True to the light

Phedon Papamichael, the cinematographer for 3:10 to Yuma, is quoted in American Cinematographer as saying, “There’s only one moon, and I tried to stay true to that.” Love those genuflections to reality.

But his point is important. He describes the elaborate rig he uses, not to create an artificial, idealized “look”, but to portray something that looks authentic. In the case of moonlight, it had to be harsh, a single source, with the same levels everywhere in the scene. And when the actors are wearing wide-brimmed hats, the faces would be completely lost in black shadows if the DP didn’t use a bounce card to get a little bit of light up into the eyes.

As the DP on college admissions productions, I often grapple with the same issues. There was a time decades ago when I used multiple sources, dramatic lighting, even color gels to add stereotypical “high tech” or mood light to some scenes. But over the years as cameras have improved and, thankfully, the popular tolerance for hype has decreased, I have increasingly sought to do what feels right to me: natural situations with natural lighting.

For starters, I turn off the “edge” circuitry that gives video that “video look”. Then, I’ll turn off the fluorescents if I can, but sometimes the most natural way to see classroom activity is even in that style of light. I’ll add a tiny tungsten to a dorm room, but mostly shoot it using the light that’s already there. I’ll shoot a day interview by window light, only adding my own 5600K sources to make it look to the eye like the window is doing all the work. Or I’ll shoot an outdoor night gathering by firelight or street lighting and only add what I need to get the lighting up to what feels natural. There’s only one moon. There’s only one “real”… and the best way to make a message credible is to illustrate real, heartfelt words with truly realistic images.

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