I have been asked this question many times, “Do you white balance your camera?” I respond with one word, “Never.” White balancing a video camera is a holdover from the days of Ikegami cameras, the tubes inside that would burn if you shot a bright light. AWB is your enemy. Period.
When I shoot film, I use specific stocks that are either daylight or tungsten based to react to blue daylight color temp at 5500 Kelvin or 3200 Kelvin for tungsten. I never set my digital camera to either one of these settings. On some cameras, it is your only choice. One reason I have gravitated towards the Arri Alexa and Canon cameras is not only for their incredible sensors, but also because they understand this fact. You can rotate the wheel in WB mode on a Canon or on the Alexa in a sub menu to scroll to your look.
While working with one of my favorite directors, Maurice Marable, we were doing a spot in an underground parking garage. When you went with the color temp of the lights that existed in the space, the mood was blah, no depth, no dimension. I got on the scroll wheel of the Alexa and cranked it down to 2700 Kelvin, and Maurice was like “Wow, that looks bangin!!!” Just the simple use of this tool can create a whole other chapter in the way you light.
In Hollywood, for decades we have “Hollywooded” every night scene on streets. We went in there and re-globed all the street lights with tungsten 500 watt globes on a street which typically were HPS (High Pressure Sodium) and hung 2k open face tungsten lights to the street lamps so that the color was correct.
Then, all of a sudden, moonlight would show up in urban areas. I am not a big fan of moonlight in urban areas. This is my creative choice. I feel that in reality, moonlight would never reach into these lit areas. I sit at home and really observe moonlight in my pool at night. It is all powerful when it is full and it has even created shafts in our woods, but there is not an HPS street light for miles, let alone a hundred. But I did not always have this view. I followed what my mentors were doing and they were changing lights out in stores so that all the floʼs were either daylight or tungsten. They were balancing all their color. They were using moonlight as a very blue source and making all street lights white, tungsten. THAT WAS THE 80’S and 90’S. So I did the same.
When I was selected to lens Crazy/Beautiful for Touchstone and Disney, Director John Stockwell told me that he wanted this to be a real film. Not Hollywood. He wanted the audience to feel like two teenagers from different sides of the tracks who slowly fell in love. What that feels like, the emotions and inconsistency of being a teenager in love. Not calculated, never planned, just going for it. He wanted to do it with a small crew. He wanted to do everything practically. This changed me as a cinematographer overnight. I love when a director has this power. He opened my eyes to doing things completely differently, not how it has always been done in the past. I was the past, and I was jumping on board with this mindset and throwing everything that I had been taught out the window. Now this was scary, but I wanted to test myself as an artist.
When John and I sat down to discuss the look and feel of the film, he said that he wanted this film to show Los Angeles in a different way. Everyone had shown the glowing beaches, warm, poppy colors, etc. Letʼs show East LA how it is and letʼs lens Pacific Palisades the same way. Well, if you have ever been to this region of the west coast, you know that warm, poppy colors, and high contrast has never touched the Pacific. It is bald, gray blue skies, foggy, filtered sun and an ocean that is gray and cold. He gave me this very small reference book that he felt was the movie in 80 pages. It was called HiroMix.
I have used this book for reference on about eight of my movies. It was written by a young Japanese female photographer who takes self-portraits using very unique composition. This is because she never looks through the eyepiece of the camera. I was like, WHAT!!? Her composition was off, but beautiful. It was haphazard, inconsistent, yet fragile. Exactly like a TEENAGER. I have a teenager at home and that is spot on. This was our inspiration, a teenage Japanese photographer who never looked through the lens. I AM IN!!!
So with these marching orders, I set out to deliver just that. We tested different types of film stocks and lenses and came up with a ridiculous cocktail. We used a tungsten based film stock for all day exteriors and interiors. It was rated at 320 ISO and I exposed it at 32 ISO. The over exposure delivered the look that John and I wanted. It was difficult at first to get my head around this stock being stretched the way we did. But after the first week, I really understood its power and how its look was just so unique. It was how LA looks to John and me. The blue, green, cyan color palate worked incredibly well.
We had a lot of nights on Crazy/Beautiful and John wanted them to look real, not that Hollywood thing that I have been talking about. He wanted to use what was there and augment it to be able to expose the negative. He wanted it to feel like it was happening right then and there. This was a daunting task in 2000. We did not have the arsenal of lights of many color temps at our disposal. The idea of lighting a movie from Home Depot was looked down upon. So to turn this negative to a positive, I pulled from my parents’ inspiration.
