It has been so much fun hearing all of your comments on the composition series that we did. I thought that I would go one step further and tell you what I think about when I am blocking a scene and give you my preferences on how to work from the master to the close-up.
“Don’t Be Afraid of Hard Light”
I believe we all have gotten a little overindulgent in the use of soft light because we think, “I want it to feel natural”; “I want it to feel like ambient light, not lit”; “I want to go with available light.” I have heard many of these descriptions. It is your job as a cinematographer to translate that into a lighting language that will deliver exactly what the director wants. His or her description doesn’t always mean soft light. What about the illusion of soft light, while you are using a harder source? Herb Ritts used hard light to his advantage in so many ways. Conrad Hall was a big hard light user as well. I love hard light just as much as I love soft. There is a time and a place for both. What hard light does is to give you lighting control on master shots.
“Rule of Thumb”
I try to light my masters with a much harder light than my close-ups. It gives me the ability to control my light off walls, pillars, foreground elements, etc. to create contrast, mood and help assist the story. I don’t like to leave it up to the color correction bay and 15 power windows to light for me. It is up to the cinematographer. This hard light will not seem hard in a master if you mix a little soft light in there that you can shape. This added soft light usually comes from overhead to fill in shadows and smooth out the hard edges. It is difficult to take in the nuances of the quality of a source on wide masters, unless you have huge hard shadows on the walls. If you want the illusion of soft light, you need to flag those shadows off of walls or floors and fill them in with perfectly placed soft light.
“Moving In for the Medium Shot”
Now that the harder light is established on your master, you can go in for coverage and soften that to your liking. I will usually move in a bigger diffusion frame like a 12 x 12 closer to our actors. Then I use big flags to keep the contrast up by trying to slow walls down from this softer light that now will wrap around the flags. Sometimes I use egg crates on the soft source to control it or honeycombs.
“Moving In for the Close-Up”
Now I have the freedom to do almost anything I want. One choice is to bring the light even more around frontally if needed, to soften the light yet again. A book light is something I do for these close-ups. I will go into this in more detail in another post. But simply put, I would keep my 12 x 12 diffusion frame that I used for the medium shot on the light and then put a 4 x 4 frame of maybe Rosco Half Soft Frost or Rosco Half Tough white diffusion, right up close, just out of frame. I love the feel of Half Soft Frost. It is a creamy diffusion that still keeps light direction. I can add an eye light, which will be another future lighting post.
“Lighting for the Master aka Doinker”
When I walk into a location, whether it is day or night interior, I look at the window position in relation to the sun and how much of the natural or practical lighting I can use in the space. Then I work with the director to block the scene that will best tell the story while using the space’s natural attributes to our advantage.
“Knowing When and How Much You Can CHEAT”
When I look to light the master, I am also considering how it will be lit in the over the shoulder shots, as well as the close ups. If my key light in the master needs to come from the left side, I would try to keep that consistent in the coverage. Looking at your actors’ faces, knowing from which side they should be lit, should weigh into your decision. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have blocked master scenes with the light coming from the left and had to shift it around in the close-ups, but the general rule is to try to match.
If you know you are going to do some dirty OTS shots, then this should factor in to your lighting direction choice, and I will explain why. Lighting the OTS is a very important part of telling your story. The reason I have lingered on these shots so much is that they are an intricate part of telling any story, linking actors together or not linking them. They can show specific emotions and help expand your character’s story.
Let’s take a scene for an example.
I have lit my actors in the master shot from the right hand side. Our camera position is so important with this. Should I be on the left side or the right side of the line? Well, if you are on the right side of the line, your key light will look very flat. If you are on the left side of the line, then there will be shadows on the camera side. This is what creates your mood when you are lighting your master. Always try to position your light on the opposite side of where the camera is.
“Going In for the OTS”
Now we go in for this coverage. Look how nicely it sets up. We have the dark side of the face to the camera; we have the shadow side of the shoulder in the over the shoulder. Why is this important? Imagine the key light being on the right side; the person in the foreground of the OTS is lit. Your eye wants to be drawn to the face of our actor, not a lit up shoulder in the foreground. One of the most powerful tools of lighting is directing the audience where to look. This is a perfect example of it. Your eyes are drawn right to the actor’s beautiful eyes and face and what he or she is saying.
Your close-up is also set up perfectly. With your actor camera left, it will turn the actor’s face perfectly into the key light because the key light is on the left, and he or she is looking left. If you lit your actor from the right, then the look will feel flatter because the down side is away from the camera. The light, even though it is flatter, will not look as nice on his or her face because the actor is looking away from the key light. All of this might sound simple, but I am telling you, it makes a huge difference in creating your mood.
When the Location and the Blocking doesn’t work with the Rule of Thumb
Sometimes the blocking and the location don’t stack up in your favor, and you have to light with the source coming from the same side as your camera is on. Case in point, look at the gymnasium scene in We Are Marshall. The shot that looked amazing was the head to toe shot of McConaughey and Matt Fox. I could only light from the right through the windows, and I wanted the background to be those beautiful bleacher seats. So we had to stay on the light side of the line. You can turn this to your advantage. I asked myself, what is this scene about? It is McConaughey having this idea, so he should be the brightest guy in the frame; he is the lightbulb. David Strathairn is not sure of this, so I backlit him, made him uneasy. When I went in for the OTS, you can see that they are lit on the shoulder side of where the camera is placed, but I finessed it a little by bringing in a net to take the shoulder or side of the face down so that your eye was still directed to the actor talking. When McG saw that McConaughey was lit this way, he loved my whole approached and thought it added to the scene. Well there you go. Sometimes you have to just roll with where the actors take you and have a punt plan that is better than the original.
This is part one of this post. More lighting tips to come later.
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