“The Little Mermaid”: Lighting from the Back

So far, this blog series about my cinematography of The Little Mermaid has covered the biggest and most complex scenes in the movie. Today I’m going to look at some smaller scenes, and how I employed the cinematography tenet of lighting from the back to quickly build a look for these which has depth, mood and drama.

Many of these examples are specifically cross-backlighting, something I covered in my Lighting Techniques series, but I’ll quickly recap since it has so much relevance here. It involves lighting two characters facing each other with two sources, on the far side of the eye-line (short key), crossed so that each source keys one character and often backlights the other too.

So with that in mind, let’s proceed to the examples from my shooting diary.

 

Day 1

The first week is pretty much all in houses with just a few principals, so an easy start. Day 1’s schedule is tight though. We start in a third floor bedroom – no way lamps are getting up to those windows from outside, so I’m relying on natural light augmented with a bit of cross-backlight cheated inside the room. (There’s a Kino Flo shining at Elle over Cam’s right shoulder, for example.) Once the haze is in it looks great. After we get the main coverage, we head out to the garden for the next scene, while the ‘B’ camera team steps in to pick up a couple of inserts…

 

Day 3

…It’s a night scene and the grips have tented the window. To get a nice blue glow coming in, I have two 4×4 Kino Flos set either side of the window (outside), and they give a great wrapping backlight to the actors and the set dressing. Smoke and a cool white balance of 3,200K (the Kinos are tubed for 5,600K) complete the look. It owes a lot to a scene from Hook, one of Blake’s (director Blake Harris) reference movies which I watched during preprod. This stuff definitely filters in and inspires things!

 

Day 13

Our first day on stage. It’s weird to be back at the former supermarket I spent five weeks of preproduction in. The first set, Locke’s chamber, is very confined and the walls don’t wild, so it’s quite slow-going to work in there. We fire a 5K fresnel through the stained glass window at the back of the set. Then I fall back on the tried and tested method of cross-backlighting even though I know that it will be hard to hide the lamps (a 650W fresnel in both of the upper rear corners of the set) from camera. In the end I have the art department dress drapes in front of them. For the villain’s single I leave the light hard, but for the hero’s single we use bounce boards to wrap the light around his face more…

 

Day 28

We start with the fortune-teller’s tent, another small set constructed on stage. In fact, it’s just an Easy-Up artfully draped with fabrics. Initially there’s nowhere to get light in from except the front, but I know that this will leave the scene looking flat and fake, so I work with the art department again to make holes in the top rear corners. Through those we shine tungsten-bubbled “Fat Boy” Kino Flos. (These 2ft 4-bank units are giving the dual kickers on Cam in the centre, and the beautiful down-light on the background fabrics, bringing out the ruching. Each one also provides a little key-light on the two ladies.) The other sources are “moonlight” coming in through the entrance, linking us to the circus exteriors, and a stylised slash of light across Thora’s eyes from a Source Four, suggested by Jason (key grip Jason Batey). Adding foreground practicals is an important final touch to expand the depth and scale of the set…

 

Day 31

It’s the last day of principal photography. Our big scene of the day is the newspaper office where Cam works, which is a set in the front of the studio, using the building’s real windows. We fire the 12K in and gel it with half CTS for a nice morning sunlight effect. We’re shooting towards the windows, which have blinds, so we get some nice shafts of light, though sometimes it’s a little too smokey. Running haze is a pretty skilled and tricky job, and involves considering the lens length and backlight, which both affect how much the smoke shows up on camera. When we get it right, combined with the dark wood period furniture, it totally sells the 1937 setting. Apparently people at video village are loving it, saying it looks like Mad Men….

Next week, in the final part of my blog series on The Little Mermaid, I’ll share my experiences of shooting the sunset denouement while up to my waist in the Atlantic Ocean.

“The Little Mermaid”: Lighting from the Back

The Science of Smoke

Smoke, haze, atmos, whatever you want to call it, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big fan. But how does it work and what is the purpose of smoking up a set?

 

Aerial perspective

At the most basic level, smoke simulates a natural phenomenon called aerial perspective. If you look at – for example – a range of mountains receding into the distance, the further mountains will appear bluer, lighter, less contrasty and less colour-saturated than the nearer mountains.

