Jump to content


Photo

"good" lighting, "bad" lighting


  • Please log in to reply
16 replies to this topic

#1 Shawn Murphy

Shawn Murphy
  • Basic Members
  • PipPip
  • 89 posts
  • Camera Operator
  • Seattle

Posted 01 June 2005 - 04:38 AM

Although I realize that there is a wide range of tastes and preferences when it comes to labeling something "good" or "bad" lighting, I can't help but think that there must be examples of films out there where it is painfully obvious that either someone didn't know what they were doing, or really didn't care enough to do the lighting reasonably well.

I ask about this because I've spent most of my time recently reading books and watching movies that are recommended as great and/or very interesting lighting styles, but after watching a certain mainstream movie the other night I wondered if people have a list of what they feel are good examples of what NOT to do, or sub-par lighting examples (larger budget films, not you cousins wedding footage!) ;-)

The movie in question was 'Spanglish' (and please don't comment on why I was watching it, you'll have to talk to my significant other!). So, seeing that I'm new to Cinematography I can't say that my assessment was accurate, but almost every scene seemed really bizarre and unbelievable from a lighting perspective, and I can't imagine that the intent was to be rule breaking in an effort to achieve an indie/art effect, this was a very mainstream film. For my tastes it wasn?t a pleasant experience (the acting and story didn?t help much either, but that?s a personal preference). Anyhow, I thought it would be really helpful to also study the other side of "good" lighting, so, if anyone has other examples that they can share without overly offending anyone, I would greatly appreciate it.
  • 0

#2 David Mullen ASC

David Mullen ASC
  • Sustaining Members
  • 19759 posts
  • Cinematographer
  • Los Angeles

Posted 01 June 2005 - 10:57 AM

I tend to not be too critical of another cinematographer's work because you don't know what they had to deal with on the set or what was demanded from them by the director, producers, studios, and stars.

I remember a long time ago a major film critic noticing that the average movie made in the past twenty years has pretty decent cinematography and I tend to agree. This is partially because fast films have levelled the playing field more; lower-budgeted films can do good work with smaller units and crews than they could in the 1950's using color, let's say. Plus we've had thirty years of high-end commercial work as an influence on features.

You can criticize cinematography on a couple of levels. First, there is technical problems, although some of them just happen -- the difference is that big movies can reshoot and replace them if they really wanted to. Small films have to live with them if they can't cut it out.

Second is artistic issues, which can be further split up into two problems: (2) the film looks great artistically but fails to support the story and performances (I'm more sympathetic if the story was weak, because what was the DP's supposed to do, make the cinematography weak to match?) and (2) the film is boring artistically, run-of-the-mill, unimaginative. This is the problem with a lot of comedies these days.

Since I work in the indie feature world, I actually find it more instructive to look at those films and see where they go wrong, why some can't overcome their lower budgets. It was the same thing when I was shooting Super-8 films as a beginner -- I kept asking myself "why does this look like a beginner's footage?" "Why do 'real' movies look the way they do?"

As far as "Spanglish" goes, the simple answer is that it is overlit and high-key, probably because everyone involved wanted it that way. Obviously this doesn't always lead to interesting cinematography. I got the worst notices for my HD work on "D.E.B.S." almost for the same reason: I was asked to make the film very frontally-lit and high-key. It's very hard to do that and somehow not cross the line into 1970's TV cinematography rather than 1950's studio glamour cinematography because the techniques are so similar.

It's my belief that you can only get away with that high-key work when what's in front of the lens is top-notch (locations, costumes, sets, actors' hair & make-up, etc.). It's all about polish at that point.

I was just watching "Blade Trinity" on DVD and noticing that the lighting wasn't as interesting as the past Blade movies (even though Gabriel Berenstain worked on the second as well as this one.) But then, it's hard to do Ridley Scott-style lighting when you have seven cameras pointed at an actor only three feet from the lens seeing 270 degrees around... So here was a case where everyone decided having more angles and cuts and camera movement was more important than atmospheric lighting all the time.
  • 0

#3 Bob Hayes

Bob Hayes
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 1087 posts
  • Cinematographer
  • Culver City, California

Posted 01 June 2005 - 11:38 AM

With regards to ?Spanglish? I thought it was a sweat film.

John Seale, Rainman, Dead Poets Society, and the English Patient, is a brilliant Cinematographer who can out light and out shoot 99.9 percent of the shooters out there? I felt that James Brooks, who is as multifaceted as anyone in the entertainment industry, just wanted simple TV style camera work so he could concentrate on the story.

