Cinematography tips - Cheating with light

(An excerpt from my forthcoming film book, "Making Your First Blockbuster" coming 2019.)

Sometimes you will find yourself in a position where you’ll need to be very creative with your light sources and their motivations. Lighting in most if not all cases needs to be motivated from a source with a justified position. Having your actors run through a field at night time means there will probably some sort of moonlight hanging over head as that will be the most likely source of light in the scene in order for us to see the actors. As with any creative endeavor, you are allowed a certain amount of creative license. How much license you take is up to you and how much you can get away with.

When it comes to reality and what the audience believes to be true, I think there is room for creative boundary-pushing. Good images triumph absolute realism and matching. Audiences don’t care about 100% realism as long as it doesn’t take them out of the film, so feel free to push those boundaries. Audiences won’t say, “The lighting didn’t look very good, but at least it was 100% accurate to the environment”; they’ll just come away feeling a little unimpressed with the quality of the film and not really knowing why. I’m not saying have a red light for the moon or have your cast completely lit up like a Christmas tree, what I am saying is if that moonlight is coming from above and behind them, and technically might not stretch around to lighting their face and eyes in the manner you would like, then I think you should light them the way you want to. Make them look better than what the realistic way might suggest. So if you need to cheat how far a light from a window creeps onto an actor’s face so that you can make the star look better, do it.

Take a look at these two matching shots from the end of L.A. Confidential (1997), with both the actors are backlit by the sun. This shouldn’t work — there aren’t two suns — but we accept it as both shots look similar and match. It’s bright and high key for the end of the movie, and is a nice example of what you can get away with if the audience is immersed in the story and characters.

Lighting mismatches is also a creative obstacle but you can push the boundaries to suit your needs and the needs of the film. Look at the example below. Here we see two stills from the film The Last Samurai (2003) featuring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. Notice on the first shot of actor, Ken Watanabe, we see a lovely back light helping to separate him from the night sky. Then in the reverse shot, over his shoulder on the other actor we see a hint of that light, but its intensity is way down on what it was in the previous shot and doesn’t match at all. This isn’t an error on the part of DP John Toll, though. If they had kept it the same, we’d see a large bright blue area of the frame distracting us from looking where we are supposed to be looking at the emotional moment between a father and his dying son.

Adhering to the lighting sources, their intensity, and their positions 100% of the time might be stopping you from creating some really interesting images. Don’t get tied in knots sticking to what is absolutely right and correct for the environment you’re in and lose the opportunity to create images that not only look good, but also fit the story. You can have both and bend the rules a little, and the audience will never know.

"Making Your First Blockbuster" is due to be released early 2019 from Michael Wiese Productions.

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