Visual Style: Cinematographers on Cinematography – Part 2

The images and quotes found in this post have been selected from a collection of documents on Directors of Photography compiled by cinematographer Stephen Murphy. You can access the documents from his website (here) and sample some of his work (here).

We continue our exploration of one of the pillars of the “Trinity of Visual Style”, Cinematography. The choice of formats, framing, lighting, lenses, filters, colors and motion are some of the key elements falling under the Cinematographers responsibilities.

In the first part we explored what it means to be a director of photography, collaborations, formats, framing and movement.

In this second part we explore lighting (and smoke) through quotes from cinematographers Jordan CronenwethJohn ShwartzmanStephen H. BurumJeffrey KimballJohn TollDarius KhondjiHarris SavidesAdrian BiddleDouglas SlocombeDariusz WolskiPaul Cameron and Janusz Kaminski.

Lighting is your brush. ‘A cinematographer has to design and write a story, starting at the beginning, through the evolution to the end. That’s why I consider my profession is as a writer of light.’ –Vittorio Storaro

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.33.21 It’s not what you light that counts, but what you do not light.

– Jordan Cronenweth ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 11.36.42If you spend a lot of time lighting you are not going to work a lot.

– John Shwartzman ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 14.07.09Photography looks ta the world with only one lens, an you need to introduce a three-dimensional quality to this two-dimensional image. There’s only one way to accomplish that. Creating areas of light against dark, or dark against light. I’m not referring to colour. You might put a backlight on someones dark head so that you have a dark area, a little bright halo, and another dark area. Or you may put a light on a wall behind someone dark shoulders. You can put in as many of this planes as you want.

– Stephen H. Burum ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 15.36.11I usually start by lighting the set first because I don’t have the actors or the director yet. I start by setting the time of day or night, and then define the space using separation and modelling. After that I can rough in the key for the areas where the actors are going to be. Following the rehearsal, I trim all of that stuff with the stand ins, and I add the fill light. After the first take, I may decide I have too much fill light. I often back off a bit once I have seen the actors and their flesh tones, the real value of their costumes and how it all plays.

– Stephen H. Burum ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.16.54I love to work with very specific marks and really control the light

– Jeffrey Kimball ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.19.59We went out of our way to make the lighting feel natural and not manipulated. At times that meant doing nothing at all to the light. But, if it didn’t look good we had to go to great lengths to make it look natural. We put a lot of energy into making it look as if we weren’t doing anything.

– John Toll ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 18.15.28People want to see the actors look good. It’s my job to make them look good. We all have imperfections and there is nothing that lighting can’t correct.

– Jan De Bont ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.09.54To get a more romantic look, one with perhaps a bit of glossiness, I would give the actors a little kiss on the side of the face – a  1/4 backlight bounced off a piece of beadboard from behind that ear.

– Jeffrey Kimball ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.39.25Too often lighting is where it “should” be.

– Darius Khondji AFC, ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.41.56I believe that it’s good for actors to be in the dark and not always to be lit brightly when they deliver a line.

– Darius Khondji AFC, ASC
Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.57.37From time to time the audience needs to be blinded by the sun, by daylight. Even if we have put them in a very beautiful dark light. Sometimes they need a flash of light on their faces. I feel that you need rhythm in color and lighting.

– Darius Khondji AFC, ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 17.19.24I’m always trying to get away with one light source.

– Harris Savides ASC

Find a LightI find the source of light for each shot and build on that. You get an artistic buzz from it. But a lot of the time it’s just working at it and doing your job.

 – Adrian Biddle BSC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 17.31.45It’s a bit ironic because I come from a stylised way of working but I don’t really know how to light people unless they stand next to a lamp or open a refrigerator door. I know that sounds totally insane. But, I have problems setting up lights to just light people. I approach every scene in the same way. Light comes from motivated sources and I let people fall off a lot.

– Harris Savides ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.15.17I go for minimalist approach to lighting wherever I am. I try to get one or two beautiful things going on in scene and that’s enough.

– Jeffrey Kimball ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 17.41.56I generally do not look at light as key and fill. The film stock have gotten so sensitive, one rarely needs to fill.

– Harris Savides ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.36.59For me, contrast is like another character in the film – a role which is played by the cinematography

– Darius Khondji AFC, ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 17.40.28Always shoot soft and print contrasty. –

– Harris Savides ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.33.53I love hard light in the face if it is overexposed. I think that’s beautiful. It’s different. It’s unusual. It’s exciting. It’s violent.

– Jordan Cronenweth ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 15.35.39To me black is a very important element. Whether you’re shooting color or black and white. If you don’t have a black reference you don’t have the bottom . Especially when you are shooting black and white, you always have to have a black reference. In the frame as well as highlight reference. If you don’t have all that the grey scale in between just looks like mud.  

