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How important is motivated light?


Joshua Jones
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Hi guys,

 

How important is motivated light in your work? I often plague myself with trying to create logic around my light sources. However, I watch a lot of b-roll footage of movies, tv shows, etc. and it seems a lot of the lighting has very little logic. I don't think this a bad thing. I am just very conscious about keeping the audiences attention on the story as opposed to what I am doing. It seems by doing this I shoot myself in the foot a lot. I feel if I just lit the way I wanted, without obsessing about it's logic, I sometimes think my work would be better.

 

What do you guys think? I would love to here from David Mullen on this!

 

Thank you very much,

 

Joshua Jones

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Hollywood doesn't seem to care much. On the odd occasion I give lectures on this stuff, I use as an example a scene from Pleasantville, set in a school gymnasium, in which two people who are facing each other and having a conversation are both beautifully backlit.

 

A consistent appearance results, and that's at least as important as having it be logically consistent - which is a motivation all of its own.

 

P

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Relax. It's not really important, as long as the lighting is consistent with the setting and the time of day. (A DAY-INT can't have black outside the windows.) The need to see actors' faces kind of over-rides any concern about sources or directions of lights.

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There is often logic to unmotivated lighting when you're doing family films, comedies, TV, and those sort of "made for everyone" type of films and shows. They tend to be overlit and "by the book". Logic is to light according to what an audience is used to.

 

Light a comedy as if it were a horror film and the audience will feel like something is off in the tone of the picture and it might affect how "funny" it seems. Unless it were a spoof film like Scary Movie or Shaun of the Dead. Those are the exceptions to this cause they are paying homage to a different genre so they're lit accordingly.

 

When you look at drama and action films, you tend to find lighting that's much more motivated and realistic. Characters can be silhouetted at times, they can be in darkness on purpose, like in Die Hard, Fight Club. And finally there's horror, suspense thrillers which tend to be a bit more low key. Hostel, Saw, etc.

 

So from light to dark, that's what you'll notice. Always exceptions but in Hollywood, I think degrees of motivating light can often be genre specific. But I agree, that Mr. Mullen would definitely be more of an authority here on this one.

Edited by Michael LaVoie
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Hollywood doesn't seem to care much. On the odd occasion I give lectures on this stuff, I use as an example a scene from Pleasantville, set in a school gymnasium, in which two people who are facing each other and having a conversation are both beautifully backlit.

 

A consistent appearance results, and that's at least as important as having it be logically consistent - which is a motivation all of its own.

 

P

 

Ah, yes, the ever-present backlight :-)

 

Night driving scenes are often lit so that the characters' faces are visible, but in reality you'd barely be able to see them, if at all. Most dashboard lights aren't THAT bright.

 

Depending on the style of the film you can get away with fudging the lighting motivation if it lends the images a certain mood.

 

Look at this shot from Bigger than Life:

 

biggerthanlife1.jpg

 

I doubt anyone's living room in real life would ever be lit to create such hard shadows from a low angle. But it works because it heightens the mood of the scene and projects the inner monster of James Mason's character.

Edited by Ravi Kiran
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Ah, yes, the ever-present backlight :-)

 

Night driving scenes are often lit so that the characters' faces are visible, but in reality you'd barely be able to see them, if at all. Most dashboard lights aren't THAT bright.

 

Depending on the style of the film you can get away with fudging the lighting motivation if it lends the images a certain mood.

 

Look at this shot from Bigger than Life:

 

biggerthanlife1.jpg

 

I doubt anyone's living room in real life would ever be lit to create such hard shadows from a low angle. But it works because it heightens the mood of the scene and projects the inner monster of James Mason's character.

 

 

This film is from 1956, where somewhat of a completely different set of aesthetics were in operation. 10-15 years later, and the 'explosion' of location shooting pretty much ended this sort of stylistic studio setups.

