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Sandra Merkatz

The meaning of light

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Hello!

As I mentioned in my introduction, I´m very interested in movie lighting, especially the meaning of different lightings. Most tutorials only explain HOW it´s done (which is also interesting!), but not exactly WHY it´s done, what effect a certain lighting has. I really want to learn (and discuss) about that things with some picture-examples.

The first picture is from the movie “Peter Pan” from 1924.

 

 

vlcsnap201706lj0ouadwtk.png

 

What I see here is a strong backlight, probably to separate the actors from the background and to highlight the blond hair on the left. I guess that was necessary due to the monochromatic film and to add a little depth to the picture.
But I wonder if they used soft light back then, diffusers or reflectors, because I think especially on the face on the right there is much soft light. Or did they just use the obvious backlight here? (Because I read in early cinema, the film stock wasn´t very light sensitive so low-light-shots were a problem).

On the right face I see a brighter spot in the “middle” of the face, and some soft shadows on the cheeks, that gives the head a three-dimensional look. Was that done on purpose? Did they plan that look even in 1924? (The illuminating of a movie scene can take hours I read, was that the case even back then?)

I look forward for your answers and learning more about this interesting topic (lighting) :)

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

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Of course was it done on purpose. Mercury vapor discharge tubes, carbon arc brutes, early Mazda lamps, reflectors were the tools then. You had orthochromatic negative stocks of ISO 12. The Bell & Howell Standard camera has 170 degrees of shutter opening angle open full. Exposure time is 1/34 s at 16 f. p. s. The Mitchell Standard has 170 degrees, too. Other cameras offered 180 degrees, the Akeley 230.

 

You had daylight, in the open, in glass houses. Lenses of f/3.5 were widespread. Cooke Speed Panchros of f/2.0 came in 1921-22.

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Thanks for all the technical informations, but I don´t understand much of it, because I´m just an interested viewer, not a filmmaker :)

 

So the film stock in that time actually was able to film soft light properly, when I understand you correctly?

 

I also wonder if they cared for light just as much as modern filmmakers did. Did they use light doubles too, did they spend hours for set up the lighting? Did they use main light, fill light, backlight and background light as well?

 

When I see a picture like that from the movie, I don´t know if they said "Let´s use a backlight to separate them from the background, and let´s use a soft filler from the other side, so we have soft shadows on the cheeks, and a little soft lightspot on the face, that will make the heads more three-dimensional".

Or did they just say "Backlight to separate them, some fill light so we can see the actors". In those early movies, I never know if the lighting was done and used artistically, and even if they wanted to, if the technical stuff from back then allowed them to do so, without compromises. When I watch a movie like this, it would be a pity if they were forced just to put some lights on the actors in order that they are bright enough to be seen, without any artistical thoughts behind it.

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

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Example of a silent movie set being lit by banks of Cooper Hewitts:

cooperhewitt.jpg

 

Artificial lighting appeared gradually in silent movies through the late teens into the early 20's as film stocks got faster and lights got stronger. You can read about it in Barry Salt's book "Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis". Of course the slowness of the stocks made it difficult to light sets but cinematographers figured it out. Carbon arc lighting, which was very strong and harsh, was the earliest to be introduced into sets mostly soft-lit from above with daylight coming through muslin sheets, but partially blacked out depending on how dark they wanted the set to go compared to the carbon arc lamp.

 

Mercury-vapor discharge tubes -- Cooper-Hewitts -- started to be used as well. Carbon arcs are daylight-balanced and Cooper-Hewitts were blue-green, so both were useful for dealing with orthochromatic film. Then tungsten lamps started being used, often called "Mazda" lamps (a GE brand name) and panchromatic stock started being used by the mid-1920's.

 

All the lighting conventions like backlight, fill, kickers, etc. evolved over this time so that by the end of the 1920's, lighting was as complex an art form as it ever has been, even today.

 

There are also styles that evolve, for example, the soft lower-contrast diffused look of the late 20's through early 30's that was replaced by the higher-contrast, harder-lit style of the 40's. That was mostly due to a change in taste about images, you see it in still photography as well.

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Example of a silent movie set being lit by banks of Cooper Hewitts:

 

That´s a great picture, thank you! :)

From when is this?

