If you’ve ever learnt anything about lighting, you’ll have heard of the Three Point System: key, backlight and fill. That last one is a soft light which raises the shadows and reduces contrast in the image.
As you might expect, negative fill is the exact opposite. It brings the shadows down, increasing contrast. It’s a big part of cinematography today because the dynamic range of digital cameras is so wide and their light sensitivity is so high that taking away light has become just as important as adding it.
Negative fill – neg fill or just neg for short – can be accomplished with anything black, most commonly a polystyrene board (American name: bead-board), blackout material (usually bolton in the UK or duvetyne in the US) or a flag. 5-in-1 reflectors have a black side that can be used for neg fill too. The term solids or black solids can be applied to any of these tools, indicating that they are completely opaque, as opposed to nets.
When DPs talk about neg fill you often hear the word “shape” come up in their reasoning. Neg fill is typically applied to the camera side (broad side) of the talent, allowing their other side (short side) to remain bright. This has the effect of making the face – or any other object – look more three-dimensional. Hence “shape”. (This is all part of the theory of short key lighting, which I’ve covered in detail before.)
Below is an example from my online course, Cinematic Lighting. In these before and after shots, I use the black side of a 5-in-1 reflector (though you see silver facing camera) to neg-fill Ivan’s short side, adding mood and contrast.
We made it more permanent by replacing the reflector with a 4×4′ floppy flag on a C-stand.
Here’s an example from Heretikswhere I chose to put a glint of light back into the darkness created by the neg fill, by using a matt silver reflector to create a rim-light. (There are many more diagrams like this on my Instagram feed.)
Neg fill is most commonly used outdoors, but it can be desirable indoors too, for example when white walls are bouncing light around everywhere. For the shot below from Exit Eve, I had the white wall behind camera covered with bolton so that the light would all be coming from behind the talent. (See my article on lighting from the back.)
In the café scene from Above the Clouds we shot towards the windows, but there was still too much ambience (mainly from skylights in the roof) on the camera sides of the actors for my taste. We only had a limited supply of flags, so we pressed the sides of the Easy-Up tent into service too!
I’ll leave you with this extreme example of negative fill from Instagram.
Where do you start, as a director of photography lighting a set? What should be the first brushstroke when you’re painting with light?
I believe the answer is backlight, and I think many DPs would agree with me.
Let’s take the example of a night exterior in a historical fantasy piece, as featured in my online course, Cinematic Lighting. The main source of light in such a scene would be the moon. Where am I going to put it? At the back.
The before image is lit by an LED panel serving purely as a work-light while we rehearsed. It’s not directly above the camera, but off to the right, so the lighting isn’t completely flat, but there is very little depth in the image. Beyond the gate is a boring black void.
The after image completely transforms the viewer’s understanding of the three-dimensional space. We get the sense of a world beyond the gate, an intriguing world lighter than the foreground, with a glimpse of trees and space. Composing the brazier in the foreground has added a further plane, again increasing the three-dimensional impression.
Here is the lighting diagram for the scene. (Loads more diagrams like this can be seen on my Instagram feed.)
The “moon” is a 2.5KW HMI fresnel way back amongst the trees, hidden from camera by the wall on the right. This throws the gate and the characters into silhouette, creating a rim of light around their camera-right sides.
To shed a little light on Ivan’s face as he looks camera-left, I hid a 4×4′ Kino Flo behind the lefthand wall, again behind the actors.
The LED from the rehearsal, a Neewer 480, hasn’t moved, but now it has an orange gel and is dimmed very low to subtly enhance the firelight. Note how the contrasting colours in the frame add to the depth as well.
So I’ll always go into a scene looking at where to put a big backlight, and then seeing if I need any additional sources. Sometimes I don’t, like in this scene from the Daylight Interior module of the course.
Backlight for interior scenes is different to night interiors. You cannot simply put it where you want it. You must work with the position of the windows. When I’m prepping interiors, I always work with the director to try to block the scene so that we can face towards the window as much as possible, making it our backlight. If a set is being built, I’ll talk to the production designer at the design stage to get windows put in to backlight the main camera positions whenever possible.