– Stephen H. Burum ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.08.20I love a great lighting setup, one where you can let some things be black and some things be white.

– Jeffrey Kimball ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 10.17.51I think contemporary photography is going away from pretty pictures. Something that is dark is really dark, and something that is bright is very bright – the idea is to stretch photography, to make it more extreme.

– Dariusz Wolski ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.12.15[On not using fill light] It’s more dramatic and that’s what we’re chasing – maximum drama. On the wider scene in general there might be a card bounce in the front but for all practical purpose we’re not dealing with much fill. Instead we dealing with a much as four stop difference between the key in the fill, sometimes five or six stops – all the way. Whatever this film can handle, whatever the latitude of the film is, we’re right on either edge.

– Jeffrey Kimball ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.36.58The way you decide the angle of light controls the way the film looks.

– Jordan Cronenweth ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.39.01The direction of the light on characters is one of the most important elements in my work – if not the most important. The directon of the light counts more for me than its hardness or softness. Direction is what gives soul to the light and to the character. The angle can be completely frontal, which I don’t do too often, or completely backlit, rendering a silhouette. Another approach is hard three-quarter rim lighting match by a very soft side lighting from the other side. Classic side lighting is also very beautiful. There are so many variations.

 – Darius Khondji AFC, ASC
Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 10.04.43The ideal light is backlight.

– Dariusz Wolski ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 18.33.28I love backlighting not just for the sake of glamourising [the subject] but because the direction of the light can represent storytelling. I don’t do backlights and then also adds key lights and all these things – if I do backlight I want to see that backlight.  That’s my style, and that’s the way we have done it in every single movie.  You get criticism for the kind of lighting and you get prizes for that kind of lighting.

– Janusz Kaminski

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.33.38I can never use enough backlighting is it’s just that some director want to see the actors faces I keep telling them that the audience only goes to see sex.

– Jordan Cronenweth ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.50.30The idea of having light fall onto faces from above was inspired by the work of Gordon Willis. My light is often 2 or 2 1/2  stops underexposed. It’s very slight, and you can feel that there is something drizzling on to the faces from above. Willis did it differently – using strong light boxes overhead.

– Darius Khondji AFC, ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 11.43.39I light through windows. I don’t surround the set in a multitude of C-stands. I try to keep a low profile.

– John Shwartzman ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 18.43.48If you light everything through the windows, you can seldom make a wrong choice. You get natural looking contrast in the scene, and you can move a lot faster.

– David Devlin

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 11.37.22Our approach to lighting the room was to light it the way the light would naturally fall, and block the actors around it. We didn’t fight the natural light. We tried to enhance it.  If I knew we were going to be shooting upstairs in the Alcatraz infirmary, I’d have the scissorlifts in position with either five Dinos or five Brute ARC’s, depending on the look we were going for.

– John Shwartzman ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.59.47I always soften the source. I put the source very far away and then cut it down and diffuse it, especially for close ups.

– Darius Khondji AFC, ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.39.48I light faces very softly and indirectly, with fluorescents. Even when the light is coming from the side, the the quality of the light is very soft. it fills. I’ll soften everything but I still need the structure of the blacks.

– Darius Khondji AFC, ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 17.32.39We did a lot of lighting by putting things on the edge of the light beam – right on the fringe of the field-angle as opposed to centring the beam on the subject. We’d focus the light on the centre of the scene and then pan it left or tilt it away so that the scene was on the edge of the beam. That created a much more realistic than straight on hard light or light aimed through diffusion.

– Harris Savides ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.51.04My normal fill light for ambience is usually color corrected to match the shadows, to keep the scene cooler.

– Darius Khondji AFC, ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 17.26.35I don’t put a meter up and say ‘put the camera at F5 .6  A lot of the time that meter says E or there is nothing there.

– Harris Savides ASC
Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 17.15.05I used to use a light meter – I used one for use for years. Throughout the years I found out, as schedules got tighter and tighter, I had less and less time to light a set. I found myself not checking the meter until I had finished the set and decided on the proper stop. It would usually say exactly what I thought it should. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t believe it or I will hold it in such a way as to make it see my stop. After a time a decided this was ridiculous and stopped using it entirely. The Raiders pictures were all shot without a meter. I just got used to using my eyes.

– Douglas Slocombe BSC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 17.38.46I’m always lighting to eye. I know what stop I want. I know where I want to be and I just trust my eye. I’m generally shooting around a T2 .8. I like to shoot on the wider side of things because it seems to make the image a little creamier, less punchy. Stopping down not only gives you more depth of field, it also makes the image more contrasty. Most lenses perform better at T4 or T5.6,  but I like them a bit softer so I stay on the wider side.