 

I see a lot of those lights, but they are standing like a wall. Didn´t they also have spotlights, or just this type of light?

 

Of course the slowness of the stocks made it difficult to light sets but cinematographers figured it out.

With "slowness" you mean that the stock needs a longer exposure time?

 

 

Carbon arc lighting, which was very strong and harsh, was the earliest to be introduced into sets mostly soft-lit from above with daylight coming through muslin sheets

Oh, so the muslin sheets worked as a diffuser? I guess, they also used diffusers in the 20s to create a soft light like in my picture? That there was a lamp directed on the face(s) and a diffuser in front of the lamp to create the soft light?

 

 

All the lighting conventions like backlight, fill, kickers, etc. evolved over this time so that by the end of the 1920's, lighting was as complex an art form as it ever has been, even today.

Thank you very much :)

The problem was, that I never knew if every light in silent movies is exactly planned and used artistically, or if they were so limited in their technical possibilities so they said "Ok, we can´t do this and that, let´s just throw a spotlight on it, who cares about whether there are dark or soft shadows".

In a documentary about silent film lighting, they showed that for a short time (I think in the 1910s) they just had lamps on the ceiling, and that created horrible light effects and looked quite unflattering on the actors. In this case they obviously didn´t care much about the look of the light, as long as you can see anything on the finished film. That´s why I asked if they used light artistically back then or if they were so limited by their technical equipment (or unexpierienced?) that they can´t do much.

 

Another question: what could that light in my picture "mean"? Why that hard backlight? The face on the left is half shadow-half/half-light, and the face on the right has that very soft light-spot on the face - maybe to throw attention to the facial expression here? It looks like the light-spot on the face comes from another light-source, but rather a spotlight then one of these banks.

 

Thank you both for your answers, I really appreciate it when pros like you explain that stuff. :)

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

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Strong backlight provides separation from the background but it is also "pretty", romantic, hence why it was popular back then. Not everything is done for an intellectual reason, sometimes it's done to beautify the scene or actor, hopefully supported by the story.

 

They used carbon arcs for spotlighting back then.

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The slow-speed of stocks meant that they needed more exposure but with shooting movies, the frame rate and shutter angle limit the shutter time, so you have to get more exposure by increasing the light level.

 

Movie lighting has always been a combination of artistic intent and technical problem solving, even today. I'm sure back then you had examples of light being thrown crudely onto the scene to get more exposure and light being used carefully and artistically for a desired look, and many degrees in between the two. That happens today too, sometimes because we get rushed for time.

 

The tools were a bit cruder back then -- if you had to simulate a room being lit by a candle or lantern by using a carbon arc lamp from off-camera, you'd find it challenging! And yet you find examples of very exquisite lighting in the Silent Era, particularly by the mid-to-late 1920's.

 

Look even later -- "Gone with the Wind" has some lovely lighting effects, all done in 3-strip Technicolor with an effective 10 ASA back then. It's just a skillset that few people have today, working with giant lights to create small effects.

 

As for why the backlight is hitting one person's face more strongly than the other person, if that light is supposed to be the moon or the sun, or some other single source, then it's only going to come in one direction strongly, so maybe the cinematographer was respecting that logic rather than "cross-lighting" to make both faces as equally bright in terms of edge lighting. I don't know.

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Strong backlight provides separation from the background but it is also "pretty", romantic, hence why it was popular back then. Not everything is done for an intellectual reason, sometimes it's done to beautify the scene or actor, hopefully supported by the story.

 

That´s a good point, because that is one of my main problems with movies: either there are intellectual thoughts about the lighting, and I don´t see it, or there are no intellectual thoughts, and I do interpretations that aren´t necessary.

 

Maybe that´s also a mistake many people make: either they say “Well, this is an old silent movie, they were not as good as the filmmakers today, they hat bad equipment”, or they say “Wow, every detail is exactly planned, look at the background, how the ceiling disappears into the darkness, what could that mean?”, and in reality that was without any thought, but just a side effect because of the equipment.

 

They used carbon arcs for spotlighting back then.

