Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Playing with Light

I’m an English DP and have been lighting since 1980. When I first took up the craft I was privileged to be in the middle of Soho in London catering for a blossoming TV trade – it became important to learn the skills of lighting. Many years later, after numerous commercials, promos, TV dramas and four feature films I try to give back what I’ve learnt to the industry via teaching the incoming trainees that now flood into every educational institution around the world: Let’s face it, making moving images is the new rock and roll.

As a DP sometimes there’s a challenge to try to think outside the box to solve a lighting challenge – usually due to budget. Some years ago a friend of mine was directing music show for Channel 4 and his DP was about to be fired because he’d been asked to light the set low key but to keep any presenters or acts lit high key. Work it out – anyway that blew his fuse and he retired. I got the call and said of course I could solve the issue. Then I sat down and started musing on the problem. After puzzling over it for a couple of days, suddenly a solution came to mind: fortunately for me I’d seen a documentary on Cuban cinema a couple of months before. They didn’t have many lights available in Cuba at the time and so they took to carrying them around on the ends of booms so that when people moved the light moved with them.

That’s when I invented the ‘Ned Kelly’. I asked my partner who is an art director to make up a chicken wire cylinder about 15 inches high by about 10 inches in diameter. I cut out a slot about 8 by 10 at the front and put two layers of frost there, then coated the rest in black wrap. I hung a 1k total lamp at the back shining through the frost and hung the whole thing off a barracuda pole or polecat.The English sparks weren’t too keen on a job where they get to carry poles around with lights on the end, but after a while everyone warmed to the task and we got a low key show with high key presenters. I mention this here because this article is about invention and how one has to look at the world to then invent either a lighting unit or emulate a lighting effect one sees happening – and also about two men who have changed the way we light: Nestor Almendros and Mariano Fortuny – both Spaniards.

Some years before I had to go to Russia and there was neat little collapsible trace frame available that I took with me: A great solution for merging the output of several lamps and therefore having only one shadow. If you go travelling to shoot a documentary you don’t get to take too many lights along with you. When I shot the Patriarch of all Russia (during Glasnost) the man saw a bizarre combination of two trace frames with blue over and 4 lights passing through them. Double softness corrected to daylight.

When I got back I thought I could refine this idea somewhat: I invented something I jokingly called the Flaxbox – I’d heard a few years before that Jordan Cronenwerth had invented the Croniecone – something to slip over the front of a 5k or 10k to get soft light out of it, so I figured if he could call his unit after himself – so could I. I took the collapsible trace frame that was roughly 36 inches wide by about 30 inches long. I again asked my partner to construct a black material cover fortified by art card with a 12 inch central square hole in it. This could be mounted on a stand. In the middle of the square the front protruded out by one foot. At back of the frame I suspended a layer of trace, half way down the one-foot square protrusion I mounted another layer of trace. This provided double softening and a form of elementary barn door to specifically aim the soft light wherever I chose. It became a very beautiful portrait unit for various. The light was so soft you didn’t need any diffusion over the lens. You could put a pepper through it, a 1k, 2k or a 1.k2 or 2.5k HMI or any combination of lamps– whatever you put through it became one soft light source with hardly any shadow.I used to carry this around with me and if I got any difficulty from the star, then I showed them what I was going to do by sitting in front of my lamp and then I had to beat them off because they really wanted to be lit like I was! I remember doing a job for the BBC of all people where a super gigantic star (in ego terms too) had a full time lighter. I let him do his job then lit my interviewer and this particularly acute woman saw the image on the monitor and demanded that she swap places to get into the presenters light. I don’t know what happened to the full time guy after this.

I sometimes teach one and two day lighting courses and I pride myself on an apocryphal history that takes into account all of the accidents that fill the annals of our craft that stem from lousy budgets but then provide the most interesting lighting techniques: i.e. low budgets on quota quickies produced film noir lighting – the thinking was, if you do a ‘proper job’ because you haven’t enough lighting units and crew, then create shadows for dramatic effect.

On these courses I tell my apocryphal history starting with the idea that everything on our world can manifest an image. If you leave a stone on another stone long enough then a shadow of that stone will be left. Of course that idea leads to the idea of ‘film speed’ measured in ASA or DIN, which at the very beginning were around half an ASA.

