Beautiful/Realistic/Cheap: The Lighting Triangle

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.

Director Amy Coop during the church recce for “Annabel Lee”

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 prepping Heretiks, “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.

Beautiful/Realistic/Cheap: The Lighting Triangle

The Long Lenses of the 90s

Lately, having run out of interesting series, I’ve found myself watching a lot of nineties blockbusters: Outbreak, Twister, Dante’s Peak, Backdraft, Daylight. Whilst eighties movies were the background to my childhood, and will always have a place in my heart, it was the cinema of the nineties that I was immersed in as I began my own amateur filmmaking. So, looking back on those movies now, while certain clichés stand out like sore thumbs, they still feel to me like solid examples of how to make a summer crowd-pleaser.

Let’s get those clichés out of the way first. The lead character always has a failed marriage. There’s usually an opening scene in which they witness the death of a spouse or close relative, before the legend “X years later” fades up. The dog will be saved, but the crotchety elderly character will die nobly. Buildings instantly explode towards camera when touched by lava, hurricanes, floods or fires. A stubborn senior authority figure will refuse to listen to the disgraced lead character who will ultimately be proven correct, to no-one’s surprise.

Practical effects in action on “Twister”

There’s an intensity to nineties action scenes, born of the largely practical approach to creating them. The decade was punctuated by historic advances in digital effects: the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991), digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), motion-captured passengers aboard the miniature Titanic (1997), Bullet Time in The Matrix (1999). Yet these techniques remained expensive and time-consuming, and could not match traditional methods of creating explosions, floods, fire or debris. The result was that the characters in jeopardy were generally surrounded by real set-pieces and practical effects, a far more nerve-wracking experience for the viewer than today, when we can tell that our heroes are merely imagining their peril on a green-screen stage.

One thing I was looking out for during these movie meanders down memory lane was lens selection. A few weeks back, a director friend had asked me to suggest examples of films that preferred long lenses. He had mentioned that such lenses were more in vogue in the nineties, which I’d never thought about before.

As soon as I started to consider it, I realised how right my friend was. And how much that long-lens looked had influenced me. When I started out making films, I was working with the tiny sensors of Mini-DV cameras. I would often try to make my shots look more cinematic by shooting on the long end of the zoom. This was partly to reduce the depth of field, but also because I instinctively felt that the compressed perspective was more in keeping with what I saw at the cinema.

I remember being surprised by something that James Cameron said in his commentary on the Aliens DVD:

I went to school on Ridley [Scott]’s style of photography, which was actually quite a bit different from mine, because he used a lot of long lenses, much more so than I was used to working with.

I had assumed that Cameron used long lenses too, because I felt his films looked incredibly cinematic, and because I was so sure that cinematic meant telephoto. I’ve discussed in the past what I think people tend to mean by the term “cinematic”, and there’s hardly a definitive answer, but I’m now sure that lens length has little to do with it.

“Above the Clouds” (dir. Leon Chambers)

And yet… are those nineties films influencing me still? I have to confess, I struggle with short lenses to this day. I find it hard to make wide-angle shots look as good. On Above the Clouds, to take just one example, I frequently found that I preferred the wide shots on a 32mm than a 24mm. Director Leon Chambers agreed; perhaps those same films influenced him?

A deleted scene from Ren: The Girl with the Mark ends with some great close-ups shot on my old Sigma 105mm still lens, complete with the slight wobble of wind buffeting the camera, which to my mind only adds to the cinematic look! On a more recent project, War of the Worlds: The Attack, I definitely got a kick from scenes where we shot the heroes walking towards us down the middle of the street on a 135mm.

Apart from the nice bokeh, what does a long lens do for an image? I’ve already mentioned that it compresses perspective, and because this is such a different look to human vision, it arguably provides a pleasing unreality. You could describe it as doing for the image spatially what the flicker of 24fps (versus high frame rates) does for it temporally. Perhaps I shy away from short lenses because they look too much like real life, they’re too unforgiving, like many people find 48fps to be.

The compression applies to people’s faces too. Dustin Hoffman is not known for his small nose, yet it appears positively petite in the close-up below from Outbreak. While this look flatters many actors, others benefit from the rounding of their features caused by a shorter lens.

