Cinematography Mailing List - CML

African Actors Dark Skin Colour


Hi everybody,

I have a (16mm) feature film coming up, that takes place in Ghana and has only African actors acting in it. „The last king of Scotland“ is one of the visual key influences for it and beside this movie I did a great deal of research and watched many movies with African actors very carefully.
But because I did never film anybody with dark skin colour before I would like to ask if you could share some ideas and advices.

Thank you very much in advance.

Nikolaus Summerer
Director of Photography

Munich, Germany

Nikolaus Summere wrote:

>>But because I did never film anybody with dark skin colour before I would like to ask if you could >>share some ideas and advices.

Dark skin colour is beautiful to photograph IMHO. The skin is highly reflective so it gives you great opportunities to create subtle tone differences. One of the problems people run into is the contrast
between dark skin actors and light skin actors together in shots. Balance accordingly and carefully is my advice. Testing helps as well so you will have an idea of how much to compensate for one skin tone over the other before the shoot begins.

Another issue is dark skin tones against bright or burnt-out backgrounds. Again, be aware of the issue and balance accordingly. Keep the contrast under control and have the tools necessary to do so.

Hope this helps. Have a great time in Ghana. It's a wonderful country especially the Kumasi area and the people are great.

Jim Sofranko

Be sure to bring a polarizer, it can change the reflections and colours off the skin. A kind of minimalist lighting.
Good luck.

Dave Insley
Baltimore/Wash, DC/NY

Softer sources are great when you get a beautiful sheen in dark complexions.

Don't let makeup completely matte down to "perfection" that's awful. Most MU Artists wont of course. If the scene calls for sweat, great!

Backlight/rimlight and soft edge-light... you can often not have enough of it. This also helps with putting dark and light complexions together in the same shot - the lighter actor not hurt as much by the backish light - and you bounce back more of the backlight to the darker actor - this is really useful when you don't have the benefit of precise blocking that allows you to control the levels better on the lighting side - the a talented grip can float the bounce where it needs be and it looks natural to help out the darker skin next to the light.

I've also used a snooted sure-fire in a pinch when I've gotten myself into trouble this way.

Oddly enough, the film mentioned, last King of Scotland was a lot of hard-light as I recall, which has a different feel, maybe even harder to get certain qualities out of very dark complexions (bravo Anthony
Dod Mantle). There were soft sources, I just recall harder ones too. I wouldn't doubt if some of the keylights were 3 stops over. And really, sometimes any "key", specificaly when it moves around to a
side modeling light can afford to be even 4-5 stops over with darkest complexion, and when it feels right for the scene. You just have to find what's right for the cast and that scene.

I would also look at Amistad as a good reference of what's possible. Amazing really, and shot in a relative hurry.Partial or full silhouette is also a beautiful option when the BG's lighter.

There's one thing you'll rarely need to worry about: eyelight. Just lighting darker skin is a gift that usually makes you pump more light into those closer shots, and the eyes pickup every glimmer - visually it’s a huge advantage... you'll tend to have good twinkles in the eyes - really "expressive" as long as you've got the right angle.

Mark Doering-Powell
LA based DP

>> Oddly enough, the film mentioned, last King of Scotland was a lot of  hard-light as I recall

Just my opinion, but I find that black men look really great with hard light, their faces take to it really well.

Phil Badger
gaffer, LA

Phillip Badger wrote:

>> Just my opinion, but I find that black men look really great with hard light, their faces take to it really >> well.

I agree, aside from getting sheen with soft sources - which shouldn't be the only goal - there's other approaches. For me hard light's sometimes more difficult to accomplish what's natural AND what makes the actor look right. In some ways it can be more challenging (at least to me) unless I can justify it with hot sunlight crashing in, or other motivated source. I like what Mantle did there.

Mark Doering-Powell
LA based DP

Mark Doering-Powell wrote:

>> I would also look at Amistad as a good reference of what's possible

I would also look at Mark's own work on every episode of "Everybody Hates Chris," one of the best looking shows around. As I recall, shot originally on Viper, and more recently on F23.

He won't say it, but I did....