So, on starting I ask one student to sit in front of the class and in front of a camera and another student to turn out the light on the cue of the word ‘light’. Then the classroom is plunged into darkness. I wait for a little while waiting for people’s sensory systems to settle down and move around so that they become aware of sound. I then turn on an angle poise and move around the subject aiming the angle poise at them and ask the remaining students to note what looks good and what doesn’t and then note where the light is.

I then talk about creating separation when you have hardly any tones in black and white, and the simple development of sets outside that can be slowly rotated to face the sun…. I speak about film speeds increasing and therefore having the development of a key light that replicates the Californian sun’s height and the beginning aesthetic awareness that offsetting its angle to the face to avoid direct to full face lighting creates modelling on this egg shaped object we have on out shoulders. I talk about how the Californian sun is low enough to get under the brows and show the eye sockets – but that when the key light is offset you need a fill light to fill in the nose shadow at lower intensity to the key light – etc.

I talk about placing materials in front of lights to mitigate their hardness and about placing materials like stockings in front (or behind) the lens to affect the way the light gets to film. I talk about Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo liking particular cameramen because they kept them beautiful for camera – I talk about the development of film noir – and eventually I come to the seminal moment of modern film lighting experienced by a Spanish cinematographer working in Cuba.

In my lighting classes I demonstrate the effects of all of these different things. I get the students to take on practical challenges to find out things – if this is how you light one seated person – how do you light two? I begin with the very first moment when I get a student standing by the light switch and on cue turning the lights off at the first mention of light and keeping the students in the dark whilst talking about the beauty of light and letting their sensory systems settle down into dark mode. All the way through I tell them that their aesthetic is what they must develop and that this is characterised by a set of likes and dislikes about what is good and fitting and most importantly with a discriminative mind that understands how what they like is produced and how to deduce how what they are seeing on TV and at the movies is produced.

But then the moment comes when after 50 or more years of hard, direct light (albeit greatly moderated by various techniques – and also the advent of 9ASA Tripack Technicolor after the war – suddenly the moment of transition comes. I show them a 100% increase in quality of light over all that has gone before and then tell them the tale of how it came about:

Nestor Almendros was born in 1930 and brought up in Barcelona – a Spanish cinematographer. He immigrated to Cuba in 1948, where he began making amateur films with young Cubans friends, including Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. He later studied filmmaking at the Centro Sperimentale in Italy, and supported himself in New York as a Spanish language teacher, while also conducting his own experiments in cinematography.

Nestor Almendros 1930-1992

Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, he returned to Cuba, where he secured a job with the state film department, making films for the Cuban Government. One day whilst filming in the interior and because there was no electricity to be had, Almendros had to rig up a mirror, a techniques he had developed, outside the front door of the building, then aim it down the passageway onto another mirror which shone directly to a third mirror which then angled the light at the subject.

This alone should be enough to take the breath away in terms of invention. Yes we’ve all done this sort of thing but to be doing it so far back with film that was possibly only maybe 25 to 50 ASA – that’s stunning. But then something happened, Almedros heard a crash whilst setting up his first two mirrors and found that the third mirror had fallen and smashed but that the beam of light hit the white wall and created an almost holy glow around the subject. Almendros was transfixed at its beauty and proceeded with the work – transformed.

His work was seen in the Paris documentary festivals of the next few years and the audience members, Goddard, Truffaut, Rohmer etc –saw that his work was great and by 1964 he shot Eric Rohmer’s segment of the Nouvelle Vague portmanteau film Paris Vu Par (1964; Paris Seen By). Then in 1967 he shot Rohmer’s feature film La Collectionneuse - he went on to shoot seven more films for Rohmer (among them, Ma Nuit Chez Maud (1969; My Night at Maud's), Le Genou de Claire (1970; Claire’s Knee), and Die Marquise von O… (1976), and nine for Francois Truffaut (including Domicile Conjugal (1970; Bed and Board), L'Histoire d'Adèle H (1975; The Story of Adele H), and Le Dernier Métro (1980; The Last Metro). Almendros’ invention of bounced as opposed to direct light was favored by the film-makers of the New Wave because of its realistic feel in opposition to the glamorous techniques of mainstream cinema.