In the above example, lit by just the 2.5K HMI outside the window, I actually blacked out windows behind camera so that they would not fill in the nice shadows created by the backlight.
Daylight exteriors are different again. I never use artificial lights outdoors in daytime any more. I prefer to work with the natural light and employ reflectors, diffusion or negative fill to mould it where necessary.
So it’s very important to block the scene with the camera facing the sun whenever possible. Predicting the sun path may take a little work, but it will always be worth it.
Here I’ve shot south, towards the low November sun, and didn’t need to modify the light at all.
Shooting in the opposite direction would have looked flat and uninteresting, not to mention causing potential problems with the cast squinting in the sunlight, and boom and camera shadows being cast on them.
You can learn much more about the principles and practice of cinematic lighting by taking my online course on Udemy. Currently you can get an amazing 90% off using the voucher code INSTA90 until November 19th.
Firelight adds colour and dynamism to any lighting set-up, not to mention being essential for period and fantasy films. But often it’s not practical to use real firelight as your source. Even if you could do it safely, continuity could be a problem.
A production that can afford an experienced SFX crew might be able to employ fishtails, V-shaped gas outlets that produce a highly controllable bar of flame, as we did on Heretiks. If such luxuries are beyond your budget, however, you might need to think about simulating firelight. As my gaffer friend Richard Roberts once said while operating an array of flickering tungsten globes (method no. 3), “There’s nothing like a real fire… and this is nothing like a real fire.”
1. Waving Hands
The simplest way to fake firelight is to wave your hands in front of a light source. This will work for any kind of source, hard or soft; just experiment with movements and distances and find out what works best for you. A layer of diffusion on the lamp, another in a frame, and the waving hands in between, perhaps?
One of my favourite lighting stories involves a big night exterior shot from The First Musketeer which was done at the Chateau de Fumel in the Lot Valley, France. We were just about to turnover when a bunch of automatic floodlights came on, illuminating the front of the chateau and destroying the period illusion of our scene. We all ran around for a while, looking for the off switch, but couldn’t find it. In the end I put orange gel on the floodlights and had someone crouch next to each one, wiggling their hands like a magician, and suddenly the chateau appeared to be lit by burning braziers.
All you need is a collapsible reflector with a gold side, and an open-face tungsten fixture. Simply point the latter at the former and wobble the reflector during the take to create the flickering effect.
3. Tungsten Array
If you want to get more sophisticated, you can create a rig of tungsten units hooked up to a dimmer board. Electronic boxes exist to create a flame-like dimming pattern, but you can also just do it by pushing the sliders up and down randomly. I’ve done this a lot with 100W tungsten globes in simple pendant fittings, clipped to parts of the set or to wooden battens. You can add more dynamics by gelling the individual lamps with different colours – yellows, oranges and reds.
Larger productions tend to use Brutes, a.k.a. Dinos, a.k.a. 9-lights, which are banks of 1K pars. The zenith of this technique is the two megawatt rig built by gaffer John Higgins for Roger Deakins, CBE, BSC, ASC on 1917.
4. Programmed L.E.D.
Technological advances in recent years have provided a couple of new methods of simulating firelight. One of these is the emergence of LED fixtures with built-in effects programmes like police lights, lightning and flames. These units come in all shapes, sizes and price-ranges.
On War of the Worlds: The Attack last year, gaffer Callum Begley introduced me to Astera tubes, and we used their flame effect for a campfire scene in the woods when we were having continuity problems with the real fire. For the more financially challenged, domestic fire-effect LED bulbs are cheap and screw into standard sockets. Philip Bloom had a few of these on goose-neck fittings which we used extensively in the fireplaces of Devizes Castle when shooting a filmmaking course for Mzed.
