God said (reportedly) “Let there be light” and there was. Sounds simple enough, but absent omnipotence, getting proper lighting on set or in the field isn’t always so straightforward.
The responsibility of lighting a film varies, depending on the production budget, but it usually falls to a director of photography who works in tandem with gaffers and grips to secure and position any artificial illumination required. “A lot of the terminology has changed with the confluence of photography and digital cinema,” explains Peter Trilling, a director of photography. “Traditionally, in the motion picture world, grips are assigned the task of setting, securing and rigging lights, along with cameras. They don’t really design the lighting of film sets or interview situations … The real responsibility of lighting falls to the gaffers. They are responsible for lighting the set, in most cases at the behest of the director of photography.”
“When you move from the photo world into the film world, it’s a different world in terms of crew size,” adds Robb Epifano, a lighting engineer who’s worked on both still and motion projects for over a dozen years.
Other productions are more spartan, with no neatly defined crew roles (the kind of roles mandated by film unions) or minimal crew. Regardless of who’s doing what, to paraphrase Harry Truman’s famous dictum: The buck stops at the top, with the director.
“It always starts with the director communicating his or her vision for what the lighting style should be,” says Vidal Cohen, a grip with 20 years’ experience on films and TV programs including Daddy Day Care, Californication and Pushing Daises.
Indeed, one of the most important things a director must do at the outset of any project is get “in tune” with the cameraperson and crew, and make sure they “share the same vision,” Cohen says. “Once we know what a director is looking for in terms of lighting—even if it’s not expressed technically, like ‘make this look ominous’—we’ll know what equipment we’ll need to order.”
An open line of communication will also ensure that a director’s vision is obtainable within a given budget. “Nothing is really impossible if the people you have working with you are creative and know their business,” Cohen says. “A good lighting team will give you what you want even if you’re not exactly certain what you want. Otherwise, they’ll engineer creative workarounds to stay on budget.”
Moving Into Motion
Some first-time video directors moving into motion from the still photo world can struggle with lighting, says lighting specialist Ely Lenik. “I’ve seen photographers mount video lights on HD-DSLRs and blast it right in the face of interview subjects. It just washes them out, whereas a side-mounted light would produce shadows and give a sense of depth.”
Often they’ll confront challenges, such as working with green screens, that are more complex. “When you light the green screen, surrounding props can take on a green tone,” Cohen explains. Much of this greenish hue can be purged from the scene in post production, but reflective surfaces can’t be easily fixed. “If you have a car bumper and it reflects that green tone, when you run [it] through a computer, the computer keys out the green tone and the bumper disappears.” Using mattes and flags can dampen this reflection and block the “green spill.”
Moving from HD-DSLRs to cinema cameras also presents a challenge—particularly with higher end cinema cameras. They’re much more sensitive to light than an HD-DSLR, so obtaining the appropriate contrast and dynamic range in any given scene requires some experimentation, Lenik notes. On the flip side, still photographers used to shooting RAW still images with high dynamic range may find the exposure capabilities of a video camera a bit more limited, Trilling says.
In either case, there’s no substitute for experimentation. “Take ample test footage,” Trilling advises. “What you see from any good external HD monitor is usually a good indication of whether or not” you’ve achieved the proper lighting, he says. It’s particularly imperative for directors working on documentaries or non-profit multimedia productions, he adds, since there’s rarely a budget for sophisticated lighting or a large crew in those environments.
Even for bigger budget productions, lighting experimentation upfront can save time and hassle in post production. “You never want to shoot something with the idea that you’re going to fix any lighting problems with it in post production—that just adds time and expense,” Cohen says.
One of the great artistic benefits of full-frame sensors on HD-DSLRs is the ability to defocus the background and achieve a really shallow depth of field. That, in turn, lessens the need to light the background. “You don’t really have to light it much at all—a big, dumb soft light and a fill card can go a long way to lighting your scene and making your footage look beautiful,” Trilling says. If you’re focused on a single subject, in other words, there’s less reason to agonize over background lighting.
Conversely, ignoring that depth means ignoring some potential creative possibilities. “In motion and traditionally in the film world, we can light at great depth, to accent portions of a scene,” Cohen says. In the stylistic TV series Pushing Daisies, the depth was lit “very specifically” so different background colors and brightness levels would be visible on different pieces of the set to “set the mood for the show.” The effect may not always be immediately visible to a casual viewer, but it leaves a subtle yet powerful imprint on the mood of the show, Cohen adds.
Many directors are no longer agonizing over which light to place where and are instead going au naturel. Thanks to the higher sensitivity of cinema cameras, more directors are choosing to go with minimal—or even no—external lighting, Trilling observes. “That’s the trend now: not so much creating the light as finding the light,” he says. That plays to a still photographer’s natural strength, he adds. “If there’s one thing a photographer excels at, it’s finding the light.”