Perhaps the chief reason to be cautious of long lenses is that they necessitate placing the camera further from the action, and the viewer will sense this, if only on a subconscious level. A long lens, if misused, can rob a scene of intimacy, and if overused could even cause the viewer to disengage with the characters and story.

I’ll leave you with some examples of long-lens shots from the nineties classics I mentioned at the start of this post. Make no mistake, these films employed shorter lenses too, but it certainly looks to me like they used longer lenses on average than contemporary movies.

 

Outbreak

DP: Michael Ballhaus, ASC

 

Twister

DP: Jack N. Green, ASC

 

Daylight

DP: David Eggby, ACS

 

Dante’s Peak

DP: Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC

 

Backdraft

DP: Mikael Salomon, ASC

For more on this topic, see my article about “The Normal Lens”.

The Long Lenses of the 90s

Working with White Walls

White walls are the bane of a DP’s existence. They bounce light around everywhere, killing the mood, and they look cheap and boring in the background of your shot. Nonetheless, with so many contemporary buildings decorated this way, it’s a challenge we all have to face. Today I’m going to look back on two short films I’ve photographed, and explain the different approaches I took to get the white-walled locations looking nice.

Finding Hope is a moving drama about a couple grieving for the baby they have lost. It was shot largely at the home of the producer, Jean Maye, on a Sony FS7 with Sigma and Pentax stills glass.

Exit Eve is a non-linear narrative about the dehumanisation of an au pair by her wealthy employers. With a fairly respectable budget for a short, this production shot in a luxurious Battersea townhouse on an Arri Alexa Classic with Ultra Primes.

 

“Crown”-inspired colour contrast

Cheap 300W dimmers like these are great for practicals.

It was January 2017 when we made Finding Hope, and I’d recently been watching a lot of The Crown. I liked how that series punctuated its daylight interior frames with pools of orange light from practicals. We couldn’t afford much of a lighting package, and I thought that pairing existing pracs with dimmers and tungsten bulbs would be a cheap and easy way to break up the white walls and bring some warmth – perhaps a visual representation of the titular hope – into the heavy story.

I shot all the daylight interiors at 5600K to get that warmth out of the pracs. Meanwhile I shaped the natural light as far as possible with the existing curtains, and beefed it up with a 1.2K HMI where I could. I used no haze or lens diffusion on the film because I felt it needed the unforgiving edges.

For close-ups, I often cheated the pracs a little closer and tweaked the angle, but I chose not to supplement them with movie lamps. The FS7’s native ISO of 2500 helped a lot, especially in a nighttime scene where the grieving parents finally let each other in. Director Krysten Resnick had decided that there would be tea-lights on the kitchen counter, and I asked art director Justine Arbuthnot to increase the number as much as she dared. They became the key-light, and again I tweaked them around for the close-ups.

My favourite scene in Finding Hope is another nighttime one, in which Crystal Leaity sits at a piano while Kevin Leslie watches from the doorway. I continued the theme of warm practicals, bouncing a bare 100W globe off the wall as Crystal’s key, and shaping the existing hall light with some black wrap, but I alternated that with layers of contrasting blue light: the HMI’s “moonlight” coming in through the window, and the flicker of a TV in the deep background. This latter was a blue-gelled 800W tungsten lamp bounced off a wobbling reflector.

When I saw the finished film, I was very pleased that the colourist had leant into the warm/cool contrast throughout the piece, even teasing it out of the daylight exteriors.

 

Trapped in a stark white townhouse

I took a different approach to colour in Exit Eve. Director Charlie Parham already knew that he wanted strong red lighting in party scenes, and I felt that this would be most effective if I kept colour out of the lighting elsewhere. As the film approaches its climax, I did start to bring in the orange of outside streetlamps, and glimpses of the party’s red, but otherwise I kept the light stark and white.

Converted from a Victorian schoolhouse, the location had high ceilings, huge windows and multiple floors, so I knew that I would mostly have to live with whatever natural light did or didn’t shine in. We were shooting during the heatwave of 2018, with many long handheld takes following lead actor Thalissa Teixeria from room to room and floor to floor, so even the Alexa’s dynamic range struggled to cope with the variations in light level.