Almendros then made his first foray into American film-making with the Roger Corman-produced The Wild Racers (1968) and Cockfighter (1974), but it was with Days of Heaven (1978), directed by Terrence Malik, that he made his name in America. In the film, shot in rural Alberta, Canada, Almendros abandoned the artificial effects employed by modern cinematographers in favor of natural light. The deliberate simplicity of Almendros’ technique led to conflict with the film’s technical crew, who were unused to such austerity, but the results were exceptional, bringing Almendros an Oscar for Best Photography. Make no mistake – though all inventions are a result of the development of the Zeitgeist and many photographers were heading in this direction – really, the invention, or rather paradigm change of that of mainly using bounced light came from Almendros.

At least that has been my apocryphal tale up until very recently. Here, by the way, I make no apologies for inaccuracies and inconsistencies in my tale save that the basic truth of it is right because it is a question of inspiration when teaching and pulling inspiration, intuition and creativity out of those you teach and if I have to get them into a more visionary space by creative inaccuracy – then so be it. But, just to set the record straight here is a passage from Almendros’s book, ‘A Man with A Camera’:

Working in the countryside and in places we had to use our ingenuity to film inside the huts of Cuban peasants. We had no artificial lighting because it was expensive to take a crew of electricians with us. We thought up the idea of using mirrors, capturing the sunlight from the outside, reflecting it in through the windows and directing it to the ceiling, from where it bounced and lit the whole place. Because the huts were rather dark and the walls dull-colored, we had to cover them with white paper to reflect as much light as possible. I should point out that around that time fashion photographers began using light reflected off white umbrellas. I knew about these methods, though as yet they were not much used in filmmaking. They were techniques I perfected later in France.

Well, the story I’ve been telling is near the truth, but here’s the thing, I think we can all agree that bounced soft light is what the industry is using worldwide – yes it takes more control, flags, baffles etc, but bottom line it’s where we are now. For a start, soft bounced light makes the hideousness of the live digital video signal feel a bit better – whether it’s a ghastly little Z1 all the way up to an Origin, Genesis, F23 or Red – soft light begins the cinematographic process with video – and film just loves it (of course film loves all sorts of light that’s why everyone just goes fluffy when using film).

I think perhaps Julia Margaret Cameron may have known about bounced and reflected light and then later, when movie film became fast enough for interior studio use, the great banks of mercury vapor lamps might also have been emulating the kind of work that Almendros was to later come upon and develop.

So, though we need direct light to create certain elements within the frame we’re can all agree that soft light is useful and contemporarily dominant? Well, just to challenge this history I’d like to introduce a new idea: in 1904 there was a Spaniard (yes, that nation does have an edge on others in the invention of lighting techniques) called Mariano Fortuny.

If you know your history you’ll know the name, but perhaps more in terms of design of fabrics. costumes and wallpapers. Here’s a tip: Next time you go to Venice, go to the Fortuny Museum, which is Fortuny’s old residence of the Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei – it’s a museum like no other in the world. But I don’t want to digress.

Mariano Fortuny was born in Granada in the Fonda de los Siete Suelo at the foot of the Alhambra on 11th May 1871. In 1874 his farther died in Rome and in 1875 his mother Cecilia was induced to move the family to Paris. Fortuny copied a Velasquez at the age of 9 and he was sent to learn at the feet of Benjamin Constant. Fortuny frequented the studio of Rodin when he learned about liberating the form from the stone.

Mariano Fortuny 1871-1949

Fortuny was restless in his enquiries about materials and techniques and he was stimulated by the early technical innovations such as that of electrical lighting – this became a dominant idea in his mind as he discovered through a friend of the family, a painter named Boldini, the theatre. What really captured Fortuny’s imagination was a trip behind the scenery, where he saw what the magic of theatre was constructed from which is of course very similar to motion pictures – bar the medium of recording and inscribing the image of course. For Fortuny though, he began to build small models of theatres and sets and he then also became involved in thinking about the possible applications of electricity, physics and optics in the theatre. It was this period and being shown deeper elements of the construction of a theatrical event by a Spanish painter, Egusquiva, that were to stay with Fortuny as he began to invent new techniques of theatrical practice that will be recognized as being at the base of contemporary theatrical technique – as well as being at the base of cinematographic technique!