 

Here is a shot from "A Serious Man"(2009) of a 'family interior setting'... There may be some cheats involved, but most of the lighting looks to be motivated by sources that one has in every day experience. (In addition to the story being quite different than the above example...).

 

 

a-serious-family.jpg

 

Even in a more noir setting... still motivated...

 

vlcsnap-2012-04-07-15h04m05s243.png

Edited by jeclark2006
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The value of lighting 'motivation' obviously varies hugely from person to person. Personally, I find it really important to my work - as I think believable lighting is a key element in maintaining the suspension of disbelief with your audience. But I can't say that approach causes me any real grief - the very nature of our work lies in creating a heightened reality, so the challenge (and pleasure) I find in it, lies in creating beautiful lighting within the constraints of plausibly motivated sources.

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The value of lighting 'motivation' obviously varies hugely from person to person. Personally, I find it really important to my work - as I think believable lighting is a key element in maintaining the suspension of disbelief with your audience. But I can't say that approach causes me any real grief - the very nature of our work lies in creating a heightened reality, so the challenge (and pleasure) I find in it, lies in creating beautiful lighting within the constraints of plausibly motivated sources.

I know we like to think it matters but I honestly cannot recall ever sitting down with family and watching a movie and hearing "you know, I really just cant get into this movie because the lighting doesn't seem believable."

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jeclark2006, how is it that Tim Tyler made an exception to the real name rule for you?

 

jeclark is my name, perhaps not formated with spaces. And since there are about 20 milion of us with that name, 2006 makes it far more unique than a name with spaces and no 'unusual' numbers.

 

If the administrator/owner of the site wants me to change that, then they can suggest an alternative that is my real name with spaces, and unique enough to disallow someone from mistaking me for some other poster.

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Thank you for all the responses!

 

It's an interesting question. Some cinematographers, such as Roger Deakins, disguise their work so well that it's extremely difficult to tell what is natural and what is artificial. I am member of Mr. Deakins website (as is jeclark2006; that's right, I see you man!) and I can't tell you how many times their have been questions how he lit something and his response is that he didn't. The same is true vice versa.

 

On the other hand, someone like Robert Richardson is overtly stylish and his sources are rarely motivated. I love his work though and many of the films he's worked on are classics. Given, many of his films are overtly stylish in nature, but there are a number of scenes that the motivation is questionable and yet it doesn't seem to matter.

 

I am proud of my work and see growth with every venture, I was just curious to see how you all felt. The DP of LOTR, Andrew Lesnie, was once questioned on a light's motivation and is quoted as saying, "the lighting comes from the same place as the music". That's pretty hilarious. If people aren't distracted by the music, then why should they be by light motivation? haha

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As a DP, I try to work from the principle that nothing should appear as though it's been "lit". Whether that's motivated or not. I want the lighting on the whole to go unnoticed if possible. A friend of mine told me at a screening of one of my features that he tried to pay attention to the cinematography but after a few minutes he forgot about it and just got sucked into the story. I still consider that one of the best compliments I ever got about my work. That it went unnoticed.

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As a relatively technique-savvy audience member, unmotivated lighting annoys me.

 

The DP of LOTR, Andrew Lesnie, was once questioned on a light's motivation and is quoted as saying, "the lighting comes from the same place as the music". That's pretty hilarious. If people aren't distracted by the music, then why should they be by light motivation? haha

 

Sound is analyzed much less consciously than visuals. Richardson pulls it off, though. :)

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As a relatively technique-savvy audience member, unmotivated lighting annoys me.

 

 

You are in the group that are called "film snobs." Very few filmmakers really care about pleasing that group because it is the hardest group to please and carries the least amount of benefit to pleasing.

 

I stand by the fact that, if the story is good, the cinematography shouldnt matter as long as it isnt so bad as to be distracting. Audio is much more of an issue to get well since people need to be able to hear it clearly to follow what is going on.

