We got wonderful feedback from our survey and wanted to write a post based on your wishes ASAP. One of the most popular requests was for lighting instruction. In the HD world and film, lighting is king. Knowing how to light and not just rely on available light is what being a cinematographer is all about. I thought I would do a series of posts that will address the basics in lighting and use my film “The Greatest Game Ever Played” as an example for all of them. Key light, back light, and fill light.
The key light is the most important light you can place. It lights the actor’s faces and brings out their emotions. I like to study the features in an actor’s face. You can quickly see if one side is better to key from. This information is always in the back of my mind so when you are blocking scenes, you can make suggestions that would aid in getting the key from the correct side. Sometimes it is not possible because of the location or the blocking will not allow it, but at least it is a starting point.
Once you block the scene with the actors, it’s time to think about the best way to light the scene, and where the key light should come from. Prior to this, you have been on location scouts, talked with the director, even possibly blocked it with the talent in a rehearsal and probably already have a good idea. Right???? or Wrong???? Right, in the sense that you have thought all of it through. Wrong, in the sense that you should not be locked into that if the actors take the scene in a different direction. Keep yourself nimble; be able to react to a curve ball. They are usually brilliant and well worth the re-think whether it lands on the correct side for their face.
I look at the actors blocking and how best to let them move within a space when deciding where that key light should go. My best advice is to light an area, but many times when you light an area, this creates a flatter look. I don’t do flat. Try to figure out a way to hold nice contrast with the use of flags to shape the light or practicals in the space that can key your actors, windows, doors, etc.
Marking actors is a great idea to get them in the ball park for camera line ups but after that, I try to lose them so that they feel natural and organic in a space and not worry about the marks. It is my job to move the camera to adjust, not the actors. This is one of my most important objectives. Back in the day, with the camera being so heavy and focus being so critical, marks were king and it was the actor’s job to hit their marks, as well as give an amazing performance. Things change: the cameras are now 2.5 lbs in some cases and the focus pullers have to be ZEN MASTERs. Try to always roll out with a slider on the camera so that you can adjust and not ruin a performance because the camera was not able to be in the right place at the right time. Handheld will give you this ability if the scene warrants it, or you could use a Steadicam. It can be the most beautifully lit scene, but if the performance isn’t there, it really doesn’t matter, does it?
Let’s take the end scene of “The Greatest Game Ever Played” as an example. I wanted this to feel like the golden boy, the new champion bathed in beautiful late afternoon sun. His moment, in a shaft of light. We actually blocked this scene several times with Shia LaBeauf sitting, then with him standing, discussing how to bring Stephen Dillane our Harry Vardon character in at the perfect time. The director, Bill Paxton, wanted a western feel at the end, where the old gunslinger surrenders and walks through the swinging saloon doors at the end to leave the new champion.
Once we decided that Shia would start seated, how was I going to key his face? He was sitting very close to the lockers that surrounded him in a big U shape. I saw all of the lockers. Where should the key light come from? If I brought it from behind camera, that would be very flat. I knew I wanted him in a golden shaft, so this would be my starting point. I set that hot 3/4 backlight coming through the window, using a Mole Richardson 20K Fresnel full spot dimmed down to 50 percent. I let what naturally would happen take over. If a bright shaft was blasting through a window and hitting his head and shoulders, it would bounce off of the lockers and floor, so that would be his key light. But would that be enough light? Not really, plus it was very warm bouncing off of the brown lockers, so I hid a bounce card in the bottom of the locker, the sunlight shaft hit the bounce card and illuminated his face.
When Shia stood up to put his jacket on the hot light exploded off of his left arm and lit his face, this was a happy accident and looked awesome, but when he put the jacket on he didn’t have enough light on him, I wanted to see that small smile. It was so important. To help this along I hung a white towel at the top of the locker so he would get a little love from that. I wanted this moment to feel very personal and intimate. He had just won the 1913 U.S. Open. This was his time, the lone gunslinger, after he shot the other cowboy dead in the streets. Keeping the contrast fairly heavy so that Shia separated from the background was paramount. This would create the world going dark around him with him in this spotlight/shaft of light. Once I lit the scene, it seemed very monochromatic. Something was needed, COLOR CONTRAST. What is color contrast? When a scene takes on only one or two tones, I feel that it lacks depth and dimension. A way to bring that back is to add a different color than the one or two colors that are in the scene and usually one that goes 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Shia had brown pants on and a tea stained shirt. We had brown lockers and golden light coming through the window. It needed blue undertones in the shadows to give us that contrast.
To add the color contrast, I used 2-4 x 8 foam core bounces behind camera with 2- 5500 Kelvin 1200 LTM HMI Par lights with half CTB bouncing into them to mimic north light coming through the windows on the other side of the locker room. What is NORTH LIGHT? This is ambient light that has a very creamy feel, soft, diffused, coming from the north, that is usually slightly cool in tone from it reflecting all of the blue skylight.
My lighting technique is to start with what naturally would happen and then choose to change or alter it, depending on the look and feel of the project. Greatest Game wanted to feel like a painting so my tones and colors were saturated with a higher contrast range. My inspiration for this film came from a book that I bought called Bound for Glory “America in Color” . It was a photography book that showcased 1100 Kodachrome prints that had been found in an attic in the Midwest, dating back to 1939. These were FSA prints that were thought to have been lost and the first color prints ever shot. They had an extreme contrast in the blacks, with a chalky mid tone, and deep saturated blues, oranges, and reds. Both Bill and I thought this would be the perfect look for this film. No one had ever delivered this cinematic expression before and we were excited to try it. Many hair, make up and wardrobe tests were done to make sure that the colors that were chosen for the golfers and cast to wear would handle the deep contrast. The costume designer originally had Harry Vardon in an olive colored suit. With our test, the suit dissolved into the green grass and tree background. So we opted for a yellow suit to contrast this, which worked out beautifully. A funny note –when you shoot the hundredth roll of film, you always crack a bottle of Champagne for everyone on the crew to enjoy. We cracked it on the film test.
Never stop looking at light. Put the images of light in your memory bank to pull from. Travel, ingest imagery, photo reference books are so important for creativity. Arcana in Santa Monica is an amazing resource.
Next episode — we will go into the use of backlight and how light separation is your best friend.