In 1889 Fortuny’s mother moved the family back to Venice where their house on the Grand Canal became a busy meeting place for artists and writers. Not only did Fortuny paint and etch and practice all of the traditional methods for studying art, he also practiced music, photography and set design. By 1899 he had grown enough to be commissioned by a Countess Albrizzi to design the set and costumes for The Mikado. He then obtained the top floor of a Palazzo where he eventually came to live and it was here that he began his studies of light and experimented with lighting systems finally developing his indirect lighting system:

In the attic of Palazzo Orfei where I worked, the sunshine fell across the floor in a clean slash. As I was arranging the paper for the stage backdrop, it fell exactly into this sunlit area. I stopped in surprise. There, in that low and dim attic, the light that was reflected off the paper was exactly what I had been looking for: not direct light, but reflected light.

In a production at La Scala with the orchestra directed by Toscanini, Fortuny developed sketches for costume and set and with some opposition from La Scala’s stage technicians, he also attempted to implement parts of his new stage lighting system. The technicians may have been suspicious, but the press was ecstatic with the lighting effects and he then registered his first patent for an ‘indirect stage lighting system’. He went to Paris in 1902 and dedicated himself to the construction of stage lighting equipment and to the creation of a device commonly known as the ‘Fortuny Dome.’ It was a concave quarter sphere that was used with his indirect lighting system to enhance the depth effect on the stage set.

With the help of my capable technician, I built my dome of out of plaster 5 meters in diameter. We projected reflected light upon it and added other colored lights, creating fusion and transition effects and a variety of hues that invariably impressed all visitors.

On 6th April 1904 he registered an invention entitled ‘Systeme de constituton d’une paroi concave au moyen d’une capacite gonflable’. Fortuny had created a dome for the Countess and added the following refinement: The walls of the dome were made of two parallel layers of fabric supported in a metal frame. A fan blew air between the two layers, creating pressure and making the surface toward the stage completely smooth. In addition to his complex stage lighting system, Fortuny had the chance to install other new equipment in the theatre. For the first time, he introduced a bridge and then a second walkway above the stage, used by stage technicians to mount the lights. Not only this but he created a system to raise and lower the stage and for the first time ever in the history of theatre, he installed a director’s booth at the back of the auditorium for the lighting operator, who could better direct the lighting effects to the stage.

I’ve used the term ‘theatre’ in a lot of the above description of Fortuny’s activities, but it shouldn’t take much imagination to see what effect Fortuny has had on contemporary lighting and also cinematic studio design. But – not only this. Fortuny created designs for fabric, patented carbon-pigment photographic paper, advised Klimt on the use of gold in his painting, created set design and lighting effects, photographed, played music, researched the history of fabric and created pleated silks inspired by Egyptian Design that later influenced Issey Miyake’s work in the 1970’s and onwards – and, invented many domestic lighting units that are now present in their modern day forms in every household. His wood and metal table lamp of 1929 is the ancestor to Pixar’s dancing lamp.

By the way - every lamp in this article outside of my two are designed by Fortuny - go back and have a look at the wit, intelligence and inventiveness of the man.

There’s a lot more than this but the point of bringing Fortuny into an article about cinematographic lighting technique is the issue of noticing how light behaves and acting on that recognition. Many distinguished cinematographers and gaffers create lights to do specific jobs – Jordan Cronenweth’s famed Croniecone used on films like Blade Runner are a case in point – but, can you imagine a moment perhaps in the 17th Century, or the 6th Century – or maybe way back in our collective pasts where some bright person noticed and became transfixed by the way light bounces, reflects, glows, or passes through a medium like water or smoke and has an epiphany that is then translated into a practical act: for those of us that work with light, that most insubstantial but most powerful of materials I think it helps to know that we exist within a tradition that goes far beyond the cinema that we know and love.