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simple dramatic lighting principles and techniques?


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#1 Jay McDonald

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Posted 19 August 2014 - 10:47 AM

I just joined today, and really appreciate people's willingness to help others on this forum.

I have a little background in both photography and filmmaking - I used to shoot 4X5, used the Zone System some, and had my own darkroom, as well as shooting reversal 16mm (mostly in a Bolex). This means I understand (it's a bit rusty in places) light, exposure, etc, but its the techniques that make for artful dramatic film lighting that escape me. I want to stay well away from the bad habits of low budget cinematography (your basic kludgy lighting including stark, unmodified light that just looks completely artificial and unartistic).

 

Cut to:  Today, I have a simple DSLR (T2i) and some decent lenses (the 3 lens Rokinon cine kit). I want to do some practice lighting and shoot some short films/practice scenes in a standard dramatic look that doesn't require a ton of gear (and basically no budget at the moment). I have a few lights (a set of Lowel Omnis, a pair of Lowel DPs, an old Mole 750, and a pair of DIY T8-based pseudo-Kinos).

 

I have seen loads of demos of 3-point lighting, and understand that pretty decently, I think. Here is a quick clip from a little B-Roll I shot a while back: 

 

What I lack is the understanding of how lights are commonly set up and then modified via flagging, bounce, diffusion, etc to create attractive looks that work dramatically. Indoor shooting is of particular interest, but really anything would be good. Can anyone point me toward some foundational understandings and approaches? Trying to cobble together an approach from a mixed bag of what I've seen so far has left me unable to come at this with a unified, coherent process. Also , I don't want my self-taught thing to mean I pick up lots of terrible habits (I recall an interview with the Coens about an early DP they worked with who created really inflexible light setups that required cumbersome changes if they wanted to rethink their camera moves, and then what a revelation it was when they moved to a different DP who set things up in a way that they could be a lot more fluid)


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#2 aapo lettinen

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Posted 19 August 2014 - 02:40 PM

soft keys, filling from the key side, soft kicker/backlight, using negative fill… 

 

I like to think all materials as reflective surfaces, it helps a lot when you try to figure out which fixtures to use, from which angle and how much to soften them. The reason I mentioned soft backlight is because 

hair is quite reflective material so you can avoid hotspots from backlight by softening the light (adding more surface to it so you don't get, for example, a hot reflection 5cm in diameter but instead almost evenly lit reflection which can be as long as the hair surface is, if you like. This has much to do with the actual physical length of the light fixture). 

 

One rule of thumb is to use a light which is physically at least about 1 or 1.5 times the size of the subject to get the shadows spread more parallel (for example, when lighting a standing human I tend to soften the light so 

that its surface is at least 60-70 cm. But the most important reason to use diffusion with light fixtures is to avoid hard beam edges and to get the light spread more evenly. Make tests with 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 and full diffusion.

 

Experiment how to make contrast with soft lights by careful alignment and flagging. Study how the natural light behaves outside and inside the buildings, and try shape it with flags and reflectors/bounces and to replicate it with artificial sources.

 

Art Adams has made some helpful articles about lighting, there you can find some useful tricks and techniques: http://provideocoalition.com/aadams  


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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 19 August 2014 - 07:36 PM

I learned mainly by studying frames from movies where I liked the lighting and then tried to recreate that effect.  Studying "Alien" when I was just starting college, I noticed that often the main light -- soft or hard -- was side-lighting the actor, sometimes just coming around frontally enough to catch both eyes but still light the face in half -- and that the camera was often placed looking at the shadow side of the face, i.e. the key was coming from upstage and also from the screen direction of the eyeline.  This is a common technique now but was just starting to be done to dramatic effect (i.e. very high in contrast) in the mid 1970's by people like Storaro and the British filmmakers who came out of commercials.

 

You can see this in these frames from "Alien":

 

alien1.jpg

 

alien2.jpg

alien3.jpg

alien4.jpg
 
It was particularly when studying the third frame that this revelation hit me and explained what I had liked in the lighting in "Apocalypse Now" as well.

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#4 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 19 August 2014 - 08:48 PM

Stills 2 and 4 pretty clearly use big soft sources (they're visible in reflections) but I'm not sure the others do. The problem I find with the light as shown in #1 is that the second they move half an inch it all falls apart, but I suppose it's just down to having very big lights positioned a long distance away to reduce the angular deviations that are involved.

 

Also I can't imagine I would ever have got away with #1 and #3, on the basis it's so harsh on people - but oversensitivity to that is endemic.


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#5 Jay McDonald

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Posted 20 August 2014 - 11:14 AM

Aapo: Thanks for the link to the videos. I agree with you that diffused lighting often has a great look, though just pointing a softbox at my subject can feel artificial. For something like a sit down interview, that "lit" look works great, but if I am say, shooting a chef working in his kitchen, I'm concerned that I will lose a feeling of naturalism. My sample clip was not so much intended as an example of the look I want, but just a sample of the fact that I have managed to pull of at least a *basic* level of aesthetic lighting (though it feels more TV/interview to me - less natural). Also - hard light is definitely very useful in many places as well. What are your thoughts on achieving a more organic naturalism? I should define what I mean by naturalism - not a strict natural look, but something that works dramatically, and helps sell the tone of the scene, not something that looks purely artificial, like an interview.

 

David: Your suggestion on studying films where I like the lighting is spot on (no pun intended) - many times, I love to just to look at the beautiful imagery a cinematographer has captured. Have you ever seen William Eubank's work on his film Love? Some gorgeous images in there. Absolutely exquisite. I'd love to go back and dig through some of my film collection and try breaking down some setups. The difficulty is that I feel I don't understand the basic vocabulary of techniques to achieve many of the looks - and that's what I am (clumsily) asking about.

 

I have noticed that a lot of guys have access to powerful lighting, and will stream HMI light in through a window or something like that. Unfortunately, I don't have the gear for that. I have seen people directing the light at the subject, and going through a diffusion panel, and I can certainly do that. Bounce is doable as well. I saw a video one time where a person was being shot lying in a bed, and the DP took a fixture and turned it into the wall, and the spill that looked almost like a mistake, was the exact light they wanted to create a naturalistic look. That surprised me. One of those real aha! moments. I had never really thought about using a light that way, but it beautifully mimicked the kind of soft spill we often see in interiors.

 

I have noticed in some films, that there is a clear separation where the subject is lit separately from the background, but I have mostly noticed this in older, golden-era films.

 

I guess what I'm trying to work out is, how does one approach a shot, systematically break down the needs and opportunities, and then go through a collection of techniques to select the right ingredients (and what are those techniques)?

 

You picked some beautiful stills. Still 3 is very reminiscent of the shots Ridley got of Sean Young in Deckard's apartment in Blade Runner. The black eyes with a sharp catchlight are really nice.

 

I just recently read about lighting from the off-camera side, and it was a revelation.

 

 

Phil: You hit on something important here - large sources at a distance being much more forgiving of changes than smaller sources nearby. I have run into this a fair bit, where a small move by a subject can make them get a lot brighter. I'm not sure what the practical solutions are if I can't light with a big light from far off.


Edited by Jay McDonald, 20 August 2014 - 11:19 AM.

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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 20 August 2014 - 04:41 PM

Everyone starts out small and scales up when they get a chance to light bigger spaces on a bigger budget.


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