5. L.e.D. Screen
A logical extension of an LED panel or bulb that crudely represents the pattern of flames is an LED screen that actually plays video footage of a fire. The oil rig disaster docu-drama Deep Horizon and Christoper Nolan’s Dunkirk are just two films that have used giant screens to create the interactive light of off-camera fires. There are many other uses for LED screens in lighting, which I’ve covered in detail before, with the ultimate evolution being Mandalorian-style virtual volumes.
You don’t necessarily need a huge budget to try this technique. What about playing one of those festive YouTube videos of a crackling log fire on your home TV? For certain shots, especially given the high native ISOs of some cameras today, this might make a pretty convincing firelight effect. For a while now I’ve been meaning to try fire footage on an iPad as a surrogate candle. There is much here to explore.
So remember, there may be no smoke without fire, but there can be firelight without fire.
We’re all familiar with the “good/fast/cheap” triangle. You can pick any two, but never all three. When it comes to lighting films, I would posit that there is a slightly different triangle of truth labelled “beautiful/realistic/cheap”. When you’re working to a tight budget, a DP often has to choose between beautiful or realistic lighting, where a better-funded cinematographer can have both.
I first started thinking about this in 2018 when I shot Annabel Lee. Specifically it was when we were shooting a scene from this short period drama – directed by Amy Coop – in a church. Our equipment package was on the larger side for a short, but still far from ideal for lighting up a building of that size. Our biggest instrument was a Nine-light Maxi Brute, which is a grid of 1KW par globes, then we had a couple of 2.5K HMIs and nothing else of any signifcant power.
The master shot for the scene was a side-on dolly move parallel to the central aisle, with three large stained-glass windows visible in the background. My choices were either to put a Maxi Brute or an HMI outside each window, to use only natural light, or to key the scene from somewhere inside the building. The first option was beautiful but not realistic, as I shall explain, the second option would have been realistic but not beautiful (and probably under-exposed) and the third would have been neither.
I went with the hard source outside of each window. I could not diffuse or bounce the light because that would have reduced the intensity to pretty much nothing. (Stained-glass windows don’t transmit a lot of light through them.) For the same reason, the lamps had to be pretty close to the glass.
The result is that, during this dolly shot, each of the three lamps is visible at one time or another. You can’t tell they’re lamps – the blown-out panes of glass disguise them – but the fact that there are three of them rather gives away that they are not the sun! (There is also the issue that contiguous scenes outside the church have overcast light, but that is a discontinuity I have noticed in many other films and series.)
I voiced my concerns to Amy at the time – trying to shirk responsibility, I suppose! Fortunately she found it beautiful enough to let the realism slide.
But I couldn’t help thinking that, with a larger budget and thus larger instruments, I could have had both beauty and realism. If I had had three 18K HMIs, for example, plus the pre-rig time to put them on condors or scaffolding towers, they could all have been high enough and far enough back from the windows that they wouldn’t have been seen. I would still have got the same angle of light and the nice shafts in the smoke, but they would have passed much more convincingly as a single sun source. Hell, if I’d had the budget for a 100KW SoftSun then I really could have done it with one source!
There have been many other examples of the beauty/realism problem throughout my career. One that springs to mind is Above the Clouds, where the 2.5K HMI which I was using as a backlight for a night exterior was in an unrealistic position. The ground behind the action sloped downwards, so the HMI on its wind-up stand threw shafts of light upwards. With the money for a cherry-picker, a far more moon-like high-angle could have been achieved. Without such funds, my only alternative was to sacrifice the beauty of a backlight altogether, which I was not willing to do.
The difference between that example and Annabel Lee is that Clouds director Leon Chambers was unable to accept the unrealistic lighting, and ended up cutting around it. So I think it’s quite important to get on the same page as your director when you’re lighting with limited means.
I remember asking Paul Hyett when we were preppingHeretiks, “How do you feel about shafts of ‘sunlight’ coming into a room from two different directions?” He replied that “two different directions is fine, but not three.” That was a very nice, clear drawing of the line between beauty (or at least stylisation) and realism, which helped me enormously during production.
