Film Lighting
eBook - ePub

Film Lighting

Talks with Hollywood's Cinematographers and Gaffer

Kris Malkiewicz

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  1. 208 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Film Lighting

Talks with Hollywood's Cinematographers and Gaffer

Kris Malkiewicz

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Newly revised and updated, Film Lighting is an indispensible sourcebook for the aspiring and practicing cinematographer, based on extensive interviews with leading cinematographers and gaffers in the film industry. Film lighting is a living, dynamic art influenced by new technologies and the changing styles of leading cinematographers. A combination of state-of-the-art technology and in-depth interviews with industry experts, Film Lighting provides an inside look at how cinematographers and film directors establish the visual concept of the film and use the lighting to create a certain atmosphere.Kris Malkiewicz uses firsthand material from the experts he interviewed while researching this book. Among these are leading cinematographers Dion Beebe, Russell Carpenter, Caleb Deschanel, Robert Elswit, Mauro Fiore, Adam Holender, Janusz Kaminski, Matthew Libatique, Rodrigo Prieto, Harris Savides, Dante Spinotti, and Vilmos Zsigmond. This updated version of Film Lighting fills a growing need in the industry and will be a perennial, invaluable resource.

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Chapter One

The Cinematographer as Collaborator

“Film is light.” This statement by Federico Fellini brings us to the essence of the cinematographer’s art and function. One of the most important abilities of a cinematographer is to see light and to remember it. “Light memory” for the lighting cameraman is similar to the musical memory necessary for a musician.
Light is the most changing element in our daily life. We move among solid objects and among people who do not change drastically during a day or a week. But visually the appearance of our environment and of people around us may change from one hour to the next owing to the time of day, the weather, or the particular source of the light. The best cinematographers are very aware of these changes and store in their memory the impact different types of light have on our emotions and our subconscious. Most people see the change in the quality of light as the day goes by, but a cinematographer must be as observant as the French impressionist painter Claude Monet, who painted the cathedral at Rouen from the same angle at various times of the day. When Sven Nykvist (ASC) and Ingmar Bergman prepared to shoot Winter Light, they spent an entire day observing the changes in light in a country church in northern Sweden in order to be able to reproduce that winter light on a soundstage.
For a cinematographer, watching the light becomes second nature. Whether in a city hall, a restaurant, a nightclub, or the woods, the cinematographer will file it away in his/her memory to be recalled when lighting a similar situation on a movie set. This will help in the final task of a cinematographer, which is to contribute to the visual character of the film.
Light will enhance or diminish the efforts of all the people who create the sets, the costumes, and the makeup.
Filmmaking is a collaborative art. It would be misleading to insist that the cinematographer is totally responsible for the visual character of the picture. Even in terms of the camera moves and framing, the creative process involves the director, the cinematographer, and the camera operator, and whose ideas are decisive in the final outcome will depend very much on their individual talents and personalities. Yet lighting is the sole domain of the cinematographer. This is his/her most obvious contribution. Light can fall on the scene in a variety of ways. It can create a great many moods, but the task of the cinematographer is to choose the type of lighting that will best help to tell the story. The angle of light, its intensity, its quality (hard or soft), its color—these are some of the paints on the cinematographer’s palette. The dark areas and shadows are of equal value. It was said by more than one cinematographer: “What you do not see is as important as what you do see.” The light is there to direct the viewer’s attention, the darkness to stimulate his/her imagination.
As in all arts, there are styles in lighting that characterize certain periods or certain film studios. For example, the glossy Hollywood pictures of the thirties were followed by the stylized low-key lighting of film noir in the forties and the Italian stark neorealism of the late forties and fifties.
Styles are also influenced by the personalities of the cinematographers and the technical progress in film stocks, video cameras’ targets, lenses, and the lighting equipment. Very sensitive emulsions and high-definition cameras, as well as faster lenses, require less light intensity, allowing for much greater use of soft, bounced, or diffused light and of practical light sources that constitute part of the set. They also facilitate greater use of the available light, especially in backgrounds, such as in the streets at night. Collaboration between the cinematographer and the set designer, who provides some of the lighting, becomes essential.
In this chapter we will look at the various aspects of the collaboration between the cinematographer and the other vital members of the filmmaking team. Working with the director is one of the most exciting artistic relationships in this medium.

Working with the Director

Ideally the cinematographer’s relationship with the director is a symbiotic one. The cinematographer embraces the director’s vision and uses his or her visual talent and technical knowledge to capture the director’s inner thoughts and put them on the screen. Needless to say, the process of choosing a cinematographer is of no small importance to the director.


