Film, Light, Art & Good Stories

Steven Poster ASC commented...

>Let it go. Let's get back to talking about light and art and telling stories on any >moving medium? That used to be fun here.

All this discussion needs is a thread. Just because I'm worn out from weeks of HD ...don't need to go there if I hadn't already.

I like that you associate light with art and good stories.

What art has recently captured your imagination. How'd it make you feel? How was it lit (not technically, emotionally) ? (run with it ...)

I've been quite for a while. Needed a change in topic.

Timothy Norman Huber Atlanta

I've been looking at non-realistic paintings, the more distorted reality of work by Edvard Munch, for example, or Ernst Kirchner -- I guess this all falls under the category of Expressionism. Movie images, being by their nature photographs more than paintings, tend to be ruthlessly realistic in terms of how space is reproduced, lines flow, etc. This is why it's easy for cinematographers to be inspired by more realistic painters like Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Vermeer -- the visual ideas can be transposed to film. It gets harder to incorporate ideas from, let's say, Gothic Art or Cubism, into cinematography. Plus audiences for the most part are fairly conservative, preferring photography that seems more or less natural looking to them.

I have this short essay by Carl Dreyer on color in movies, written in 1955, complaining about the lack of interesting use of color in movies. Some of what he wrote:

"When a film colorist is merely imitating nature, the audience is merely appraising how well or ill the colors came out. Indeed, we have so often seen the grass green, and the sky blue, that sometimes we wish we could see a green sky and blue grass -- just for a change." Later: "The color film can be a really great aesthetic experience -- in regard to color -- when it has been freed from the embrace of naturalism."

These words came to mind while I watched the new "Dune" mini-series on the Sci-Fi Channel, shot by Storaro. Reviews have complained about how stage-bound the production was, the fakeness of the exterior sets, and some of Storaro's colored lighting. Even on Usenet, I saw one post that began "Has Storaro suffered a stroke or something???"

The day scenes in the desert ARE too stage-bound, shot against translights mostly, but Storaro took an interesting, if controversial tack, and decided to not try and make look more real with natural-looking lighting. Instead, those scenes look more like science-fiction book cover illustrations, and like the sort of fantasy paintings that someone like Thomas Cole would paint. It also reminded me a little of how Peter Greenaway's films have been photographed. Or some of Storaro's work in "Goya in Bordeaux."

It's not always a successful approach, especially when the suspense of the scene depends on believing in its reality, but there were times when I appreciated this almost expressionistic approach, with strong areas of color in the frame, lights changing color & direction during the shot even in day exterior scenes, etc. Watching Storaro's work always inspires me to not get too hung up on natural lighting and think in more bold strokes using color, contrast, and movement.

On the other hand, I also saw the dreadful comedy "Picking Up the Pieces" in which the lurid story was given a lurid lighting approach by Storaro, making the whole enterprise rather cartoonish and grating -- deliberately on both accounts I think, but the story couldn't be saved by any of these stylistic gyrations, I think.

David Mullen Cinematographer / L.A.

One of my favorite masters is George De La Toure. I love the way he used light sources in the frame to motivate the highlight/shadow interplay.

Forgive me, David, for editing your context, but you further state:

>I've been looking at non-realistic paintings, the more distorted reality of work by >Edvard Munch, for example, or Ernst Kirchner -- I guess this all falls under the >category of Expressionism.

I've always looked at the craft of cinematography as only one facet of the total "work" that is a motion picture. It is true that, as camerpeople, we are limited in how much we can alter the reality of what we photograph. However, our work (for better or worse) is subsequently manipulated by an editor, a sound designer, a composer, and sometimes a Visual effects Supervisor.

It is this alteration of "the reality" that creates the "expression" of the Director's vision (hence, a modern motion picture can be a work of "Expressionism")

So too, an audience leaves the theatre with an "impression" of the story. (Hence a modern motion picture can be a work of "Impressionism" too!)

If we look at a splotch of paint on a canvas, we might describe it as: pretty... blue.. textured...

Juxtaposed to other splotches of paint, we start to see shapes and interrelationships between the splotches.

When we stand far enough away from "Water Lilies" we can see exactly what made Monet such a genius.

The same corollary can be made between the shot, the scene and the final film.

(Yes, there's more to this stuff than debating the merits of "point and shoot" technology.)

Joe Di Gennaro, SOC Director of Photography/Camera Operator Brand new West-Coaster

You point out the main difference between paintings and movies -- we "read" a painting in our own time, absorbing it as long as we need to, while a movie image's screen time is brief, has to be absorbed quickly, and its length is a given, not determined by the viewer's personal preferences. And not only do these shots have a time element, but they are intercut with other images to create even more layers of meaning, and on top of that are the other arts of cinema (acting, writing, music, editing, etc.)