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I know we like to think it matters but I honestly cannot recall ever sitting down with family and watching a movie and hearing "you know, I really just cant get into this movie because the lighting doesn't seem believable."

With modern films/TV shows certainly. It's all pretty well hidden these days (the soft nature of modern lighting seems to help that a lot), but go back to older films (and you don't need to go back further than the 80s) and you can find plenty of films where story isn't quite enough to keep the lighting from feeling 'off' to modern viewers. I've sat and watched films with several people who have noted as much.

 

Viewers' sensibilities seem to have matured in-line with the technical sophistication of our lighting, so whilst I agree there's absolutely a minimum level of believability at which people simply don't care - our lighting still has to at least reach that level.

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With modern films/TV shows certainly. It's all pretty well hidden these days (the soft nature of modern lighting seems to help that a lot), but go back to older films (and you don't need to go back further than the 80s) and you can find plenty of films where story isn't quite enough to keep the lighting from feeling 'off' to modern viewers. I've sat and watched films with several people who have noted as much.

 

Viewers' sensibilities seem to have matured in-line with the technical sophistication of our lighting, so whilst I agree there's absolutely a minimum level of believability at which people simply don't care - our lighting still has to at least reach that level.

Instead of speaking generally, why not mention a particular film or show which you mean by this? Was it shot on film or was it bad video? I cannot recall any older films that had lighting so bad to distract from viewing but feel free to enlighten me.

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Instead of speaking generally, why not mention a particular film or show which you mean by this? Was it shot on film or was it bad video? I cannot recall any older films that had lighting so bad to distract from viewing but feel free to enlighten me.

 

Well, I have posted images from shots 'I like' that seem to have highly motivated lighting.

 

Here's a shot from a classic, "Notorious"(1946) which, while I've watched, and may watch it more times... I would not consider the lighting scheme to be one I'd want to emulate.

 

When analyzing this shot... who knows where the lighting is coming from. There are multiple shadows on Cary Grant's hands, there seems to be 'hot' lights on Grant, and just about as hot a light on Ingrid Bergman. There are shadows on the wall, that 'no ordinary' living room lighting setup would produce... etc...

 

Picture-25.png

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Instead of speaking generally, why not mention a particular film or show which you mean by this? Was it shot on film or was it bad video? I cannot recall any older films that had lighting so bad to distract from viewing but feel free to enlighten me.

 

Well a recent one was Escape from New York, an old favourite of mine, which we watched the other night. And found for the first time, that lighting was distractingly unmotivated. Now that's very much a fantastical film, with very little grounding in any sort of reality, but my friend and I both noted that we found the lighting felt noticeably 'off'. Now this is the first time (out of at least half a dozen viewings) that I've had any issue with the film, so no doubt it's in part due to the growing sophistication of my own understanding of film lighting - but my friend, who has nothing to do with films beyond watching them, noticed it too (in fact he's the one who raised the point) - and that suggests to me that viewers are growing an increasingly sophisticated palette where lighting is concerned. And that's something to take note of.

 

Because you're on seriously shaky ground if something as fundamental as lighting can take people out of your film.

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Because you're on seriously shaky ground if something as fundamental as lighting can take people out of your film.

Well, I guess it is a personal thing because I remember watching that very movie with my wife not 6 months ago and she was very much into it. Not a single word about lighting. Then again, she has no training or awareness of lighting at all. I think it is more of a burden of knowledge thing than anything else.

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Well, I guess it is a personal thing because I remember watching that very movie with my wife not 6 months ago and she was very much into it. Not a single word about lighting. Then again, she has no training or awareness of lighting at all. I think it is more of a burden of knowledge thing than anything else.

 

For me "Escape From New York"(1981) is far to a 'stylized' film to really get worried about 'motivated' light. Sort of like getting worried about 'sounds in space', or the like...

 

As a film becomes more 'real world', then the motivations for the lightings become more important to replicate that 'real world'.

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