Many directors choose a cinematographer much as they would cast an actor. They look at a candidate’s body of work to evaluate style and experience.
Alexander Mackendrick, director
It is my impression that most of the cameramen I know have developed a highly personal style. They have an individual character that becomes their stock in trade. During the planning for Sweet Smell of Success, the producer, Harold Hecht, suggested James Wong Howe. I remembered Jimmy as extremely good with strong, melodramatic material and felt his hard-edged approach would be ideal for this particular subject, so I was delighted.
Often a director will screen several films shot by a prospective cinematographer.
Alexander Mackendrick, director
In effect, I believe you have to trust the taste and temperament of the cameraman as you see it in his previous work. Obviously, you should take care to see a number of his films to see how he handles different genres; to see what range he has. Wong Howe had considerable range: I looked at both Body and Soul and Picnic, which was in color and much more sentimental. But what I asked Jimmy for was the black-and-white harshness I’d seen in his melodramatic movies.
Once the director finds a likely choice, he or she sends the cinematographer a script.
Robert Wise, director
When you start to zero in on somebody that you think might be the candidate, you want his reaction to the script. So I usually have him read it and then, without guiding him too much, I get his input in a chat about how he sees it, what kind of texture and quality he feels the picture should have.
Sometimes we may run other films, or I might refer to some films of his that I have seen and certain sequences that I liked. Depending on the kind of story, I may refer to some painters. I did that in pictures that were period pieces. When working on Mademoiselle Fifi, we turned to Daumier and his caricatures, not only for the cameraman but also for the clothes and the props. In current films you might look at photographs of contemporary things, of something with a striking look to it.
In paintings I look for lighting and composition. Very often for lighting. There is much to be gained from the examples of lighting and effects.


The process of selection is not one-sided. Cinematographers pick and choose among the scripts which are offered to them to find the stories which, for whatever reason, they would like to shoot. Cinematographers who are in great demand can, naturally, be more selective. As we all know, truly great scripts do not surface too often and sometimes wonderful scripts can turn out to be mediocre movies.
British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, BSC, who photographed some hundred feature films, admits to reading close to a thousand scripts. Out of this volume of work, he feels that the truly memorable films could be counted on the fingers of one, perhaps two hands.
The script is certainly a useful blueprint the cinematographer can use to judge the worth of the project.
Allen Daviau, ASC
The first time I see the script, I try to read it strictly as a film viewer. Not as a cinematographer. I really just sit there and say, Tell me a story. I try to be as open as possible. And you read some scripts that are good, good movies; you would enjoy seeing them, but would you enjoy shooting the movie, and would it really be fulfilling to you? What is it that you like to do? Sometimes it is the subject that just strikes you, that you would like to say something about. So I look on the basis of an overall thing: How would I enjoy seeing this film? Would I enjoy having my name connected with it? Would I be proud being part of this film? The second time through, reading as a cinematographer, I ask myself, What are the problems here? What are the challenges? What are the things that I would really enjoy working on in this picture? Does it offer me a unique challenge? Someone said, “The day you go to work and you are not slightly scared is the day you better get out of this business, because there is no challenge left for you.” If you really know all the answers going in, then I do not think that you will do very good work on the picture. Because you should never stop having that fear of the unknown.
And I think that is one of the things in the script: Does it offer me something I haven’t done before? Maybe it offers me something I have done before and I know I can do better than I did last time, and that is intriguing to me. But perhaps it is truly the unknown. Maybe it is something that I don’t really like to do, and maybe I can get past that. I know that I do not like to shoot dialogue scenes in cars. And I read a script that was an excellent, very funny script, and 25 percent of the movie is four guys running around in a car on real location. When you think that for that much time the camera is basically rigged on the car, when you can never really see what is going on and you are lighting people in the back seat as well as in the front seat, and you are balancing all different times of day—well, it is a real challenge if you like to do that sort of thing. But I don’t know anybody who likes to shoot dialogue scenes inside cars.
In this case Daviau turned down the job although he liked the script. Since one-fourth of the film took place inside a car, there was no chance that the car scenes could be eliminated. In situations that are not so extreme, it is better to hold off final judgment on a project until you meet with the director.