The beauty/realism/cost triangle is one we all have to navigate. Although it might sometimes give us regrets about what could have been, as long we’re on the same page as our directors we should still get results we can all live with.
My online course, Cinematic Lighting, is available now on Udemy. It’s an advanced and in-depth guide to arguably the most important part of a director of photography’s job: designing the illumination.
The course is aimed at cinematography students, camera operators looking to move up to DP, corporate/industrial filmmakers looking to move into drama, and indie filmmakers looking to increase their production values.
Rather than demonstrating techniques in isolation in a studio, the course takes place entirely on location. The intent is to show the realities of creating beautiful lighting while dealing with the usual challenges of real independent film production, like time, weather and equipment, as well as meeting the requirements of the script.
Cinematic Lighting consists of four hour-long modules: Day Exterior, Day Interior, Night Interior and Night Exterior. Each module follows the blocking, lighting and shooting of a short scripted scene (inspired by the fantasy web series Ren: The Girl with the Mark) with two actors in full costume. Watch me and my team set up all the fixtures, control the light with flags and rags, and make adjustments when the camera moves around for the coverage. Every step of the way, I explain what I’m doing and why, as well as the alternatives you could consider for your own films. Each module concludes with the final edited scene so that you can see the end result.
Students should already have a grasp of basic cinematography concepts like white balance and depth of field. A familiarity with the principle of three-point lighting will be useful, but not essential.
You will learn:
how to create depth and contrast in your shots;
how to light for both the master shot and the coverage;
how and when to use HMI, fluorescent, LED and traditional tungsten lighting;
how to use natural light to your advantage, and how to mould it;
how to use a light meter and false colours to correctly expose your image;
how to use smoke or haze to create atmosphere, and
how to simulate sunlight, moonlight and firelight.
The concept of “re-lighting in post” is one that has enjoyed a popularity amongst some no-budget filmmakers, and which sometimes gets bandied around on much bigger sets as well. If there isn’t the time, the money or perhaps simply the will to light a scene well on the day, the flexibility of RAW recording and the power of modern grading software mean that the lighting can be completely changed in postproduction, so the idea goes.
I can understand why it’s attractive. Lighting equipment can be expensive, and setting it up and finessing it is one of the biggest consumers of time on any set. The time of a single wizard colourist can seem appealingly cost-effective – especially on an unpaid, no-budget production! – compared with the money pit that is a crew, cast, location, catering, etc, etc. Delaying the pain until a little further down the line can seem like a no-brainer.
There’s just one problem: re-lighting footage is fundamentally impossible. To even talk about “re-lighting” footage demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what photographing a film actually is.
The word “photography” comes from Greek, meaning “drawing with light”. This is not just an excuse for pompous DPs to compare themselves with the great artists of the past as they “paint with light”; it is a concise explanation of what a camera does.
A camera can’t record a face. It can’t record a room, or a landscape, or an animal, or objects of any kind. The only thing a camera can record is light. All photographs and videos are patterns of light which the viewer’s brain reverse-engineers into a three-dimensional scene, just as our brains reverse-engineer the patterns of light on the retinae every moment of every day, to make sense of our surroundings.
The light from this object gets gradually brighter then gradually darker again – therefore it is a curved surface. There is light on the top of that nose but not on the underneath, so it must be sticking out. These oval surfaces are absorbing all the red and blue light and reflecting only green, so it must be plant life. Such are the deductions made continuously by the brain’s visual centre.
To suggest that footage can be re-lit is to suggest that recorded light can somehow be separated from the underlying physical objects off which that light reflected. Now of course that is within the realms of today’s technology; you could analyse a filmed scene and build a virtual 3D model of it to match the footage. Then you could “re-light” this recreated scene, but it would be a hell of a lot of work and would, at best, occupy the Uncanny Valley.
Some day, perhaps some day quite soon, artificial intelligence will be clever enough to do this for us. Feed in a 2D video and the computer will analyse the parallax and light shading to build a moving 3D model to match it, allowing a complete change of lighting and indeed composition.
