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class="Paragraph" Impressions Of Darkness

Published : 22nd February 2004


As my first post - I would first like to thank everyone on CML for everything that I have learned from them, (and will continue to learn). It is very rare in this world to find such a large group of professionals willing to share their collective knowledge so freely.

Just finishing my last year of school, I am going to be shooting my thesis project soon, using the Sony DSR570 and, as of yet, undetermined 35mm lenses.

My question : How do I give the best "impression" of darkness?

I need the audience to believe that what they are seeing is in almost complete darkness, yet obviously we still need to be able to see the actor's faces, and key elements clearly. There will be few apparent practical light sources - tiny shafts of daylight coming through almost completely covered (boarded) windows, and intermittent lit cigarettes.

I have found a few helpful things in the archives, but any additional info would be great.

Cheers -


Phil Douglas, Student
Toronto, Canada



There's sort of two approaches, sort of low contrast and high contrast.

In the low contrast method, you go for a general ambient soft light that is everywhere but it is extremely under exposed so you just have this really dim image. The idea being that you have no sense of where the light is coming from. The biggest problem with this approach is that while it may work when the image is projected in a dark theater on a large screen that fills your vision, it doesn't work so well when viewed on a small TV screen in a well-lit room. The other problem is that if someone attempts to brighten the dim image, you just get a lot of noise or grain and you lose any sense of darkness. The risk of just creating "murk" is very high.

In the high contrast method, you try and create as many areas of blackness in the frame as possible. You have some edge lights to bring out shapes but you try and keep the shadow side black most of the time. You have small hot spots or accents here and there when you need to see something but most of the time, plus maybe small areas of brightness on the background to silhouette people against now and then, and you let people move in and out of the black areas. The tricky thing here is that you "feel" that there are various sources of light in the room. Maybe you can justify them as reflected stray light, light spilling under doors, light traveling from some source in the far background, enough to justify an edge light, etc.

Sometimes smoke in the air can be useful because the light will get hazy and create some depth and separation (a silhouette foreground shape will stand out better against a hazy beam of light) but other times it's a mistake to use smoke because it also makes it clear where every light is hidden in the room.

The two approaches are sometimes combined -- you can have some dim ambient fill in small parts of the shadowy room -- and in the low-contrast "dim" scenario, you might have a little accent or edge light now & then.

Because some directors confuse "dark", "dim", and "shadowy" as all one thing, it's best to find some examples that you both can study and agree on.

David Mullen
Cinematographer / L.A.



What David said. That was a really good post.

I'd add a quote from John Surtees that I read in AC a long time ago.

Someone asked him how kept lighting consistent over a large area where actors where having a long "walk and talk." He said he didn't; he just worried about making sure they were well light wherever they stopped. It seems that, in the darkness approach, this could be taken to another extreme by lighting the areas behind the actors and letting them go dark, or edging them against black, and only occasionally (when it's important) have them step into some sort of subtle key.

Ultimately you need to set a mood and see that there are people present, and you don't need people perfectly lit for that. Silhouettes or edged figures are enough. I'd light the background and then figure out, for each scene or shot, whether their faces needed to be seen at some point, and
take appropriate action.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"
http://www.artadams.net/



Chiming in with my two cents:

One of the best tips I ever got is, when you're intentionally underexposing to produce a dark image, it often helps if one part of the scene is properly exposed (for instance, a room that is predominantly lit two or three stops below exposure, but there's a table to one side that's lit right at exposure.)

That way the audience has a reference for what's "normal light" and understands that the rest of the scene is in darkness. This also helps the blacks look blacker by comparison; if the whole scene is dark without the "normal light" reference, the blacks start looking milky (because of the eye's compensation).

And without the "normal light" reference, sometimes the scene can look just plain badly exposed...

Anyway. In case this helps.

Paolo A. Dy
Director / Cinematographer
Manila, Philippines



Phil Douglas writes :

>There will be few apparent practical light sources - tiny shafts of daylight >coming through almost completely covered (boarded) windows, and >intermittent lit cigarettes.