Once a cameraman has committed to a project, he/she and the director have to agree on the style of the film. Describing a visual style with words is no small task. Directors and cinematographers have developed many ways to reach an understanding with each other. A creative cinematographer will analyze the structure of the script and will try to see it from the audience’s point of view. At this early stage much time will be devoted to discussions concerning the concept.
The right atmosphere, style, and visual interpretation will evolve from this process. The cameraman and director will discuss the philosophical premise of the movie—how it should look; what structure it should have; what style of framing, lighting, and color.
Caleb Deschanel, ASC
Style starts to emerge as I’m reading the script. I always read the script three or four or five times. Generally, along the way, I discuss it with the director, and then start to come up with an overall visual concept that I seek for the film. It does not mean that this concept is ironclad. Just the way an actor comes up with his character, I think, the cameraman comes up with his way of seeing a movie. Then hopefully you are in sync with the director. It is important to develop an idea about the story early enough, so that at least you will find out whether you think the same way as the director. Otherwise you get yourself in a situation where you are at odds with each other all the time. You use whatever method you can. With Hal Ashby we started out on Being There by looking at a lot of movies together and discussing the script, and then I would also take a lot of still photographs of locations and look at them with Mike Haller, who was an art director, and with Hal.
For Janusz Kaminski, who over the years shot a majority of Steven Spielberg’s films, the film style is born at the script stage.
Janusz Kaminski, cinematographer
The style develops when the screenwriter writes a script. He or she sets the story in certain settings. Is it an urban setting of contemporary nature, or is it an urban setting in the future, or is it an urban setting in the past? You just have to read a script the right way to realize that there is a style that is being suggested by the screenwriter.
It is not to the point where it tells you how to light or what color to apply, but you are working with a certain genre of the movie. Whether it is a contemporary comedy, a thriller, or film noir, the style is there. Now it is for the cinematographer to give the interpretation. You can have Tom Cruise walking into a dark basement and finding out that somebody is living there. So you have a dark basement, but how far will you take the darkness? In the case of War of the Worlds we were working with lots of colors. It was a little bit of an homage to the old horror movies. So there were reds, there were greens, there were yellows, that kind of stuff. In Minority Report, which is a futuristic movie, there was a void of colors. The images were grainier. The colors were very much desaturated. I was calling it a modern film noir. It was still relatively dark, but we were playing with the color. It was very sleek but not glossy. Again, you start with the script and you are putting your own twist on what the writer is writing. I always say it is all in the script, if you have the ability to read the script and digest the script and send it through your body, through your knowledge, through your mind, and then come up with your own interpretation of the story. What has shaped your individual aesthetics and ability to understand and interpret the story? It’s the aesthetics, it’s everything about you; the way you dress—that’s your aesthetics. The things you like and the way you receive and interpret what is around you shape who you are. And that is unique.
Viewing movies together is the most immediate way of having some common points of reference when discussing style. Good knowledge of a wide range of painters and photographers is the next important step in facilitating the communication between the director and the cinematographer. Being able to describe a certain style as one resembling that of a given painter or knowing where to look for examples of a palette of desired colors helps immensely in arriving at a mutually understandable idea for the visual look of the film.
John Alonzo, ASC
Every situation is different. For pictures like Sounder or Conrack or for a picture like Norma Rae, I did look at some paintings and some books and drawings of the South to get an idea of a kind of look. I would show them to the director and I would say, “What do you think of this Andrew Wyeth or these Shrimpton paintings, does this give you any thoughts, is this the kind of look that you are thinking about?” He says yes or no. So I use those. In pictures like Blue Thunder or Black Sunday there is really no artistic or aesthetic design to those pictures. It is a matter of recording what actually happens.
There is a wide spectrum of directors with diverse backgrounds and experience. Therefore, the collaboration with the cameraman will take various forms. Some directors will need more help than others in developing the visual sense of a scene.
Conrad Hall, ASC
So many directors don’t know anything about film. They are wonderful writers, they know a lot about life and the human equation, and people have given them the opportunity to translate that into a film. And they don’t know what to do. They are so insecure. They wander around the set and a lot of them don’t pretend, and then some of them pretend. It depends on the director you get. Others are people who are knowledgeable visual artists as well as artists in every other sense. You work with them differently. They know exactly what they want. They need you less.
The directors who require the most from cinematographers are the first-time directors.
Adam Holender, who often works with first-time directors, puts them in two basic categories: the literary ones who write their own scripts and often do not quite know how to translate their ideas into a visual form, and the new directors who come from other technical positions such as assistant director, producer, or editor. People in this second group are usually more experienced technicians.
Adam H...

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