a technique that has since been used on several other films to simulate off-camera fires, including Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and the true story of the BP oil rig disaster, Deepwater Horizon.

An LED screen in use on Dunkirk

Traditionally, fire has been simulated with tungsten sources, often Maxibrutes, but on Deepwater Horizon these were relegated to background action, while foregrounds were keyed by a huge 42’x24′ video wall made up of 252 LED panels.  DP Enrqiue Chediak, ASC had this to say (in AC, October 2016):

Fire caused by burning oil is very red and has deep blacks. You cannot get that with the substance that the special effects crews use – all those propane fires are yellow. Oil fire has a very specific quality, and I wanted to reach that. It was important to feel the sense of hell.

By playing back footage of real oil fires on the video wall, Chediak was able to get the realistic colour of lighting he wanted, while retaining authentic dynamics.

The giant LED wall on Deepwater Horizon

This technique isn’t necessarily confined to big-budget productions. In theory you could create interactive lighting with an iPad. For example, a tight shot of an actor supposedly warming themselves by a fireplace; if you could get the iPad close enough, playing a video of flames, I imagine the result would be quite convincing. Has anyone out there tried something like this? Let me know if you have!

I’ll leave you with a music video I shot a few years back (more info here), featuring custom-built LED panels in the background.

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Lighting with LED Screens