So, yes, an individual image can seem realistic, but the way it's edited can make it expressionistic. In fact, editing and music are generally highly unrealistic compared to the photography of a movie (we don't exist, except mentally maybe, in jumps cuts, intercutting of locations & parallel actions, or surrounded by soundtrack music, etc.). But just addressing cinematography, I've always been interested in films that attempt to visually resemble other graphic arts, especially the less realistic ones, to see what works or doesn't work, how far one can wander away from naturalism. This is probably why I'm fond of MGM Technicolor musicals, Michael Powell's films, and John Huston's "Moulin Rouge"...

Totally unrelated, I just saw today a very natural-looking French film called "La Buche", shot by Robert Fraisse ("The Lover", "Ronin") -- nice Super-35 photography, consistent blacks & graininess (which was mild), natural but attractive lighting for the female leads, etc. A good Christmas-themed film for adults to see. An interesting side-note was that all the dialogue scenes in moving vehicles seemed to have been done (well) using greenscreen & digital composites, which is something I'd like to try someday, getting tired of the logistics of process trailer work (Gary Marshall once referred to directing dialogue scenes in moving vehicles as "the root canal of filmmaking" and sometimes I agree.) I'm just guessing about how the car scenes were done, but there were a few visual hints, plus Fraisse had done some similar work in "Ronin" (better-done this time though.)

David Mullen Cinematographer / L.A.

In a fairly recent issue of AC a cinematographer (can't recall which one) said he didn't care to refer to, or draw inspiration from, paintings by Vermeer and such as paintings (or the painters rather) do not represent light and shadow the same way film does. I can see his point as the painter can "cheat" a highlight or shadow detail to his or her liking. Also, the lighting is subject to the painter's interpretation.

>These words came to mind while I watched the new "Dune" mini-series on the >Sci-Fi Channel, shot by Storaro. Reviews have complained about how >stage-bound the production was, the fakeness of the exterior sets, and some >of Storaro's colored lighting. Even on Usenet, I saw one post that began

I saw the trailer/commercial in the theaters and was bummed to find out it was on the Sci-Fi channel which I don't have. ( One of the reasons I found Titus (the film not the t.v. series) refreshing to watch was the less realistic style of lighting used by DP Luciano Tovoli. Being that Dune isn't set in contemporary times gives Storaro room to exercise some artistic license in lighting. Whether it's considered appropriate is, I guess, up to the individual viewer.

>The day scenes in the desert ARE too stage-bound, shot against translights >mostly, but Storaro took an interesting, if controversial tack, and decided >to not try and make look more real with natural-looking lighting. Instead, >those scenes look more like science-fiction book cover illustrations, and

This reminds me of Sir Peter Brook's "The Mahabharata", a French miniseries broadcast here in the States on PBS back in 1989. Brook, primarily a stage director, chose to shoot with a minimum of close ups. DP William Lubtchansky lit the exterior day scenes with soft overhead sources. This combination tended to make me feel as if I were watching a filmed stage play, which of course it was. It is difficult, I think, to duplicate natural sunlight on stage, even if you are trying to duplicate an overcast day. I've always felt natural overcast light has a certain quality to it that's not quite matched on a stage with soft artificial sources. I can't put my finger on it, but there are nuances. I'm curious, did Storaro use soft overhead sources for the day scenes?

>exterior scenes, etc. Watching Storaro's work always inspires me to not get >too hung up on natural lighting and think in more bold strokes using color, >contrast, and movement.

This begs the question: Is there such thing as *natural lighting* in cinematography? DPs turn on lights, turn off lights, move lights, flag lights, diffuse lights, dim lights, brighten lights, gel lights, reflect lights, focus lights, scrim lights and tweak lights. All these are an artificial means to an end subject to the DP's own sensibilities and what he/she wishes to express. Even *natural light* photography is an expression of what the DP considers "natural".

Jus' some thoughts,

Layne "talking about something other than that Times article" Uyeno

Coincidentally, I've just been re-reading Walter Murch's book, "In the Blink of an Eye". It's a short book, an easy read, but he makes (for me) some wonderful observations about our internal perceptions of film and editing etc.

He quotes a John Huston interview from 73' where John says, "To me the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes, and your eyes were projecting it themselves, so that you were seeing what you wished to see. Film is like thought. It's the closest to thought process of any art."

There are many cool comparisons to human thoughts changing and how we blink at each change and that cuts (joins) are the equivalent of these.

