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Lighting: Shane Hurlbut, ASC

Lighting The Scene

By Tom Inglesby

The wrong light, the wrong temperature, the wrong filter leads to the wrong image. Here is how one cinematographer makes sure that doesn’t happen.

Shane Hurlbut, ASC grew up on a farm in New York and got his start in films as a gaffer. Hurlbut’s shooting career began in 1995 with music videos for The Rolling Stones, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, followed by commercials and features. His credits include The Rat Pack, Terminator: Salvation, and We Are Marshall. Among a select group of cinematographers, Hurlbut is recognized by Canon as an “Explorer of Light” and by the Tiffen Company as an “ImageMaker.”

Shane Hurlbut shows how lighting is done to  groups of budding cinematographers.
Shane Hurlbut shows how lighting is done to  groups of budding cinematographers.
Shane Hurlbut shows how lighting is done to  groups of budding cinematographers.
Shane Hurlbut shows how lighting is done to
groups of budding cinematographers.

Hurlbut just wrapped Fathers and Daughters, which is in post and will be released in 2015. Directed by Gabriele Muccino, the cast includes Aaron Paul, Amanda Seyfried, Russell Crowe, Diane Kruger, and Jane Fonda.

Taking time off from a very busy shooting schedule, Hurlbut is putting on a series of workshops for Monty Zucker Education, touring the country explaining how he approaches lighting a feature. The workshops include a lot of hands-on experience for the attendees.

“This is immersive experience,” he explains. “Just like the way I light and the way I lens, I want the audience to actually think, and to not just write down stuff on a paper. I want them to actually weigh in on decisions; in groups of four or six, they have to all talk as one on how they think this light looks on an individual, or why they would light this scene the way they do.”

Lighting conveys emotion, temper, feeling. Hurlbut says, “All of my lighting is based on the script and the characters’ emotions. I believe in talking the scene through with the director to learn how he or she would like to capture that emotional performance. It’s then my job to take all those notes from the director and to build it into the lighting as well as the camera motion.”

His recent shoot, Fathers and Daughters is an example. “Amanda Seyfried’s character had no real foundation,” Hurlbut recalls. “Her foundation was like sand. So we wanted to show this liquid, languid kind of quality to her through camera motion. The script is very endearing at times, but also very depressing at other times. We did not want a very dark, dismal, and depressing movie, from the lighting standpoint, because we thought it would be way too much for the story. The characters were delivering a wonderful, emotional performance, so the lighting almost goes against what they’re experiencing. The actors were driving more the emotion, and we were driving a very beautiful, very golden image that, at times we would make darker and moodier and colder in tone.

“The story has a lot of dimension based on the characters’ emotions, he continues. “For me, that’s how I light and how I compose. It has to be driven by them.”

Hurlbut started out as a key grip, learning how to move the camera and how to shape and control light. Those are the two building blocks for a cinematographer. “I don’t use all these advanced 3-D programs or anything like that,” he acknowledges. “I like to come in with a plan drawn out for the grip and the gaffer to understand what we need. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t throw it completely out the window and start completely over again if the actor wants to take it in a different direction. Maybe the director had an epiphany, and he wants to handle it a different way. That’s why even with really good prep and really good organization, you can get thrown curve balls.”

The ability to think on your feet, be flexible and shake it all up based on the character and where they want to go with their emotion at that specific time defines a great cinematographer. “Sometimes it’s plug and play,” Hurlbut notes. “The actors come in, and they do exactly what we all thought they would; the scene goes where the director wanted it to go. But then sometimes, when they don’t, those are the times where it’s very exciting because you can switch things up.”

What is Hurlbut’s personal approach? When asked, he responds, “Every movie I do, I do a light study on all the main actors. So let’s take Fathers and Daughters, for example. We have tests where Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger would go through hair and makeup, different aging, everything that they will do in the film. As they’re doing that, I have a dolly set up with a 20-foot diameter curved track, and I have three different light sources mounted on it. I have a hard Fresnel, a kind of a semi-soft [Kino Flo], and then a big six by six [bounce]. And I literally move this light around, starting on the right side and moving it all the way over to the left side. While we are doing that, we’re taking still images as well as motion picture with her or him in costume, in their hair and makeup.”

After shooting this test, Hurlbut and the director look at the results to determine which side the actor is best lit from, or which side is going to make her look older if that’s what they want to accomplish. Or, like in The Rat Pack, which side does Joe Mantegna look more like Dean Martin? “We then generate a plan,” he says, “and when we’re blocking a scene, we know that this person is going to be lit best from the right or the left. We can actually formulate camera blocking around all that we learned. It’s a unique way to understand lighting a face, and when it’s all said and done, the face is everything; the skin tone is everything. That’s where all the emotion is coming from.”

Have digital cameras and LED lighting changed how things are done? Of course. For better or worse? “They are very beneficial,” Hurlbut admits. “I find that I’m lighting things faster than I ever lit on film and doing so with this wonderful lighting control. Dimming is so much more important now, with the sensor having more latitude; in the past, they did not have the latitude of film. The cameras now are getting that way, and having this incredible ability to be able to spin your color [temperature] and dim down to .3 percent without a color shift is huge.”

As an example, Hurlbut recalls, “On Need for Speed, I’m lighting four-and-a-half miles of street racing, on the streets of Macon, Georgia, with 12 lights. On film, that was never possible.”

LED lighting, with its amazing control, hasn’t made filters on lenses obsolete, however. “You still need all the bells and whistles of neutral density and diffusion filters to really enhance and bring out the wonderful qualities of these new digital sensors,” claims Hurlbut. “Am I doing more color correction, dialing in the look I want in-camera? Yeah, more than I ever did on film. I would actually have to use colored filters in front of the lens if I wanted to change the look. Take that night race on Need for Speed. I wanted to go for a really rich, golden look from the sodium vapor lights. I based my camera at 4,000 degrees—if I had put it at 3,200, it would have looked normal. We didn’t want normal. We wanted something that looked really unique and very colorful and very exciting at night. So that was done by me scrolling the [Kelvin] wheel to be able to change that image.”

He adds, “I have the ability, in color correction, to paint my own contrast. I know the power of the color correction tools in post, and I can go on a mission to control and shape the light like I’ve always done as a cinematographer. But when the rubber meets the road and we’re behind, a car breaks down or a stunt goes wrong, or we’re doing a lot of takes and the actor isn’t in the pocket and we need to get her or him there, then these are the compromises that are made, knowing that in post-production you can go back and kind of finagle it.”

October 29, 2014