With regards to what is good or bad cinematography. Good cinematography visually supports the film and helps pull the audience into the story. Bad cinematography does the opposite. Usually bad cinematography is a result of lack of budget or support for the DP. Lack of skill by the DP or his support team. Or worst of all laziness from the Cameraman.

Usually when we think of Bad cinematography we think of technical problems like poor exposure or focus. Bad or uninspired composition. Sloppy operating. Lighting which is over lit, or unattractive, or blatantly obvious. But it can also be inappropriately glamorous photography of a gritty subject matter.

That said I think you have to be careful when you try to define cinematography as bad and good. You singled out your cousins wedding video as being so sub par as not to be in the running for bad. Yet films like ?Breaking the Waves? (DP Robbie Muller) use many of the techniques you might consider ?Bad Cinematography? to make a brilliant film.
  • 0

#4 Shawn Murphy

Shawn Murphy
  • Basic Members
  • PipPip
  • 89 posts
  • Camera Operator
  • Seattle

Posted 01 June 2005 - 01:15 PM

...As far as "Spanglish" goes, the simple answer is that it is overlit and high-key, probably because everyone involved wanted it that way. Obviously this doesn't always lead to interesting cinematography....

...It's my belief that you can only get away with that high-key work when what's in front of the lens is top-notch (locations, costumes, sets, actors' hair & make-up, etc.). It's all about polish at that point...


David, I really appreciate the additional input regarding circumstances that can impact or affect the lighting "decisions" that were, or had, to be made. And the bright and high-key was what I thought I saw as well, and as a total beginner, i wasn't sure if that's what was going on...
  • 0

#5 David Mullen ASC

David Mullen ASC
  • Sustaining Members
  • 19759 posts
  • Cinematographer
  • Los Angeles

Posted 01 June 2005 - 01:51 PM

You also have to ask yourself if something was really poor or simply not to your own tastes. Which isn't easy, of course. But obviously a glossy MGM Technicolor musical like "Singin in the Rain" would not be considered poor cinematography, but it may not be to everyone's tastes (although I love it!)
  • 0

#6 Jon Rosenbloom

Jon Rosenbloom
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 713 posts
  • Cinematographer

Posted 01 June 2005 - 03:51 PM

Well, if you want to see bad lighting, go to some short film programs at an indie film-festival. At least one of the films will be instructive as to what happens when there's no time, money, crew, equipment, or skill to light properly. (Just hope it's not one of mine!)

Edited by J-Ro, 01 June 2005 - 03:53 PM.

  • 0

#7 Shawn Murphy

Shawn Murphy
  • Basic Members
  • PipPip
  • 89 posts
  • Camera Operator
  • Seattle

Posted 01 June 2005 - 04:23 PM

You also have to ask yourself if something was really poor or simply not to your own tastes...


precisely why I began my posting with the following statement:

"Although I realize that there is a wide range of tastes and preferences when it comes to labeling something "good" or "bad" lighting"

I knew I would be treading on difficult ground in posing this question, particularly as I didn't want to digress into questions of whether or not the film itself was enjoyable, or "good", as we all well know that art is subjective and tastes are wonderfully varied....
  • 0

#8 Shawn Murphy

Shawn Murphy
  • Basic Members
  • PipPip
  • 89 posts
  • Camera Operator
  • Seattle

Posted 01 June 2005 - 04:42 PM

John Seale, Rainman, Dead Poets Society, and the English Patient, is a brilliant Cinematographer who can out light and out shoot 99.9 percent of the shooters out there?  I felt that James Brooks, who is as multifaceted as anyone in the entertainment industry, just wanted simple TV style camera work so he could concentrate on the story.



Thankfully I didn't look up who the DP was, because I would have surely buckled and cowered under the weight of feeling like I was being extremely arrogant in even questioning his decisions, however, it's still extremely worthwhile to discuss, and try and get a better understanding of, why certain lighting decisions were made. In my world, if the aesthetic doesn't work for me, but there is clear intent, knowledge of craft, and thoughtfulness, then it's much easier to just accept that style as not to my liking... I do believe however that there are circumstances (that I believe David alluded to), artistic decisions, technical issues, and various politics on a given set, that could negatively influence the quality of someone's work, even if they are a well respected craftsmen.