Volumetric capture is already a functioning technology, currently using a mix of infrared and visible-light cameras in an environment lit as flatly as possible for maximum information – like log footage pushed to its inevitable conclusion. By surrounding the subject with cameras, a moving 3D image results.
Such rigs are a type of light-field imaging, a technology that reared its head a few years ago in the form of Lytro, with viral videos showing how depth of field and even camera angle (to a limited extent) could be altered with this seemingly magical system. But even Lytro was capturing light, albeit it in a way that allowed for much more digital manipulation.
Perhaps movies will eventually be captured with some kind of Radar-type technology, bouncing electromagnetic waves outside the visible spectrum off the sets and actors to build a moving 3D model. At that point the need for light will have been completely eliminated from the production process, and the job of the director of photography will be purely a postproduction one.
While I suspect most DPs would prefer to be on a physical set than hunched over a computer, we would certainly make the transition if that was the only way to retain meaningful authorship of the image. After all, most of us are already keen to attend grading sessions to ensure our vision survives postproduction.
But for the moment at least, lighting must be done on set; re-lighting after the fact is just not possible in any practical way. This is not to take away from the amazing things that a skilled colourist can do, but the vignettes, the split-toning, the power windows, the masking and the tracking – these are adjustments of emphasis.
A soft shadow can be added, but without 3D modelling it can never fall and move as a real shadow would. A face can be brightened, but the quality of light falling on it can’t be changed from soft to hard. The angle of that light can’t be altered. Cinematographers refer to a key-light as the “modelling” light for a reason: because it defines the 3D model which your brain reverse-engineers when it sees the image.
So if you’re ever tempted to leave the job of lighting to postproduction, remember that your footage is literally made of light. If you don’t take the time to get your lighting right, you might as well not have any footage at all.
A simple enough slug line, and fairly common, but amongst the most challenging for a cinematographer. In this article I’ll break down into five manageable steps my process of lighting woodlands at night.
1. Set up the moon.
Forests typically have no artificial illumination, except perhaps practical torches carried by the cast. This means that the DP will primarily be simulating moonlight.
Your “moon” should usually be the largest HMI that your production can afford, as high up and far away as you can get it. (If your production can’t afford an HMI, I would advise against attempting night exteriors in a forest.) Ideally this would be a 12K or 18K on a cherry-picker, but in low-budget land you’re more likely to be dealing with a 2.5K on a triple wind-up stand.
Why is height important? Firstly, it’s more realistic. Real moonlight rarely comes from 15ft off the ground! Secondly, it’s hard to keep the lamp out of shot when you’re shooting towards it. A stand might seem quite tall when you’re right next to it, but as soon as you put it far away, it comes into shot quite easily. If you can use the terrain to give your HMI extra height, or acquire scaffolding or some other means of safely raising your light up, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.
The size of the HMI is of course going to determine how large an area you can light to a sufficient exposure to record a noise-free image. Using a good low-light camera is going to help you out here. I shot a couple of recent forest night scenes on a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which has dual native ISOs, the higher being 3200. Combined with a Speedbooster, this camera required only 1 or 2 foot-candles of illuminance, meaning that our 2.5K HMI could be a good 150 feet away from the action. (See also: “How Big a Light do I Need?”)
2. Plan for the reverse.
A fake moon looks great as a backlight, but what happens when it comes time to shoot the reverse? Often the schedule is too tight to move the HMI all the way around to the other side, particularly if it’s rigged up high, so you may need to embrace it as frontlight.
Frontlight is generally flat and undesirable, but it can be interesting when it’s broken up with shadows, and that’s exactly what the trees of a forest will do. Sometimes the pattern of light and dark is so strong and camouflaging that it can be hard to pick out your subject until they move. One day I intend to try this effect in a horror film as a way of concealing a monster.
One thing to look out for with frontlight is unwanted shadows, i.e. those of the camera and boom. Again, the higher up your HMI is, the less of an issue this will be.
