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Rich Contrast vs. High Latitude?


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#1 Sean Emer

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Posted 14 January 2009 - 10:32 PM

I'm still in college, finishing up my third year. I've worked on about 20 16mm shorts while I've been here, mostly gaffing, with a dabbling in the cinematographer's seat. There is so much latitude in film (the stocks I work with are 7205/17/18/19 for the most part) and yet every director wants to have a rich contrast in their film. I also notice that they rarely if ever color correct in post, let alone grade the actual film at the lab. Most of my reel is still in HD, but I love the potential and aesthetic of film, and that is where I want to be. The biggest question I have after constantly lighting for it and then seeing the results is as follows:

How can I shoot on a high-latitude medium and come out with deep contrasts? I've been told by the better cinematographers who have now graduated that in order to achieve good shadows I would need a 4-6 stop contrast in my lighting, depending on vision2/3, respectively. However, on nearly all of my gaffing jobs I found the DPs to only ever venture as high as a 3 stop ratio between key/fill, front/back, or whatever the contrast areas in the frame were. Better yet, most of the stuff that comes back looks, well, FLAT. What little contrast there is tends toward overexposure more than underexposure.

The solution seems obvious: higher ratios in the lighting. And yet, on nearly all of my locations I find that it's very difficult to achieve those ratios. There's so much spill from lights just bouncing around inside even dark-walled rooms that it is a never ending battle to get anything more than 3 stops without blasting the subject(s) with an ugly hard fresnel. Is negative fill from blackcards, duvy, solids, etc. the answer? How do you guys get these ratios?

Does color grading really make the difference between these student works and the professional stuff shot on the same, albeit better resolution, stocks?

Many DPs here also overexpose consistently by 1 stop. They say it is for better contrast and color, but I think they do it just because the old DPs told them to. I really am confused. I know I could sort this out with test shoots but come on lets face it, I'm in college and I can barely afford the film and processing for my own work, let alone tests.

Any info related to latitude, contrast, and aesthetic differences from overexposure, underexposure, pulling, pushing, etc. would be extremely helpful to me and the students I work with!
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 15 January 2009 - 12:37 AM

Wider latitude color negative stocks tend to look lower in contrast because they capture more stops of luminence -- at the opposite end would be color reversal stock like Fuji Velvia, let's say, which has limited latitude and high contrast.

Overexposing a negative mildly and printing back down to normal will reduce appearance of graininess (because you've exposed the smaller, slower grains in between the larger faster grains) and make blacks look blacker, and thus colors look richer.

Light to higher ratios, even using negative fill to increase contrast / reduce ambience, if you want more contrast. You could also add contrast in digital color-correction, and in film printing, you could use a more contrasty print stock like Kodak Premier.

Push-processing can increase contrast a little.

Silver retention processes like skip bleach cause a big increase in contrast, but with other side effects.
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#3 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 15 January 2009 - 02:54 AM

There's so much spill from lights just bouncing around inside even dark-walled rooms that it is a never ending battle to get anything more than 3 stops without blasting the subject(s) with an ugly hard fresnel. Is negative fill from blackcards, duvy, solids, etc. the answer? How do you guys get these ratios?

One answer is to use big soft light sources, place them further away from the subject, and use architecture to flag the light. Instead of using a 1K baby inside the room with diffusion on the barn doors to simulate window light, you could use two 2K Mighties or a Fay light bounced into a 6x6 ultrabounce outside the window. The window frame would then naturally flag the light off the walls except where you want it to fall. You'll get plenty of ratio and still have a nice soft key this way. Of course, on student budgets it's nearly impossible to get big light sources and grip gear with all the support required to make it safe and efficient. So work with what you have and plan your setups around the sun, take advantage of architecture, etc.

Also, try to maintain that separation of foreground, midground, and background in your lighting, keep it precise. It doesn't cost much to scout good locations that have the depth and architecture that you need to make it look good.

I've been AC'ing regularly for the past year with a DP who spent 15 years in electric dept. and owns his own lighting company, so it's been a great learning experience for me watching him work. Most of my past lighting experience had been on the student level. We do a lot of corporate interviews, about half of stages and half on location, so it's all fairly high key lighting (usually with fixtures under 2K) but I've come to realize that the impression of "richness" is not so much a matter of contrast ratios but mainly of modeling and separation, of light juxtaposed against dark. You don't necessarily need nuclear highlights and inky blacks in every image to get richness, but you have to have precision control over your exposure and be able to modulate light and dark throughout the frame. I think it was Richard Kline, ASC who said in "Cinematographer Style" that the goal is not the make the audience look at the frame; it's to make them look at a particular part of the frame. He referred to it as "precision lighting." I hope I get to that level some day. :)

Many DPs here also overexpose consistently by 1 stop. They say it is for better contrast and color, but I think they do it just because the old DPs told them to.

Maybe they do, but that also doesn't mean it isn't true! It's subtle, but definitely noticeable. It makes a bigger difference when you're printing - I don't know if anyone but the cinematographer would notice it in telecine since all you'd have to do is twist a few knobs to get the same effect.
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#4 Matt Read

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Posted 15 January 2009 - 11:47 AM

Overexposing a negative mildly and printing back down to normal will reduce appearance of graininess (because you've exposed the smaller, slower grains in between the larger faster grains) and make blacks look blacker, and thus colors look richer.


David, is slightly overexposing and printing back down a fairly common practice? How much overexposure are you talking about?

I notice in most 16mm student films that the colors seem more desaturated and lower contrast than in a professional film. Is this because the student cinematographers aren't overexposing and printing down or is it something else like improper exposure during production or getting a poorly timed print/telecine?
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#5 Sean Emer

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Posted 15 January 2009 - 12:07 PM

Overexposing a negative mildly and printing back down to normal will reduce appearance of graininess (because you've exposed the smaller, slower grains in between the larger faster grains) and make blacks look blacker, and thus colors look richer.



Thanks for your post David. The problem I have with DPs here is that they overexpose by .5-1.5 stops but they DON'T print it down. Most of them don't give any notes at all for the lab/colorist, and only one film I know of has ever had a supervised transfer.

The film I'm starting work on is a hardcore film noir, but the director insists on using color negative stocks. He says he doesn't want B&W or any type of reversal (color or b&w), but wants it to be noirish.

So far I've planned for steep, 6 stop lighting ratios, lots of hard light, and consistently underexposing by a stop with instructions to the lab to push it back up.

If my readings here and from CML are correct, this will bring the colors down, boost contrast slightly, and increase graininess, right? You can see why I'm so worried about this having seen all of these stocks come out so flat in the past.

It doesn't help that the directors here transfer to COMPOSITE DVCPRO25 for editing and finishing. Would it be more effective to grade before transferring, or to do it in post?

Sorry for all the questions, but I am very curious and I want to make sure I learn some good things on this shoot.
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