 

I just watched videos about those lamps, pretty impressing lights! And did they also put a diffuser in front of that spotlight in order to create a soft light? Could that be the case in my picture? Because the light looks VERY soft on it, and the carbon arcs create a more intense light.

 

The slow-speed of stocks meant that they needed more exposure but with shooting movies, the frame rate and shutter angle limit the shutter time, so you have to get more exposure by increasing the light level.

 

I see :)

 

Movie lighting has always been a combination of artistic intent and technical problem solving, even today.

 

That sums up the problem I mentioned above very well!

 

I'm sure back then you had examples of light being thrown crudely onto the scene to get more exposure and light being used carefully and artistically for a desired look, and many degrees in between the two. That happens today too, sometimes because we get rushed for time.

 

And then there are people like me who (try to) interpret everything :(

 

 

As for why the backlight is hitting one person's face more strongly than the other person, if that light is supposed to be the moon or the sun, or some other single source, then it's only going to come in one direction strongly, so maybe the cinematographer was respecting that logic rather than "cross-lighting" to make both faces as equally bright in terms of edge lighting. I don't know.

 

Oh ok, that means, that backlight can also be a motivated lighting, without the intention to make the actors look pretty.

 

Now I see different meanings of backlight:

1) motivated light (moon, sun, etc.).

2) to separate the object from the background

3) to make the actors look pretty

4) to make especially blond hair more visible and look “more” blond

5) to create a mysterious or transcendental or "religious” halo, as if the light comes from the object itself

 

Again I want to thank you for your answers. I never use irony or sarcasm! If some sentences from me look like they are sarcastic, it was unintentional and the fault of my english skills!

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

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Would you guys describe the key light as being soft, I see a pretty defined nose shadow, and the chin shadows as well. Seems like upstage cross keys were only slightly diffused and the camera side fill was used to balance out the contrast, am I wrong on that?

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Of course I´m not a pro, so I just can guess what they did. I marked it so you can see it better.

I think there was a strong backlight (marked in blue), that is quite strong. Look at the blonde hair on the left, it´s so bright that the details of the hair and the left side of the lips are lost. I also thing that light comes from the right, because if you look closely at Peter Pans arm, you see that the right edge of the arm (from our POV) has more light then the left edge. So I guess that the backlight is maybe especially for the woman on the lef, not for both?

 

And maybe there is a key light, that shines on Peter Pans face; you can see the the brighter spot on his face and on the front of his shirt (marked in red). I think the shadow on Peters cheek and neck comes from that light, NOT from a fill light.

 

vlcsnap201706j47u8yhgal.png

 

peterpanmarkeamywfdrv4l.png

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

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There are many degrees of softness, so just because there is a nose shadow doesn't mean the light is hard, it's just not super soft.

 

For soft lighting back then they probably would have used the Cooper Hewitts but there was also softening by putting something in front of a hard light, like muslin or spun glass in frames -- it's just that they were limited by the fact that muslin could catch on fire if the light in front was too bright or too close (hence the use of spun glass over time.) So generally diffusing lights was done on a smaller scale with smaller lights closer to the actors, not like today where you shine big lights through giant frames of diffusion (and you wouldn't have made a giant frame of spun glass back then).

 

You should get this book and flip through all the photos of soundstage shooting:

https://www.amazon.com/Picture-Production-Stills-TCM-Archives/dp/0811844161

 

You often see lights with small frames of diffusers in front (usually spun glass), like in this attached photo.

 

The other thing to keep in mind that for wider shots, the lighting often looked softer because so many multiple hard lights were used to spread light across the set, and with one light spilling over the light next to it, you get a semi-diffused effect.

post-3-0-73851900-1496708375_thumb.png

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Here is another example of "broads" and "scoops" with frames of diffusion in front of them.

 

post-3-0-45740800-1496708872.png

 

That´s a great picture, thank you!

I guess it was taken in the 30s or 40s. You can clearly see that filter in front of the spotlight.

 

The most important thing for me was the question, if they had (and used) soft light in the 20s.

 

Now for another picture: In "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" there is a picture that I don´t have to interpret, because it´s quite clear what´s the meaning, the purpose of the lighting.

