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Achieving a dark, moody scene: on set or in post?


Joe Marler
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I sometimes see inexperienced filmmakers shooting a dark, moody scene with waveform peaks at 20 IRE, or on RED with the "traffic lights and goalposts" exposure tool at the bottom. The given rationale is the scene is dark and the DP needs to monitor a Rec 709 image which conveys that. I admit years ago I did that myself.

Is it not better to use a higher light level, assure the right contrast ratio, then make it dark in post? Can the DP not use a monitoring LUT to approximate the darkened final look while using sufficient light for quality image capture? How is this best done? In professional industry productions do they shoot it dark or make it dark in post? By "dark" I mean an overall scene illumination of under 5 lux or 0.5 foot-candles.

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There's a difference between contrast ratios and exposure.  You should light for the mood you want based on an accurate monitor and proper display LUT but if you are concerned about noise in the shadows, you can always give the sensor more exposure by using a lower ISO, assuming you have enough light level (or lens speed) to do that and assuming you can protect or control your hot highlights.  You don't have to make it darker in post, simply lowering the ISO would do the same thing with the advantage that the intended mood is then displayed on the set monitors, in dailies, and in post editing.

You don't want to deliver a bunch of bright-looking dailies and perhaps months later after editing making them look correct -- either all through post people will think you don't know how to deliver the right mood OR they get used to the brighter image and won't let you make it darker later.

I will say that besides an accurate set monitor, you should glance at the waveform and false colors because it is possible to be fooled by a monitor -- in a very dark environment, the monitor feels as bright as a table lamp so one tends to underexpose the image to feel right, only later to see the same image in a room with some lights on and feel that the image looks too dark now.  Same thing happens in daytime in a bright environment, you tend to overexpose to make the highlights feel bright enough on the monitor only later to look at the same image in a darker environment and find that you overexposed it.

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I've posted a couple of times about the increasing tendency for things just to be dark, as opposed to contrasty. Below are a couple of comparisons from Dune and Chernobyl which seemed to rely on underexposure. Dune seemed generally well-lit, although Chernobyl looked scrappy, presumably deliberately so, though it's hard to tell the difference sometimes.

I am not a big fan of this and I don't understand why people think it is an appropriate way to make things mysterious. It doesn't. it just makes things poorly-defined and hard to properly comprehend, to the point where we can't tell whether anything disturbing is happening or not, because we can't see the layout of the scene or anyone's expression. It's the visual equivalent of Tenet's terrible dialogue mix.

dune.jpg.68d01ecc6f178db6a7ffbba17779e676.thumb.jpg.568c2f359c7f0cad692b7d8ab732206d.jpg

chernobyl4.jpg.59e3b0d959e8ea3ae2048eb1d845de0d.thumb.jpg.e377c670840c747fbb5d55d9a0b3704f.jpg

chernobyl4_fixed.jpg.c9263ec2f8ef567294403b994b06842c.thumb.jpg.1067747e4f22417d35d33a536d3b31fc.jpg

 

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Having seen Dune in theaters, and remembering that scene in particular, the posts here are not really representative of how that looked in the proper viewing environment. Chernobyl, however, yes, was a little dark at times. It's got nothing on game of thrones, of course. Maybe it's a HBO thing.

As for in camera or in post. Expose as close to the final look as you are able to. If you want it dark, expose it dark. Be mindful of where you have light, and use the exposure tools you have. Also maintain consistency. I find that is really key-- if you are doing your night at (insert iso here) and (insert stops under here) at (such and such color temp)  don't suddenly do a shot, or scene, different than that.
Also it's really important to keep in mind where the intention of view is. A show to be see in theaters, on netflix, or on my laptop are 3 completely different worlds of exposure (and framing!)

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The thing about underexposure is that you have to be very accurate and consistent because you are working on the edge of where things might fall from acceptable to unacceptable. You might test and find that you're happy at ISO 1600... but end up underexposing to the point where you are really treating the sensor more like ISO 3200 or higher.

There's nothing wrong with the occasional soft, very dim scene if it's motivated and the right feeling, but you have to understand the issues when you later color-correct it based on your recording codec and then how it gets shown.

If you've lit the underexposed scene at ISO 1600 at f/2.8 and you don't necessarily want noise, then you might as well switch to ISO 800 at f/2.0 and get the same look, just cleaner (but with less depth of field.)

Coming from a film background, it's funny how used I am to using higher light levels -- most of this past week of shooting, I've been at ISO 640 with an ND.3 shooting at a f/2.0-2.8 split.  Which means I'm really working at ISO 320, which is often what I did when I was shooting 500T film stock.

But the other night I did a scene on a penthouse balcony overlooking NYC and ended up wide-open at f/2.0 at ISO 1600 with the shutter at 240 degrees, just because I was trying to capture as much city ambience as possible.

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17 hours ago, David Mullen ASC said:

The thing about underexposure is that you have to be very accurate and consistent because you are working on the edge of where things might fall from acceptable to unacceptable.

Well yes, and that's where Adrian's comments apply, because both home and theatrical displays are can be inconsistent enough to spoil things. From memory, the appearance of the very dark frame from Dune looks, on my monitor, largely as it looked when projected, which is to say so dark it's genuinely hard to tell what's going on. I'd encourage anyone viewing it to click on the frames for a full-screen view so that they're not so small, and not so surrounded by the bright white of the forum background, but it's not great.

