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Playing it safe with shadow detail


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#1 Alex Birrell

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Posted 31 January 2013 - 05:44 PM

Hello,

Today I saw the results of a 35mm test shoot for a short film I will be photographing in a couple of weeks. We shot on Kodak 5213 which was then both telecined in hd to black and white as a best light and also scanned at 2k with a flat technical grade. I shot the test in a studio set with a fixed stop of T4. The short is to have a noir-ish style using existing practicals in an impressionistic way - not complete naturalism by any means. On set I lit to what I wanted and was then advised by my tutor to add fill light to bring the shadows up to an exposure of T1.4. I did so, much to the distress of my eye which saw the lighting I had been working on flatten out immediately.

When I saw the test rushes today I was shocked to see that Technicolor had brought up the gamma on the best light, resulting in my T1.4 shadows being almost fully visible and an image that was almost as flat as it had appeared to my eye (despite my lighting to a 4:1 contrast ratio). The tutor however was relatively pleased with the results feeling that by my not going more than 3 stops under key with the shadows I would have plenty of latitude to play with in the grade to make the blacks fully black.

Thing is - I am not sure if I want this latitude. Part of me thinks that if I want it black why don't I let it just be black, 4 or even 5 stops under. I'm not sure why I should preserve this flatter imagery and latitude in cases when I don't want it. As it is a school project we will only have an hour and a half in the grade and I would really like to have the style and tone burnt onto the film.

What would you advise? Should I let my blacks be black or would you play it safe?
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#2 Guy Holt

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Posted 31 January 2013 - 06:11 PM

What would you advise? Should I let my blacks be black or would you play it safe?


I would split the difference. You can certainly light with a higher contrast ratio without painting yourself into a corner. When ever you want to play on the lower register the problem is always knowing where the bottom is. In order to accomplish the look you are after in the camera and still have a little lattitude, I would suggest you shoot another camera test along these lines.

Posted Image

Test in a systematic fashion the effect of Key, Fill, Back Light, Kickers, Hair Lights, and Liners that are over and under exposure. For example, to test the effect of your key light on flesh tones, set your exposure with two doubles and a single in your key light. Then remove them a half stop at a time (without changing your camera exposure setting or exposure of the chip chart), and systematically note on a slate in the frame what you are doing. Once you have removed all the scrims, your flesh tone will be two and a half stops over exposed (since you have not changed the camera setting.)

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Put all the scrims back in and now, using single and double nets, systematically under expose the flesh tone in half stop increments (remember rotating a net relative to the light source will make it "fatter" or "thinner", which will enable you to "dial in" the exact level you want from the light.) Since you want to play on the lower register, continue to under expose the flesh tone until it becomes a pure silhouette. Do the same for Fill, Back Light, Kickers, Hair Lights, and Liners in isolation and in specific combinations that you plan to use them in. Having systematically tested each light, you can now see the effect that different levels of each has on the scene and can even use the test as a reference on set when lighting the scene.

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So that your eye does not compensate for the low light levels, you should put a fully exposed white reference in the frame (the white foam-core in the background of the pictures.) If you use a chip chart with variable gray steps form white to black, you will actually be able to see how tonal values are compressed and (block up or burn out) as you push them onto the “knee” or “toe” of your film’s characteristic curve.

For a good explanation on how to light a dark scene, see David Mullen’s excellent post at http://www.cinematog...howtopic=55891. In it he warns not to “make the classic mistake of assuming that a dark image involved working in low light levels.” Or, attend a workshop on “Lighting Design” by L.D. Richard Cadena that New England Studios, Talamas Broadcast, and Production Hub are sponsoring on Feb. 9th Noted Focal Press Author, ETCP Trainer, and Founder of the Academy of Production Technology, Richard’s workshops are both lively and informative. Log onto bit.ly/nptwkshps for more workshop information and registration details.


Guy Holt, Gaffer, New England Studios, Lighting and Grip Equipment Sales and Rentals in Boston.
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#3 Alex Birrell

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Posted 31 January 2013 - 06:22 PM

Thanks a lot for the detailed answer. I'm going to check out that post now.
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