It's an eye opener. (sorry)



The main one I always notice is that lack of dull sheen / hazy reflection across the eyeballs that happens in real life in a day exterior. But there have been some successful examples, probably the best for me being the African sequences in "2001", shot on stages in front of giant front-projected 8x10 slides. Kubrick wisely kept his subjects in the shadows of the canyons or in hazy dawn light to avoid having to simulate hard sunlight across the entire stage.

It's generally easier when you're dealing with a forest set instead of an open desert set. "Sleepy Hollow" had some convincing-looking scenes in the deep woods shot on stages. Some scenes in the jungle set of "Greystoke" were also well-done.

>I'm curious, did Storaro use soft overhead sources for the day scenes?

Sometimes. But he would also light the foreground in a different color than the translight, or introduce a color backlight that didn't seem to be motivated by anything (like blue in an orange-lit scene), or even cross-light actors sometimes. Other times, he would have a strong beam of hot backlight as sunlight. Sometimes he would fade from white to orange to blue/green lighting to create an accelerated transition into night. All of these color schemes sort of culminate in the last scene, shot in blazing hot white light in a dark room. It reminded me of a similar theme in "Bulworth" (and even "Last Emperor") where all colors come together to form white light at the end when the character has reached the end of their journey.

David Mullen Cinematographer / L.A.

I'm so glad that someone brought up the fact that editing plays a crucial role in the presentation of images. For myself, I've learnt much over the years observing how my own work changes from the point where I had absolute control over the lighting and composition of a frame to how it appears as part of an edited sequence. On occasion cinematography which I felt unsatisfied with (defeated by time, inspiration or grumpy gaffers/ directors/ actors etc....) has transformed into a pleasing stream of images in the editing room. Similarly scenes and individual shots have been used in radically different order from that which they were shot for and I've been made to look like a right monkey (sunlight yo-yo ing up, down, left and right around the same room in the space of a minutes narrative). Some you win, some you lose.

Changing tack, I've always felt Storraros' colour notions to be pretty tatty and purile. Surely he's getting pay offs from Rosco. Watch Dick Tracey in B & W and you'll notice that in the absence of his trademark garish pranks the lighting is pretty duff. It's a real shame since his work pre mid eighties shows (amongst many merits) real subtlety towards the use of colour; now he's just the 'funky colour / dimmer board guy'.

Now that I've got that bit of sniping off my chest - it's really good that all us DPs seek out inspiration from all these different sources. There are always photographs that turn me on - not because I want to ape their look so much as they suggest a narrative that keys off a reaction in me. Philip-Lorca diCorcia and William Eggelston have mastered the colour still image in a way that still seems to elude cinematography. Perhaps exactly because they have the luxury of being confined to the single image. And I'd go further than David Mullen by admitting that at my most pretentious/pompous I find media even more tangential than cubism and 'non-representative' painting (haiku / essays / music etc...) to be cool ways of 'thinking different' towards the day job. The bind is............try explaining that to your director when they want to sit you down with a stack of their favourite movies on VHS, take the phone off the hook and cram like there's going to be an exam in the morning. So often I feel like my whole existance is governed by F stops and on set cracks about Kubrick. It's neat that CML gives us a forum for nattering about our 'feelings' towards cinematography as well as swapping technical titbits. All to often my daily concern is to present myself as employable and try to avoid using words like 'reflexive' and 'obfuscation' in front of producers who think my dress code is flakey.

On a simpler note, I recently painted myself into a corner on a shoot and ended up hand holding an agressively low angle shot on a four poster bed. The camera was pointing almost straight up at the actresses face as she pulled a sheet away from the lense. The director was insistant that they wanted to see the top of the bed posts that measured at least eight feet above ground level. I panicked and reached for the widest lense in the box (around the 12 - 18mm mark). It looked absolutely ridiculous through the viewfinder with grossely exagerated perspective and a completely wacky angle. "This shot", I thought, "is on the cutting room floor before light even reaches the film stock". As it happens the shot looks cool and not the least bit bizarre. I guess I learnt that one has to detatch oneself from 'knowing' how the reality of the space looked. My concerns all came from the huge perceived difference between reality and 'what the camera saw'. This is really basic stuff of course but it caught me right out. Not a particularly 'good' story I admit but an important phenomenon for me to be reminded of after getting set in my ways.


Tom Townend

You bring to mind "What Dreams May Come." Aside from the technical flaws, This was a high-concept, beautiful story, with sincere performances that transcended its problems admirably.

Cinemagraphically, it is the closest recent example I can name which demonstrates what you are describing.

The problem with trying to diverge from naturalism visually is that, unless there is a strong narrative spine, the film becomes a collection of abstract visuals which have no glue to hold them together. Unrealistic images combined with an unbelievable story can lead to visual and emotional boredom.