 

ijlicht8tbmy9gdn2.jpg

 

Here the face of the evil guy is very dark (matching his "dark" character), and the light comes from down below so the shadows would go upwards, which creates an unnatural, creepy effect. When Indiana Jones is a bad guy himself for a short time, he is also lighted that way, light from below.

 

But then there was this scene (I couldn´t find a better picture of it):

 

ijlicht2ht8muydk0z.png

In documentaries about lighting they said, in old movies they often used a "light strip" on the eyes, while the rest of the face is covered in shadow, so the audience would pay attention to the eyes. Is this the case here? Because it looks very much like a light strip on her face.

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

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I wouldn't set these things in stone, lighting styles vary with genres and the Indiana Jones films are a homage to the 1930s serials. The DP on these films has a traditional style. however, many of these lighting styles carry over into thrillers. horror films etc. They may have started in the the 1920 and 20s, but they're still used in current films, basically because they still work.

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The strip of light across the eyes was used most famously in "Dracula":

Bela+Lugosi+eyes.jpg

 

But you also saw it in "Star Trek":

3528599912_6ec3f0b37a.jpg

 

Even "E.T." had a few shots with a strip of light across Elliot's eyes as he sits outside at night waiting for E.T. to approach:

henry-thomas-as-elliott-in-e-t-the-extra

 

It's such a theatrical technique that it seems better suited for b&w where the lighting could be more baroque and stylized since the whole image as stylized by virtue of being monochrome (which is one reason it still tends to work today in moonlit situations where there are shadow patterns established and the color & lighting is already stylized and heightened), and when it is used today it tends to always be motivated by a source creating the strip of light... but the reasons still tend to be the same, to emphasize the expression in the eyes.

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It's such a theatrical technique that it seems better suited for b&w where the lighting could be more baroque and stylized since the whole image as stylized by virtue of being monochrome (which is one reason it still tends to work today in moonlit situations where there are shadow patterns established and the color & lighting is already stylized and heightened), and when it is used today it tends to always be motivated by a source creating the strip of light... but the reasons still tend to be the same, to emphasize the expression in the eyes

 

Do you think that strip of light-technique is also the case in my picture? If yes, maybe that was intentional, because Indiana Jones is set in the 1930s and the whole IJ-movies are a hommage to those old adventure movies from that era. Maybe he wanted to use lighting like back then? Would Spielberg think that way?

 

 

I think this light is interesting, because they used it not only for romantic scenes, but also eerie scenes (like that one in "Dracula"). They could have shot a close up of the eyes (like Sergio Leone did in his Westerns), but instead they shoot the whole face and highlight the eyes. It looks unrealistic and very artificial, but it works! Do you think it´s outdated?

 

 

There is a funny example where such a light strip appears in nearly every scene: Morticia Addams from "The Addams Family".

 

407f99a386ca1fdd8cb1f6fba0c0b8cc.jpg

 

 

tumblr_inline_nc37tdltC61s51xv5.jpg

 

I guess that´s also a hommage to the old b/w movies, but also a joke, because that lighting appears nearly all of the time on her face, which is quite unrealistic.

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

Edited by Sandra Merkatz

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If something works it's not outdated. it's more a question of being appropriate for what you're trying to achieve. You'll also find this effect used in fashion photographs.

 

You van be knowing in how you use these lighting effects, in horror films there can be a tradition in these things and the Addams Family films have a gothic style.

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Here I found another example in one of my favourite movies: Bram Stoker´s Dracula from 1992, directed by F.F.Coppola.

 

minarembrandtlg7hefnj3b.jpg

 

I think this is a good example of Rembrandt-lighting, because you can clearly see the "Rembrandt-triangle" under the eye, which I marked here:

 

minarembrandtqfcxenp0v5.jpg

 

But I´m more interested in this type of lighting. Of course it looks "beautiful", picturesque, maybe it´s also a dramatic effect? If yes, from where is it coming? One side of the face is in shadow, the other in light - I´m sure that has some kind of "meaning". Sometimes I read explanations about Film Noir-lighting, and they say things like "One side of the face is covered in darkness, that is a hint that the character is half-good/half-evil" or something like that. Is that also the case in the Rembrandt-lighting here?

