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Karim D. Ghantous

So underexposure is the thing now, hey

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It's getting a bit ridiculous. I've seen some frame grabs of recent projects which are underexposed to the point of absurdity. Now, I get it - you're not in the business of shooting stock images or news footage. You don't have to obtain correct exposure for every shot. Sometimes it makes sense to have the scene a bit darker.

But in some cases I'm thinking, nah, this is just an affectation, just like weird colours (very prevalent in commercial photography for some reason), skin retouching (not a new thing but still annoying), cross processing, the 'log look', and that stupid blur smear you used to see in commercials maybe 15, 20 years ago.

I'm not going to post examples, because I don't want anyone thinking that I'm going after them, or that I'm calling them out, or anything like that. I don't think it's fair to pick on new or independent DPs or directors colorists. I'm an arsehole, for sure, but only up to a point.

But, things are always flexing and going back and forth. There's your middle third of acceptable exposure, then there's your extreme third on each side of that. You can't appreciate the middle third until you've experienced the extremes. It's just how we are. So I think we're going to see more of this underexposure trend for quite a while. After all, it  is used in Hollywood right now, so it is given legitimacy right from the top.

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There are always trends and fads but underexposure has been used in ways people found extreme through out much of cinema (from the Godfather to Harris savides work on "Birth" and now with the likes of Bradford Young and others)

There is no true "correct" exposure and sometimes the expressionism of a dark image is most effective...or sometimes a DP is just being trendy, looking for something to make the work stand out, and it doesn't really fit. you win some you lose some. 

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I think he means scenes which are made to look so dark that you can't really see what is happening and that makes it difficult to follow the movie. There is stylistic choices of making something less visible and then there is choices to hide it completely for no apparent benefit which may work against the movie (and especially against a tv-series because they are often watched in poor conditions compared to movies) .

I you have watched The Walking Dead for example... there was for example the season where they were a lot in the sewers and it was very difficult to follow what was going on because it was mostly a black silhouette against almost completely black background. Better monitor and brightness boost did not help, there was still only actress's eyes floating in the dark and pretty much nothing else

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Posted (edited)

I think there was this type of stuff in the GOT as well. Too dark to see what is happening and that makes it more difficult to follow the plot.

the same thing happens sometimes with audio. the dialogue can be mixed so low in some scenes that it is very challenging to hear what the characters are saying. this just makes it unnecessarily hard to follow or sometimes impossible (there is a Finnish movie where I needed the official dialogue list and had to watch it 30 times in a row to find out what some of the lines actually were. they were changed a little after the list was made and I had to update it so I had to find out what they were actually saying) . 

So there is artistic choices and then there is choices which are made just for fun for no apparent artistic reason other than harassing the viewer (native speakers need closed captions to be able to follow a movie etc)

Edited by aapo lettinen

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4 hours ago, Albion Hockney said:

There are always trends and fads but underexposure has been used in ways people found extreme through out much of cinema (from the Godfather to Harris savides work on "Birth" and now with the likes of Bradford Young and others)

A thin negative per se is nothing new of course, but the latest fad is underexposure plus low contrast, or "low-con low key" (which already sounds absurd). I'd guess it's a byproduct of soft lighting everything - when there's a small tonal scale and spill everywhere, you're tempted not only to remove fill, but also to bring the key down too much when you're shooting night. Thus only the specular highlights remain in "plus" zones over gray. 

While there is place for murky images (you may want the subject to kind of gradually come out of darkness instead of showing a clear silhouette and features), the extreme examples are usually pure failure. Some are so afraid of making the scene look lit that they virtually end up only filling & accentuating natural light, some are reluctant to rig lights far and high because of mad schedules, no rehearsals, constant re-blocking of the scene, etc. It's not always an artistic intention, it's often lighting being trash for obvious reasons. 

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I'm seeing this more and more especially I guess on mid-level-budget streaming shows; whether it's budget-related I don't know, and it wouldn't be a problem if it were just a shot or two, but typically a large chunk of a show would look severely underlit/underexposed. I think it's also a contrast problem, possibly to avoid blowing highlights (eg. interior day scenes), though I can't imagine that being a major issue with the performance of today's cameras, even down to the prosumer level.

I remember reading on this forum the trick of always having one element in the shot which is correctly or even over-exposed, in a dark scene, to sell the idea that the look was intentional. That would go some way to at least give a semblance of balance. But that's often not the case. Even just having a raking / side key light while keeping the rest of the face in darkness would be preferable.

The first thing that came to mind was the parallel problem of intelligibility of dialogue, as mentioned by Aapo above, which I think is twofold: actors increasingly mumbling their lines, and dialogue being mixed lower in the mix. Possibly also due to sound mixers increasingly relying on the mix track instead of isos, in a world of vanishing budgets and ever-stringent deadlines. And as he also alludes to, I as a native English speaker very often find myself putting subtitles on just to be able to comprehend more than 50% of the dialogue!

