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Classic Hollywood B&W Lighting -- how to do it?


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#1 Joshua Csehak

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Posted 20 September 2012 - 11:00 AM

I've been watching old Twilight Zones lately, and it struck me that there's a common look to the lighting in most old B&W movies. They all seem to be really well-crafted in the same way. What is it? Were they using big fresnels exclusively? Does the size of the lens matter? That is, is there that much of a difference between a 10k with a 20" lens and a 300k with a 4" lens, assuming they're exposed the same? I have Malkiewicz's Film Lighting, Painting with Light, and Reflections, and just ordered Roger Hicks's Hollywood Portraits; are there any other good books or resources on this?
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#2 John Holland

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Posted 20 September 2012 - 12:29 PM

I take it you mean a 300 watt lamp ? . Yes a big lamp from the correct distance produces a different look to a small lamp closer.
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#3 Joshua Csehak

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Posted 20 September 2012 - 02:34 PM

Haha, my bad. Yes, 300w :) Do you think it's enough of a difference to account for the different look back then? Surely it must be much more complicated than that?
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#4 jeff woods

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Posted 20 September 2012 - 03:18 PM

My feeling is they were different sources "back then", mostly hard sources. The old softboxes were not that big, and probably needed to be used fairly closely. Today, with Kinos and LEDs, softlight has become much more the norm.

I really need to watch The Artist again, because it kind of bridged the gap between contemporary and classic lighting.

I'm also halfway through (again) The Man Who Wasn't There, but I'll watch anything Mister Deakins shoots...

My suggestion is watch some classic B&W films with the sound off, and the pause button at the ready, then deconstruct scenes that inspire you.

-j
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#5 Tom Jensen

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Posted 20 September 2012 - 05:13 PM

You have to keep in mind that the film stocks back then were really slow and they used a lot of light.
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#6 Guy Holt

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Posted 23 September 2012 - 06:45 AM

I've been watching old Twilight Zones lately, and it struck me that there's a common look to the lighting in most old B&W movies. They all seem to be really well-crafted in the same way. What is it?


The fundamental difference is that since there is no color to separate objects, one had to do so through the lighting. Remember two objects of very different color will reproduce as the same gray on B&W Film. For that reason you had to use "Reverse Keys", "Liners", and "Kickers' to separate objects from one another and talent from the background. It was easier to do so in those days because the productions were stage bound because of the large lamps required for the slow film. When faster color film stocks became available, and production moved onto real locations, this style of lighting was pretty much abandoned because it was more difficult to do without a studio grid and it was unnecessary because now an object's color would create separation. As a consequence, our images have become flatter. It took a child's innocence to make me realize this. At the screening of an American Experience program, "Murder at Harvard", that I lit the Old School way because it was filmed in B&W, my 8 year old daughter said it looked three dimensional when asked what she thought of the first B&W movie she had seen.

Guy Holt, Gaffer, ScreenLight & Grip, Lighting equipment rental and sales in Boston
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#7 Joshua Csehak

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Posted 24 September 2012 - 12:34 PM

My feeling is they were different sources "back then", mostly hard sources. The old softboxes were not that big, and probably needed to be used fairly closely. Today, with Kinos and LEDs, softlight has become much more the norm.

I really need to watch The Artist again, because it kind of bridged the gap between contemporary and classic lighting.

I'm also halfway through (again) The Man Who Wasn't There, but I'll watch anything Mister Deakins shoots...

My suggestion is watch some classic B&W films with the sound off, and the pause button at the ready, then deconstruct scenes that inspire you.

-j


Yeah, I get the same feeling. The books seem to talk mostly about fresnels, or homemade softboxes that are grids of lamps. I feel like The Artist pretty much nailed the old style, no? I felt like even the camera movement was spot-on -- no technocranes or steadicams anywhere to be found.

I LOVE The Man Who Wasn't There -- both the lighting and the story! I'm pretty sure Deakins's lighting diagrams were featured in an ASC issue. Lot of lights! But not quite what I'm talking about in terms of standard studio lighting, of course -- more like noir/creative, I'd say.

Good suggestion, but the deconstruction is the hard part! I need to figure out how to easily grab and post frames. Maybe I should rip my DVD collection.


The fundamental difference is that since there is no color to separate objects, one had to do so through the lighting. Remember two objects of very different color will reproduce as the same gray on B&W Film. For that reason you had to use "Reverse Keys", "Liners", and "Kickers' to separate objects from one another and talent from the background. It was easier to do so in those days because the productions were stage bound because of the large lamps required for the slow film. When faster color film stocks became available, and production moved onto real locations, this style of lighting was pretty much abandoned because it was more difficult to do without a studio grid and it was unnecessary because now an object's color would create separation. As a consequence, our images have become flatter. It took a child's innocence to make me realize this. At the screening of an American Experience program, "Murder at Harvard", that I lit the Old School way because it was filmed in B&W, my 8 year old daughter said it looked three dimensional when asked what she thought of the first B&W movie she had seen.

Guy Holt, Gaffer, ScreenLight & Grip, Lighting equipment rental and sales in Boston


Guy, that makes a lot of sense. Maybe I just need to shoot some B&W and try and replicate it. Also, awesome to see you're in Boston! (I am too.)
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Aerial Filmworks

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Wooden Camera

Tai Audio

Metropolis Post

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The Slider

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Paralinx LLC

Media Blackout - Custom Cables and AKS

Visual Products