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Lighthill on Light: A Conversation with the Cinematographer


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BY Aimee Baldridge September 10, 2014 · Published by Sekonic

Stephen Lighthill, ASC, chair of the American Film Institute Conservatory’s cinematography program, talks about what his students know about light that the rest of us don’t, how lighting a set is like playing pool, and why a light meter is the primary tool of the cinematographer.

Photograph by Douglas Kirkland.

Aimee Baldridge: What kind of work do you prepare your students for at AFI?

Stephen Lighthill:
Our graduates go out and do a variety of work, but our main mission is to train cinematographers to work in a narrative framework. In this day and age, you find narratives everywhere. You find them on the Internet, in commercials, in music videos, in documentaries. So we feel that this very fundamental training will stand them in good stead for any sort of work they get when they graduate. But our main framework is fiction narrative storytelling, and that's what they do when they’re here.  

AB: Everybody in the modern world lives with artificial lighting, and yet most of us don't know how to walk into a scene and light it for a shoot. What are we all missing about light that you teach cinematographers to understand?

Stephen Lighthill:
I think the first thing about lighting that the average person doesn't have is a language to describe their experience. They can say, "It's a dark and moody day, and I like that," but they don’t have a really informed language to describe it to other people. At AFI, we have an extensive collection of books of still photography of all kinds. One of the things we ask our cinematographers, directors, and designers to do is to sit down and look at the pictures together, and develop a common language.

Second of all, the average person doesn’t know how a recording device—whether it's motion picture film, a digital still camera, or a digital video camera—will record the light. Cinematographers have learned how their tools will interpret the lighting. And they're lovers of light. They love to see light in all different places, and are constantly intrigued by the interplay of light and reality.

A cinematographer gains an enormous amount of experience at creating mood. The average person may walk into a dark living room and see lamp light and say, "Oh, this is very dramatic lighting." But we have to be able to create that mood, so that you'll react that way no matter what the environment is, whether it's day or night, on a soundstage or in a real location. It's a matter of training your eye.

Aimee Baldridge: How do you teach your students to observe the way the world is lit, so that they can recreate it?

Stephen Lighthill:
One of our early exercises is to force them to go to a location where they think they'll shoot something, and stay there for 12 hours, and do 12 photographs. They see how the sun changes or lights come on. Even if it's an interior, we have them do it. It's the first wakeup they get to how radical a light change can be as the day progresses.

We have them keep journals that are both written and visual, so that they're carrying a camera at all times, and looking around, and saying, "Oh, I'd love to recreate that light the way it comes through the trees or bounces off that building," and they take a still, and keep track of it.

AB: So you have your students start out by shooting stills even though they're studying cinematography?

Stephen Lighthill:
Still work is very much a part of what we do initially, although we also get right into filmmaking. One of my favorite things to do with students when they come in is to take them onto our sound stage with an idea and a light meter. I have them do a simple shot of one of their classmates, and I say, "It has to be clear to me from the shot where we are, and what time of day it is." That's the most fundamental thing a narrative cinematographer has to keep track of in the course of a production: Where are we? What time of day is it?  

So I have them meter and light this little scene, and then I come over and take a picture of it. Then the whole class gets together and reviews every single picture. The cinematographer who took the picture can't say anything, and everyone else has to say, "Well, I think it's a bar at night,” or “It's a bedroom in the daytime," or whatever. It also has to carry a mood with it: It's a happy bedroom, or it's a sad bedroom.  

We teach motivated lighting, which means that when you do lighting, you know why you’re doing it and what source it’s supposed to represent. Cinematographers have to tell themselves a story about the lighting. For example, you could say to yourself, "This is a dark bedroom, but I also need some light in here, so I'm going to say the door is open, and there's a light out in the hall. I'm going to create a pattern to the light that's true to that scenario. That’s going to be my lighting, even though we're never going to see the door or the hallway, or the light on at all.”  

AB: So the lighting is a storytelling device in the narrative?

Stephen Lighthill:
Of course. There’s hall light that's bright and happy, and there's hall light that's dim and threatening. You have to make the choice based on where the narrative is supposed to be taking you. Cinematographers have to be technically confident and have good control of all of the tools that are available, but the most important thing we teach them is that they have to know the script as well as anyone else on set, and have to understand more than anyone else on set what the director’s interpretation of that script is.

AB: In a previous interview, you compared lighting to playing pool. What did you mean?

Stephen Lighthill:
The most common pool shot is to hit the ball into a cushion that doesn't have anything to do with the ball itself. You want to aim it into another area so that you can get your cue ball to hit the ball you want, but you're using an opposite cushion to do it. Well, the most common form of lighting is bounce lighting. You're aiming a light into a surface so that you can get it into an area where you want it to be, when you can't physically have a light there.

For example, someone is sitting in a small office, and the person behind the desk is very close to the wall right behind them. It's very hard to physically put a light behind the person so that you can light their head and shoulders, and define them away from the wall. But it's easy to put a white card up, and then put a light somewhere else in the room, and aim it into that card so that the light then bounces down on the person who's sitting close to the wall. So that's why lighting's like pool. You're often aiming in one direction when you’re interested in another.  

AB: How does metering come into the game?  

Stephen Lighthill:
A light meter is the primary tool of the cinematographer. The use of it is an artistic effort. You need to know the dynamic range of the medium you're working in—whether it's video or film—and you need to know where the tones of the scene are going to fall in the image that you're making. That's what the light meter helps you do.

