Sunday, 9 May 2010

Some Notes on the Theory and Practice of Innovation in Theatre, Film, Electronic Cinematography, Digital and Television Education

The Fortuny - Mariano Fortuny's design for an early electrical lamp

This article is concerned primarily with what constitutes the need to innovate due to practical pressures - and given I was a Director of Photography for a quarter of a century I will utilise my own work and its pressures in practical situations to reveal as much as I can about the process of innovation. I will also discuss the teaching of lighting and some of the methods I had discovered to reveal the sensibility needed by the fledgling Director of Photography that intuits and senses the materiality of light, so that that person is then equipped to solve lighting problems outside of mind-sets which engender and replicate what is expected in standard film and televisual forms. To be an art, lighting must not be standardised, the pursuit of the photographic moment within the flow of cinematic frames is a quest and an art outside of the act of standardisation.

The demand for innovation has developed within the art of lighting partly through budgetary pressures - in fact I will argue that the main development in lighting in the 20th century was due to Nestor Almedros, a Spanish Director of Photography working in Cuba, who had to think outside of his experience with little or no budget - due simply to being provoked by a mirror being smashed. Equally one must look at the career of Mariano Fortuny, also a Spaniard, born seventy years before Almendros, who was responsible for defining modern theatrical lighting. Fortuny was a wonder, a painter who Klimt took advice from on the use of gold in painting, a textile artist and designer who looked back to the Egyptians development of pleating materials, who the Japanese designer Issy Miyake, born 100 years after Fortuny, took inspiration from to develop his pleating methods in the 1980’s; Fortuny was also a designer of early electrical lamps, who was engaged by Toscanini to design lighting for a prodiction for La Scala which led to the invention of the Fortuny Dome that then prompted Fortuny to create the basis for modern theatrical lighting grids. At his studio in Venice, Fortuny later encouraged the experimentation with 35mm film projected on to textiles and paintings - surely some of the first experiments that questioned the notion of ‘the screen’. He seemed, given the analogue technologies of his time, to have no disciplinary boundaries.

Video Painting, a projection on textiles, 2009, by Artist Charlotte Humpston, who began her training as a Theatre Designer at Central St Martins

In all of the above there is also the issue of the relation of practice to theory, of theory to practice and the perennial question of which should precede which and which of these should be informed by the other. In each of these two practices there are two different languages used. Theory seeks to be as precise as possible in the revelation of the truth of the act, culture or thought. In so doing it utilises metaphors that are as precise as possible. For instance the term data-mining is concerned with data as having multifarious levels and so the concept of digging out meaning is evoked. However, dealing with data has nothing whatsoever to do with the act of mining. Coal and minerals are real and not virtual. Data up until recently, has been described by contemporary media theory as being immaterial - although this is questionable for a variety of reasons that are outside the purview of this article. The point is that those involved primarily with theory, pride themselves on precision yet because they have to rely on metaphor which must break down at some point, can be said to utilise imprecise methodologies.

I do not wish to bring down upon myself the wrath of academia and those who’s job it is to practice theory, to be overly concerned with this argument. I simply raise it as we do need at some point to deal with this issue. Those concerned primarily with practice, it could be argued, do not concern themselves with this viewpoint as, it can be argued by practitioners, that that which is evoked in the act of theorising, damages the ability to be fully involved with practice. Practice utilises a different language and approach from the act of theorising. Often the language is imprecise and purposefully not rigorous (having said that, teaching of craft practice is rigorous in certain ways i.e. the relationship between f stops and depth of focus for instance is a mathematical relationship and therefore by definition its teaching can be rigorous). However, I am here thinking of practice in a real world situation which is rigorous in professional terms but also requires - if the director of photography is to ‘say’ anything with his or her work - the courage to go beyond being rigorous and therefore being safe, to an operating space which allows for accident and unusual solutions which align more perfectly with the intent of the scene they are lighting.

In the introduction I was fully aware of the use of imprecise language: ‘the fledgling Director of Photography that intuits and senses the materiality of light’. The use of the phrase ‘materiality of light’ does not bother me. I know it to be true. In the job of DP you touch light every day - put out your hand, introduce a finger before your palm and produce a shadow. That is fully material. What I was referring to was the use of the word ‘intuits’.

