Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Afro-American Project


16th July 2005

I will be doing a film with predominantly African-Americans in it. I want to draw on any ones experience lighting these people to look their best

Any recommendations on filtration, color temperature, or lighting gels to test to really make them look the best?

John Gonzalvez
Golden Era Productions

I will be doing a film with predominantly African-Americans in it. I want to draw on anyone’s experience lighting these people to look their best.

I will make two observations, one probably obvious one, and one less obvious one.

Test test test before you start and get used to metering a bit more with a spotmeter until you are happy with where skin-tones are falling - it is a good reminder that darker skin doesn't necessarily want to fall the same zone as caucasian skin.

Secondly, while we tend to shy away from green light impinging on our leading actors when they are white, due to the sickly pallor that can be created, I found in my time working with predominately black dance troupes (in my misspent youth as a lighting designer and electrician) and later in the world of early rap and black pop artist videos, greens and ambers as accent lights and edge lights in some situations can be really pleasing.

Deep saturated blues can cause some really unfortunate effects with very dark skin, so if your film is likely to have lots of situations that call for saturated colors (club or rave scenes or that kinda thing) you might want to spend a little of your pre-shoot tests playing with saturated colors as side lights so you can see what you like and what you want to stay away from.

Another obvious tip - make friends with the makeup dept as one of the most effective ways to cut a very dark-skinned face out of a dark background (without smashing a separation light into the deep background) is to reflect a bounce source or a large diffuse edge light source in a cheek that has a little perspiration (or "glow" as we would say on a leading lady)

I hope this doesn't all sound stupidly mechanical, but if you abstract the body and face shapes into convex and concave shapes and think about them the way you would about lighting glossy tabletop or dark cars, you will see what I mean...reflecting white cards, silver cards, gold cards etc can be much more gratifying than on pasty white skin (like mine)

I have been enjoying the look of "The Wire" on HBO - gritty but cool.

Get a bunch fashion and lifestyle magazines aimed at the African American market and look at how their ads are lit. Now I'll shut up (I'm a VFX nerd after all) and make room for the more artistic among us to make some useful suggestions

Mark Weingartner
ex lighting/sound man for the Cotton Club on 125th st
(a LONG time ago)

John Gonzalvez wrote :

>I will be doing a film with predominantly African-Americans in it...Any >recommendations on filtration...

Most of what you need involves using make-up assistance and is based in providing ample light on the actors and balancing that with the background illumination. In addition, there are things you can do with filters...

Contrast reduction, using a mild grade like an 1/8 or 1/4 Low Contrast or Ultra Contrast filter will help bring out more detail especially in the darker skin tones.

The darker the skin, the more there is a tendency for what I perceive as almost a dichroic effect- highlights reflect as bluish from the warm-toned skin, which can be reduced by the use of a skin-tone enhancing filter like the 812. The additional color "warmth" of the 812 also generally improves skin tones of all types.

A mild grade Pro-Mist (1/8 or 1/4), or of a Glimmerglass filter, can do two things at once : reduce contrast and provide some highlight flare. Enhancing the "modelling" quality of the light, this has the ability to increase the sense of depth, of three-dimensionality, in the image, which will improve the viewer's ability to discern details in a dark subject.

Some of the above effects, like the Pro-Mist, for instance, also come combined with an 812 and is in this case called a "warm" Pro-Mist, so if you choose to use both types of effects, you can do that in one filter by using the "warm" version.

Above all, test as extensively as your situation allows. Hope it all goes well...

Ira Tiffen

I have worked numerous times with African American actors, and for the most part I think it is best not to change anything in your approach.

However, the range of skin tones can be quite large. If you are dealing with very dark actors, you may want to do something against the bluish hue, which was already pointed out by others. Additionally depending how dry the skin is, its surface may be more revealing in regard to reflections of light sources. Sometimes a polarizer can dry up some ones skin quite well.

Additionally, using a contrast viewing glass can help.

Finally, one word of caution, many people are unaware that cinematographers refer to skin color as a subject purely related to film latitude, contrast, and exposure value. I have seen people being fired from productions, because a technical comment was mistaken for racism.

Joerg Schodl,
Cinematographer, LA

Regarding Ira's "dichroic" effect-which appears most often, I think, on temples and sides of faces and can be caused by back/side-lights raking very dark skin-use a chocolate gel on those lights only instead of (or in addition to) an overall lens correction filter.

cf. "The Landlord," shot many years ago by Gordon Willis, and using this solution, among others.

And, while often not appropriate, huge "double-bounced" or "double-diffused" lights can look just as luscious...or more so...on dark skin as on light. They need not wrap very far around the face.

On the opposite end of the scale, if appropriate and if you and the director have the stomach to let an actor deliver a long "aria" in a very "moody" scene, with a face in near silhouette, try using a single (fairly soft) side or back/side light alone...or with very little define a face. (Think Marlon Brando up the river in "A Pocket Book Now" or, more recently, some of Sean Penn's "arias" in "Mystic River.") But be careful...the better DP's who do this usually have other, brighter elements in the frame.

Jerry Cotts

>And, while often not appropriate, huge "double-bounced" or "double->diffused" lights can look just as luscious...or more so...on dark skin as >on light. They need not wrap very far around the face"

May I as a purely documentary cameraman contribute my 2 cents. My biggest challenge is to keep that natural colour saturation with dark skin. In my experience approaches such as the use of low contrast filtration and intense make up only serves to create an unnatural milky skin tone and loss of skin detail. As Jerry Cotts said "double - diffused lights can look luscious", in my experience you need to colour the diffuser, I make use of a gel called "Bustard Amber" on the fill to warm the white diffuser to have less of a milky projection.

Jacques Nortier - Environmental & Wildlife cameraman,
South Africa

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