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Motivating from Above


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#1 Ronald Gerald Smith

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 09:35 PM

I am seeing a lot of motivated sources hanging above, much higher than where they actually should be. For example, many people know that its common to correctly expose a window with curtains, without it blowing out or losing detail, and placing one or two Kinos or softboxes above the window.

Sometimes in bedroom setups, where a person is sitting on a bed, for example, there are lights (seemingly motivated) that are coming from a direction that is much higher than it should be. Look at the provided picture, especially at the shadow being cast by the light hitting the man's face:

Posted Image
Taken from I Am Love Trailer.

This kind of lighting (faking the angles), can sometimes takes the naturalism out of the shot. I am wondering if you know some clever techniques of motivating the light. For example, what are some elegant looking ways to make the light look like it is actually coming from the lamp? I know that rule #1 is to never have a lit lamp cast a shadow of itself---this being a clear indication that there is another light source hitting it. I am sure that this is accomplished by careful placement and/or flagging. I know that china balls with regular household bulbs are used often to create a soft, motivated looking source. Any other ideas?


Also, leading back to my first observation, of lights being placed higher than it would be. For example, look at this behind-the-scenes still of the great David Mullen, ASC in action:

Posted Image
Taken from woodylight.com


Two out of three lights are coming from above, and most of the lights are supposed to be motivating lights that are on table tops or are low-level.

Take a look at this shot from Lost in Translation:

Posted Image

This is lit by a moderately soft overhead source, controlled well so that only the bed is lit. However, we know that most likely there is no skylight in a hotel room. It seems almost impossible for the light to be coming from that angle. However, it looks nice. The frame looks good, and everything looks natural. What is it about the magic of soft overhead lighting that allows it to be used in situations where it "shouldn't" be used, especially when thinking of it in a totally naturalistic perspective?

Why is this done so often? I am sure it is because of flexibility of shot coverage. And when does this kind of placement become unnatural, and unacceptable? And how does this kind of lighting pass as naturalistic? A light could be coming from above where it should be and I wouldn't even blink twice. It looks very natural to me. Maybe it is because it is more difficult for me to figure out where the light is coming from when it is a soft source lit from above. It is easier for me to find out where the light is coming from when the soft source is coming from the subject's eye level. What do you think?
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#2 Mathew Rudenberg

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 10:40 PM

Scripty to DP "Where's that light coming from? There's no window or lamp there"

DP "Same place the music is coming from."
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#3 Ronald Gerald Smith

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 11:07 PM

Scripty to DP "Where's that light coming from? There's no window or lamp there"

DP "Same place the music is coming from."


Did you ever hear a conversation like that take place? Forgive me for lacking the know-how to get the joke, and I kind of understand what you are talking about, but what would music have anything to do with the lighting of the film? Is it partly to do with suspension of disbelief?


Roger Deakins wrote in his website:

"For the dolly shot in 'A Beautiful Mind' I used a low bounce over the transparency. Very simple really. The trick is to make it look as if the light is coming from where it should be coming from without it being an obvious trick. But it is always a trick of some sort. It is interesting how easily, in fact, the viewer can be tricked."
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#4 Mathew Rudenberg

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Posted 13 August 2010 - 11:59 AM

Did you ever hear a conversation like that take place? Forgive me for lacking the know-how to get the joke, and I kind of understand what you are talking about, but what would music have anything to do with the lighting of the film? Is it partly to do with suspension of disbelief?


Roger Deakins wrote in his website:

"For the dolly shot in 'A Beautiful Mind' I used a low bounce over the transparency. Very simple really. The trick is to make it look as if the light is coming from where it should be coming from without it being an obvious trick. But it is always a trick of some sort. It is interesting how easily, in fact, the viewer can be tricked."


Oh boy - yes, it's about suspension of disbelief.

Non-diegetic music and non-diegetic lighting are equally acceptable. If movies were about lighting things perfectly realistically we wouldn't use lighting and everything would look like a Dogma 95 film. Lighting is more about the mood and feel then about slavishly trying to imitate reality. Focus less on what logically makes sense and more on what supports the narrative and feels right.

Or not. There's no right or wrong answer - everyone has their own process and style, and the truth is 99% of the people that watch a movie won't notice the lighting on anything more than a subconscious level.

Experiment, find what works for you and go with it.
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#5 Bill DiPietra

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Posted 13 August 2010 - 12:59 PM

Oh boy - yes, it's about suspension of disbelief.

Non-diegetic music and non-diegetic lighting are equally acceptable. If movies were about lighting things perfectly realistically we wouldn't use lighting and everything would look like a Dogma 95 film. Lighting is more about the mood and feel then about slavishly trying to imitate reality. Focus less on what logically makes sense and more on what supports the narrative and feels right.


I think we all know what non-diegetic music is, but I've never heard the term "non-diegetic lighting" before. A non-diegetic element of a film is sometihng that is outside of the plot and story and that the characters are unaware of. Since virtually all of the lighting in a narrative is inextricably woven into the plot and story, we as the audience must assume that the characters in the film are aware of such lighting even if they never outright acknowledge it. The image above of Bill Murray on the bed is an example. Are we supposed to assume that the way the bed is lit is solely for the benefit of our eyes and that, in reality, he is laying in complete darkness? Or is there a source of light somewhere off to his left side that the character is fully aware of? I believe that if the filmmakers wanted us to think he was laying in complete darkness, the image would reflect just that (as has been done in many other films.)

Sorry. I'm not trying to nitpick. Just looking for a better definition of that term and a few examples.
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#6 Mathew Rudenberg

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Posted 13 August 2010 - 09:27 PM

Oh good lord, are we going to get into a battle of semantics? That is nit-picking.

According to the great wikipedia "In film studies, diegesis refers to the story world, and the events that occur within it. Thus, non-diegesis are things which occur outside the story-world."

Since the lights we use to cast light don't exist within the story world, those lights are technically non-diegetic.

I would thus argue that lighting with non-diegetic lights = non-diegetic lighting. Pretty straightforward.
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#7 Mathew Rudenberg

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Posted 13 August 2010 - 09:32 PM

I believe that if the filmmakers wanted us to think he was laying in complete darkness, the image would reflect just that (as has been done in many other films.)


Really? So you think if he was lying in complete darkness the filmmakers would have just cut to a black frame?

I think there's an awful lot of filmmakers that light the darkness so the audience can see what is happening, even though the characters cannot.
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#8 Ronald Gerald Smith

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Posted 14 August 2010 - 04:09 AM

Really? So you think if he was lying in complete darkness the filmmakers would have just cut to a black frame?

I think there's an awful lot of filmmakers that light the darkness so the audience can see what is happening, even though the characters cannot.


Yes, plenty of situations in movies (and a lot of television) where the characters are stumbling through the room because it is too dark for them to see. But we need to some some kind of exposure to know what is happening. I apologize for stating the obvious, but I am just trying to stay in the conversation.

On the other hand, I think that it is beautiful and often cinematically effective when there are vast dark spaces that reflect what the human eye should be seeing in darkness, such as the great film Kanal, and also many of the scenes in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, where the main character is walking through areas of pure black, and occasionally hit with a light from overhead (those china hat style street lampshades).

I agree with Mathew on his views, and also acknowledge that some filmmakers (especially bad ones) take it way too far. It's kind of awkward to see a man stumbling through a hallway, and there is a full blue moonlight coming through the windows.

Edited by Ronald Gerald Smith, 14 August 2010 - 04:12 AM.

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#9 Bill DiPietra

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Posted 14 August 2010 - 11:06 AM

Oh good lord, are we going to get into a battle of semantics? That is nit-picking.


This is not semantics. This is about technical and aesthetic structure and media linguistics (a subject I consider very important.) Understanding the language of media is everything.

Since the lights we use to cast light don't exist within the story world, those lights are technically non-diegetic.

I would thus argue that lighting with non-diegetic lights = non-diegetic lighting. Pretty straightforward.


So using that logic, the film camera is non-diegetic. Does that make the image a "non-diegetic image?" See what I'm saying? There has to be a point where you say "Okay. This voice-over or this song is non-diegetic since the characters in the film are unaware of it." But at the very same time, that voice-over or that song is still part of the film. It's just not a diegetic element of it. I agree that there are instances when certain kinds of lighting (such as the prison interview scene in Natural Born Killers) where the filmmakers may venture into a more surreal realm and leave the viewer to wonder whether or not the characters are experiencing the same lighting that we are seeing on-screen. But in any case, the lighting is part of the frame, part of the image and therefore, part of the film.

Diegesis and Non-Diegesis were never meant to be applied to the equipment that is used to tell the story, which is why your theory doesn't really hold water. Diegesis and Non-Diegesis have always been used to separate the elements of the story itself (whether they be within the story or outside of it, they are still part of one text.) You can't start applying Diegesis and Non-Diegesis to just anything. If we go that route, we might as well start referring to DPs as non-diagetic.

And to answer your question about the frame with Bill Murray...yes, I think that if the filmmakers wanted us to believe that he was in pitch blackness, the frame would have been very near black with maybe just a little bit of a soft glow on his face. Why not? I've seen it done very effectively in films like Network and Arlington Road to name two.

And just so you know, Wikipedia isn't the most reliable source for information...
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#10 Mathew Rudenberg

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Posted 14 August 2010 - 08:36 PM

Look guy,

I know tone doesn't necessarily come across in text, but I though it was pretty obvious that when I said the 'great' wikipedia I was being somewhat facetious.

Similarly, when I said non-diegetic lighting it was more a pun on the previous joke then an attempt to invoke a new form of film criticism.

The only reason I'm bothering to respond to you is that your blatant troll behavior annoys me.

This is not semantics. This is about technical and aesthetic structure and media linguistics (a subject I consider very important.) Understanding the language of media is everything.



So using that logic, the film camera is non-diegetic. Does that make the image a "non-diegetic image?" See what I'm saying? There has to be a point where you say "Okay. This voice-over or this song is non-diegetic since the characters in the film are unaware of it." But at the very same time, that voice-over or that song is still part of the film. It's just not a diegetic element of it. I agree that there are instances when certain kinds of lighting (such as the prison interview scene in Natural Born Killers) where the filmmakers may venture into a more surreal realm and leave the viewer to wonder whether or not the characters are experiencing the same lighting that we are seeing on-screen. But in any case, the lighting is part of the frame, part of the image and therefore, part of the film.

Diegesis and Non-Diegesis were never meant to be applied to the equipment that is used to tell the story, which is why your theory doesn't really hold water. Diegesis and Non-Diegesis have always been used to separate the elements of the story itself (whether they be within the story or outside of it, they are still part of one text.) You can't start applying Diegesis and Non-Diegesis to just anything. If we go that route, we might as well start referring to DPs as non-diagetic.

And to answer your question about the frame with Bill Murray...yes, I think that if the filmmakers wanted us to believe that he was in pitch blackness, the frame would have been very near black with maybe just a little bit of a soft glow on his face. Why not? I've seen it done very effectively in films like Network and Arlington Road to name two.

And just so you know, Wikipedia isn't the most reliable source for information...


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#11 Mathew Rudenberg

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Posted 14 August 2010 - 09:22 PM

Yes, plenty of situations in movies (and a lot of television) where the characters are stumbling through the room because it is too dark for them to see. But we need to some some kind of exposure to know what is happening. I apologize for stating the obvious, but I am just trying to stay in the conversation.

On the other hand, I think that it is beautiful and often cinematically effective when there are vast dark spaces that reflect what the human eye should be seeing in darkness, such as the great film Kanal, and also many of the scenes in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, where the main character is walking through areas of pure black, and occasionally hit with a light from overhead (those china hat style street lampshades).

I agree with Mathew on his views, and also acknowledge that some filmmakers (especially bad ones) take it way too far. It's kind of awkward to see a man stumbling through a hallway, and there is a full blue moonlight coming through the windows.


Anyway, Ronald,

When I first started shooting I was very concerned with where the lighting would realistically come from. Which I still think is an important consideration, but not the most important consideration.

As I worked more and more I frequently found myself in situations where realistic light sources were not suitable. Perhaps the light would not be flattering to an actress, or reflect the mood of the scene accurately.

As a result I had to light unrealistically, but in a way that better suited the story and the project, and ultimately was better for the film.

There are also certain visual elements that the audience has essentially been trained to accept over years of imbibing visual media.

Examples such as the Bill Murray picture you posted are a good example of that. Blue = night. Soft toplight = general ambiance.

When I am placed in a position that I have to light a room at night with the lights off in such a way as to see the characters face, I usually take that exact approach, because it feels right.

That's not to say you shouldn't motivate your lights. I generally prefer to shoot in a direction that has windows in the frame as I can use them to motivate light sources. But when it comes to motivation as long as the light is coming from the correct general direction the audience will usually accept it.

How you choose to light, including to what extent you choose to follow realistic lighting is part of your style. I believe the only way to develop this is to experiment and see what works for you.

Just don't let yourself get stymied by light not being totally realistic.
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#12 Tom Jensen

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Posted 15 August 2010 - 02:22 PM

Scripty to DP "Where's that light coming from? There's no window or lamp there"

DP "Same place the music is coming from."