For a night scene in the top floor bedroom, I found that the existing practicals were perfectly placed to provide shape and backlight. I white-balanced to 3600K to keep most of the colour out of them, and rigged black solids behind the camera to prevent the white walls from filling in the shadows.

(Incidentally, the night portions of this sequence were shot as one continuous take, despite comprising two different scenes set months apart. The actors did a quick-change and the bed was redressed by the art department while it was out frame, but sadly this tour de force was chopped up in the final cut.)

I had most control over the lighting when it came to the denouement in the ground floor living area. Here I was inspired by the work of Bradford Young, ASC to backlight the closed blinds (with tungsten units gelled to represent streetlights) and allow the actors inside to go a bit dim and murky. For a key moment we put a red gel on one of the existing spotlights in the living room and let the cast step into it.

So there we have it, two different approaches to lighting in a while-walled location: creating colour contrast with dimmed practicals, or embracing the starkness and saving the colour for dramatic moments. How will you tackle your next magnolia-hued background?

For another example of how I’ve tackled white-walled locations, see my Forever Alone blog.

Working with White Walls

How Film Works

Over the ten weeks of lockdown to date, I have accumulated four rolls of 35mm film to process. They may have to wait until it is safe for me to visit my usual darkroom in London, unless I decide to invest in the equipment to process film here at home. As this is something I’ve been seriously considering, I thought this would be a good time to remind myself of the science behind it all, by describing how film and the negative process work.

 

Black and White

The first thing to understand is that the terminology is full of lies. There is no celluloid involved in film – at least not any more – and there never has been any emulsion.

However, the word “film” itself is at least accurate; it is quite literally a strip of plastic backing coated with a film of chemicals, even if that plastic is not celluloid and those chemicals are not an emulsion. Celluloid (cellulose mononitrate) was phased out in the mid-twentieth century due to its rampant inflammability, and a variety of other flexible plastics have been used since.

As for “emulsion”, it is in fact a suspension of silver halide crystals in gelatine. The bigger the crystals, the grainier the film, but the more light-sensitive too. When the crystals are exposed to light, tiny specks of metallic silver are formed. This is known as the latent image. Even if we could somehow view the film at this stage without fogging it completely, we would see no visible image as yet.

For that we need to process the film, by bathing it in a chemical developer. Any sufficiently large specks of silver will react with the developer to turn the entire silver halide crystal into black metallic silver. Thus areas that were exposed to light turn black, while unlit areas remain transparent; we now have a negative image.

Before we can examine the negative, however, we must use a fixer to turn the unexposed silver halide crystals into a light-insensitive, water-soluble compound that we can wash away.

Now we can dry our negative. At this stage it can be scanned for digital manipulation, or printed photo-chemically. This latter process involves shining light through the negative onto a sheet of paper coated with more photographic emulsion, then processing and fixing that paper as with the film. (As the paper’s emulsion is not sensitive to the full spectrum of light, this procedure can be carried out under dim red illumination from a safe-light.) Crystals on the paper turn black when exposed to light – as they are through the transparent portions of the negative, which you will recall correspond to the shadows of the image – while unexposed crystals again remain transparent, allowing the white of the paper to show through. Thus the negative is inverted and a positive image results.

 

Colour

Things are a little more complicated with colour, as you might expect. I’ve never processed colour film myself, and I currently have no intention of trying!

The main difference is that the film itself contains multiple layers of emulsion, each sensitive to different parts of the spectrum, and separated by colour filters. When the film is developed, the by-products of the chemical reaction combine with colour couplers to create colour dyes.

An additional processing step is introduced between the development and the fixing: the bleach step. This converts the silver back to silver halide crystals which are then removed during fixing. The colour dyes remain, and it is these that form the image.

Many cinematographers will have heard of a process call bleach bypass, used on such movies as 1984 and Saving Private Ryan. You can probably guess now that this process means skipping or reducing the bleach step, so as to leave the metallic silver in the negative. We’ve seen that this metallic silver forms the entire image in black-and-white photography, so by leaving it in a colour negative you are effectively combining colour and black-and-white images in the same frame, resulting in low colour saturation and increased contrast.