If you can afford it, a second HMI set up in the opposite direction is an ideal way to maintain backlight; just pan one off and strike up the other. I’ve known directors to complain that this breaks continuity, but arguably it does the opposite. Frontlight and backlight look very different, especially when smoke is involved (and I’ll come to that in a minute). Isn’t it smoother to intercut two backlit shots than a backlit one and frontlit one? Ultimately it’s a matter of opinion.
3. Consider Ground lights.
One thing I’ve been experimenting with lately is ground lights. For this you need a forest that has at least a little undulation in its terrain. You set up lights directly on the ground, pointed towards camera but hidden from it behind mounds or ridges in the deep background.
I once tried this with an HMI and it just looked weird, like there was a rave going on in the next field, but with soft lights it is much more effective. Try fluorescent tubes, long LED panels or even rows of festoon lights. When smoke catches them they create a beautiful glow in the background. Use a warm colour to suggest urban lighting in the distance, or leave it cold and it will pass unquestioned as ambience.
Put your cast in front of this ground glow and you will get some lovely silhouettes. Very effective silhouettes can also be captured in front of smoky shafts of hard light from your “moon”.
4. Fill in the faces.
All of the above looks great, but sooner or later the director is going to want to see the actors’ faces. Such is the cross a DP must bear.
On one recent project I relied on practical torches – sometimes bounced back to the cast with silver reflectors – or a soft LED ball on a boom pole, following the cast around.
Big-budget movies often rig some kind of soft toplight over the entire area they’re shooting in, but this requires a lot of prep time and money, and I expect it’s quite vulnerable to wind.
A recipe that I use a lot for all kinds of night exteriors is a hard backlight and a soft sidelight, both from the same side of camera. You don’t question where the sidelight is coming from when it’s from the same general direction as the “moon” backlight. In a forest you just have to be careful not to end up with very hot, bright trees near the sidelight, so have flags and nets at the ready.
5. Don’t forget the Smoke.
Finally, as I’ve already hinted, smoke is very important for a cinematic forest scene. The best options are a gas-powered smoke gun called an Artem or a “Tube of Death”. This latter is a plastic tube connected to a fan and an electric smoke machine. The fan forces smoke into the tube and out of little holes along its length, creating an even spread of smoke.
All smoke is highly suspectible to changes in the wind. An Artem is easier to pick up and move around when the wind changes, and it doesn’t require a power supply, but you will lose time waiting for it to heat up and for the smoke and gas canisters to be changed. Whichever one you pick though, the smoke will add a tremendous amount of depth and texture to the image.
Overall, nighttime forest work scenes may be challenging, but they offer some of the greatest opportunities for moody and creative lighting. Just don’t forget your thermals and your waterproofs!
Good lighting can boost the production values of a film tremendously, making the difference between an amateur and a professional-looking piece. For filmmakers early in their careers, however, the equipment typically used to achieve these results can be prohibitively expensive. Far from the Hollywood productions attended by trucks full of lights, a micro-budget film may be unable to rent even a single HMI. Do not despair though, as there are ways to light scenes well without breaking the bank. Here are my top six tips for lighting on the cheap.
1. Make the most of natural light
The hardest shots to light without the proper equipment are wide shots. Where a fully-budgeted production would rig Maxi Brutes on cherry-pickers, or pound HMIs through windows, a filmmaker of limited means simply won’t have access to the raw power of such fixtures. Instead, plan your day carefully to capture the wide shots at the time when natural light gives you the most assistance. For a day interior, this means shooting when the sun is on the correct side of the building.
There are a plethora of LED fixtures on the market, designed for all kinds of applications, some of them very reasonably priced. It might be tempting to purchase some of these to provide your primary illumination, but I advise against it. Cheap LED units (and fluorescents) have a terrible Colour Rendering Index (CRI), making for unnatural and unappealing skintones. Such units are therefore best restricted to backgrounds, accent lighting and “specials”. For example, I purchased a little LED camping light from a charity shop for about £2, and I often use it to create the blue glow from computer screens or hang it from the ceiling to produce a hint of hair-light.