A light meter also trains your eye. You may start off relying a lot on the light meter to tell you the bright side of someone's face is two stops brighter than the dark side, or something like that. Then after a while, you get comfortable with making those decisions in a more free-form way. But a light meter is an absolutely accurate instrument for telling you how much light is falling in a given area, or how much light is being reflected from a given area. There's nothing else that will do that. A video camera will make a stab at it, but you'd have to use a zoom lens and move all over the set to determine exposure, so it's not really practical.  

Let's say you're scouting a location, way before production. There are no cameras even rented. You need to have a light meter. You need to know how to use it to say, "Well, I'm on this dark street at night, and on this corner, there's a street light and it gives me x amount of light. So in order to have a realistic approach to the lighting on this particular street, I have to build it around this existing source, because I can't take it away.” That's what we call a “given.” Many scenes will have givens like that, and you have to have a light meter for measuring them and figuring out where you're going to place the light values of a scene in your image.

AB: What do you use incident and reflected metering for on set?

Stephen Lighthill:
The vast majority of times, I use an incident meter because I'm lighting faces. I know where the faces are going to fall with an incident meter, and an incident meter is a very flexible and easy tool.  

A spot meter is great whenever there are extremes, like when you're trying to balance the outside with inside, and the outside is very bright. You need to know exactly how bright. Then you put something up to reduce the window light by, say, two stops, and you need to be able to quickly spot meter that to be sure it does reduce the light by two stops.

AB: What do you teach cinematographers about scouting locations?  

Stephen Lighthill:
The first thing we teach them is to stand close to the director and understand how the director is seeing that particular location. What is it about the location that makes the director want to shoot there? That's very, very important. So, the first thing they're doing is looking at the location through the director's eyes.

The next thing is looking at the location’s attributes that are good for the particular narrative—the lighting, the angles of the room, the shapes of the rooms. Cinematographers should be looking for the way the drama can be staged in the room, and how it will fit into the narrative itself.

Then there are all of the technical limitations and concerns that a cinematographer has, from where to stage the crew and equipment to whether the facility has suitable power.  

We like cinematographers to live with the space a little bit and take some still pictures so that when they leave, they can look at them and think about how the location speaks to them. Each location is going to be a character in the piece itself. The cinematographer needs to let the location grow on her or him to understand how light works in the rooms: Are there light walls or dark walls? Are there lots of windows or not many windows? Are there architectural features that work really well for cinematography?

We always say to a cinematographer, particularly in location work, "Scout the location and see the lighting that's already available there. If it's possible to work with what's there, within the narrative structure that you have, and just supplement what's there, you're way ahead of the game." Because in filmmaking time is always at a premium. And in image making, it's almost always true that less is more. The simpler lighting is, the more graphic and strong it can be.

AB: There are a variety of tools for evaluating light in cinematography, including meters and waveform monitors and the camera viewfinder itself. How do they work together?  

Stephen Lighthill:
The most fundamental tool at all times is the light meter. It’s something that you can use to measure light without having to set up a camera and a monitor. So, for scouting and preproduction, having an incident meter and a reflected meter is an absolute requirement. When you go to your grip and electric supplier, and they say, "Hey, we heard you're doing a scene in a long hall, and we have this new light we think you might be interested in," you need to be able to whip out your light meter and say, “That's great, but it's not strong enough for me because the hall’s got windows and I'm seeing outside." The light meter is indispensable in planning.  

During the shoot, the cinematographer is often leapfrogging from one set to another, prelighting one set while shooting on another. You have to be able to leave your video camera behind and walk over to the other set, and take a look at the prelighting, and say, "This lighting will work."  

Now, it's true that when you're shooting video, and you have a video monitor, some people see less reason to use a light meter. But I maintain that a cinematographer’s place is either on the set working with the team when prelighting or at the camera when shooting. It’s not sitting off set in a video village somewhere. As we get more capable video cameras, people are shooting more the way they shot with film. And more productions are finding that having large video monitors on set is a major distraction. They attract people and encourage them to offer opinions, which often is not wanted, because they're not the main collaborators on that image. They're not the cinematographer, or the director, or the production designer.  

Some people will say you can push the limits a little more with a video monitor because you can see just where you want things and where you can push it a little more, and what you see is what you get. The problem is that what you see isn't what you get. A monitor on set doesn't ever represent the way the video will look later on when it's projected, or when it's on a DVD or the Internet. A cinematographer always has to know the way an image will be seen. The way it will be seen often doesn’t have the dynamic range the original format had. For example, if you know that a laptop screen, where most of your audience is going to see the footage, has only got seven stops of latitude, then you need to be aware of that. Anything beyond seven stops is going to be of substandard quality. The light meter is still the main tool for figuring all that out. A waveform monitor is helpful, but again, what you want to have on set are tools that are easy and quick to use, and a light meter is.

You need to have your personal experience, your ability to work by the seat of your pants, and your light meter. All the other things distract you from your immediate contact with your actors and your collaborators. I take a hard line on that.

Stephen Lighthill, ASC, currently the chair of the cinematography program at American Film Institute Conservatory, has had three distinct career paths. First, as a documentary cinematographer, he worked on many films including Gimmie Shelter and Berkeley in the Sixties. This led to a second career path as DP of hour dramas for television, including Vietnam War Story, HBO; Earth2, NBC; and Nash Bridges, CBS. At the present time, as Senior Filmmaker In Residence: Cinematography, Stephen leads the education of cinematographers in AFI’s MFA program.


Featured photographer: Stephen Lighthill

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