“1984” (DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC)

Colour printing paper also contains colour couplers and is processed again with a bleach step. Because of its spectral sensitivity, colour papers must be printed and processed in complete darkness or under a very weak amber light.

 

Coming Up

In future posts I will cover the black-and-white processing and printing process from a much more practical standpoint, guiding you through it, step by step. I will also look at the creative possibilities of the enlargement process, and we’ll discover where the Photoshop “dodge” and “burn” tools had their origins. For those of you who aren’t Luddites, I’ll delve into how digital sensors capture and process images too!

How Film Works

Cinematic Lighting: An Online Course Available Now

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.

Get lifetime access to Cinematic Lighting now.

Below is a full breakdown of the course content.

 

MODULE 1: DAY EXTERIOR

Learn how to block your scene to make the most of the natural light, and how to modify that light with flags, bounce and diffusion, as well as how to expose your image correctly.

1.1 Principles & Prep

  • What to look for on a recce/scout
  • How to predict the sun path using apps or a compass
  • How to block action relative to the sun
  • Three-point lighting
  • The importance of depth in cinematography
  • When to shoot in cross-light vs. backlight
  • How to get rippling reflections off water

1.2 Blocking for Success

  • Observing a rehearsal with actors Kate and Ivan
  • What to look for in the blocking
  • How to get reflections off a blade
  • When to shoot the master shot
  • How to choose what order to shoot your coverage in
  • Using a white poly/bead-board as bounce

1.3 Exposure

  • Why light meters are still important
  • Dynamic range and log recording
  • How to use an incident meter and a spot reflectance meter
  • The f-stop series
  • How to use false colours
  • How to arrive at the right exposure from all this information
  • How to select the appropriate ND (neutral density) filter
  • Shooting the wide shot

1.4 Shaping the Singles

  • Short- and broad-key lighting
  • Types of reflector
  • Positioning a reflector
  • Paying attention to eye reflections
  • Negative fill
  • How to use 4×4 floppy flags
  • Shooting Ivan’s close-up
  • Using a trace frame
  • “Health bounce”
  • Shooting Kate’s close-up
  • Summary
  • The final edited scene

MODULE 2: DAY INTERIOR

This module introduces some common lighting instruments, demonstrates how to imitate natural light entering a room, and how to create depth and contrast with black-out and smoke.

2.1 Scouting & Equipment

  • Identifying light sources in the room
  • Using apps or a compass to predict how sun will enter through the windows
  • The principle of dark-to-light depth
  • Using curtains to modify interior light
  • Introduction to some common lighting instruments: Dedolights, Kino Flos, an HMI and a Rayzr MC LED panel

2.2 Lighting through a Window

  • Observing the blocking with actors Kate and Ivan
  • Direct lighting using an HMI
  • Controlling contrast with black-out
  • Diffusing the light with a trace frame
  • Bouncing the light off poly/bead-board
  • Bouncing the light off parts of the set
  • Use of a light meter and false colours to set the correct exposure

2.3 Atmosphere

  • Use of smoke or haze to add atmosphere to the scene
  • Reasons to add atmosphere
  • The concept of aerial perspective
  • Shooting the master shot
  • Comparison of the final shot to the other versions demonstrated in 2.2 and 2.3

2.4 Lighting the Reverse

  • Use of viewfinder apps to find a frame and select a lens
  • Challenges of front-light
  • Adjusting the window light to highlight certain areas
  • Demonstrating a “window wrap” using a Kino Flo
  • Using light readings and ND filters to arrive at the correct exposure
  • Shooting the reverse
  • Summary
  • The final edited scene

MODULE 3: NIGHT INTERIOR

Create a moody night-time look indoors using practical sources, toplight, and simulated moonlight and firelight.