I look back on my career and so much of my Mom and Dadʼs fearless nature, along with my Dadʼs incredible common sense, flows through me on every decision I make as a cinematographer. My Dad worked at Cornell in the agronomy division. He worked as a professorʼs assistant in bringing all their creations to life. Whether it was sweet corn, field corn, wheat, red kidney beans, soy beans, you name a plant and he had a big part of building all the hybrids that farmers plant today. He could make anything work, stuff that just blew my mind as a kid. You would look at the situation that he was up against, whether the plow broke, combine jammed, truck stuck in the mud or that tractor that needed a makeshift winter shelter so that he did not freeze his tail off while he blew snow out of the driveway. Most of the time, you would never conceive his cocktail of different materials to create what he did. Remember how I told you that your PUNT or plan B needs to be better than plan A that you had eight weeks to figure out? Well, this is where I got my training. He was a master at the “Cob Job” as he called it. It worked, was built like a brick house, not sexy, but it did the job. You probably think I am side tracked, but every story has a reason.
The problem was that I needed an exposure increase from the HPS street lights that lit most of LAʼs streets. My light meter said .07. That was three stops under what the lenses that we selected could deliver. This is when I channeled my Mom and Dadʼs training and went to a very good friend for help.
David Pringle owns and operates Luminys Systems. It is an amazing company that has helped me tell my stories for over two decades, back to when I was a budding gaffer slinging cable and setting lights. I asked him if he could build some wacky lights for me. He was all in. “What the hell do you want to build, Shane?” He has my passion and reminds me so much of my Dad, the way he just makes it work. I want to build these lights that donʼt exist. “OK, what are they?” I want to mount lights to street lamps that are the same wattage and color temp and do it in a way that you cannot see it.
The WTF look soon came across his face. Then his engineer Ashot Nalbandyan, who is just as crazy and as passionate as David, pipes up. We can do that. Let me throw something together. They built this incredible light that was a 400 HPS light that hid right behind the Cobra head street lamp and it delivered a 1.4 on my meter from 25 feet away. I was in the pocket. I could not go crazy with the light being too powerful because the area would look over-lit compared to the background streets, so we had to keep it close. These lights were so kick butt. I use them on everything I do. They weigh less than 3 lbs and crank out the light in the exact color temp of the street lights.
Letʼs keep creating. “Well, what else do you want?” How about Mercury Vapor and Metal Halide? He said that shouldnʼt be a problem. So two weeks later, I showed up at his shop and he had all of the prototypes laid out for me to analyze. It looked like Frankensteinʼs lab. David and Ashot were like mad scientists. They developed the first strobe that could truly be used in motion pictures. They were called Lightning Strikes. They are so user friendly and look exactly like lightning. Then they started to make lights that mirrored the look of the sun as a source, which when you see them is exactly that. They call them SoftSuns and when they strike on, itʼs HOLY SMOKES – that is a beautiful light. I could go on and on about his company but here is their website. Now I am getting sidetracked.
Based on our creations from Crazy/Beautiful, he made all types of these fixtures so that you can tell your stories with realism and accurate color temp. I have tried for years to match them with tungsten and HMI sources HPS (High Pressure Sodium), MH (Metal Halide) and MV (Mercury Vapor) with gel from all of the manufacturers to no avail. Nothing matched; it was always slightly off. It killed me.
My next film has a ton of night street racing and I knew I would need to call on Luminys Systems again to build more lights. I wanted to take the ones we built and make them a little better, more focused, more compact.
The way the lights work is that they are all color coordinated with plugs and Pelican cases that house the ballasts. You buy the lights from Home Depot. The ballasts are in the head, so it makes them very heavy and hard to grab, hard to use, and hard to focus. So what David and his engineering team did was to take the ballast out of the head and put it into a waterproof Pelican case. Then from there, they add a 50 foot head extension, which connects to the light source. The light source is put in a lightweight aluminum reflector that pushes the light out in an open face spread.
All the ballasts and connectors are color coded so that you cannot plug a 1000 watt HPS ballast into a 400 watt HPS light. Dummy proofed!!! HA HA!!!
What makes these lights so powerful is not just their incredible color temp and design, but the fact that they absolutely weigh nothing. They are all made out of lightweight aluminum that also acts as the reflector. So you can mount them with gafferʼs tape if you have to and I have. I photograph them all the time, never hide. They are practical and give you the punch required with little power consumption.
A 1500 watt spot MH sport fixture puts out the same output as a 4K HMI Par light. Par lights costs $500 a day to rent. This one costs $100 a day and doesnʼt require another $60 in gel to try and get it to match. I sprinkle these things around my street light scenes, giving depth and dimension that would not normally be there, all powered by a couple of Honda Putt Putt gennyʼs. KISS.
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