I think that's why comedy and musicals can lend themselves to a less than naturalistic look. The audience is already predisposed to suspending their disbelief. They are prepared, let's say, for a bunch of thugs from a New York ghetto to suddenly start dancing and singing about a street fight (West Side Story).

Daniel Fapp was able to light that film like a stage play (in keeping with the story's origin) and nobody complains about the lack of "reality" to his work. If one were to attempt shooting a serious drama with such a lighting style, the result would be comedic. Soap Operas come to mind as I write this. The heavy drama of the dialogue becomes trivial when photographed like a sit-com.

I could go on and on, but I'm afraid of choking on bandwidth.

Joe Di Gennaro, SOC

Director of Photography/Camera Operator


OK...I started this one (with a big help from Steven), so I can't just sit this thread out...

I have been haunted by the Starn twins work ever since I saw there show three years ago. There seems to be something ancient about their work; like a lost artifact. I find it quite beautiful and compelling. It's a great relief to see photography pushed to such an extreme.

Timothy Norman Huber shortwinded, but winded non the less...

oh yea, Atlanta

Having sat through a class on the history of experimental film in college, my impression was that narrative is inherently pleasurable and seductive (which is why I often fell asleep in class). When a film is lacking in a strong narrative, we tend to see this as a weakness because we primarily still judge movies as a visual form of literature, and while we can sit through three minutes of non-narrative abstract images set to music, it gets harder to keep our butts planted for two hours of this. In fact, even during a display of abstract images flowing on the screen (let's say, a work by Jordan Belson or John Whitney), our brains still try to discern a narrative ("look -- the green colors are becoming blue... I bet in a few seconds everything will be blue...")

So it's true that we find weak narratives with strong visuals boring after awhile, but I'm not sure that always means that the movie is flawed because of it -- in the sense that not all movies HAVE to be strongly narrative experiences. We might simply be judging the film by criteria that is not really applicable, like those critics who bemoaned the weak characters of "2001". There should be some room made for films that are not classically narrative (i.e. has strong characters and plot.) There are films that are primarily character-driven, films that are primarily plot-driven, and films that can be driven primarily by images and music (it's just that it might not suit the tastes of general moviegoers.)

David Mullen Cinematographer / L.A.

I think we tend to use the word 'abstract' to stand in for many styles and structures of images in film, where we don't have a history of names for these things, unlike say music or poetry where there's an entire history of effort to parse this stuff. I think maybe this is because film history specifically jumps right into our culture at the end of the nineteenth century and starts to give us very complex constructions very quickly - whereas music, poetry, and painting have long enough traditions to have incorporated culturally agreed on levels of abstract feeling and beauty into their traditions, already grafted onto their narrative forms.

So there are cultural memories of narrative pleasures encoded, built in and suggested in works of art in the forms older than film even in the abscence of specific story cues. (I think these things exist in narrative and sometimes in non-narrative film but are not always discernable - even to filmmakers working in 'non-narrative' ways).

Sam Wells

>We don't exist, except mentally maybe, in jumps cuts, intercutting of locations & >parallel actions, or surrounded by soundtrack music, etc.

Speak for yourself my friend

Layne Uyeno

Since I (and many others working in video production) have heard the term "Soap Opera" used as a pejorative to describe a certain lighting style for a very long time, and since I'm guessing very few here have ever spent any length of time working on one, I thought I'd describe what it's like.

As with many episodic formats, soaps producers decide to use bluescreen once or twice a season, and that's where I have had a chance to observe how things work. This is what goes on for many of them:

Scenes are shot with three to six cameras. As many as two of those may be handheld. A camera with a dramatic closeup may have as its very next shot a wide three or even a full wide (from the same position), then go back immediately to the closeup.

Because the sets are relatively small, and most of the cameras are on pedestals and usually have to move about quite a bit during a scene, there are no lights on stands. None. All lighting is pre-rigged from the grid and controlled from a board. The grid may be set up for as many as ten different sets, since the sets are rotated in and out almost daily. The occasional camera may have an obie on it, but that's rare.

Because of the 51 week per year shooting schedule, lighting and camera and video crew floats in and out constantly. Most have long ago stopped checking with the producer, and when offered a better gig replace themselves with whomever is available. When you come in in the morning is when you get to see who is lighting and who the rest of the crew will be.

No matter what happens, when you leave at the end of the day, you will have shot a full show, about 46 minutes of edited content. About half a feature's (or two sitcoms') worth of footage, each and every day, without excuses, without exception, five days a week, fifty one weeks a year.

Kinda makes it difficult to have any subtlety in any aspect of the production.

Bob Kertesz BlueScreen LLC


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