Phil, you've gotten some really good advice from David and Art. I'd only add that your boarded-up windows might provide excellent motivation for the high-contrast approach. With thin beams of relatively hard light coming through the cracks from a single direction, you might be able to block your actors and set your camera angles so the talent is rimmed, "sliced," and otherwise selectively illuminated as and when needed. Your thin "blades" of light could also illuminate key spots in the room to define the space. The called-for cigarette smoke might dilute your contrast, but it could also (say, if exhaled at the right moments) help to strategically light up a face, a hand gesture, etc.

Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.

Dan Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA



Thanks David, Art, and Dan for the input.

David - while I had previously considered both, the high contrast and low contrast approaches, your statement:

"The risk of just creating "murk" is very high"

I hadn't thought about, and makes me want to lean more towards the high contrast - especially since I am shooting on DV - which lends itself to this naturally. I will have to consider justifying the light sources as you mentioned though.

As a side note - it is ironic you should point out having examples of work to show the director - because a couple of the reference photos I have collected so far are stills from Northfork (cut out of ASC magazine).

I don't think I would go as far as doing too much silhouetting, but all of you suggested using edge lighting which is a wonderful idea and should work well with the high contrast.

"or edging them against black, and only occasionally (when it's important) have them step into some sort of subtle key."

Sounds like it may be exactly the kind of thing I was looking for will have to do a bit of testing of this.

Thanks again -
Phil Douglas, Student
Toronto, Canada



Art Adams writes :

> What David said. That was a really good post.

Seconded!

Taking the higher con approach a bit further I'd suggest that you can get a better impression of darkness by making sure that edgelights and some small areas of the shot are actually well overexposed.

Your eye sees the very bright bits and than "makes" the darker bits darker.

Here is an example of this.

/HAUNTING%20qt.HTM

Cheers

Geoff Boyle FBKS
Director of Photography
EU Based
www.cinematography.net



>One of the best tips I ever got is, when you're intentionally >underexposing to produce a dark image, it often helps if one part of the >cene is properly exposed

You can sometimes do cool things by making this more-brightly-exposed part of the scene spatially removed from the dark action area, for instance a "normally lit" apartment across an alley in a b.g. etc.

Then, you are playing a kind of mind-game with the audience, denying them access to visual information while you're giving them audio cues, plus -- you can then use the more brightly lit place as a cheat/motivation; now that there is some light existing in your weird universe, you have established a kind of philosophical back or back/side light, and can start to justify a little non-directional to see a few things as if the negative were emulating a dark-adapted eye....

Sam Wells



Sam Wells writes :

>Then, you are playing a kind of mind-game with the audience, denying >them access to visual information while you're giving them audio cues

Audio cues can go a long way toward defining an unseen or partially seen environment. Acoustics can suggest a concrete pillbox or a cushy living room.... as well as the overall size of the room. Wind can suggest porous walls. Rain on windows can suggest... windows! Sounds can characterize the surrounding (unseen) environment and physical context. Surf? Traffic? Sirens? Bicycle bells? Cattle and horses? A muffled radio playing in the next apartment? A flushing toilet? Jackboots on the stairs....?

Dan Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA



>Audio cues can go a long way toward defining an unseen or partially >seen environment.

Unfortunately, though, audio cues are not the domain of the camera department, and as such you can never really be sure they're going to happen, or what quality they will be.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"



Art Adams writes :

>audio cues are not the domain of the camera department, and as such >you can never really be sure they're going to happen, or what quality >they will be.

Unless they've written camera noise into the script.

Dan "damn... I thought *you* brought the barney..." Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA



>Unless they've written camera noise into the script.

On every project I worked on with an Arri BL-1 or BL-2 I suggested we get insert shots, in each location, of an old woman sitting in the corner with a sewing machine.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"



Art Adams writes :

>On every project I worked on with an Arri BL-1 or BL-2 I suggested we >get insert shots, in each location, of an old woman sitting in the corner >with a sewing machine.

It must be an inside joke, but in a lot of films about filmmaking (Bowfinger and Stunt Woman come to mind), an Arri35-II is often used as a practical prop. Strangely, the old coffee grinder rolls in eerie silence! Which it may well do, since it's never depicted as being attached to a battery.

Dan Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA