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The Art Of Good Lighting

Having worked on projects as diverse as TV series Hustle, thriller Derailed and horror-comedy Lesbian Vampire Killers, cinematographer Nic Lawson discusses why you don’t need to follow the rules when it comes to good lighting.

In recent months a curious question has been asked amongst cinematographers. It’s a question that divides and one that, as yet, has no outstanding consensus of opinion. On the surface it seems like a simple question, requiring only rudimentary consideration. But, scratch the surface…

That question is, Is there a set of criteria by which the work of a cinematographer can be judged to be good? In other words, is there such a thing as ‘good lighting’? It’s part of a bigger question and it comes, not surprisingly, at a time when grades industry-wide are being carefully scrutinised and defined in tightly-formulated documents. These job descriptions are the basis for the long-awaited NVQs. Production companies can be assured that the crew they hire are fully qualified, insurance companies can feel comfortable that their risks are reduced and the crew themselves can regain some sense of control over quality and numbers in the ranks. But, so far, the grades that have been neatly boxed are those in which you would expect to find a greater balance in favour of the technical over the creative. And lighting isn’t one of them.

There’s no doubt that lighting often requires a significant amount of technical knowledge. The ability to light a set that hasn’t been built, placing lights that haven’t been hired and using crew that are still on their last job is a feat requiring knowledge and skill. It’s one of the greatest satisfactions of the job when detailed diagrams of dozens of lighting positions are transformed by wonderful crews into a reality that looks just the way it did in the imagination. When the light meter agrees, it’s the icing on the cake. But that’s not really what it’s all about. How many foot-candles will you have 20 feet from a 10 kW Fresnel at full spot? It’s a good question but it’s got nothing to do with good lighting.

In 1920, the first issue of The American Cinematographer Magazine attempted to define the cameraman for its new readership: ‘The man who works the camera must be a thoroughly decent fellow or else he could not hold his position, as he has much to contend with and much is laid upon his unhappy head which should be blamed elsewhere-faulty direction, faulty chemicals, or faulty work in the darkroom.’ Though the definition is still accurate in some senses, it doesn’t begin to assess the creative aspects of the work of a cinematographer.

And there’s the crux of the problem. Lighting is a creative art. In most cases it exists under the umbrella of an industry driven by sales and marketing, but it is nevertheless rooted in creativity. Perhaps, if the loosest criteria should exist, it might look like this; good lighting is appropriate to the scene, the schedule and the budget. True, but not much fun, is it? Shouldn’t the criteria be a long list of great techniques and useful tips? Use mirrors in water to give a lovely shimmer effect. Use smoke for great shafts of light. Use a flag on the edge of a large source to sharpen the shadow. But then where would the space be for happy accidents and unexpected discoveries? When Michelangelo attacked his sculpture The Florentine Pieta in a fit of rage, he had no idea that he would leave it, damaged and unfinished, as one of his most powerful, beautiful and venerated works in marble.

Accidents and sledgehammers aside, there exists an infinite number of ways in which an artist can express him or herself, and, most importantly, very few will agree on which version of representation and expression is good. I can think of no creative field in which only one method is considered as the correct one to the exclusion of all others. And so it should be among cinematographers. In a spirit of true openness we should go about our business allowing the unexpected to come to us and, if needs be, to let it sweep away all of our carefully laid plans. It’s a great moment when the setting sun reflects off an open window, or a collapsing schedule forces the use of only one light and the result is better than the imagination allowed it to be.

But openness isn’t just about allowing the unexpected to become part of our own technique. It’s about looking at the thorny issue of ‘other people’s lighting’ and, if we don’t like it, allowing it to be simply something we wouldn’t do ourselves. It’s clear that we’re struggling to overcome a long-held tenet of the good old days of filmmaking, when we ask ourselves to allow all-comers and all styles to the fold. Lighting books through the ages have made regular attempts to pin down good lighting and in many respects they agree with each other. Heavyweights of our industry have written accepted formulae for ‘how to light a table scene’, and ‘how to light a tall set’. Times are changing. I heard a cinematography tutor say recently that three-point lighting is to be learned and then largely ignored. I would suggest that the same may well now be true for all of the great old formulae.

There’s no question that the one defining characteristic of our current age of filmmaking is that we’re in a period of extremely rapid change, both technologically and creatively. With these changes, we’re finding that our options are more open than they have ever been as we’re engulfed in a swirl of various types of moving images. In turn comes a variety of techniques that couldn’t have been imagined a few short years ago, let alone in the days in which many of the great ideas were first laid down.

With so many people lighting so many things in so many ways, is there such a thing as good lighting? And if there is, can it be written down? ♦

Nic Lawson is a member of the Guild of British Camera Technicians.

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 17 (May/June 2010)
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