An example of aerial perspective

This effect is due to light being scattered by particles naturally suspended in the air, and by molecules of the air itself. It is described by the scary-looking Rayleigh Equation:

We don’t need to get into what all the variables stand for, but there are a few things worth noting:

  • The symbol on the far right represents the angle between the incident light and the scattered light. In practice this means that the more you shoot into the sun – the more the air you’re photographing is backlit – the more scattering there will be. Place the sun behind your camera and scattering will be minimal.
  • is the distance from the particle that’s doing the scattering, so you can see that scattering increases with distance as per the Inverse Square Law.
  • Lamda (the sort of upside-down y next to the x) is the wavelength of the light, so the shorter the wavelength, the more scattering. This is why things look bluer with distance: blue light has a shorter wavelength and so is scattered more. It’s also why shooting through an ultraviolet filter reduces the appearance of aerial perspective/atmospheric haze.

 

How smoke works

An Artem smoke gun

Foggers, hazers and smoke machines simulate aerial perspective by adding suspended particles to the air. These particles start off as smoke fluid (a.k.a. “fog juice”) which is made of mineral oil, or of a combination of water and glycol/glycerin.

In a smoke machine or gas-powered smoke gun (like the Artem), smoke fluid is pushed into a heat exchanger which vaporises it. When the vapour makes contact with the colder air, it condenses to form fog.

A hazer uses compression rather than heat to vaporise the fluid, meaning you don’t have to wait for the machine to heat up. The particles are smaller, making for a more subtle and longer-lasting effect.

As a general rule, you should use only hazers for interior cinematography, unless there is a story reason for smoke to be present in the scene. Outdoors, however, hazers are ineffective. An Artem or two will work well for smaller exterior scenes; for larger ones, a Tube of Death is the best solution. This is a long, plastic inflatable tube with regularly-spaced holes, with a fan and a smoke machine (usually electric) at the end. It ensures that smoke is distributed fairly evenly over a large area.

A Tube of Death in action on the set of “The Little Mermaid”

 

The effects of smoke

Just like aerial perspective, smoke/haze separates the background from the foreground, as the background has more smoke between it and the camera. The background becomes brighter, less contrasty, less saturated and (depending on the type of smoke) bluer, making the foreground stand out against it.

Since smoke also obeys the Rayleigh Equation, it shows up best when it’s backlit, a bit when it’s side-lit and barely at all when front-lit.

Here are some of the other things that smoke achieves:

  • It diffuses the image, particularly things further away from camera.
  • It lowers contrast.
  • It brightens the image.
  • It lifts the shadows by scattering light into them.
  • If it’s sufficiently thick, and particularly if it’s smoke rather than haze, it adds movement and texture to the image, which helps to make sets look less fake.
  • It volumises the light, showing up clear shafts of hard light and diffuse pools of soft light. (For more on this, read 5 Tips for Perfect Shafts of Light.)
  • Backlit smoke in front of a person or an object will obscure them, concealing identity.
Heavy smoke (from an Artem) pops Lyanna (Dita Tantang) out of the background in “Ren: The Girl with the Mark” (dir. Kate Madison).
Backlit smoke through a roof of branches creates magical shafts of light in “Ren: The Girl with the Mark”.
The final day/sunset look. From each side an orange-gelled and a pink-gelled par can light the backdrop. A 2K tungsten fresnel provides backlight, while a 650W fresnel with a cucoloris provides dappled light on the tree and tarsier. An LED panel off right supplies fill, and a second panel is inside the cave with a turquoise gel.
The colour-washed infinity cove in the background of this music promo for Lewis Watson’s “Droplets” (dir. Tom Walsh) is softened and disguised by smoke.
Haze gives the LED panels their glowing appearance in this video for “X, Y & Z Rays” (dir. Tom Walsh) by Revenge of Calculon.
This torch beam in “Above the Clouds” (dir. Leon Chambers) shows up so well because the set is heavily fogged.
Smoke backlit by an HMI creates the blue background glow against which the heroes of “The First Musketeer” (dir. Harriet Sams) stand out.
Haze creates the shafts of light from HMIs outside the windows, and adds to the gothic feel of “Heretiks” (dir. Paul Hyett).
The Science of Smoke

Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning Cinematography of “Blade Runner 2049”

After fourteen nominations, celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins, CBE, BSC, ASC finally won an Oscar last night, for his work on Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir is not a perfect film; its measured, thoughtful pace is not to everyone’s taste, and it has serious issues with women – all of the female characters being highly sexualised, callously slaughtered, or both – but the Best Cinematography Oscar was undoubtedly well deserved. Let’s take a look at the photographic style Deakins employed, and how it plays into the movie’s themes.