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1 hour ago, Michael Rodin said:

A thin negative per se is nothing new of course, but the latest fad is underexposure plus low contrast, or "low-con low key" (which already sounds absurd). I'd guess it's a byproduct of soft lighting everything - when there's a small tonal scale and spill everywhere, you're tempted not only to remove fill, but also to bring the key down too much when you're shooting night. Thus only the specular highlights remain in "plus" zones over gray. 

While there is place for murky images (you may want the subject to kind of gradually come out of darkness instead of showing a clear silhouette and features), the extreme examples are usually pure failure. Some are so afraid of making the scene look lit that they virtually end up only filling & accentuating natural light, some are reluctant to rig lights far and high because of mad schedules, no rehearsals, constant re-blocking of the scene, etc. It's not always an artistic intention, it's often lighting being trash for obvious reasons. 

I agree. As cameras have become more and more sensitive, there has been an increasing tendency to not light, and to let practical lamps do the majority of the work. This can sometimes make things look flat because practicals are not as controllable, and so a lot of DPs resort to underexposure as a way of creating mood where there is little contrast.

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1 hour ago, Stuart Brereton said:

I agree. As cameras have become more and more sensitive, there has been an increasing tendency to not light, and to let practical lamps do the majority of the work. This can sometimes make things look flat because practicals are not as controllable, and so a lot of DPs resort to underexposure as a way of creating mood where there is little contrast.

I just wrote a piece on this.

I look at it this way. Let's say the fastest film stock, under normal circumstances, was and is around ISO 500. Cameras are now routinely good to at least twice that, if not more, and do better when underexposed anyway. Modern lenses are much more intended to be used close to wide open than ever before, so credit another stop to that. Much of the lighting now uses a quarter of the power it used to, assuming LED is more affordable than HMI.

So shots in 2020 are overall something like three or four stops more sensitive in terms of lighting budget to signal level than those in (say) 2000. That means your 18K HMI can now be replaced with something you can plug into the wall in most parts of the world. Sounds great, eh?

One of the problems, as Stuart so accurately says, is the tendency to use this as an excuse to just turn up and shoot. Even if people choose to light, though, there's at least two other issues I can think of. First is the issue that even if you don't need the 18K, and possibly not such a huge generator to run it, you still need permission from whatever authority you're working under to put one on the street, and that's probably at least as expensive in many places as the light, the generator, and the crewing. It will save money, but it's not as simple as considering the purchase price of the light.

Yes, in some circumstances, really big LEDs can be walked into place on battery power, avoiding official involvement. HMI sun guns have theoretically been able to do this for a while but until recently cameras weren't fast enough to allow them to replace the big stuff. Certainly very high power soft lights can be achieved with things like the Aladdin Fabric Light from wall socket power that would require big HMIs and diffusion to do any other way, but you still have to rig it on a street corner and that's still spendy.

The other problem is that working at four stops higher sensitivity doesn't give you the same look on, say, a night exteriors as we got in the famous stuff. Blade Runner was shot on film about as sensitive as an Alexa with two stops of ND in it on lenses that, to be nice, perform best at 4 and above. Shooting night exteriors under street lighting plus movie lights isn't going to look the same as if you shoot on something literally six effective stops faster and with a much lower contrast toe. The movie lights can now be dimmer, thanks to high sensitivity. The street lighting is what it always was. This leads to muddy, noisy, tinted shadows full of unwanted spill from practicals that the old school just squelched.

P

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20 or 30 years from now, some film student is going to want to recreate that shallow-focus, underexposed low-con look of 2020 cinematography...

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4 hours ago, Michael Rodin said:

A thin negative per se is nothing new of course, but the latest fad is underexposure plus low contrast, or "low-con low key" (which already sounds absurd). I'd guess it's a byproduct of soft lighting everything - when there's a small tonal scale and spill everywhere, you're tempted not only to remove fill, but also to bring the key down too much when you're shooting night. Thus only the specular highlights remain in "plus" zones over gray. 

While there is place for murky images (you may want the subject to kind of gradually come out of darkness instead of showing a clear silhouette and features), the extreme examples are usually pure failure. Some are so afraid of making the scene look lit that they virtually end up only filling & accentuating natural light, some are reluctant to rig lights far and high because of mad schedules, no rehearsals, constant re-blocking of the scene, etc. It's not always an artistic intention, it's often lighting being trash for obvious reasons. 

do you have examples of this you could point to? 

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1 hour ago, David Mullen ASC said:

20 or 30 years from now, some film student is going to want to recreate that shallow-focus, underexposed low-con look of 2020 cinematography...