On that note, I did a quick search on John Seale and came up with the following quote from John in regards to Spanglish:


http://millimeter.co...lackjohn_seale/

"He says the film is being shot ?very documentary, with a dash of sitcom, and one hopes, the quality of film.?"

And elsewhere I read the following:

"...and like all Brooks films, is visually negligible, with flat, TV-style lighting by DP John Seale"


And then this, a quote from a painter that Brooks collects, and whose work was the genesis for one of the characters:

"It was like the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna where they reenact paintings and then, suddenly, break out of a pose and move around. I was so amazed at what (director of photography) John Seale had done with the lighting and lenses. He had turned a fall afternoon on a soundstage into this glorious, warm, late summer afternoon. It was brilliant how he painted with light, a great Hollywood moment.?


I should have know better... ;-) but what a learning experience this has been for me just in reading the responses and other opinions, thanks!
  • 0

#9 Bob Hayes

Bob Hayes
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 1087 posts
  • Cinematographer
  • Culver City, California

Posted 02 June 2005 - 12:49 AM

Many DP?s feel like if they have photographed a beautiful film they have done their job. But if they have taken so much time the director didn?t have time to shoot the scene properly or the actors felt too rushed to do good work the DP has failed.

That is the problem directors have with first time DP?s. The DP, shooting for his real, greedily uses all the time to make his work look good. And give the Director nothing.

As a DP I ask myself how much time I think the director needs to shoot the scene properly. The remaining time is mine and I try to do the best work I can in that time. Could I make it better? Sure. But that would not make the film better. Would not give the director what he needed.
  • 0

#10 John Thomas

John Thomas
  • Sustaining Members
  • 116 posts
  • Cinematographer
  • Akron, Ohio USA

Posted 07 June 2005 - 08:24 AM

Many DP?s feel like if they have photographed a beautiful film they have done their job.  But if they have taken so much time the director didn?t have time to shoot the scene properly or the actors felt too rushed to do good work the DP has failed. 

That is the problem directors have with first time DP?s.  The DP, shooting for his real, greedily uses all the time to make his work look good.  And give the Director nothing. 

As a DP I ask myself how much time I think the director needs to shoot the scene properly.  The remaining time is mine and I try to do the best work I can in that time.  Could I make it better? Sure. But that would not make the film better.  Would not give the director what he needed.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Well said Bob, this is a huge part of a cinematographer's job. That eternal balance between our needs and the needs of the film.
  • 0

#11 Sean Azze

Sean Azze
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 145 posts
  • P.A.

Posted 26 July 2005 - 10:08 PM

By the way, was Spanglish shot on super 16?
  • 0

#12 David Mullen ASC

David Mullen ASC
  • Sustaining Members
  • 19759 posts
  • Cinematographer
  • Los Angeles

Posted 26 July 2005 - 11:04 PM

No, 35mm.
  • 0

#13 Lars.Erik

Lars.Erik
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 175 posts
  • Steadicam Operator
  • Oslo

Posted 27 July 2005 - 02:43 AM

Yet films like ?Breaking the Waves? (DP Robbie Muller) use many of the techniques you might consider ?Bad Cinematography? to make a brilliant film.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


If you've seen the latest films by von Trier, both directed and produced ones, (except Dogville), many of those films are shot with intent, I wouldn't say badly, because the cinematography supports the story, but they are shot in a very different way from Hollywood films.

One of the worst shot films I've seen out of Hollywood the latest years is "The Punisher".

Sure, it's a blockbuster type film, but the cinematography isn't very imaginative at all. It seems instead of supporting the story, the camera is just there at the scene, confirming that something is happening. But it's a weak film and then it might be difficult to create good cinematography out of that. I don't know, I just think it wasn't very good shot. But as it's been said, you never know what happened at the set.
  • 0

#14 Steven Budden

Steven Budden
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 347 posts
  • Other
  • San Francisco

Posted 27 July 2005 - 11:24 AM

So in a sense could it be put this way?

Good lighting is "invisible"... that is, it melds with the story to such an extent that we no longer think of it as lighting, but as image, as scene (though of course cinematographers could still pull apart elements to study their craft).

Bad lighting (bad as in deficient... not for artistic intent), is "visible", draws attention away from the story and to itself, in some sense usurping what matters in a scene.

Then again, I guess that is more of an ideal. Watching Citizen Kane, I could say I notice composition and lighting almost exclusively... so is that bad, or just the style of another time?

