Introduction to Short Key Lighting

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” – DP: Andrew Lesnie, ACS, ASC

If you’re starting out in your cinematography career, or maybe stepping up from camera operation,  lighting can be daunting. How do you know where to put your lights? If you’re working to the Three Point Lighting system, the backlight is self-explanatory, and the fill will often be ambient and directionless, but you may still be left wondering where to put your main light source, your key.

Fortunately there is a very simple rule of thumb, known as short key. In simple terms, a short key light is one which is on the opposite side of the subject’s eye-line to the camera. Let’s delve into what this means and why it’s so common. In fact, once you understand what a short key is you’ll be forever spotting examples of it in film and TV – you’ll be staggered at how often it’s used.

It’s easiest to think of short key from the perspective of the actor. The camera is in front of us and off to one side, because very rarely do actors look down the lens, and the key light is in front of us and off to the other side. It’s called short key because the side of our face that it hits is the side away from camera. The opposite of short key is broad key, where the light is on the same side of us as the camera, thus lighting the “broad” side of our face, the side presented to camera. Note that the light can be either side of the camera, it’s which side of our eye-line it’s on that’s important.

“Arrival” – DP: Bradford Young, ASC

Short key follows the general cinematography principle that light is more interesting when it comes in from the side and behind, rather than from close to camera. It’s preferred by most DPs in most situations because it produces more dimensionality and contrast than broad key. By hitting the side of the face away from camera, a short key leaves shadow on the closer side, creating mood and interest. It brings out the shape of the nose and cheeks. It leaves the ear and side of the head darker, concentrating attention on the face and consequently the performance.

Under the umbrella of short key we can still vary the angle tremendously to affect the mood. If we place the key severely to the side, so none of its illumination reaches the camera side of the actor’s face, and use a very low level of fill, we create a strong, uncompromising look.

“Logan” – DP: John Mathieson, BSC
“Fight Club” – DP: Jeff Cronenweth, ASC

If we place the key closer to front-on, and soften it with diffusion so that it wraps around the camera side of the face, we create a more comfortable, flattering look.

“Skyfall” – DP: Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, CBE
“The Pianist” – DP: Pawel Edelman, PSC

We can also raise the lamp to shade the eye sockets, Godfather style, lower it to create a campfire ghost story look, or place it anywhere in between.

Broad key is less desirable amongst cinematographers, often resorted to only when short key cannot be reconciled with motivating the sources authentically. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad or that it can’t be used deliberately and creatively. Here’s just one example of broad key being used extremely effectively.

An example of broad key from “Amélie” – DP: Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC

Short key though is the dominant, ubiquitous style of lighting. It is often the first thing a DP considers when walking onto the set: where can I put the key light in order to hit the short side of the talent? Or conversely, where can I put the camera so that it’s on the opposite side to the light?

If we’re dealing with fixed light sources like windows, or shooting outdoors – we’ll exploit the sun-path or even request that the blocking be altered to ensure a short key.  It can go such a long way to making an image cinematic.

“La La Land” – DP: Linus Sandgren, FSF
“Titanic” – DP: Russell Carpenter, ASC

In standard dialogue scenes with two characters facing each other, a technique called cross-backlighting is commonly used to short key both characters and provide backlight too. Check out my post on cross-backlighting for more info.

So next time you watch TV or a movie, look out for short key lighting; I guarantee you’ll see it everywhere.

The frame grabs in this post are from The Cinematographer Index. Check out this very useful resource showcasing great cinematography, and donate a few quid if you can.

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Introduction to Short Key Lighting

Camerimage 2017: Wednesday

This is the third and final part of my report from my time at Camerimage, the Polish film festival focused on cinematography. Read part one here and part two here.

 

Up.Grade: Human Vision & Colour Pipelines

I thought I would be one of the few people who would be bothered to get up and into town for this technical 10:15am seminar. But to the surprise of both myself and the organisers, the auditorium of the MCK Orzeł was once again packed – though I’d learnt to arrive in plenty of time to grab a ticket.

Up.grade is an international colour grading training programme. Their seminar was divided into two distinct halves: the first was a fascinating explanation of how human beings perceive colour, by Professor Andrew Stockman; the second was a basic overview of colour pipelines.

Prof. Stockman’s presentation – similar to his TED video above – had a lot of interesting nuggets about the way we see. Here are a few:

  • Our eyes record very little colour information compared with luminance info. You can blur the chrominance channel of an image considerably without seeing much difference; not so with the luminance channel.
  • Light hitting a rod or cone (sensor cells in our retinae) straightens the twist in the carbon double bond of a molecule. It’s a binary (on/off) response and it’s the same response for any frequency of light. It’s just that red, green and blue cones have different probabilities of absorbing different frequencies.
  • There are no blue cones in the centre of the fovea (the part of the retina responsible for detailed vision) because blue wavelengths would be out of focus due to the terrible chromatic aberration of our eyes’ lenses.
  • Data from the rods and cones is compressed in the retina to fit the bandwidth which the optical nerve can handle.
  • Metamers are colours that look the same but are created differently. For example, light with a wavelength of 575nm is perceived as yellow, but a mixture of 670nm (red) and 540nm (green) is also perceived as yellow, because the red and green cones are triggered in the same way in both scenarios. (Isn’t that weird? It’s like being unable to hear the difference between the note D and a combination of the notes C and E. It just goes to show how unreliable our senses really are.)
  • Our perception of colour changes according to its surroundings and the apparent colour of the lighting – a phenomenon perfectly demonstrated by the infamous white-gold/blue-black dress.