 

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I have never been a fan of the "muted and dull" night look.... most often it just looks like a bad grade which is trying to hide set design and lighting gear issues and does not communicate the "mood" of the scene the best way. It is the cinematography/grade equivalent of the trend of mixing dialogue lines so low that the audience can't hear what was said (and raises the same question that the dialogue was probably so bad that they wanted to hide it completely to save on costs 😄 )

a tiny bit of edge light to bring up the silhouette would often make these "dull" scenes lots more interesting and would actually enhance the "dim" look by adding more contrast by bringing a "relative highlight" to the shots. Contrast is much more important than actual light level anyway and the best way to sell a night scene has traditionally been to try to get the high-ish contrast ratio between highlights, very dark but still visible areas and almost inky blacks just right.

I think the digital camera "ISO" level is mainly a matter of logistics and dynamic range and consistent noise level and often it is pretty independent of the desired "look" unless the noise levels are high or the high ISO affects the dynamic range or colour reproduction of the camera noticeably.

I often shoot outdoor night scenes nowadays with pretty high iso on small sets, usually at 4000 but if there is a need to use portable led lights with big set the go-to iso is often 12800 which still works fine with the S5 + external recorder combo I currently use. The "real cinema cameras" often have less optimal low light performance which highly limits what one can do with them and then one naturally needs tons more lighting gear and genny power and crew to haul them around. That is expensive and only optimal if one really gets some actual benefit by using the less sensitive camera... in some indie shoots it can be a ego thing to use the "real cinema camera" which is not sensitive at all and then run into problems when not having enough light and crew to use it correcly.

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one of the first really bad examples of "dull and dim" look I have seen was a Walking Dead episode where they were in the sewers hiding. One could just barely see Carl's face in the darkness and there was some try to bring the silhouettes up from the darkness by dimly lighting the background... but in the shots of Michonne one could just see her eyes floating in the darkness and no face at all. I immediately called that lighting/shooting/grading style "racist" because it hides darker skin colours so completely that everything which is left is just eyes floating in the darkness 😮 

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On 11/6/2022 at 2:55 PM, David Mullen ASC said:

...You don't have to make it darker in post, simply lowering the ISO would do the same thing with the advantage that the intended mood is then displayed on the set monitors, in dailies, and in post editing....You don't want to deliver a bunch of bright-looking dailies and perhaps months later after editing making them look correct -- either all through post people will think you don't know how to deliver the right mood OR they get used to the brighter image and won't let you make it darker later...

David, thank you very much for the thoughtful reply. My concern is when shooting a darker scene (ie the final graded look will be darker or more moody), yet a DP exposes mainly by how a log gamma monitor or straight Rec 709 monitor looks, which can lead to an underexposed image and noise.

Yet requests for more light result in the reply "we like it dark and moody", which implies the monitored non-LUT image must convey via lighting at acquisition time the tonal and color range of the final graded product.  In the below examples it appears that productions often use a brighter exposure when shooting than the final graded image will convey.

I thought if they want help in visualizing a dark scene, the best way is use (say) -2 stops on the monitor LUT, etc -- not actually shoot at -2 stops. That can also be baked into the dailies to help them visualize the look. Is that a valid approach? Examples:

https://photos.smugmug.com/photos/i-SVJfn38/0/10988003/X3/i-SVJfn38-X3.jpg

https://photos.smugmug.com/photos/i-kMvXchj/0/3fcc242d/X3/i-kMvXchj-X3.jpg

https://photos.smugmug.com/photos/i-2mjzqLt/0/3a291dc4/X3/i-2mjzqLt-X3.jpg

https://photos.smugmug.com/photos/i-fRx5jsd/0/d0643a91/X3/i-fRx5jsd-X3.jpg

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10 hours ago, aapo lettinen said:

a tiny bit of edge light to bring up the silhouette would often make these "dull" scenes lots more interesting and would actually enhance the "dim" look by adding more contrast by bringing a "relative highlight" to the shots.

I do not have enough experience to give advises. I often search for examples I appreciate to build a library of reference pictures. I guess the following pictures taken from "Loki" (The TV series) and "Patterson" illustrate this. This is interesting to load them into an image processing software like Photoshop or Gimp, and to play with the curve tool to simulate a bad monitor (crushed black, incorrect gamma...). One can see how they remain "readable" and robust to bad viewing conditions.

loki_01.jpeg

paterson_5.jpg

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In terms of the light reaching the sensor, it makes no difference switching a camera to an ISO that is 1-stop slower versus creating a LUT that darkens everything by 1-stop. There may be some subtle differences in how the recording color-corrects later though depending on the codec.

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David, just out of curiosity. Let's say you have someone standing in a field with mid to late day (directional) sun.

With the sun/key hitting their face frontally (maybe softened by a net), how would you set the aperture relative to the sun/key?

With the sun/key hitting half their face and the other side maybe 2-3 stops under – how would you set the aperture relative to key? 

If they are fully backlit so now the bounce light is the key and the sun is the backlight – how would you set the aperture relative to the light on their face? 

For a dark underexposed scene in an apartment with diffuse light, like someone in bed at night, how dark would you tend to underexpose a face at most before worrying about losing detail?

Also what format are you shooting these days? Mostly 3.2K Alexa? Do you ever set the ISO below 800? I think the tendency with young DPs is to underexpose the Alexa a bit.

Also – what kind of sources are DPs using on something like Arrival or Her? It feels like a lot of soft sources, more variation in color temperature, it looks very natural and a bit underexposed. But are these shows using natural light and augmenting with LEDs or rebuilding a natural look with large book lights? On a no budget show how could I best emulate this? Lots of dim LED fixtures to complement natural soft light?

 

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