By far the best solution for a high output, high CRI, low cost key is a halogen floodlight; 500W models are available for as little as £5. Their chief disadvantage is the lack of barn doors, making the light hard to control, though if you can stretch to a roll of black wrap you can fashion a kind of snoot. Alternatively, consider investing in a secondhand tungsten movie fixture. With many people switching to LEDs, there are plenty of old tungsten units out there. Try to get a reputable brand like Arri or Ianiro, as some of the unbranded units available on Ebay are poorly wired and can be unsafe.
Flooding a halogen light onto a scene is never going to look good, but then the same is often true of dedicated movie fixtures. Instead it’s more how you modify the light that creates the nuanced, professional look. Improvise flags from pieces of cardboard to stop the light spilling into unwanted places – but be VERY careful how close you put them to a tungsten or halogen source, as these get extremely hot. For example, when shooting indoors, flag light off the background wall (especially if it’s white or cream) to help your subject stand out.
Almost all cinematographers today prefer the subtlety of soft light to the harshness of hard light. You can achieve this by bouncing your fixture off a wall or ceiling, or a sheet of polystyrene or card. Or you could hang a white bedsheet or a shower curtain in front of the light as diffusion, but again be sure to leave a safe distance between them. Professional collapsible reflectors are available very cheaply online, and can be used in multiple ways to diffuse or reflect light.
Finally, don’t be afraid to use existing practical lighting in your scene. Turning on the main overhead light usually kills the mood, but sometimes it can be useful. You can generate more contrast and shape by covering up the top of the lampshade, thus preventing ceiling bounce, or conversely use the ceiling bounce to give some ambient top-light and cover the bottom of the lampshade to prevent a harsh hotspot underneath it. Table lamps and under-cupboard kitchen lights can add a lot of interest and production value to your backgrounds. If possible, swap out LED or fluorescent bulbs for conventional tungsten ones for a more attractive colour and to eliminate potential flickering on camera.
Last week I looked at the science of colour: what it is, how our eyes see it, and how cameras see and process it. Now I’m going to look at colour theory – that is, schemes of mixing colours to produce aesthetically pleasing results.
The Colour wheel
The first colour wheel was drawn by Sir Isaac Newton in 1704, and it’s a precursor of the CIE diagram we met last week. It’s a method of arranging hues so that useful relationships between them – like primaries and secondaries, and the schemes we’ll cover below – can be understood. As we know from last week, colour is in reality a linear spectrum which we humans perceive by deducing it from the amounts of light triggering our red, green and blue cones, but certain quirks of our visual system make a wheel in many ways a more useful arrangement of the colours than a linear spectrum.
One of these quirks is that our long (red) cones, although having peak sensitivity to red light, have a smaller peak in sensitivity at the opposite (violet) end of the spectrum. This may be what causes our perception of colour to “wrap around”.
Another quirk is in the way that colour information is encoded in the retina before being piped along the optic nerve to the brain. Rather than producing red, green and blue signals, the retina compares the levels of red to green, and of blue to yellow (the sum of red and green cones), and sends these colour opponency channels along with a luminance channel to the brain.
You can test these opposites yourself by staring at a solid block of one of the colours for around 30 seconds and then looking at something white. The white will initially take on the opposing colour, so if you stared at red then you will see green.
19th century physiologist Ewald Hering was the first to theorise about this colour opponency, and he designed his own colour wheel to match it, having red/green on the vertical axis and blue/yellow on the horizontal.
Today we are more familiar with the RGB colour wheel, which spaces red, green and blue equally around the circle. But both wheels – the first dealing with colour perception in the eye-brain system, and the second dealing with colour representation on an RGB screen – are relevant to cinematography.
On both wheels, colours directly opposite each other are considered to cancel each other out. (In RGB they make white when combined.) These pairs are known as complementary colours.
A complementary scheme provides maximum colour contrast, each of the two hues making the other more vibrant. Take “The Snail” by modernist French artist Henri Matisse, which you can currently see at the Tate Modern; Matisse placed complementary colours next to each other to make them all pop.