All in all, very interesting and well worth getting out of bed for!

At the end of the seminar I caught up with fellow DP Laura Howie, and her friend Ben, over coffee and cake. Then I sauntered leisurely to the Opera Nova and navigated the labyrinthine route to the first-floor lecture theatre, where I registered for the imminent Arri seminar.

 

Arri Seminar: International Support Programme

After picking up my complementary Arri torch, which was inexplicably disguised as a pen, I bumped into Chris Bouchard. Neither of us held high hopes that the Support Programme would be relevant to us, but we thought it was worth getting the lowdown just in case.

Shooting “Kolkata”

The Arri International Support Programme (ISP) is a worldwide scheme to provide emerging filmmakers with sponsored camera/lighting/grip equipment, postproduction services, and in some cases co-production or sales deals as well. Mandy Rahn, the programme’s leader, explained that it supports young people (though there is no strict age limit) making their first, second or third feature in the $500,000-$5,000,000 budget range. They support both drama and documentary, but not short-form projects, which ruled out any hopes I might have had that it could be useful for Ren: The Girl with the Mark.

Having noted these keys details, Chris and I decided to duck out and head elsewhere. While Chris checked out some cameras on the Canon stand, I had a little chat with the reps from American Cinematographer about some possible coverage of The Little Mermaid. We then popped over to the MCK and caught part of a Canon seminar, including a screening of the short documentary Kolkata. Shortly we were treading the familiar path back to the Opera Nova and the first-floor lecture theatre for a Kodak-sponsored session with Ed Lachman, ASC, only to find it had been cancelled for reasons unknown.

 

Red Seminar: High resolution Image Processing Pipeline

Next on our radar was a Red panel. I wasn’t entirely sure if I could handle another high resolution seminar, but I suggested we return once more to the MCK anyway and relax in the bar with one eye on the live video feed. Unfortunately we got there to find that the monitors had disappeared, so we had to go into the auditorium, where it was standing room only.

“GLOW” – DP: Christian Sprenger

Light Iron colourist Ian Vertovec was talking about his experience grading the Netflix series GLOW, a highly enjoyable comedy-drama set behind the scenes of an eighties female wrestling show. Netflix wanted the series delivered in high dynamic range (HDR) and wide colour gamut (WCG), of a spec so high that no screens are yet capable of displaying it. In fact Vertovec graded in P3 (the colour space used for cinema projection) which was then mapped to Netflix’s higher specs for delivery. The Rec.709 (standard gamut) version was automatically created from the P3 grade by Dolby Vision software which analysed the episodes frame by frame. Netflix streams a 4,000 NIT signal to all viewers, which is then down-converted live (using XML data also generated by the Dolby Vision software) to 100, 650 or 1,000 NITs depending on their display. In theory this should provide a consistent image across all screens.

Vertovec demonstrated his image pipeline for GLOW: multi-layer base grade, halation pass, custom film LUT, blur/sharp pass, grain pass. The aim was to get the look of telecined film. The halation pass involved making a copy of the image, keying out all but the highlights, blurring those highlights and layering them back on top of the original footage. I used to do a similar thing to soften Mini-DV footage back in the day!

An interesting point was made about practicals in HDR. If you have an actor in front of or close to a practical lamp in frame, it’s a delicate balancing act to get them bright enough to look real, yet not so bright that it hurts your eyes to look at the actor with a dazzling lamp next to them. When practicals are further away from your cast they can be brighter because your eye will naturally track around them as in real life.

Next up was Dan Duran from Red, who explained a new LUT that is being rolled out across their cameras. Most of this went in one ear and out the other!

 

“Breaking Bad”

Afterwards, Chris and I returned to Kung Fusion for another delicious dinner. The final event of the day which I wanted to catch was Breaking Bad‘s pilot episode, screening at Bydgoszcz’s Vue multiplex as part of the festival’s John Toll retrospective. Having binged the entire series relatively recently, I loved seeing the very first episode again – especially on the big screen – with the fore-knowledge of where the characters would end up.

Later Chris introduced me to DP Sebastian Cort, and the three of us decided to try our luck at getting into the Panavision party. We snuck around the back of the venue and into one of the peripheral buildings, only to be immediately collared by a bouncer and sent packing!

This ignoble failure marked the end of my Camerimage experience, more or less. After another drink or two at Cheat we called it a night, and I was on an early flight back to Stansted the next morning. I met some interesting people and learnt a lot from the seminars. There were some complaints that the festival was over-subscribed, and indeed – as I have described – you had to be quick off the mark to get into certain events, but that was pretty much what I had been expecting. I certainly won’t put be off attending again in the future.

To learn more about two of the key issues raised at this year’s Camerimage, check out my Red Shark articles:

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Camerimage 2017: Wednesday