Mike Most
Chief Technologist
Cineworks Digital Studios
Miami, Fl.

Especially on hair product commercials we would use hard light, and then use a pola to control facial sheen. Kept a 1 Stop Pola in the kit for minimal light lose and a lesser effect.

Always thought it was interesting that some Dp's would overexpose dark complexions while others under exposed, following the Zone System.

Mako, Makofoto, South Pasadena, CA

Yes I often use hard light on dark coloured men (I think I usually soften it a bit on women.) and think it looks good. I also find that a reflector with gold covering looks great on dark skin - but also so does silver reflector if you need a stronger light. (I often find that these look "odd" on light coloured Caucasian skin!)

Anna Carrington

The one great thing about black skin is how coloured light looks on it. Where it can look very odd on white actors it can add a beautiful metallic sheen to black skin.

Ruairi O'Brien

I agree with much of what has already been said; hard light can look wonderful, the reflective nature of the skin gives beautiful modeling opportunities, collared light (often as fill or "room tone") can really bring out a luminous quality, and the polarizer (especially a one-stop) can be a great tool to have around. Another great tool, albeit a very analogue one, is the Polaroid.

I shot a feature a few years ago (Preaching to the Choir) that was made up of a cast of actors' whose skin tones ranged from a highly reflective bluish-black to others so fair that you could almost feel the red of the blood running through the capillaries in their faces. It was the first time I had to deal with so many different skin tones in the frame at once and I was nervous. The tool I used at the time was a converted Polaroid 110 camera with 667 (3000asa black & white) pack film. Sadly Polaroid doesn't make film anymore (another topic altogether), though Fuji has just recently come out with a comparable film.

I found the contrast ratio of the 667 to be quite similar to that of the 500asa stock I was using at the time (5279). Looking at those B&W polaroids (that would inevitably finish developing moments before the first AC was turning over the camera - I began many a take with my hand over the eye-piece as I peeled them apart) gave me great confidence that I was keeping the tonal ranges of the differing skin tones where I wanted them.

I know digital cameras can do much the same thing, but for many reasons I found the Polaroid a great tool to put my own mind at ease and as a way to communicate what I was intending to do with both the gaffer and the director.

Rob Barocci
Director of Photography, NYC

Can't agree more with what rob has said on two counts...

My experience lighting the thousand different hues and transparencies of African American skin tones started as an observer working as an electrician for Dance Theatre of Harlem for a summer season and expanded as I worked for designers and then designed lights for dance concerts of African American and mixed dance companies in the modern dance world as well as working for a Jazz nightclub in NY whose performers were predominantly African American.

Moving over to a lot of "nice interview light" doc work as well as some feature work as a gaffer...

Stupid stuff that stuck in my head in no particular order and not in an orderly way:

Very saturated blue light was never that friendly, even as edge lights, but greens and golds and ambers - all dicey with lighter Caucasian skin, really made for some beautiful sculpting. Bear in mind in the dance world, we were working with very saturated colours, but the way that sub-surface scattering and reflection and absorption work presumably correlates even as the colours de-saturate. I often used variegated gels (learned from my betters and seniors) with mixes of greens and ambers together on the same light.

I gaze upon my Pathfinders every day wistfully... I have two - a 110A  and a 110 B and they were my constant companions in an era of less forgiving stocks. As aVFX guy, My exposure testing for blue and green screens was very much keyed to the specific experience I had in judging certain superimpositions of my tungsten-lit gray scale against  the screen as examined on pola 667 stock.

They had the added advantage when I was gaffing a lot of giving me somewhere to write spot meter readings on a picture with a sharpie there and then.... into the show book went the pic for matching
purposes... nothing to transcribe at the end of the day or to try and remember after lunch.

I love matte gold showcard as a subtle 3/4 back edge when appropriate...

Mark H. Weingartner
LA-based VFX DP/Supervisor

Flouros look better on black skin than white, and are good for kickers and highlights. I wouldn’t obsess too much, not that hard or that different. Light the rooms.

Dan Bronks

The dop shop / has skin tone colour cards and "colour" grey cards you may want to try.

Gerard Brigante IA 600 Cam Op
East Coast 600 Ed committee

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