3.1 Internal vs. External Light

  • Observing the blocking with actors Kate and Ivan
  • Approaches to lighting a night interior scene
  • Lighting from outside with an HMI “moon”
  • Working with bounced “moonlight” inside the room
  • Choosing an overhead source as the key light

3.2 Working with Toplight

  • Time and safety considerations of working with top-light
  • Rigging a top-light safely
  • Controlling top-light spill on the set walls
  • Using unbleached muslin to soften and warm up the light
  • The inverse square law

3.3 Firelight & Moonlight

  • Working with practical candles
  • Reinforcing candles with a hidden LED fixture
  • Simulating an off-camera fireplace
  • Lighting the view outside the window
  • Bringing moonlight into the room to add colour contrast and depth
  • Shooting the master shot

3.4 Tweaking for the Coverage

  • Checking the blocking for the first single
  • Filling in shadows using additional unbleached muslin
  • Flagging the top-light to control the background
  • Adjusting the external light to maintain colour contrast
  • Shooting Kate’s single
  • Adjusting the fireplace effect to work for a close-up
  • Shooting Ivan’s single
  • Summary
  • The final edited scene

MODULE 4: NIGHT EXTERIOR

Paint with light on the blank canvas of night; set up an artificial moon; create depth, contrast and colour contrast; and use shadows to your advantage.

4.1 Setting the Moon

  • Observing the blocking with actors Kate and Ivan
  • Principles of night exterior lighting
  • Creating believable moonlight
  • Features of HMI lighting
  • Choosing a position and height for the HMI “moon”

4.2 Finessing the Master

  • Use of a practical fire source
  • Reinforcing a practical fire with an LED fixture
  • Colour contrast
  • Using a Kino Flo as an additional soft source
  • Tackling a difficult shadow
  • Reading and adjusting lighting ratios using an incident meter
  • Working with smoke/atmos outdoors
  • Shooting the master shot

4.3 Shooting the Singles

  • Adjusting the existing sources to work for a close-up
  • Shooting Ivan’s single
  • Diffusing the HMI
  • Monitoring exposure using false colours
  • Shooting Kate’s single

4.4 Lighting the Reverse

  • The pros and cons of flipping the backlight
  • Example of cheating the moonlight around
  • Using established sources to your advantage
  • Adding diffusion vs. a gobo to the HMI
  • Creating a “branch-a-loris”
  • Shooting the reverse
  • Summary
  • The final edited scene

APPENDICES

Useful links, a full kit list and a deleted scene

Get lifetime access to Cinematic Lighting now.

Cinematic Lighting: An Online Course Available Now

Where to Place Your Horizon

I once had an argument with a director about the composition of a wide shot. I wanted to put the horizon nearer the top of the frame than the bottom, and he felt that this was the wrong way around. In reality there is no right and wrong in composition, only a myriad of possibilities that are all valid and can all make your viewers feel different ways. In this article I will take a metaphorical ramble through these possibilities, and ponder their effects.

You would think that the most natural position for the horizon would be in the vertical centre of the frame. After all, in our day-to-day life, when we look straight ahead, this is where it appears to be.

In practice, a central horizon is not a popular choice. This article by Art Wolfe, for example, argues that it robs the image of dynamism, sending the eye straight to the horizon rather than letting it wander around the frame. The technique is also at odds with the Rule of Thirds, though as I’ve written before, that’s not a rule I place much stock in.

The talented photographer and vlogger Arian Vila, however, describes the merits of a central horizon when composing for a square aspect ratio. And this is an excellent reminder that the horizon does not exist in a vacuum; like anything else, it must be judged in the context of the aspect ratio and the other compositional elements of the frame.

For Leon Chambers’ Above the Clouds (out now on Amazon Prime and other platforms!), I placed the horizon centrally several times:

This was a deliberate echo of the painting “Above the Clouds” which appears in the film and provides the thematic backbone.

A year or two after shooting Clouds, I came across Photograms of the Year: 1949 in a charity shop. Amongst its pages I found another diptych, one created by the book designer rather than the two entirely separate photographers:

These two images, perfectly paired, demonstrate contrasting horizon placement. At Grey Dawn emphasises the sky by placing the horizon low in the frame, creating a sense of space. Meanwhile, Homeward Bound positions its horizon somewhere beyond the trees near the top of frame, drawing attention to the sand and the wheel ruts and indeed to the figures of the caravan itself, rather than to the destination or surroundings.

Horizon placement is closely tied to two other creative choices: headroom, which I dedicated a whole article to, and lens height, i.e. is this a low or a high angle? Even a GCSE media student can tell you that a low angle imbues power while a high angle implies vulnerability, but these are terms most applicable to closer shots. When we think of horizon placement we are probably concerned with big wides, where creating a mood for the scene or setting is more important than visualising a character’s power or lack thereof.

Breaking Bad is an example of a series that predominantly chooses low horizons to show off the big skies of its New Mexico locations. “[Showrunner] Vince [Gilligan] is a student of cinema and knows movies like the back of his hand,” says DP Michael Slovis, ASC. “It was always in his mind that this was a Western in the style of Sergio Leone and the Italian Neo-realists.”

Incidentally, there’s an amazing desert scene in the episode “Crawl Space” where a sunlit close-up cuts to a big wide. The wide holds as clouds roll over the sun. The action continues and the shot still holds, the line between sunlight and shade visible as it rolls away across the desert, until finally a new line slides under the camera and sun breaks over the actors once more. Only then are we permitted to see the scene up close again.

This creative choice, to set the character’s small concerns against the vast immutability of nature, comes from the same place as the choice to put the horizon low in frame.

Returning to Photograms of the Year: 1949, my eyes light upon another pair of contrasting images:

Despite its title, Towards the Destination shows us little of where the sailors are heading, by placing the horizon high in the frame and focusing on the water and the reflections therein. Rendezvous at Chincoteague, by placing its horizon low in the frame, radiates a feeling of isolation that is in contrast to the meeting of the title.

As we consider the figures in these photographs I am forced to concede that the argument I alluded to in the introduction may have been less about the position of the horizon and more about the position of the actor. I think the director felt that it was unnatural for an person to appear in the top half of the frame rather than the bottom half.

I can see his point. The vision of our naked eyes is definitely framed along the bottom by the ground, while the top remains open and unlimited – outdoors, at least. So if a person is standing on the ground, we naturally expect them to appear low down in an image.

But this – like nose room, the Rule of Thirds, the 180° Rule, short-key lighting, so many things in cinematography – is merely a guideline. There are times when it just isn’t helpful, when it can lead to wasted opportunities.

Here is a shot of mine from The Gong Fu Connection (dir. Ted Duran) where the horizon and the cast are placed in the upper half of frame:

Would it really have been better to frame them lower, losing out on the reflections and the foreround rushes, and gaining just empty sky? I think not. This composition was especially important to me, because the film’s titular connection is all about man and the natural world. By showing the water and greenery, we root the characters in it. A composition with more sky might have made them seem dwarfed by nature, lost in it.

This article has been something of a stream of consciousness, but the point I’m trying to make is this: always consider the content and meaning of your shot; reflecting those in your composition is infinitely more important than adhering to any guidelines.

If you enjoyed this, you may be interested in some of my other articles on composition:

Where to Place Your Horizon

How Analogue Photography Can Make You a Better Cinematographer

With many of us looking for new hobbies to see us through the zombie apocalypse Covid-19 lockdown, analogue photography may be the perfect one for an out-of-work DP. While few of us may get to experience the magic and discipline of shooting motion picture film, stills film is accessible to all. With a range of stocks on the market, bargain second-hand cameras on eBay, seemingly no end of vintage glass, and even home starter kits for processing your own images, there’s nothing to stop you giving it a go.

Since taking them up again In 2018, I’ve found that 35mm and 120 photography have had a positive impact on my digital cinematography. Here are five ways in which I think celluloid photography can help you too sharpen your filmmaking skills.

 

1. Thinking before you click

When you only have 36 shots on your roll and that roll cost you money, you suddenly have a different attitude to clicking the shutter. Is this image worthy of a place amongst those 36? If you’re shooting medium or large-format then the effect is multiplied. In fact, given that we all carry phone cameras with us everywhere we go, there has to be a pretty compelling reason to lug an SLR or view camera around. That’s bound to raise your game, making you think longer and harder about composition and content, to make every frame of celluloid a minor work of art.