 

I also read, that Rembrandt used to show the bright side of the face to the watcher, the dark side aways, which is not very flattering for the object, like in this painting from him:

 

rembrandtlichtkqfag2spzb.jpg

 

I never got WHY it´s better if the dark side (like in this picture from "Dracula") is nearer to the camera.

 

And I´m interested in the effects that lighting can create. What are the benefits when you do that lighting, with the dark side to the camera? Does the face look smaller or thinner or more equal that way?

 

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

Edited by Sandra Merkatz

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It's just a convention to have the key light coming from the direction that the actor is looking, so if they are looking towards the left side of the frame, the light comes from the left side, so if you are shooting a 3/4 angle, that puts the camera on the shadow side. Having the light come from that direction also tends to create a nice catch light of the key reflecting in the eye, plus provides more mood by having the camera see more of the shadow side of the face, such as in this shot:

 

365_alien6.jpg

 

It was actually when watching "Alien" that I learned about lighting a face in half but coming around in front just enough to catch the other eye, and then putting the camera on the shadow side.

 

The only downside to having the light come at a "raking" angle to the face like this is that while you get more mood, you also bring out the texture in the skin more, which can either be good or bad. "Alien" is a textbook movie of lighting for texture, as these shots demonstrate:


365_alien1.jpg

 

365_alien2.jpg

 

365_alien3.jpg

 

365_alien4.jpg

 

365_alien5.jpg

 

But if you want to see a whole movie of Rembrandt-ish lighting, look at Ridley Scott's first movie, "The Duelists".

 

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It's just a convention to have the key light coming from the direction that the actor is looking, so if they are looking towards the left side of the frame, the light comes from the left side, so if you are shooting a 3/4 angle, that puts the camera on the shadow side. Having the light come from that direction also tends to create a nice catch light of the key reflecting in the eye, plus provides more mood by having the camera see more of the shadow side of the face, such as in this shot:

 

 

The only downside to having the light come at a "raking" angle to the face like this is that while you get more mood, you also bring out the texture in the skin more, which can either be good or bad. "Alien" is a textbook movie of lighting for texture, as these shots demonstrate:

 

I don´t get that: why would that kind of lighting bring out the texture more? (You mean the Rembrandt-lighting?) If you would light the object with much light, so that the whole image would be bright, you would see the texture too, or not? For example the shot of the alien or the hand: when you light that much brighter you would still see the texture of the skin, the pores, I think. (I´m not criticizing you or doubt what you say, I just want to learn more about this!)

 

You said it´s also a convention to do that Rembrandt-lighting, I would agree with it, but can there be also some kind of meaning behind it, or would directors do that only because it looks good? What can that lighting imply? A dramatic situation? A romantic situation? A "dark side" of the character?

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

Edited by Sandra Merkatz

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I don´t get that: why would that kind of lighting bring out the texture more? (You mean the Rembrandt-lighting?) If you would light the object with much light, so that the whole image would be bright, you would see the texture too, or not? For example the shot of the alien or the hand: when you light that much brighter you would still see the texture of the skin, the pores, I think. (I´m not criticizing you or doubt what you say, I just want to learn more about this!)

 

You said it´s also a convention to do that Rembrandt-lighting, I would agree with it, but can there be also some kind of meaning behind it, or would directors do that only because it looks good? What can that lighting imply? A dramatic situation? A romantic situation? A "dark side" of the character?

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

 

 

Hi Sandra

 

Its not the amount of light hitting the object .. but the angle at which the light is hitting the object.. e.g. the hand.. if the light was right next to the camera lens.. i.e. lighting it "straight on".. it would look "flatter".. look at the side of a building at sunset.. it brings out all the bumps in surface of a wall.. look at it at midday and it will look flatter you wont see the imperfections.. you can just play with a torch on your own skin .. or any surface.. its a pretty basic lighting principle ..the angle of incident is equal to the angle of refection..I suggest you just play around with light a bit, just at home and you'll see differences for yourself .. or observe the sun hitting some surface during the day..

Edited by Robin R Probyn
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Yes it's the angle of the light relative to the camera. If you light a face 3/4 frontal and position the camera to favor the same direction as the light so that the light and the camera are more or less in the same position to the face, then the face will be flatly lit... but if you move the camera to the opposite side of the face than the light then the light will be at a more reflective angle to the surface of the skin and you'll see shadows from any lines or bumps in the skin, emphasizing them, plus you get a certain sheen on the skin.

