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Using domestic lights as opposed to studio lights


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#1 Daniel J. Ashley-Smith

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Posted 22 June 2005 - 08:36 PM

Do people ever just place a lamp on set, like it was supposed to be there, part of the set?

After studying the lighting in a few films, I don't always see why studio lights are even needed. Perhaps as an extra diffused fill light, but nothing more.

I have attached a frame from A Beautiful Mind* by Ron Howard. There seem to be plenty of warm ambient lights around (wall lights), why studio lights? Why can't people just use naturalistic lighting instead of false?

For instance, if I was shooting inside my living room, but there wasn't enough light. Well, in that case, there wouldn't be enough light to make it a comfortable living space, so I'd install more lights or increase the power of the lighting until it DID become a comfortable living space. Consequently, there would then be enough lighting for the film.

I understand sometimes un-natural lighting is needed, depending on the application, but something tells me in that frame from A Beautiful Mind* they had studio lights out of site. But, why?

I think one of the key factors to making a film look as natural as possible is to keep everything as natural as possible.


Any thoughts?
Dan.

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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 22 June 2005 - 09:33 PM

Well, you're sort of missing the point - that shot in "A Beautiful Mind" is LIT; it just LOOKS very natural. That's the goal of a lot of modern cinematography, to make you THINK it was just lit by the practicals. If that scene was only lit by the lamps you see, the faces would be nearly silhouette. There is a large overhead soft source. MOST of the light is coming from the practicals, but it is augmented.

You could light a set with practical lamps; they would look a little burned-out because you were exposing more for the faces. You see this approach in Kubrick's movies like "Eyes Wide Shut".

Trouble is you often have to have twice as many lamps on as is natural because too often a face would be dark; you can't always stage the actors to stand next to a lamp. Just try it yourself with a still camera on a tripod: shoot a room at night and have the actor stand in different areas. Sometimes it works, but not always.

You don't always want to turn on every lamp in a room because the scene can get flat and low-contrast. But if you only have a few lamps on, you may find some area or person going too dark.

Lighting a scene 90% with practicals isn't a bad idea but you often find that you'll have to make up an off-camera source or something that FEELS real (like the overhead soft light in that shot you posted) even if it is not.

There may also be a story reason why a lot of practicals can't be on, which means you have to create some other source of light in the room.

There can also be technical reasons for additional lights, like wanting more light in order to stop down the lens. Or the practical simply can't be made bright enough to light the scene.

The light in real life isn't always attractive either. My living room right now has one lamp one, which looks nice, except that the walls around the lamp are flatly lit and underexposed, so if an actor moved over to the outer walls, they would look flat and murky.

And some faces don't look nice in practical lamps and need some help from additional lamps.

But you can do a LOT with practical lamps, which is why I spend so much time with an art director and set dresser to get the right ones on the set. But I think as you shoot more movies with just these lamps, you'll discover the limitations when you have a specific look and mood you are trying to create.

In fact, I once got to talk to Roger Deakins and I asked him how he was able to make so many shots in the hotel room in "Barton Fink" look like it was lit by the practical next to the bed. He said he put a white (or gold?) card just above the lamp and bounced a 1K into it, so that the soft warm light was coming from the same direction as the practical, only the real light was just above the frameline. I'm sure he did something similar in the shot you posted.
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#3 timHealy

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Posted 22 June 2005 - 11:46 PM

Daniel,

I agree with David that you are missing the point and also not thinking of the inverse square law.

A practical may give enough light for exposure when an actor may be right next to it. But as they move away the exposure will drop off like a rock. If you double the distance you will lose one stop, or half the amount of light. Conversely if you need one stop bring the light closer and cut the distance in half. You'll have twice the amount of light. With a small wattage light you may be talking inches to lose a stop and a foot or two to lose serval stops and put you actor in darkness. With a dino light through diffusion, you may have to go 30 feet to lose one stop then 60 feet to lose two, then 120 to lose three stops. So in that example one would move 210 feet and you would lose three stops and still be in films lattitude for exposure. More if there is no diffusion in that particular lamp. But that is an example, and I'm sure you get my point.

