Period Cinematography

White "daylight" (a 2.5K HMI outside the window and  a Kinolfo Barfly behind the actor) and warm "candlelight" (a Dedolight off camera right)
White “daylight” (a 2.5K HMI outside the window and a Kinolfo Barfly behind the actor) and warm “candlelight” (a Dedolight off camera right)

The First Musketeer was my first period production as DP. It’s a genre that brings its own set of challenges and opportunities, most obviously for sets and costumes, and also sound (we spent a lot of time waiting for cars and planes to pass by), but for cinematography too. The first thing that hit me was the restrictiveness of it. Back in the day there were only three sources of light: the sun, the moon and fire. And maybe, at a pinch, starlight.

 

Blue "moonlight" and orange "firelight" - in this case both created by gelled Dedolights
Paul McMaster as Ghislain. Blue “moonlight” and orange “firelight” – in this case both created by gelled Dedolights

I kept colour temperatures simple by deciding that daylight would always appear white, moonlight would be +2,400K (blue) and firelight would be -2,400K (orange). In practice this meant that daylight scenes were white-balanced at 5,600K using natural light, HMIs and kinoflos, with ungelled redheads or dedos for candlelight, while night scenes were typically white-balanced at 3,200K which turned HMIs and kinos blue for moonlight/starlight, with redheads or dedos gelled with full CTO to turn them orange on camera.

This night exterior shot of Lazare (Tony Sams) and Athos (Edward Mitchell) was shot with a white balance of 3,200K, turning the HMI backlight blue, while the warm light around the taven entrance was provided by CTO-gelled Dedos and redheads.
This night exterior shot of Lazare (Tony Sams) and Athos (Edward Mitchell) was shot with a white balance of 3,200K, turning the HMI backlight blue, while the warm light around the tavern entrance was provided by CTO-gelled dedos and redheads.

Occasionally I used straw gels to give “firelight” more of a yellow hue than an orange one, and in one scene involving a church I introduced strongly yellow light and some pink backlight, the theory being that stained glass windows could be held accountable.

A 2.5K provides the frontal keylight here, while a redhead sporting Minus Green gel provides the pink backlight. A second redhead double-gelled with Light Straw uplights the figure of Christ on the back wall, and finally a 1.2K HMI at the rear of the building illuminates the stained glass window.
A 2.5K provides the frontal keylight here, while a redhead sporting Minus Green gel provides the pink backlight. A second redhead double-gelled with Light Straw uplights the figure of Christ on the back wall, and finally a 1.2K HMI at the rear of the building illuminates the stained glass window.

I think it’s very important to soften the images when shooting a period piece digitally. Initially we hoped to do this by using Cooke lenses, but they proved unobtainable on our budget. It was too late to look into filters by this point, so instead I relied on smoke in most scenes to diffuse and age the image.

Like everyone, I continue to learn with every project that I do. Reviewing the rushes towards the end of the shoot, I realised (a little too late) that texture was the key to making the period convincing. There was bags of it in front of me – in the stone walls of the locations, in the beautifully-aged costumes, in the detailed set dressing. It was an era before smooth surfaces. I can now see that my cinematography was most successful when the lighting brought the textures out.

A 1.2K HMI outside the door cross-lights the stonework, while smoke volumizes this light, resulting in a very satisfying depth and texture. The only other light sources are two kinoflo Barflies hanging from polecats above the bench at the back of shot. This backlight is reflected back at the foreground characters by a sheet of silver foamcore beneath the camera.
A 1.2K HMI outside the door cross-lights the stonework, while smoke volumizes this light, resulting in a very satisfying depth and texture. The only other light sources are two Kinoflo Barflies hanging from polecats above the bench at the back of shot. This backlight is reflected back at the foreground characters by a sheet of silver foamcore beneath the camera.

Contrast the shot above with the one below. This location had equally nice stonework, but because I didn’t cross-light it it looks flat and artificial, like a cheap panto set.

A 2.5K HMI supplies the backlight here, while a blue-gelled redhead out of the top right of frame is aimed down the steps to pick out the characters as they descend. An orange-gelled Dedo creates a pool of light around the candle, and everything else is natural bounce off the surrounding stonework. A second blue-gelled redhead at the foot of the stairs firing across the stonework would have made all the difference to the believability of the environment, but hindsight is 20/20.
A 2.5K HMI supplies the backlight here, while a blue-gelled redhead out of the top right of frame is aimed down the steps to pick out the characters as they descend. An orange-gelled Dedo creates a pool of light around the candle, and everything else is natural bounce off the surrounding walls. A second blue-gelled redhead at the foot of the stairs firing across the stonework would have made all the difference to the believability of the environment, but hindsight is 20/20.

So that’s an important lesson I’ve learnt to take forward to the next season. Next time around I also want to play more with different colours of daylight, using more straw, amber and pink gels to stretch out the colour palette and suggest different times of day.

And then there’s the whole candlelight thing – but I’ll save that for my next post.

All images copyright 2013 The First Musketeer. Find out more about the series at www.firstmusketeer.com

Period Cinematography