In cinematography, a single pair of complementary colours is often used, for example the yellows and blues of Aliens‘ power loader scene:
Or this scene from Life on Mars which I covered on my YouTube show Lighting I Like:
I frequently use a blue/orange colour scheme, because it’s the natural result of mixing tungsten with cool daylight or “moonlight”.
And then of course there’s the orange-and-teal grading so common in Hollywood:
Amélie uses a less common complementary pairing of red and green:
An analogous colour scheme uses hues adjacent to each other on the wheel. It lacks the punch and vibrancy of a complementary scheme, instead having a harmonious, unifying effect. In the examples below it seems to enhance the single-mindedness of the characters. Sometimes filmmakers push analogous colours to the extreme of using literally just one hue, at which point it is technically monochrome.
There are other colour schemes, such as triadic, but complementary and analogous colours are by far the most common in cinematography. In a future post I’ll look at the psychological effects of individual colours and how they can be used to enhance the themes and emotions of a film.
Front-light is a bit of a dirty word in cinematography. DPs will commonly be heard rhapsodising about beautiful backlight or moody sidelight, but rarely does the humble front-light get any love. But there is no right or wrong in cinematography. Just because front-light is less popular, doesn’t mean it can’t make a great shot.
Why do we avoid front-light so often? Because it usually flattens things out, reducing or eliminating any sense of depth in the image, and giving no shape to faces or objects. Sometimes this might be the perfect look: for a character who is shallow, or who feels like their life is dull and uneventful, perhaps; a live-action scene to be intercut with two-dimensional animation; or a stylised flashback like the image above. And sometimes, of course, front-light is unavoidable for logical reasons – if a character is looking out of a window, say. The trouble is, it can make for un-engaging or un-cinematic images, and that’s when you may want to pull some other tricks out of the box.
Here are six ways to bring some interest back into a frontally-lit frame.
1. Cut the light.
If you can flag some of the front-light, reducing the area of the frame it’s hitting, and leave the rest to the fill light or to fall into shadow, you’ll get some contrast back into your image.
2. Use a gobo.
If it doesn’t make sense to cut the light, try breaking it up with a gobo. You can make a gobo from almost anything. Commonly on night exteriors I send a spark off to liberate a branch from a nearby tree and rig that in front of the key-light. If I need to create a window-frame effect I’ve been known to clamp a chair or stool to a C-stand to get a suitable pattern of perpendicular lines.
3. Add dynamics.
Front-light is often more interesting if it’s not there all the time. If you can find an excuse to have it flicker or move somehow, you’ll get a lot more mood and shape in your shot. Firelight, TVs, rippling water, panning searchlights or the headlights of a passing car can all safely come from the front and remain dramatic. Create a moving gobo and you’ve got something really interesting. The tree branch example from earlier – if that blows around in the wind then it will add a lot of tension to the visuals. Here’s a firelight example from Ren: The Girl with the Mark…
You can combat the lack of depth by keeping the background dark, so that the front-lit subject stands out against it. This will happen automatically due to the Inverse-square Law (a post on that is coming soon) if the subject is close to the source, e.g. standing right by a window. Due to the nature of front-light, you probably can’t flag the background without flagging the subject too, so bringing your source closer to the subject or redressing the background may be your only options.
5. Make a virtue of the subject’s shadow.
One reason to avoid front-light is the distracting shadow which the subject will cast on the background. But sometimes this can be a great benefit to the shot, almost becoming another character, or adding subtext as in this painting.
6. Use a strong backlight.
If there’s nothing you can do to modify the front-light, then pumping up the backlight might well save the day. The most flatly-illuminated shots suddenly become deep and appealing when the subject has a halo of over-exposed light. Indeed, this is what commonly happens with day exteriors: you shoot into the sun to get the nice backlight, and ambient light flatly fills in the faces.
So next time you’re faced with front-light, remember, it’s not the end of the world!