 – Harris Savides ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.45.25Over the years I’ve developed a specific lighting style, especially for day or night exteriors. I tend to put powerful sources, like a 10 K xenon, right at the edge of the frame in the background, pointing almost directly down the lens, to create a super hot edge that’s pretty off the scale stop wise. That technique always puts you in danger of getting some violent flares but if you handle it just right it adds tremendous depth to the image.

– Paul Cameron ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 11.41.59This is Union Station in LA at 5:30 in the afternoon and I’m telling you there is no way to light it to look like this. This is just a Southern California sunny day with the light coming through those windows. Those windows face west you put a little bit of smoke in there. This is about picking the right time of day to shoot in turning the camera on.  It looks beautiful and I’d love to take all the credits. But all I did was to have the presence of mind to say we should be shooting there in the afternoon.

– John Shwartzman ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.21.50Doing good work in day exterior situation means that you must be able to make great images all day long, even when the light isn’t ideal for pretty pictures. You must make choices that will allow you to take advantage of natural light in existing conditions. Even when the light is that ‘bad’, it is possible to do good work by making wise choices. Good daytime exterior cinematography is not comprised solely of making pretty pictures at magic hour. It’s all about being knowledgeable about your craft and being able to create interesting images in all of the various daylight conditions.

– John Toll ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 17.09.57Dougie more than any cameraman I’ve worked with uses the sun as a key light and let’s essentially everything follow its rout. Really for the first time I became aware of how the sun could be used as a tool of great artistry and I think Slocombe used the sun on Raiders the way Vittorio Storraro uses his amber smokey units inside to such great effect.

– Steven Spielberg

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.49.43More and more, I just prefer to use the real daylight. I use the skylight as a top light, then negative fill to create contrast. For me this is much more effective than using artificial light.

 – Darius Khondji AFC, ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 11.40.31Some people hate flares and some people love them. I tend to fall in the Jan De Bont ASC school. I find them interesting and beautiful depending on the source of light giving you the flare. I like to use flares to transition in or out of a scene, or to heighten the sense of energy in a shot. It’s something to be used as a tool.

– John Shwartzman ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.46.46Kino Flo’s are one of the best lights, and one of my favourites. However, Kino’s have such unnaturally glamorous quality that they sometimes give off too nice a glow. In some movies you can feel that the actors are lit with Kino’s and I try to avoid that.  You have to be careful to gave those lights grit, some realness. You have to put things between Kino’s and the faces, or put the Kino’s at an edgy angle so they look as if they are naturally surrounding the actors.

– Darius Khondji AFC, ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 10.15.44Candles were part of our lighting on all three movies. On the first film we asked the art department for three week candles so we’d get the maximum flame and output. On any set that was a night interior we’d try use as much candlelight as possible. We even use them for fill, putting six or eight of them on stands – it’s the most realistic flicker effect you’re going to get. Above the room, we had soft boxes color corrected to match the firelight for fill. We used Kino Flo’s – some 4-BYs and some we made from Kino Flo parts. Darius had an idea to build a loose fixture with fabric that we could just wrap around parts of the set like posts.

– Rafael Sanchez

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 09.33.54[Adrian Biddle] uses a faint layer of smoke. He uses a lot of soft light and he gives everything a creamy look. It’s not so much smoky it has a light texture and it’s very nice to look at.

– Jonathan Taylor

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.34.37Naturally to create shafts of light one must have some medium. Smoke is wonderful photographically but not without its problems. The only practical way to judge smoke density is by eye. I found a good density is achieved just before I lose consciousness.

– Jordan Cronenweth ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.12.35Smoke is just another tool that you use at will. When I think it’s appropriate, I use it. It’ll always add another layer of depth to what you’re doing, inside or outside. I have nearly poisoned myself with different smoke experiments and I feel I have pretty good control over now. You photograph only about 50% of what you see with your eyes depending on what degree of backlight there is.

– Jeffrey Kimball ASC

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 17.07.44

One of the exterior was in the jungle clearing where Steven and I wanted to make use of the rays of sunshine coming through the trees, which is always a cameraman’s dream. Of course one puts down smoke, so the rays light up the smoke. But, the schedule didn’t really enable one to hang around too long, and I had to try and reproduce this with ARC lights rather than waiting for the sun to shine through the trees.

– Douglas Slocombe BSC

In the 3rd and final part we explore lenses, filters, colors and film vs digital

You might have missed the first part where we explored what it means to be a director of photography, collaborations, formats, framing and movement.

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3 responses to “Visual Style: Cinematographers on Cinematography – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Visual Style: Cinematographers on Cinematography – Part 1 | w(a/o)ndering filmmaking·

  2. Pingback: Visual Style: Cinematographers on Cinematography – Part 3 | w(a/o)ndering filmmaking·

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