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Lighting for Mixed Skin Tones


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#1 Matt Irwin

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Posted 13 October 2005 - 11:48 AM

One of the most common and most challenging things I come across with lighting people is dealing with actors of mixed skin tones in the same shot. I always find a way, but I was wondering what techniques you guys use and would be willing to share. It would be nice to have an arsenal of ideas for that inevitable day of hell when I'll have to light, lets say, a light blonde Swedish girl wearing all white sitting next to... Bernie Mac in a black suit. (hahaha I hope that day never comes!)

Any thoughts?

Edited by Matt Irwin, 13 October 2005 - 11:50 AM.

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#2 Dickson Sorensen

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Posted 13 October 2005 - 01:13 PM

Bernie Mac in a black suit. (hahaha I hope that day never comes!)

Any thoughts?


Carefully placed cutters on the whitie and a little extra pop (like an inkie) on the black guy. I am also intrested in hearing other ideas, this is a tough one and worse is the black guy wearing a white suit. I have had this nightmare and don't want it again. Please let's hear some responce from some the experienced DP's out there.
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#3 Kevin Zanit

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Posted 13 October 2005 - 01:38 PM

It depends on the look of the scene, but I find in tuff situations, have the makeup department build up the reflectance in the black actor's skin, and then use a large frame of something like griff or ultra bounce near the actor, so his face catches the white.

This is nice because you really don?t have to add a lot of light to the scene, because you are seeing the actor through reflections of white.

It has a lot of similarities to lighting a car.

I also find if you have the stop for a polarizer, you can modulate the reflectance on the actors face. This gives you more control.

If you are in a situation where you really just need some extra heat on the dark skinned actor, I like to use a large soft source, like an 8x8 grid (or whatever your preference is) with 90 degree soft egg crates. Then just cut it off the light skinned actor some.

The grid creates very directional soft light that is easier to deal with.


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#4 Matt Irwin

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Posted 14 October 2005 - 04:54 PM

Good ideas, Thanks!
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#5 Wendell_Greene

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Posted 14 October 2005 - 05:48 PM

I also find if you have the stop for a polarizer, you can modulate the reflectance on the actors face. This gives you more control.



I would offer the warning that one needs to be extremely careful with this approach, especially when your working with darker African-American faces. I've seen cinematographers us a polarizer on AA faces and the faces end up looking matte. Unlike a blue sky or a car on a turntable, people's faces, and AA faces in particular, have different undertones and so you have to approach each one them differently.

Having a situation where you know in advance that you'll be filming mixed skintones requires the cinematographer have a thorough discussion with the director, make-up, wardrobe [explain why a cream suit will work better than white and why navy would be best] and production designer. [tech down, or paint those set walls behind Mr. Bernie Mac, darker please] It also shows why you should involve those departments as much as possible when you shoot tests so you can show them the results. It's a coordinated effort that alleviates any problems BEFORE you step on set.

BTW, if you want to see a great example of a DP handling a dark skin African American actor with a Swedish actress with porcelain skin, watch Shane Hurlburt's work lighting Don Cheadle playing Sammy Davis Jr and in HBO film, "The Rat Pack" Shane also did a great job with Bernie Mac in "Mr. 3000"
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#6 Kevin Zanit

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Posted 14 October 2005 - 07:05 PM

Good point Wendell,

I forgot to add my usual disclaimer, as I have in the past about this technique.

You have to be extremely careful when using it not to do as Wendell said, flatten the face out, but also to deform the shape of someone?s face. When you adjust the highlights on someone?s face, you can make their face look odd.

When I use this technique (and I have, probably close to a 100 times), I never fully POLA out all the reflections on their face, I just use it to subtly control the highlights.

Also, one has to be aware of how the POLA is affecting everything else in the shot, including how it affects the skin tone of the dark skinned actor in question.


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#7 Wendell_Greene

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Posted 14 October 2005 - 07:30 PM

Well said, Kevin. Thanks!
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#8 Michael Nash

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Posted 15 October 2005 - 12:12 AM

I've found that different skin tones aren't as big a challenge as you first might think, especially on film. But even on video, I've had plenty of ocassions with mixed skin tones where everything fell into place naturally, without much effort.

That said, of course there are those situations with more contrasty lighting where you need to exercise care. Simple blocking can help tremendously. I've had the situation several times where a light skinnned actor and and a dark skinned actor are near a window. I simply find a way so that the fairer face is turned away from the window (backlit), and the darker face is more "open" to the window.

I always feel that simple adjustments to avoid problems are usually so much more elegant and effective than all the clever solutions one might come up with. Of course we're not always that lucky! ;)
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Visual Products

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Rig Wheels Passport

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The Slider

Aerial Filmworks

Ritter Battery

Media Blackout - Custom Cables and AKS

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Tai Audio

Paralinx LLC

Metropolis Post

Glidecam