I've been watching early Kuchar films, and those are full of "bad " lighting in every sense, but they are also about being young and not quite fitting into the world yet, so in that sense the lighting supports and in some scenes even becomes the story.

Just ruminating aloud.

Steven
  • 0

#15 David Mullen ASC

David Mullen ASC
  • Sustaining Members
  • 19759 posts
  • Cinematographer
  • Los Angeles

Posted 27 July 2005 - 01:05 PM

I'd say "appropriate" and "inappropriate" versus "visible" and "invisible". Sure, most of the time you don't want people to think about the light, but sometimes it's part of the dramatic statement of the scene.

Sort of like music or editing or anything else -- there are moments in a movie where this element may step forward in dominence while other elements step back, just like in a symphony when different instruments take over the theme, in which case you're supposed to "notice" a violin solo, let's say.

When the Mothership opens its doors and everyone watching is bathed in bright light in "Close Encounters" it's both noticeable AND appropriate (and motivated.)

And obviously there are many horror and mystery films where the light source becomes a major element of the scene dramatically ("oh no, the flashlight is dying!" "Damn, the lights don't work..." "We must hurry before the sun comes up and the vampires wake up!" etc.)
  • 0

#16 Jonathan Spear

Jonathan Spear
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 586 posts
  • Other

Posted 29 August 2005 - 06:25 AM

"""I'd say "appropriate" and "inappropriate" versus "visible" and "invisible". Sure, most of the time you don't want people to think about the light, but sometimes it's part of the dramatic statement of the scene.

Sort of like music or editing or anything else -- there are moments in a movie where this element may step forward in dominence while other elements step back, just like in a symphony when different instruments take over the theme, in which case you're supposed to "notice" a violin solo, let's say."""

---------------

Well put.

I've been told that the key word to composing "appropriate" music, and maybe lighting as well, is balance.

Either way, both the use of appropriate lighting technique and a polished violin solo only tend to work if they serve the story or concept behind the piece... in other words, they're subtle touches to something far bigger and more complex.
They don't neccesarilly have to be complex on their own.

Take Mozart's Requiem mass for example. The fourth movement (if I'm not mistaken), Rex Tremendae, is a two part choral piece which fully utilizes the entire choir vocal range, from soprano to alto, to achieve one desired effect.

If you listen to each division seperately, none of it will make sense. Pieced together, the choir forms a harmonious and ambient balance which gets the point across.

- $o.o2.

Jonathan
  • 0

#17 Adam Frisch FSF

Adam Frisch FSF
  • Sustaining Members
  • 2009 posts
  • Cinematographer
  • Los Angeles, USA

Posted 29 August 2005 - 09:32 PM

I know a lot of films which are horribly lit in my opinion, but that's not for me to say on a board like this. Why? First, I don't know who reads this board, second I don't know the circumstances under which it was shot, thirdly - who I'm I to judge, anyway?

It's hard making films, it's almost impossibly hard - I'm amazed there are good films made at all. So many things have to gel. When I was younger I thought filmmaking was easy - I mean, how hard can it be to make a good film, right? On the contrary, making a good film is f***ing hard work. All the respect to the ones who manage to do it at all, frankly.

But at the end of the day, lighting ends up where it's always been: having taste. Good lighting is not a constant, it's fashion, it's style. It follows the times and it's your job as a DP to interpret, judge, gauge and bring what's right for these times, or for this story, to the screen.

Film is fashion as David Fincher said. True, very true.
  • 0


Visual Products

Opal

The Slider

Rig Wheels Passport

Wooden Camera

Abel Cine

Willys Widgets

Gamma Ray Digital Inc

Broadcast Solutions Inc

Paralinx LLC

Technodolly

CineLab

Metropolis Post

rebotnix Technologies

Tai Audio

FJS International, LLC

Media Blackout - Custom Cables and AKS

Ritter Battery

Glidecam

Aerial Filmworks

CineTape

Willys Widgets

Opal

CineLab

rebotnix Technologies

Tai Audio

Visual Products

Ritter Battery

Aerial Filmworks

FJS International, LLC

Rig Wheels Passport

Metropolis Post

Glidecam

Media Blackout - Custom Cables and AKS

Technodolly

Gamma Ray Digital Inc

Wooden Camera

Broadcast Solutions Inc

Paralinx LLC

CineTape

The Slider

Abel Cine