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History of Hard and Soft Lighting

hard and soft lighting film history Soft and hard lighting

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#1 Kennan Conner

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Posted 18 December 2012 - 11:42 PM

I am a student writing a research essay about the correlation between method acting and the trend towards soft lighting in American cinema. My take on the topic is going to analyze how the popularity of method acting increased cinematographers' use of soft lighting as a means of lighting a space for the actors to improvise. I am going to qualify the method actor argument with other factors (i.e. technological "advancements" away from sunlight or carbon arcs towards helium balloons or kino flos, and greater dynamic range/faster film emulsions) which may have also affected the trend towards soft lighting. My research so far (including on this site) has turned out very little; if you can give me any advice, suggestions, directions, or opinions, I would be very appreciative. I am planning to support my analyses of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull, and There Will Be Blood by outside evidence. Thank you in advance.

"Soft light has been a trend for the last fifteen years. Largely because of what happened in acting techniques through method acting, namely that actors don't hit the marks like they used to. They want more dynamic range. Hard lighting is very specific, and if you want it to look good, you have to hit that mark all the time. The new style of acting makes it impossible to do. We went into bigger soft sources so people can move around"

-John Buckley


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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 19 December 2012 - 12:02 AM

Earliest silent movies were shot in studios under glass roofs with muslin cloth stretched across, so were under soft light. One of the most popular lights in the silent era were Cooper-Hewitts, which were gas-discharge fixtures in tubes, a cross between a mercury vapor streetlamp and a fluorescent tube, and produced a soft light. Cinematographers like Charles Rosher did lovely lighting effects by mixing hard carbon arc lamps with soft Cooper-Hewitt lamps. So soft lighting is not a modern phenomenon.

Sound killed the use of the noisy Cooper-Hewitts (as did color). But many 1930's movies still created soft lighting using tungsten lamps through spun glass or silks. By like all styles, people became tired of it and the sharper, crisper look using harder lights become the norm by the 1940's.

Soft lighting started reappearing in the work of the French New Wave and also in England from DP's like Ozzie Morris, late-1950's through the 1960's.

It's sort of a side benefit that soft lighting is more generalized in a space allowing actors to move more freely, or for the blocking to be changed in the last minute. The main reason it re-emerged is that soft light is one aspect of natural light and in the light depicted in paintings (based on natural light) and thus filmmakers were interested in recreating it or capturing it for real. It's too limiting to only use hard lighting or only soft lighting.
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#3 Kahleem Poole

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Posted 25 December 2012 - 04:16 PM

Awesome reply, David.
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