Illuminating Ideas With Student Filmmakers

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A View From Behind The Meter

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            I spent a recent Friday from 10:00 AM to almost 3:00 PM at Los Angeles City College (LACC) speaking to students about digital cameras and LED lighting. Matt Miner, one of our Chief Camera Techs, handled the digital camera part of the seminar and showed the Arri Alexa and Red Scarlet. He began about 10:30 and went until a little after noon with a very detailed explanation on digital camera systems. I picked up after he finished and went through a dozen new LED manufacturers showing the pros and cons of each. We kept an open forum and fielded questions as they came up. It was a very spirited open forum and we delighted in answering the questions proposed. Most of the questions dealt with the advantages of each piece of equipment over previously designed products to do the same job. However, there were some questions that I reacted to rather forcefully in that as far as I could see the individuals did not truly understand what they were getting into by studying the film process.

 The first one that sent shivers up my spine was “How do you light a living room?” I almost laughed out loud at first, then I realized that the individual really believed that there had to be a quick method to success. I kept thinking of the continuous question of “how expensive is a house?” In actuality there is no viable answer to the question. Every house has its own unique value structure. Location, square footage, age, amenities all change the value and no two are quite alike so there is no answer to the question that would be appropriate. This individual believed that all one needed was a revelation of this magic lighting secret and all there future lighting problems would be solved. Wrong!!! Emphatically wrong in the basic thinking. I think I must have been in hundreds of living rooms with the Directors of Photography and the Directors but I cannot recall two that were ever lit the same. Each set up was designed by the circumstances of the script, time of day, whether it was a comedy or a drama, and finally what the director wanted to have the audience feel about the scene. When I asked the student what he wanted the audience to feel it was obvious they had never considered the question.

To me that was always the most important question to ask. Every image put before an audience will illicit a feeling and that feeling dictates the lighting design. Illuminating a scene is easy, just put enough light in the room so the camera can get an image and you are done. Lighting a scene, however, will require that the designer must understand the intention of the director and the director’s purpose in placing the scene in the movie in the first place. Does he want to keep the audience in suspense? Does he want the viewer feel comfortable and at ease? Or is the scene intended to produce anxiety? All of these simple directions will change the way a scene will be lit. There is no magic bullet that solves all problems. Imagine asking Rembrandt how do you paint a room? Lighting is like oil painting only one does it with light instead of paint. Each scene has its own character and influences the audience in so many varied ways that there is no formula. Ask yourself, how does one want the viewer to feel while watching this scene and you will get closer to the answer to the lighting question that should have been asked by that individual.

The second question was by a student relatively new to the filmaking process who asked which camera would show off his talent to the studios above all others. I had to step in and ask whether he had a wealthy investor for his projects. His answer was based on his belief that the big studio executives were all just waiting and watching for new talent to emerge out of the film school class each year. This concept was so far from the truth of his situation that I felt I had to intercede and bring him down to earth. Having a dream is one thing and that is good but believing the dream is a reality is subject to bitter disappointment. There are literally thousands of new film students that graduate each year and attempt to get into the industry. Of these, only a handful actually gets there and usually these get there through personal family connections. I stressed to him to learn his trade on the small screen first. Learn how to tell a story in pictures that will resonate with an audience and stop thinking that you’re going to walk out of school and walk into the major studios as if one were on an escalator to the big time. It doesn’t happen that way. It takes years of hard work and rejection by the handfuls which forces one to have thick skin and ultimately a bulldog tenacity. To believe that someone up top is just looking for you is the height of folly and can only lead to depression or something much worse.

 I went to school for film at USC in the sixties and I really didn’t understand how to make movies until I began working on the set as a technician in the seventies and watched other people involved in the process. It took years and thousands of rolls of film passing through my cameras before I grew to understand the nuances of what works and what doesn’t. I still, after fifty years of production experience, discover something new and worthwhile every time I step onto a location which adds to my education in the film process. Be successful on the little screen first whether it’s an I-phone or u-tube and don’t put the horse before the cart. Capturing an image is easy, almost everyone can do it, but capturing an image that excites the viewer consistently is very hard and even the best fail at it regularly. There isn’t a film maker that I know of that hasn’t created a real stinker in his or her career. They have all made really bad films, which died at the box office, as well as the highly successful ones that have promoted their careers.

-Michael Rogers

Lighting Consultant & Educational Outreach

BIRNS & SAWYER

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