A View From Behind The Meter
Getting To Know Your CRI
There is so much discussion about Color Rendition Index (CRI) and Color Temperature (CCT) that sometimes I forget to emphasize the basics of how light changes our perspective. I was asked during one of my seminars by a film student in the audience how to light a scene that he was going to shoot the following week. The shot was to take place in the desert at night around a small campfire with two characters speaking to one another across from each other. His problem was that he only had access to only one HMI and several tungsten lights (Two 650 Tweenies, one mini mole and one 400 Joker HMI.) His question to me was how was he to light the desert background and the men around the campfire with such a minimal lighting package?
To begin with it was obvious that his perception forced him to believe that he needed to light the entire area of the location. This is a common misconception when lighting one’s set-ups. The viewing audience will provide the film maker with so much if you allow them to use their imagination. I began to explain how I would solve the problem he outlined to me using just what he had. First, by lighting just one cactus behind them with the mini mole warmed to 2800 CCT in the background tells the viewer that this location is in the desert. Bouncing the HMI into an ultra-bounce possibly a 6×6 or 12×12 if that were avaiable and use the bounce to back light the two characters and the immediate real estate behind the campfire giving the appearance of moonlight and the feeling of night. If the geography allows back light the cactus at the same time with the moonlight blue. Use the two Tweenies cross lighting at a low angle the two sitting at the campfire and flicker the instruments so they both appear to be imitating the campfire which you make sure is in the bottom of the frame. Keep the flickering light on the faces and chest of the two speakers and not on the camp fire or the back ground.
Make Your Own Flicker
I made my own flicker gags in the past because my clients seldom had enough budget to rent Magic Gadget devices or Flicker gags. I made them at home and used two carbon sticks from the old carbon arc days, bicycle grips, a male and female plug, and an extension cord. First I cut a three foot piece off the extension cord male end and replaced the male plug on the stinger. Now I had a full stinger and a three foot piece of cable with a male plug. Then I cut into the stinger severing the single hot line and put a female plug on this hot line. I then took the three foot piece and stripped the insulation for about six inches on both the hot line and the neutral revealing the bare copper wire which I wrapped and secured around the ends of both carbon sticks. I then covered the copper wired end of the copper stick with a bicycle grip. I could then hold both sticks by the bicycle grips and not be worried about electrical shock. I then plugged the male end into the female plug in the stinger which I had just installed into the hot line of the stinger. At that point whenever I touched the two carbons together, holding the carbons in my hands using the bicycle grips, it completed the circuit and caused the instrument to flash on and off at my will. I had just built a simple flicker gag that I could bring to the set without any cost to the production. I used the same device for television flicker as well. By putting a little red on one Tweenie and a little yellow on the other and having two PA’s operate the gags we created fire flicker at night that was non-synchronous and very inexpensive.
Now this was a simple example of basic lighting which made an impossibly small lighting package perform effectively for a lighting sequence important for their production. Judicious use of light to convey the emotional meaning of a scene is almost always the key in media productions. The need for low budget production to light fast but with strong audience appeal is a learned skill. It doesn’t come naturally. One of the reasons is that, in most cases, we as lighting techs learn from our mistakes and those mistakes can’t cost the production because then they won’t hire you back. I think that a great deal of the pedestrian lighting we see in television stems from this anomaly. On the one hand we learn from our mistakes and on the other we can’t make mistakes. The two concepts are obviously incompatible. I came up the ladder from live theatrical productions in which I tried out a great deal of lighting experiments that sometimes worked but in many cases really fell flat on there faces. I was happy that those mistakes were never recorded and the show closed sometimes with very few people actually observing my “dramatic” errors. Today we have u-tube and twitter, and god knows what else, as places that a lighting guy can really look bad and not affect his future. When I first started there were many times when I didn’t see what my results were for several days due to the process of dailies in past film production. With the use of large screen monitors and immediate image overview most of the bad lighting can be circumvented by good eyes and careful communication between shooters and gaffers. During the latter portion of my thirty year stint behind the camera the monitor and the communication between me and the DP became a paramount element of our film making process.
When The Light At The Location Changes…
I can remember clearly one evening we arrived at a location late and the sun was setting leaving us in twilight but it was imperative to get the shot at the moment because we were going to lose the kids in the scene due to the hour of the day. I asked the crew members to pull there cars up to the fence and turn on their headlights which spilled light across the farmland location. The camera was quickly set up and we looked at the monitor. Both the DP and I told the director…”Go! Shoot your scene now!” The shot was almost magical. The very orange and purple sky background surrounded the kids as they went through their scene in the hard sidelight of the headlights. There was no thought about CCT or CRI at all. Later in the actual finished product the scene was touted as a highlight sequence and praised by everyone who saw it. Sometimes, just going by your gut, creates cinematic imagery that defies all the technical data and humbles us by its majesty. Throwing the book away and trusting our creative eye is quite perilous but there are times when it is the absolute right answer to the problem.
-Michael Rogers, Lighting Consultant and Educational Outreach