What is ‘film lighting’, and do we need it? Will we ever be able to just turn on our camcorders and start shooting without making any effort or giving any thought to lighting the scene? Possibly, in a galaxy far, far away where they have special ‘lighting droids’ which assist the cinematographer by beeping, refusing donuts and running up and down ladders all day without complaint. At the moment though, as filmmakers, we need to think about the direction, colour and quality of light and how it helps us to tell our story.
Why do we need lighting?
Lighting our films creates depth, atmosphere and a type of ‘reality’ that engages the viewer’s brain and helps create the believability necessary to sustain the world we’re depicting. Flat, dull and lifeless scenes just give the viewer a reason to stop downloading press ‘eject’ on the dvd player.
How do use light?
Light is used to ‘model’ the subjects or actors we shoot. Next time you watch one of your favourite movies check out any scene with faces in it. Chances are you will see a shadow on one side of the nose and a patch of brightness under the left or right eye. This indicates a light source placed in front of the subject, a bit higher than their height and also off to the left or right side by about 45 degrees. This is an important position for a light in order to create good ‘modelling’ on an actor and will probably be their ‘key’ or main illumination in that particular shot. This modelling is then built up with side lights, back lights, top lights and so on all helping to separate the subject from the background and realise that all important feeling of ‘depth’.
Two dimensions or three?
Film and video lighting is about creating three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional medium. Without the contrast of light and shadow, shooting with a camera – even if it’s the best camera in the world – will produce images that are flat and uninteresting. It is up to the film-maker working with a DP (and everyone else) to create that interest and bring the film to life.
Do we need lamps?
If you don’t have access to lights or don’t know how to light properly, you can still work with what is available naturally. Some directors of photography only work with light found on location, practical lamps and so on; some use combinations of mirrors to direct sunlight into the correct positions without any electrical lamps at all. You might say you are only limited by time and your own inventiveness.
Use what’s available.
If you don’t have room in your budget for lighting equipment then sunlight and location ‘house’ lights will be your sources. You will have to position your subjects in the most favourable positions. For example, when shooting outside, a good rule of thumb is to keep the sun behind the camera and off to one or other side (similar to the 45 degree key light); this will create at least some basic modelling on your actor. It is always a good idea to avoid having the sun in front of the camera lens or behind the subject that you’re filming in order to minimise under-lit faces, flares etc although this is one way to achieve any silhouette effects.
Sunshine and rain
If you are outside on a cloudy day there isn’t a great deal you can do to make things look good if you’re lacking in lights; everything will be pretty flat and shadowless as the sky is one big source of diffused light. However, sunlight will create very bright and very dark shadow areas in the same shot and exterior shooting almost always involves the generous use of reflectors; these are specially made or improvised highly reflective surfaces that can be used to direct light into shadow areas making them less dark. This ‘fill’ in or ‘bounce’ light makes the contrast less noticeable and the ratio of light (the range of exposures) easier for the camera to deal with.
Lighting for film also involves choices such as what ‘style’ to use to best express the story we are telling. Soft and hard lighting, high key and low key and high contrast/low contrast and others all help to generate different reactions within the viewer by communicating visually, the various aspects of the human experience.
Cameras don’t yet match our brains
We are blessed with an incredible image-making system built into our brains that helps us interpret the world we live in; it is very difficult for a recording medium to reproduce that to the level we’re used to. It’s getting closer all the time but we still need to build those three-dimensions to transport our audience out of the cinema, bedroom or beach hut and into our film’s reality. The most important part of filmmaking will always be the story and if that’s good enough you could shoot on pixel vision and still make it compelling for people to watch but the art of cinematography and the skill of the D.P. will enhance and complement your movie-making immeasurably and produce a more satisfying and memorable experience for everyone.