 

2. Judging exposure

I know a gaffer who can step outside and tell you what f-stop the light is, using only his naked eye. This is largely because he is a keen analogue photographer. You can expose film by relying on your camera’s built-in TTL (through the lens) meter, but since you can’t see the results until the film is processed, analogue photographers tend to use other methods as well, or instead, to ensure a well-exposed negative. Rules like “Sunny Sixteen” (on a sunny day, set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed reciprocal to match the ISO, e.g. 1/200th of a second at ISO 200) and the use of handheld incident meters make you more aware of the light levels around you. A DP with this experience can get their lighting right more quickly.

 

3. Pre-visualising results

We digital DPs can fall into the habit of not looking at things with our eyes, always going straight to the viewfinder or the monitor to judge how things look. Since the optical viewfinder of an analogue camera tells you little more than the framing, you tend to spend less time looking through the camera and more using your eye and your mind to visualise how the image will look. This is especially true when it comes to white balance, exposure and the distribution of tones across a finished print, none of which are revealed by an analogue viewfinder. Exercising your mind like this gives you better intuition and increases your ability to plan a shoot, through storyboarding, for example.

 

4. Grading

If you take your analogue ethic through to post production by processing and printing your own photographs, there is even more to learn. Although detailed manipulation of motion pictures in post is relatively new, people have been doctoring still photos pretty much since the birth of the medium in the mid-19th century. Discovering the low-tech origins of Photoshop’s dodge and burn tools to adjust highlights and shadows is a pure joy, like waving a magic wand over your prints. More importantly, although the printing process is quick, it’s not instantaneous like Resolve or Baselight, so you do need to look carefully at your print, visualise the changes you’d like to make, and then execute them. As a DP, this makes you more critical of your own work and as a colourist, it enables you to work more efficiently by quickly identifying how a shot can be improved.

 

5. Understanding

Finally, working with the medium which digital was designed to imitate gives you a better understanding of that imitation. It was only when I learnt about push- and pull-processing – varying the development time of a film to alter the brightness of the final image – that my understanding of digital ISO really clicked. Indeed, some argue that electronic cameras don’t really have ISO, that it’s just a simulation to help users from an analogue background to understand what’s going on. If all you’ve ever used is the simulation (digital), then you’re unlikely to grasp the concepts in the same way that you would if you’ve tried the original (analogue).

How Analogue Photography Can Make You a Better Cinematographer

Secondary Grades are Nothing New

Last week I posted an article I wrote a while back (originally for RedShark News), entitled “Why You Can’t Relight Footage in Post”. You may detect that this article comes from a slightly anti-colourist place. I have been, for most of my career, afraid of grading – afraid of colourists ruining my images, indignant that my amazing material should even need grading. Arrogance? Ego? Delusion? Perhaps, but I suspect all DPs have felt this way from time to time.

I think I have finally started to let go of this fear and to understand the symbiotic relationship betwixt DP and colourist. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, one of the things I’ve been doing to keep myself occupied during the Covid-19 lockdown is learning to grade. This is so that I can grade the dramatic scenes in my upcoming lighting course, but also an attempt to understand a colourist’s job better. The course I’m taking is this one by Matthew Falconer on Udemy. At 31 hours, it takes some serious commitment to complete, commitment I fear I lack. But I’ve got through enough to have learnt the ins and outs of Davinci Resolve, where to start when correcting an image, the techniques of primary and secondary grades, and how to use the scopes and waveforms. I would certainly recommend the course if you want to learn the craft.

As I worked my way through grading the supplied demo footage, I was struck by two similarities. Firstly, as I tracked an actor’s face and brightened it up, I felt like I was in the darkroom dodging a print. (Dodging involves blocking some of the light reaching a certain part of the image when making an enlargement from a film negative, resulting in a brighter patch.) Subtly lifting the brightness and contrast of your subject’s face can really help draw the viewer’s eye to the right part of the image, but digital colourists were hardly the first people to recognise this. Photographers have been dodging – and the opposite, burning – prints pretty much since the invention of the negative process almost 200 years ago.