Um, I get it and I think it's actually pretty funny. A great DP once told me, "Without light, we have no picture." The original photo is poorly lit. The practicals are a little too hot, the lampshade could have been more diffused and there is not any fill. Look at most night scenes and you will see that they are lit. Interior or exterior. Don't get so wrapped up in motivating sources and film theory that you feel that you can't light a scene in complete darkness. If you don't have light it's called radio. All you have is sound and how exciting or interesting is that? It's not. You won't always have a motivating source. When this happens make one up. It's not always about the lighting but telling the story.
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#13 Kyle Reid

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Posted 15 August 2010 - 11:52 PM

On the last project I shot I got too wrapped up in where the light should be coming from instead of where the light could be coming from. I felt pleased that I was using strict motivating sources when I light. Later I had the chance to work with peer of mine on a show he light as the gaffer. I was biting my tongue every time he had me move a key/ backlight into position where I thought there was no possible motivation. Then I saw the result of both his and my efforts. I did alright, but his movie looked beautiful because he wasn't afraid to put the light in the place that would agree with and enhance the emotion of the scene. I could have done and was fully able to do the same, but I was too caught up in the methodology and not the artistry. In the end my images suffered because I was too pig headed to just light the damn movie like I was supposed to do.
Why would anyone hire, let alone pay a cinematographer, if they only put the light where it was really coming from? Any hack can do that.
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#14 Ken Keeler

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Posted 16 August 2010 - 11:30 AM

On the last project I shot I got too wrapped up in where the light should be coming from instead of where the light could be coming from. I felt pleased that I was using strict motivating sources when I light. Later I had the chance to work with peer of mine on a show he light as the gaffer. I was biting my tongue every time he had me move a key/ backlight into position where I thought there was no possible motivation. Then I saw the result of both his and my efforts. I did alright, but his movie looked beautiful because he wasn't afraid to put the light in the place that would agree with and enhance the emotion of the scene. I could have done and was fully able to do the same, but I was too caught up in the methodology and not the artistry. In the end my images suffered because I was too pig headed to just light the damn movie like I was supposed to do.
Why would anyone hire, let alone pay a cinematographer, if they only put the light where it was really coming from? Any hack can do that.


Right there in your text is your answer. Have fun with it!! Thats the main thing. It sounds like you are putting yourself down a little by callin your self pig headed. You arnt pig headed lol I think i was in your same boat worring about doing something the wrong way. so because of that i was following all these rule just experiment now and have fun and make mistakes. Everyone was in your shoes at once whether they say it or not.

but to answer your first question, There were aspects I notice no one really mentioned ( If i missed them my apologies). Other things that may make the DP light from over head could either be the location good example being a small room if you have a bedroom scene but only a foot or 2 on each side of the bed then it might be more practical to rig your lights overhead. another factor that could come into play is scheduling/the coverage of a scene if you see ever part of the room in that scene and you are shooting it all in one day then for time reasons it might make more sense to rig your lights overhead instead of having to move a lights and c stand with flags etc which would take more time to reset every shot. Let me know if that made sense haha.
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#15 Albert Smith

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Posted 17 August 2010 - 04:08 AM

Scripty to DP "Where's that light coming from? There's no window or lamp there"

DP "Same place the music is coming from."




by far the best answer to this post.
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#16 Joseph Nunez

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Posted 30 September 2010 - 01:05 PM

I think it's a hard thing for alot of cinematographers to accept:

LIGHTING NEED NOT BE MOTIVATED.

MOVIES ARE FAKE!!!!!

Lighting continuity is mostly about keeping the same general key (low key/high key) than it is anything else. Classic movies were shot with the starlet in perfect butterfly light even she was adrift on a log at sea.

And they were awesome.

MOVIES ARE FAKE!

sorry to get all passionate but I think the trend towards naturalism in movies in general is so silly. They even tried to shoot Nightmare On Elm street, a story about a guy who kills your in your dreams, in the same style as a slasher film. WHERES MY WIERD COLORED ARGENTO STYLE LIGHT? HUH??????????? Sorry Im mad.

Two broad filmic philosophies:

NATURALISM (its good if it looks real)- bull--ahem--cough--poop!
EXPRESSIONISM (if it communicates emotion, it is good)

Pick one. Trust me the second one is better.

Praise the gods for Sam Raimi. Watch Drag Me To Hell then watch Saw. Ask me which was more fun.

MOVIES ARE FAKE!!!!!!!
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