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Introduction to Cinematography: Part 2

Welcome to the second part of my introduction to cinematography blog posts. In this post I will discuss the basic lighting aspects of cinematography, and in particular how we will go about lighting our scene from part one.

First off, let’s talk about why we light for film. The first reason we light is so we can get ‘exposure’ so the camera can see what is in front of it. This said, film lighting goes much further than this. The use of lighting can evoke a mood or a feeling to the audience and therefore help enhance the story telling. It can help focus the audience’s attention on one particular part of the frame or another. Film lighting goes much further than illumination, let’s discuss how this is achieved and how we go about lighting a scene.

When approaching lighting a scene for film the best place to start is to determine what light is available to you, and what light you are going to have to live with. For example, say you are filming outside on a bright sunny day there isn’t much you can do with the sun and therefore you have to live with it. Now if you were filming in a room with a window and wanted to make it look like night, then all you need to do is black out the window and you get rid of the sunlight, providing a blank canvas to light the scene. Working this out before you come up with your lighting strategy is key and it could make or break your lighting scheme.

Ok, before we go any further in lighting our scene from part one let’s look at different sorts of light and the way the direction of light can influence an audience’s perception.

Light generally falls into two categories, hard light and soft light (as can be seen in the images below with Berty and Betty). This is determined by the quality of shadows they produce, hard lights producing harsh, sharp shadows and soft lights producing more graduated shadows. As you can see in the images below, the hard light shadow has a very definite starting point whereas the soft light shadow blends from light to dark.

The difference in shadows is caused by soft lights producing a more scattered light, generally caused by the light being diffused. This said, a hard light can be turned to a soft light with the use of diffusion or bounce material, think of the sun on an overcast day. The sun is a hard light source but when we get cloud cover it becomes diffused and scattered, providing a soft light source. Using a combination of hard and soft lights to light a scene can provide texture and interest to the image.

Now we have covered the two types of light, let’s consider their placement and use. Deciding where to place a light might seem quite straight forward, but the effect this has on the final image is as big as where to place the camera and what lens to use! Lets have a look at the images below with Berty. Each image shows Berty with a single hard light source being move around from in front of him to behind at 45 degree increments.

With the light right in front of him, there is no doubting it is Berty. The image looks very flat with little texture.

With the light at 4:30 we have a little more texture in the image, as Berty’s right side is darker than his left. And in addition we can now see his shadow on the table, frame left.

So now with the light to his left side he is half in shadow and half in light. The frame looks a little moodier now, a little more interesting and intrigue into who Berty is and where he is.

Now with the light to his back left side he is separated from the background but it is a bit more difficult to tell who he is. It makes him look a little more mysterious.

Now with the light directly behind him you can only see his face from the light reflected from the table. He is well separated from the black background but it is very difficult to see his face.

Using a combination of lights in these different positions will help create your lighting scheme.

So we have looked at hard and soft light, and in addition we have seen how the position of the light effects how the frame looks and how Berty comes across. Based on this, how do we light our scene from part one? Let’s start by looking at the script again…

So from the top we can see that our scene is set at night and is an interior location. Based on this we know we need to remove any daylight at our location if we are shooting during the day.

We also know that FRANK peers into the darkness. This implies the room is quite dark when looking at it towards the door, therefore we may need to flag off any spill light in the room from around the door to help achieve this effect.

Flagging light means to stop light hitting a particular surface area or person in the frame. Light that usually needs flagging is called spill light.

The script goes on to say that FRANK is silhouetted by the light of the door, so we know there needs to be some light coming through the door to achieve this.

Then finally JACK leans forward into the light, this tells us there needs to be a pool of light in front of him but not where he is sat when FRANK comes into the room and sits down. Again we may need to ‘flag’ this light to ensure it doesn’t spill into the area he is sat before he leans forward. This said we still need to see JACK a little to know there is somebody there, so placing a light at 12:00 o’clock or 1:30 would help us achieve this.

Based on this read through of the script the lighting scheme is as the image below.

As can be seen, FRANK is backlit from the door providing us with the silhouetting we need and in addition, when FRANK walks into the room he won’t get lost in the darkness, we will still be able to see his outline. Looking at the right of the image we see that JACK is lit by a small light at 1:30 to provide a ‘rim’ light so we can see somebody is there when FRANK sits down and the camera dollies around. And finally we have the light in between the two men to provide the light for JACK to lean forward into and to backlight (from the camera’s point of view) FRANK when he is sat down so we can still see a little bit of him.

Once you have a rough idea of where to place your lights a decision on the lamps and brightness of the bulbs needs to be made. With a limited budget and little equipment these decisions may be made for you, yet it doesn’t stop you from tweaking the brightness and quality of the light using some simple tools such as bouncing the light of the ceiling or using some black material to flag a light off a wall.

Getting the light in the right position and choosing the quality of light (hard or soft light) is as important as the relative brightness of the lights in question. For example, getting the contrast between the light in the hallway and the light in front of FRANK could make or break the illusion that the room is dark. If the light in the hallway is too dark the room would look bright in comparison and vice versa. Again, getting the contrast between the light JACK leans into balanced to the 1:30 rim light hitting him when he is sat back is important too. Spending time tweaking the exposure of the camera and angle/brightness of the light will help achieve this contrast between the lights. This said, it is as important to budget time to tweak the lights once they are set-up as it is to light at all. This said, with experience comes an ability to second guess the lights required and any flagging or diffusion necessary to get the look you want, therefore reducing not only the time to light but also the tweaking time required too.

Obviously, the complexities of lighting for film go much further than this blog post and is something which I know many Directors of Photography say they learn more about with every shoot and every new challenge. I hope from this post you will take away that lighting for film can be used for more than just illumination, it is a tool available to the cinematographer to help tell the director’s story.

If you want to see how I make use of light in my films check out my projects!

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