 

It's often less about the "meaning" of the light, just depends -- a face usually has to have some light on it unless you want it to go black, and it wouldn't be possible to always have some sort of meaning for that light. I mean, what if you are filming two people outside in the sun, facing each other... does that fact that one person might be more back or front lit by the sun compared to the other always suggest that one person's light has a different meaning than the other person? Sometimes it does but sometimes you don't have much control as to which direction the sun is coming from.

 

Same goes for interior lighting, the scene determines the action and the space can impose where the light comes from -- a window to one side, an overhead lamp, etc. -- and actors MOVE relative to those lights. So you try to set the lights to create the right mood and if necessary to see the action, the performance, and/or to flatter the actor. So asking for the light hitting the actors to always have a meaning no matter where the actor moves is just not possible. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a person lit by the light over a sink or on a desk is just what it is. If that light can be more, symbolically, that's great.

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if the light was right next to the camera lens.. i.e. lighting it "straight on".. it would look "flatter".. look at the side of a building at sunset.. it brings out all the bumps in surface of a wall.. look at it at midday and it will look flatter you wont see the imperfections..

 

 

Yes it's the angle of the light relative to the camera. If you light a face 3/4 frontal and position the camera to favor the same direction as the light so that the light and the camera are more or less in the same position to the face, then the face will be flatly lit... but if you move the camera to the opposite side of the face than the light then the light will be at a more reflective angle to the surface of the skin and you'll see shadows from any lines or bumps in the skin, emphasizing them, plus you get a certain sheen on the skin.

Thank you Robin and David for that explanation, I think I´ve got it now! You are talking about the shadows that comes from the bumps etc., and you don´t have that shadows when the light is straight on the face or an object. I was puzzled by the word "texture", because you see, for example, the pores on the skin too, if you get a close up shot and straight on-light.

 

My question is, in which light did you mean, that the texture comes out more? When you do Rembrandt-light with the darker side towards the camera, or the brighter side?

 

 

 

It's often less about the "meaning" of the light, just depends -- a face usually has to have some light on it unless you want it to go black, and it wouldn't be possible to always have some sort of meaning for that light. I mean, what if you are filming two people outside in the sun, facing each other... does that fact that one person might be more back or front lit by the sun compared to the other always suggest that one person's light has a different meaning than the other person? Sometimes it does but sometimes you don't have much control as to which direction the sun is coming from.

 

You are right! What worries me is that I overlook something, when I don´t look closely at every lighting setup. I read that sometimes there is lighting that comes from things like the sun, lamps etc., but sometimes the light is unrealistic on purpose, to "tell" the audience something. I just want to find out what the filmmaker wanted, instead of watching a movie and saying "Nice movie, let´s watch another one now". A film crew puts so much effort in lighting a scene, and then I watch that without noticing what the have done?

 

It´s the same thing with music, by the way. I love classical music, and I keep learning musictheory and read scores to see (and hear!) what the composer did. This way you find so much beautiful things that you would never have heard if you just hear the music. I compare that to swimming in a beautiful lake: it´s beautiful to swim on the surface, but I also want to dive in to see what "secrets" there are, to see what´s there.

 

 

 

Greetings,

Sandra

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Maybe your just reading too much into it to be honest .. just enjoy the film :).. often alot of effort is put into a scene to make it look like its not lit at all.. and the audience has no idea it took 10 hrs to set up.. or an interior scene looks like day time but was shot in the middle of the night.. ... studios are just big dark boxes after all.. personally I don't think a general audience should actually notice just the lighting.. it should just complement the whole.. and if they do notice then the film itself is lacking..

 

The only way to really know what the filmmaker wanted is to ask them... or read up about a certain film.. then you quite often read that they were running out of time.. some gear broke.. it started to rain.. and some amazing shots have been totally accidental or just down to circumstances at the time.. there is a guy wearing a suit with a calculator on every film.. its a commercial undertaking to make money in the final analysis.. rather than purely a work of art created by one person..

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