The second similarity struck me when I was drawing a power curve around an actor’s shirt in order to adjust its colour separately from the rest of the image. I was reminded of this image from Painting with Light, John Alton’s seminal 1949 work on cinematography…

 

The chin scrim is a U-shaped scrim… used to cut the light off hot white collars worn with black dinner jackets.

It’s hard for a modern cinematographer to imagine blocking static enough for such a scrim to be useful, or indeed a schedule generous enough to permit the setting-up of such an esoteric tool. But this was how you did a power window in 1949: in camera.

Sometimes I’ve thought that modern grading, particularly secondaries (which target only specific areas of the image) are unnecessary; after all, we got through a century of cinema just fine without them. But in a world where DPs don’t have the time to set up chin scrims, and can’t possibly expect a spark to follow an actor around with one, adding one in post is a great solution. Our cameras might have more dynamic range than 1940s film stock, meaning that that white collar probably won’t blow out, but we certainly don’t want it distracting the eye in the final grade.

Like I said in my previous post, what digital grading does so well are adjustments of emphasis. This is not to belittle the process at all. Those adjustments of emphasis make a huge difference. And while the laws of physics mean that a scene can’t feasibly be relit in post, they also mean that a chin scrim can’t feasibly follow an actor around a set, and you can’t realistically brighten an actor’s face with a follow spot.

What I’m trying to say is, do what’s possible on set, and do what’s impossible in post. This is how lighting and grading work in harmony.

Secondary Grades are Nothing New

Why You Can’t Re-light Footage in Post

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.

This video, captured at a trillion frames per second, shows the tranmission and reflection of light.

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.

A compound lens for a prototype light-field camera by Adobe

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.

Sir David Attenborough getting his volume captured by Microsoft

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.

The Lytro Illum 2015 CP+ by Morio – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38422894

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.

Why You Can’t Re-light Footage in Post

Cinematic Lighting Course: Coming Soon

I’m using my time in Covid-19 lockdown for a few different things, some more worthy than others. Lying-in is a big one. Watching all of Lost again. Exercising more. But also I’ve got a big editing project to complete, a project of my own, the perfect task to get me through the long days at home.

Last November I shot Cinematic Lighting, a four-hour online course. It’s something I’d been thinking about for a while, especially over the last year or so as my Instagram following has sky-rocketed (about 33,000 at the time of writing). DPs and cinematography students follow my feed for the lighting diagrams I post every Friday, showing exactly how a lighting set-up was achieved, but some commenters had started to ask why I made certain creative decisions. So the idea for the course was born.

Lighting diagram for the Night Exterior module’s master shot

Cinematic Lighting consists of four modules: day exterior, day interior, night interior and night exterior. In each module I light and shoot a half-page scene with two actors, Kate Madison and Ivan Moy, with behind-the-scenes cameras following my every move. As I do it – with the assistance of gaffer Jeremy Dawson and spark Gareth Neal – I explain how and why I’m doing it. Sometimes I demonstrate alternative options I could have chosen. I talk about characterisation and how to match it with lighting. I quote John Alton and Christopher Nolan. I show clips from other productions I’ve shot and tell the stories behind them. I explain how to use a light meter and get your head around f-stops, T-stops and ND filters. I demonstrate the power of smoke. But most importantly I lay my creative process bare as I work.

Setting up a single in the Night Interior module. Photo: Ashram Maharaj

The original intention was for the course to be a reward on the Kickstarter campaign for Ren: The Girl with the Mark‘s second season, but sadly that campaign was unsuccessful. Over the next couple of months I’ll be investigating my options for releasing this course, and rest assured that I’ll let you know as soon as it’s available.

Meanwhile, postproduction work continues on it. The main thing left to do is the grading of the finished dramatic scenes; each module concludes with a polished edit of the scene which I’ve shot. Rather than hire a colourist, I’ve decided it’s time to finally learn a few things about grading myself. To that end, I’ve purchased a Udemy course and am currently learning how to do fancy secondaries in Davinci Resolve – another good use of my lockdown time, I feel. More on this in a future post.

Meanwhile, stay safe and REMAIN INDOORS.

Filming the introduction to the Day Exterior module. Photo: Colin Ramsay

Cinematic Lighting Course: Coming Soon