Most practicals in most movies will have a larger studio light just off screen so that light will appear to be coming from that practical but it will reach deep into the room. Actually the farther back you pull the studio lamp back from the set, the more even the exposure will be across the set. Then typically a solid/cutter/flag will be used to take the studio light off the practical.

In the picture you submitted there is a large overhead soft source and there is also a soft source coming from camera right. When I say soft source I maen a large perhaps 12 x 12 frame, or a series of chinese lanterns so that the whole ceiling becomes a soft source. The camera right source could be large if the wall ends just out of frame, Perhaps a 12 x 12 if there is room or an 8 x 8, or 6 x 6 if it was tight and a large light filling the frame to make it look as soft as it is. Look at the shadows on his and her faces. Shadows can give you more information about a light than the lite side. On the right side of his face, under his nose, under her chin. If it were just the practical on the table lighting Jennifer, how would light get on the right side of her face as she appears to have past the table lamp. This is where she would be in silhouette, as David points out. There is also just the slightest touch of a very soft backlight. Look at his right shoulder and the sheen of her right shoulder, and the top of their heads, especially his.

Also as I mentioned in another post, 35mm doesn't have as much depth of field as smaller formats like 16mm (and I think most HD and beta cameras but someone correct me on that) so you need more light than you think depending on filmstock.

You are not to far off base about the use of practicals in a sense, and again I agree with David, they help the cinematographer and production design at the same time. I personally love close ups with out of focus practicals in the background. They add depth to your environment.

With more shooting this will all be second nature.

just my 2 cents
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#4 T. Arthur DeSmidt

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Posted 23 June 2005 - 12:10 AM

If I understand you correctly, in a nutshell, you're saying: If the ambient light in a scene looks good to the human eye, than why would additional lights be needed for filming?

I think the answer has a lot to do with the difference in physics of the human eye and film.

Generally speaking, the human eye has a much greater dynamic range than film. So even with fast film and fast lenses, you still need an adequate spread of light to make a scene look natural on film. For instance, I've got about 10 footcandles falling on my desk next to the computer, this is plenty of light (for my vision) to read a book. But as soon as I photograph the desk and expose for the light, there will be no detail in the desk, if I expose for the desk, the light will look blown out.

So sometimes extra lighting is necessary to make a scene look on film the same it looks like in real life without the extra lighting.

As David said, a still camera is an invaluable tool for seeing how a scene will turn out on film.
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#5 Sam Wells

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Posted 23 June 2005 - 10:55 AM

Typically what will happen by relying on so-called practicals for all your illumination or even worse boosting them is that the lamps you see on screen will look like nuclear furnaces but they can still not be illuminating the things you want lit. (I'd say this is usually worse with video cameras but folks here will get agitated :D) .

There is an aesthetic of available / existing light, which has its own agenda, but if you want to 'paint' or 'sculpt' the illuminated reality to correspond to the eye's resonse - as opposed to the film's response - then you'll find it very difficult to do so using only the lighting that's present physically in the scene or frame. As David notes, using those lights as motivation is one good way of determing what and where your artificial lighting will consist of; conversely one might deliberately place a "practical" in the scene to explain an off screen light source that you want or need.

I think with the increased latitude of film stocks, some lines as above can be blurred a bit; at the same time the low light sensitivity of digital cameras opens some great existing light possibilities - the huge problem there - to date at least - being that the less than sterling highlight response of electronic cameras sort of kills the deal. (i.e. this is where digital is a work in progress and defines the progress that needs to happen).

(I have actually lit shots where I faked the available light look which is either some kind of formal coup or a three card monty game, I'm not sure which :blink: )

-Sam
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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 23 June 2005 - 11:06 AM

I did a small HD film where I only carried four lights and only used them for about 25% of the shots as a way of augmenting the practical light -- otherwise I used only available light. It worked pretty well, but there are a number of scenes that would have been improved by lighting them. But it was a good exercise.