See, what you do is, you get what's called a low pressure sodium light - they were just about still in use back then, you can get 'em on that thing that unexpectedly replaced eBay in 2028 - and you put it just close enough that it barely lifts the blacks into a sort of ill-defined, shifting, grainy hemi-demi-semi exposure that contains just enough detail to be distracting and enough grit and fuzz to really mess with noise reduction systems. 

But won't that make it look like someone quite literally took a dump on the frame, Grandpa?

Yes, son. It will.

Yaaay!

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3 hours ago, David Mullen ASC said:

20 or 30 years from now, some film student is going to want to recreate that shallow-focus, underexposed low-con look of 2020 cinematography...

Wait until 5D Mark II's sky rocket in price in 20 years when filmmakers want to get that coveted 2010 indie film look. 🤩

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This lighting trend seems to be a type of minimalism that is prevalent across the arts at the moment. It's a low-energy approach and I think is supposed to be cool, and Bohemian, ... or something. Fair enough, if that's the look you're going for.

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On 10/7/2020 at 6:21 PM, Jon O'Brien said:

This lighting trend seems to be a type of minimalism that is prevalent across the arts at the moment. It's a low-energy approach and I think is supposed to be cool, and Bohemian, ... or something. Fair enough, if that's the look you're going for.

Thats a really good analysis. Though naturalistic lighting trends are for sure also a product of growing realism  and camera tech that allows you to make "polished" looking images with less need for artificial lighting 

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6 hours ago, Karim D. Ghantous said:

FWIW, I really like practicals. A lot.

Yeah, but you're not trying to shoot a night exterior to make it look like Blade Runner with a lighting budget of $3 and an FS7.

These things matter.

P

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On 10/8/2020 at 12:21 AM, Jon O'Brien said:

 It's a low-energy approach and I think is supposed to be cool, and Bohemian, ... or something.

If I wanted to be uncharitable, I'd say it's because they don't know how to light, so they use underexposure as a crutch. If enough people do it, it becomes a look in its own right, and its origins as a failure of technique get forgotten.

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5 hours ago, Stuart Brereton said:

If I wanted to be uncharitable, I'd say it's because they don't know how to light, so they use underexposure as a crutch. If enough people do it, it becomes a look in its own right, and its origins as a failure of technique get forgotten.

Much as I'm likely to be publicly birched for saying this, I thought that some of HBO's excellent Chernobyl had this problem (click to embiggen).

chernobyl3.thumb.jpg.18dba5473905a0c84501330e63347189.jpg

chernobyl2.thumb.jpg.cb87f511d2d4253c7b6830aed53edc69.jpg

chernobyl1.thumb.jpg.9bce635d74fbf9714a5f7f6a03409f0d.jpgchernobyl4.thumb.jpg.4fabe484d8e6ee09aae37b34541bff6a.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I mean, is that really what hospitals look like, even in the late Soviet era? Can we maybe see the nice person's performance?

chernobyl4_fixed.thumb.jpg.86a5a98fc1dbb3099cb663ef13ca7b67.jpg

Ah. Yes. We can.

Yes, yes, I know, you can justify anything, it's the feel, it's the look, but there is a limit. Given how relative this stuff is, if there's literally nothing in the frame that provides a near-white reference, you're just turning the brightness down.

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5 hours ago, AJ Young said:

I take it you guys didn't like Gordon Willis haha

I don’t think it’s the same. Gordon Willis always had a point of reference in terms of exposure. There was always something properly exposed to counteract the underexposure. And actually enhance it.

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14 hours ago, AJ Young said:

I take it you guys didn't like Gordon Willis haha

Gordon Willis was an extraordinarily precise DP who used under exposure as a tool, not as a crutch. Worlds apart from the kind of work we’re discussing.

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When I was a teenager at the beginning of the 80s, I remember German TV audiences complaining en masse about Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' TV Series being too underexposed. I couldn't find better images and some look like they've been boosted but I do remember that it was best to sit in complete darkness while watching it. Easy to do, since it went out at 11pm, if I remember correctly.

1251880136_Screenshot_2020-10-11BerlinAlexanderplatz(1980).thumb.png.8dfe2301ce0aff0f77f13d1285e74b96.png1264020304_Screeshot_2020-10-11BerlinAlexanderplatz(1980).thumb.jpg.e32a053c11e30fdc94ea5372a15af82d.jpg660314159_Screenshot2020-10-11BerlinAlexanderplatz(1980).thumb.jpg.ce47cb9d18d867cb4081952110c7d58c.jpg1431315834_Screenshot_2020-10-11BerlinAlexanderplatz(1980).thumb.jpg.f97d50342630e6064c0c62becfdfbfc1.jpg1743123922_Screenshot_2020-10-11BerinAlexanderplatz(1980).thumb.jpg.b4e394b0d3c91095e724e8f0530eeb7f.jpg

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