I use this word and idea in the sense that the DP enters the space and must dismiss the use of logical beta-thinking, frontal lobe ratiocination that gets in the way of the evocation of the sense that then recognises and produces a comprehension of the state of the space, in terms of light. This is intuition or in-teaching - listening to what is being told to you inside of yourself - maybe by yourself if no other. Actually, this is precise in description because this is what happens if you do not follow a systematic approach as taught with contemporary educational film and video courses, which emphasise functions like ‘key, rim and fill’ as a basis for lighting. In truth these are simply starting positions to develop 'photographic lighting' as espoused by great cinematographers like Conrad Hall (his last film, Road To Perdition) and for 'craft' to flourish within academia, as it does within Hollywood, we must encourage a definition of the characterising functions within a developed sense that we hardly recogise as being of worth study, goes under the guise 'intuition'. It is said within the industry that 'you've either got it or you ain't', but that conclusion is in fact a descriptor of the condition of the students mindset after academic training in practical motion picture and media production studies.

Key rim and fill, or, Three point lighting

I have been a Director of Photography in the UK and have been lighting since 1980. I'm currently an AHRC Senior Research Fellow at Bristol University. When I first took up the craft I was privileged to be working 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 now 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: Making moving images has an allure for young people developing within the digital age, sufficient to disable the call of the young to rock and roll a generation earlier.

When thinking 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 a music show for Channel 4. 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. This conundrum blew his fuse and he retired. I got the call and said I could solve the problem. 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 boom poles, 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 lowell tota-lamp at the back shining through the frost and hung the whole thing off a barracuda pole or polecatThe 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 a 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 traveling to shoot a documentary you don’t have 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 gel over it 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 for Blade Runner – 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 to make sure that light did not spill around the subject. At the 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 situations. The light was so soft you didn’t need any diffusion over the lens. You could put a small pepper light 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, including people like Mariah Carey, (who is astute enough to take her own DP around the world with her to make sure they were represented in a particular kind of way), then I showed them what I was going to do by sitting in front of my own lamp. Sometimes I didn’t light the star but the presenter and my presenter was watched by the star and embarrassing questions were asked: I remember doing a job for the BBC where a very big star had a full time lighter. I let him do his job then lit my interviewer and this particularly acutely bright 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 or 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 low 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 in 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 my class 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 modeling 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 – and so on.

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.

Director Terence Malik and Nestor Almendros' 1978 Days of Heaven, shot mainly at 'Golden Hour' - that mysterious moment after the sun has set, yet light is still in the sky. If you look you'll see that 'fill' light is bounced back into frame from the left.

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).

Julia Jackson by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. There is hard light source to the right of this picture, but there's also a soft bounce coming in from the left - just as with Nestor Almendros Days of Heaven image, above.

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. (I make no apologies in an article of this sort for my next point: Next time you go to Venice, go to the Fortuni Museum, which is Fortuni’s old residence of the Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei – it’s a museum like no other in the world. This is a museum where the muse descends and accompanies not only the artist, but the visitor).

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.

The three lamps other than mine shown in this article are designed by Fortuny - if you have time, search the net and have a look at the wit, intelligence and inventiveness of the man in his other design work in lighting, textiles and paintings.

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 beyond the birth of cinema into the history of theatre, and should one cast one's mind back a little further to sixteenth and seventeenth century masques and their lighting effects and back further still to Roman, Greek if not Babylonian forms of entertaining one another.

At the beginning of this article I had said: ‘This article is concerned primarily with what constitutes the need to innovate due to practical and budgetary pressures’ but I also tried to foreground issues around the teaching of practice and the theorising of practice - as well as the practicing of the act of theorising. What I have also been interested in as an underlying motivation in the writing of this is to celebrate the different but similar modes of thought between the production of recorded media such as film and television and live media such as theatre or performance art. It is clear to me that there are shared ideas in creative innovation in any medium because that act of invention itself evokes the use of sensibilities that are outside of formal ratiocinatory thinking. One is essentially looking for everything that exists outside of the acts that lead to thought that easily enter language or more specifically, text- and in contradistinction to the spirit of that idea, it has somehow found its way here.

For an assessment of my research, please see the blog entitled Time and Resolution: Experiments in High Definition Image Making, which outlines my work and current findings. Another set of ideas I've been working on, in terms of how colour is represented can be found at: The Concept of Colour Space from the practitioners Standpoint. You can find other papers of mine at: