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Lighting: Diffusion in the Digital Age – Cinematic Lighting in 2015

There’s something comforting in the knowledge that amid so many revolutions in technology, the actual physics of lighting will never change.

Joel Holland, CEO, VideoBlocks

A scene from Barry Lyndon

A scene from Barry Lyndon

Memory cards, editing software, and LCD refresh rates all will get faster, and yet the speed—and nature—of light will remain constant. This is why the least realistic element from The Hunger Games franchise isn’t in its force fields, genetically engineered wasps, or capricious love triangles, but in its depiction of futuristic camera equipment that’s a giant step backward from what we have in place today.

Those multi-lens cameras with small, subject-facing spotlights might make for great set decoration in the movies, but they’d result in some awfully hard and unflattering light if ever actually used—even in an age when editing might take place by way of hologram.

A scene from The Hunger Games, Catching Fire

A scene from The Hunger Games, Catching Fire

No one can say for sure what the state of lighting will look like that far in the future—dystopian or not—but it’s not likely to take the form of precise camera-mounded LED cannons. Those would be ill-advised for most applications even today.

Ask what is actually trending in 2015 and you are bound to hear three words: the film look. Those are, of course, the same three words you might have heard 10 years ago, but their meaning has changed drastically over time, as has the modern face of film and the lighting processes behind it.

In the days of Technicolor, achieving the film look meant flooding the set with enough light to mimic the surface of the sun—in terms of both heat and illumination. Splitting light between separate film stocks to capture red, blue, and green light individually meant abandoning the subtleties passed down from black and white pictures in favor of wall-to-wall brightness. Go back and watch The Wizard of Oz (1939) with an eye for hotspots, and it’s easy to understand why there are stories of those on set suffering permanent eye damage. Conversely, look toward most of the romantic comedies shot throughout the last three decades, and the film look changes to take on the meaning of heavy kickers and hair lights.

The look many filmmakers are seeking across the board in 2015 and for the foreseeable future are neither of these. Instead, it’s a look of natural realism and believability. Perhaps more accurately, it’s not actually the look of film that’s become so popular today, but the look of lighting techniques that developed from classical painting, long before the advent of high-voltage floods.

Behind the camera, this translates to fewer high-power key lights and a lot more gentle diffusion positioned in ways to mimic the temperature and direction of existing ambient light. If you had to describe the state of digital lighting in a single phrase, it would be “artificial lighting that doesn’t look like artificial lighting.”

Instead of lighting for the script, more and more filmmakers are lighting for the actual sun and the windows it shines through, aiming not to modify or interrupt the existing light present on location, but to enhance its natural characteristics.

In 2015, whether you’re using one light or 12, the path to maximum appeal through lighting is no doubt that of widespread diffusion. That doesn’t necessarily mean dropping your rim lights, but it might mean toning them down through an extra stop or two of fabric.

This requires some delicate balancing, of course, when taking into account the rise of ultra-portable equipment such as the newest crop of LED panels. Sure, the softest and gentlest of light might come most easily from large surfaces, but it still can be achieved through other means. It’s for this reason that nearly as many filmmakers seeking the film look are simultaneously vouching for the utility of LEDs and rightly so.

With its economy of power and portability, LED lighting is for many the next generation of digital lighting. Crucially, the best lighting for any scene is the lighting you actually have with you on scene, and this is where today’s LED options truly shine. Levels of illumination that formerly required a truck and a generator can now fit into a backpack. Add some strategic light panels to your kit, and you’re likely to find yourself shooting in times and places beyond the boundaries of your heavy, grid-dependent workhorse—and that’s a good thing.

A scene from Eyes WIde Shut

A scene from Eyes Wide Shut

Even when the results are harder-than-optimal lighting, smaller sources are better than none. The current generation of stick-anywhere flat panels can bring light into new areas previously off limits. Don’t have the budget to slice a car in half or mask out windshield reflections? Placing a few small light panels on the dashboard can make the inside of a car camera ready in minutes.

Add the dimming capabilities of LED lighting and the ability to alternate between lighting temperatures without gels, and it’s easy to see why LEDs have become the lights of choice for many filmmakers, and the secondary lights of choice for many more. Their versatility, once again, makes them particularly suited for the filmmaker shooting for stock who can benefit more than most from portability and flexibility.

Still, some filmmakers are better served staying with more classic (e.g., Kino or Fresnel) options, as it takes something stronger than LEDs to light a football field or even a large room if mimicking daylight. While LEDs are admirably economical in power, their output is economical as well and simply can’t match that of more traditional light sources.

Granted, today’s sensors work wonderfully in low-light scenarios, but another challenge of modern lighting is balancing ISO versus latitude and illumination. Full-frame and 4K sensors can yield phenomenally clean footage when pushed to high ISOs—most notably when paired with the power of RAW recording formats—but it’s often preferable to push the limits of your lighting equipment rather than pushing your film speed. Particularly when shooting stock, you want both minimal noise and enough latitude for others to grade your footage to suit their needs, which can sometimes require reeling in your film speeds and stopping down a bit.

We’ve come a long way since the days when Stanley Kubrick used f/0.7 lenses designed for NASA moon missions to shoot the lowlight candle scenes for Barry Lyndon (1975), but Kubrick had a championship lighting team behind him and had to fight against some very shallow depth of field.

When he shot the lowlight scenes for Eyes Wide Shut (1999) nearly a quarter century later, he still went without direct key lighting, but put less pressure on his camera and lenses by placing small sources of illumination all around.

The results, in either case, are nothing short of “painterly,” and make great arguments against the constant need for assertive key lighting. If Kubrick was able to achieve soft realism by way of candles and Christmas lights, there’s no reason it can’t be achieved with today’s LEDs, or a Kino or two dialed down through some creative diffusion.

There never has been a better time to add to your revenue by shooting stock footage or placing your outtakes into stock, which, by nature, must appeal to multiple uses and genres. Want to increase your sales of stock footage? Try increasing the degree to which it plays nicely with other footage. Even when expertly lit, the best high-key lighting often will take a back seat to the best soft lighting when packaged as B-roll, merely because the latter is adaptable to more types of use.


Joel Holland is the founder and chief executive of Reston, Va.-based VideoBlocks, a subscription-based provider of stock video and one of the fastest-growing tech start-ups in the region, according to Deloitte Technology Fast 500.


April 9, 2015