Sometimes you get into locations, like a bar for example, where most seating areas are really unlit. People like to sit in near dark in these sorts of places for real, so you have to make up or add sources. It's easy to do that if they are sitting at the counter, but often the table and booth areas are really murky in real life.

The answer to Daniel's question is that you CAN light a scene with just practicals, and there are many times it's a good idea, but to be a complete DP you also have to learn how to FAKE natural light using movie lamps. THAT'S the real skill, to make you think the scene was only shot with available light but wasn't. David Watkin was a master of that.

Often a problem I run into is when I planned on lighting a scene with just a practical, like a desk lamp, but the art department hands me something too dim to really light the room and has a design that does not allow swapping out the bulb. And this is after I warned them in advance to give me a bright practical (obviously our definition of bright differed.) I even had a set dresser tell me, when I asked for a practical that could light the scene, "What, I'm supposed to do your job?" -- and he wasn't joking, he thought I was being lazy and putting pressure on him.

And they wonder why I sometimes carry an assortment of desk lamps and flashlights in my car trunk... I've had to drag one of these out on occasion and have the art department get upset because it wasn't the color or design they wanted, but I tell them honestly that I had warned them WEEKS in advance of my photographic needs for the lamp in the scene.
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#7 Rik Andino

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Posted 23 June 2005 - 03:40 PM

I think one of the key factors to making a film look as natural as possible is to keep everything as natural as possible.
Any thoughts?
Dan.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


If you strongly believe this statement...
You might want to study the Theory of Dogme 95

http://www.dogme95.dk/menu/menuset.htm

It's a collective of film directors from Denmark
Who felt that if they strip filmmaking down to the bare essentials
They could create very interesting stuff...that was more natural
Because it was deviod of all the cliche techniques the that Hollywood employs.

Although many Art Directors, DPs, and other technical people
Dismiss it because it's mainly a vechicule for directors and the actors.
It's can be a very interesting experience...

Many critics and film theorist consider this movement
On par with the French Advant Garde Movement of the sixties.
In fact most think it picks up where Goddard and Truffaut left off.

Study it because they basically agree with what you said...
(Also see sometimes it pays to go to college :) )
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#8 Daniel J. Ashley-Smith

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Posted 23 June 2005 - 05:23 PM

Thing is to even out the light they use studio lights, they could just use the hanging lights form the cieling.

Although, I see what you mean now, the lamps will come out WAY too bright on camera and will actually look un-natural.

Trouble is, I've never actually had any experience in a proper studio where the set has actually been built. My experience consists of shooting in an actuall locations, like houses e.t.c. Places where it's not practical to start setting up lights. Mind you, on "Red Lion Square" we still stuck a lamp in everynow and then to help out, but I mean a "500watt lamp", we didn't start sticking in fill lights e.t.c. we relied on the natural lights to do that for us.

I guess that's what's so great about Conrad L. Hall, the fact that he could light a scene so naturally, but you *couldn't* actually tell where the lights were coming from, like you can in most films.

Mr. Andino, I will look into that company, it's an interesting style and worth looking into.

Well, thanks for the info guys. I'll dream on about being able to shoot in a built set and not my best mates living room...
Dan.

Edited by Daniel J. Ashley-Smith, 23 June 2005 - 05:25 PM.

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#9 Sam Wells

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Posted 23 June 2005 - 06:58 PM

Again, though, what's "natural" ? Is it how the film naturally responds or is it the emulation by artifice by whatever means creating an equivalent to how the viewer's eye would hypothetically see the scene ?

Or can it fall on some boundary of the two (I think so).

The French New Wave (maybe we should consider ex-combat cinematographer Raoul Coutard at some kind of center to it) was not so, uh dogmatic as the Dogme crowd; not so much opposition to artificial lighting as a move away from the stylization of 'excessive intervention'

Of course, there's no style like the theoretically unstudied; in the commentary section of the Godard "Bande a part" DVD Coutard not only describes bouncing whatever they could muster off the white ceiling of a villa to match the soft grey winter light of suburban Paris exteriors, but deflating a dolly tire in order to do 360 deg of moves while making a Mitchell BNCR look like it was hand-held !