Blade Runner 2049 returns to the dystopian metropolis of Ridley Scott’s classic three decades later, introducing us to Ryan Gosling’s K. Like Harrison Ford’s Deckard before him, K is a titular Blade Runner, tasked with locating and “retiring” rogue replicants – artificial, bio-engineered people. He soon makes a discovery which could have huge implications both for himself and the already-strained relationship between humans and replicants. In his quest to uncover the truth, K must track down Deckard for some answers.

Villeneuve’s film meditates on deep questions of identity, creating a world in which you can never be sure who is or isn’t real – or even what truly constitutes being “real”. Deakins reinforces this existential uncertainty by reducing characters and locations to mere forms. Many scenes are shrouded in smog, mist, rain or snow, rendering humans and replicants alike as silhouettes.

K spends his first major scene seated in front of a window, the side-light bouncing off a nearby cabinet the only illumination on his face. Deakins’ greatest strength is his ability to adapt to whatever style each film requires, but if he has a recognisable signature it’s this courage to rely on a single source and let the rest of the frame go black.

Whereas Scott and his DP Jordan Cronenweth portrayed LA mainly at night, ablaze with pinpoints of light, Villeneuve and Deakins introduce it in daylight, but a daylight so dim and smog-ridden that it reveals even less than those night scenes from 1982.

All this is not to say that the film is frustratingly dark, or that audiences will struggle to make out what is going on. Shooting crisply on Arri Alexas with Arri/Zeiss Master Primes, Deakins is a master of ensuring that you see what you need to see.

A number of the film’s sequences are colour-coded, delineating them as separate worlds. The city is mainly fluorescent blues and greens, visually reinforcing the sickly state of society, with the police department – an attempt at justice in an insane world – a neutral white.

The Brutalist headquarters of Jared Leto’s blind entrepreneur Wallace are rendered in gold, as though the corporation attempted a friendly yellow but was corrupted by greed. These scenes also employ rippling reflections from pools of water. Whereas the watery light in the Tyrell HQ of Scott’s Blade Runner was a random last-minute idea by the director, concerned that his scene lacked enough interest and production value, here the light is clearly motivated by architectural water features. Yet it is used symbolically too, and very effectively so, as it underscores one of Blade Runner 2049’s most powerful scenes. At a point in the story where more than one character is calling their memories into question, the ripples playing across the walls are as intangible and illusory as those recollections. “I know what’s real,” Deckard asserts to Wallace, but both the photography and Ford’s performance bely his words.

The most striking use of colour is the sequence in which K first tracks Deckard down, hiding out in a Las Vegas that’s been abandoned since the detonation of a dirty bomb. Inspired by photos of the Australian dust storm of 2009, Deakins bathed this lengthy sequence in soft, orangey-red – almost Martian – light. This permeating warmth, contrasting with the cold artificial light of LA, underlines the personal nature of K’s journey and the theme of birth which is threaded throughout the film.

Deakins has stated in interviews that he made no attempt to emulate Cronenweth’s style of lighting, but nonetheless this sequel feels well-matched to the original in many respects. This has a lot to do with the traditional camerawork, with most scenes covered in beautifully composed static shots, and movement accomplished where necessary with track and dolly.

The visual effects, which bagged the film’s second Oscar, also drew on techniques of the past; the above featurette shows a Canon 1DC tracking through a miniature landscape at 2:29. “Denis and I wanted to do as much as possible in-camera,” Deakins told Variety, “and we insisted when we had the actors, at least, all the foreground and mid-ground would be in-camera.” Giant LED screens were used to get authentic interactive lighting from the advertising holograms on the city streets.

One way in which the lighting of the two Blade Runner movies is undeniably similar is the use of moving light sources to suggest an exciting world continuing off camera. (The infamous lens flares of J.J. Abrahms’ Star Trek served the same purpose, illustrating Blade Runner’s powerful influence on the science fiction genre.) But whereas, in the original film, the roving searchlights pierce the locations sporadically and intrusively, the dynamic lights of Blade Runner 2049 continually remodel the actors’ faces. One moment a character is in mysterious backlight, the next in sinister side-light, and the next in revealing front-light – inviting the audience to reassess who these characters are at every turn.

This obfuscation and transience of identity and motivation permeates the whole film, and is its core visual theme. The 1982 Blade Runner was a deliberate melding of sci-fi and film noir, but to me the sequel does not feel like noir at all. Here there is little hard illumination, no binary division of light and dark. Instead there is insidious soft light, caressing the edge of a face here, throwing a silhouette there, painting everyone on a continuous (and continuously shifting) spectrum between reality and artificiality.

Blade Runner 2049 is a much deeper and more subtle film than its predecessor, and Deakins’ cinematography beautifully reflects this.

Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning Cinematography of “Blade Runner 2049”