-Sam

Edited by SamWells, 23 June 2005 - 06:59 PM.

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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 23 June 2005 - 07:27 PM

Realism in cinematography is just another form of artifice, or as someone else said, one generation's realism looks like artifice to the next.

What is often called "realistic cinematography" actually just mimics documentary cinematography where the lack of ability to light causes artifacts like blown-out practicals and windows, etc. So it looks "real" because it wasn't faked. But it is only real in its photographic methods (or lack of them) -- it doesn't necessarily mimic the way that the EYE sees reality. And since the eye is connected to the brain, and the brain is open to suggestion, it is ultimately more important to be pyschologically "truthful" than photographically "accurate".

It's like in acting. Olivier once said that the most important quality an actor can have is sincerity -- because if they can fake that, they can fake anything!

Same goes with cinematography: the most important thing is realism -- if you can fake that, you can fake anything!
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#11 Josh Bass

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Posted 23 June 2005 - 10:37 PM

"I agree with David that you are missing the point and also not thinking of the inverse square law.

A practical may give enough light for exposure when an actor may be right next to it. But as they move away the exposure will drop off like a rock. If you double the distance you will lose one stop, or half the amount of light. Conversely if you need one stop bring the light closer and cut the distance in half. You'll have twice the amount of light. With a small wattage light you may be talking inches to lose a stop and a foot or two to lose serval stops and put you actor in darkness. With a dino light through diffusion, you may have to go 30 feet to lose one stop then 60 feet to lose two, then 120 to lose three stops. So in that example one would move 210 feet and you would lose three stops and still be in films lattitude for exposure. More if there is no diffusion in that particular lamp. But that is an example, and I'm sure you get my point."

Wait. . .did I miss something? Doesn't the inverse square state that doubling the distance from a source to a subject leaves you with a quarter of the original amount of light on the subject, not half?
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#12 Stephen Williams

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Posted 24 June 2005 - 02:18 AM

Wait. . .did I miss something? Doesn't the inverse square state that doubling the distance from a source to a subject leaves you with a quarter of the original amount of light on the subject, not half?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>



Exactly!

I often try to use practical lights. Unfortunately my focus puller goes very pale when I tell him the stop T1.3!, so often one has bring in some overhead fill. I did one shoot where the face of the actress was 5 stops under! It worked as a night scene!

Stephen Williams
Lighting Cameraman

www.stephenw.com
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#13 timHealy

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Posted 24 June 2005 - 08:35 AM

Wait. . .did I miss something? Doesn't the inverse square state that doubling the distance from a source to a subject leaves you with a quarter of the original amount of light on the subject, not half?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>



My humble apolgies! You are completely right. I was mistaken in my explaination. Doubling the distance loses two stops not one as I mentioned. I need to proofread before hitting send.

The jist of my example is still valid but in the Dino light example I should have written if one was 60 feet away from the light, then moving 30 feet to 90 would lose one stop, etc etc.

Thanks for pointing that out John. I will endeavor to not post misleading information.

Tim
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#14 Gordon Highland

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Posted 24 June 2005 - 10:22 AM

it is ultimately more important to be pyschologically "truthful" than photographically "accurate".

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


It's kinda like the whole false advertising thing. Legally, you can flat-out lie to the consumer, you just can't mislead them. Like if you're doing a Haagen-Daaz commercial and you use wax instead of ice cream, you're actually representing the product MORE accurately, because it looks the same, but would've melted under the hot studio lights. On the other hand, you shoot a Hot Wheels car speeding down a toy track from a low macro front angle and the background is going by a million miles an hour, that's misleading, but technically photographically accurate.

These tabletop product photography techniques have always fascinated me. Like putting marbles in the bottom of a bowl of soup to make the ingredients look chunkier. Or substituting motor oil for beer (do they still do that?). Might make an interesting new thread.
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