Mood lights

It is hard to overstate the role of lighting in any production. Unless you have a creative interest in the creation of moving (or still) images then it’s all just another entry in the credit roll as you make a dash for the cinema exit. Perhaps it registers subconsciously as you view a TV commercial or promo? Something on the lines of: “fashion studio shot = bright white” or “creepy = stark and dark”, but you’ll likely give it no conscious scrutiny and just move on with your day. That’s fine; perhaps you are a brain surgeon, or an international peace envoy. Some things are just more important.

It’s (relatively) different when you have a production on your hands though, and every type of light, its position and modification, its intensity and character all play a role in conveying an idea to screen. Lighting is a deal maker/breaker when it comes to selling a reality or suspending disbelief. So much so that expertly lit rubbish can often be more convincing than poorly lit excellence. An exaggerated case in point would be the numerous low-budget horror films that plunge the creature/psycho/whatever into darkness to greater effect.

It’s a double win in those situations: not only do the shadows hide painted rubber, fiberglass and inept CG rather well, but, as mentioned earlier, creepy = stark and dark so the lack of visibility adds to the overall tone and power of the piece, with the viewer’s mind filling horror into the blanks better than any effect ever could.  All the better if the work can utilise the darkness effectively and then throw something amazing at us that stands up to scrutiny, but I digress.

As far away from “rubbish” as you can get, cinematically speaking, there is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Did you know that many of the street shots were filmed on existing Warner Brothers studio backlot sets? In other words: the standard, generic streets fabricated for numerous on-site productions. At the time the choice was queried by some of Scott’s contemporaries who couldn’t understand why he would attempt to shoot a film pertaining to show an original, futuristic environment on a common backlot that had already been shot numerous times before. Intuitively the decision made no sense. Yes it had been shot before, many times, Scott countered, “but not like this” - or words to that effect.

Okay, Warner’s mean streets were dressed with grimy retro-futuristic trappings but there’s more going on here. Darkness for one thing - it’s almost always night, again hiding undesirable giveaways and transforming our expectations of the presented reality (bear with me). What I mean is that by placing all of the action after dark, then we as viewers are more forgiving about the way the chosen forms of light are used. We accept that everything will be artificially lit, so there is no absolute right or wrong. The director and senior lighting/camera crew determine the visual reality at any particular moment, and we accept it, as we’ve no grounds to say otherwise.

By contrast we are all familiar with the way that daylight works in objective reality. At this point it’s worth pointing out that our objective reality is a minority vote in the greater scheme of things. Our eyes can only perceive a tiny span of the electromagnetic spectrum, a frequency band that we perceive as all visible light. Not only that but the way we respond to the various frequencies (colours) along this spectrum varies (we’re particularly sensitive to green for instance). So does our response to brightness and contrast, and even combinations of certain colours.

Film and video optics respond to all of the above (and more) differently, hence the respective film or video look. A good proportion of lighting technique centres around getting the equipment’s view weighted back to our version of reality; which is why lights on a film/video set may look wrong to us in situ (usually too bright, when trying to be naturalistic), but work fine in the finished product. Our subjective reality is pretty ingrained and hard-wired; tailored in fact to the environment that we evolved (and are evolving) in.

Any attempt to confound this reality for creative purposes is in real danger of looking fake. So, back to the masters at work: most immediate is the use of garish neon and stark lighting on Blade Runner’s streets - transforming the scenery and casting false colour onto the surroundings. This helps displace them from our visual preconceptions, bypassing our limitations of reality, and for the purposes of the film: our familiar time-frame too.

A rainy scene from Blade Runner

Then there’s rain; lots of it. Future LA is soaking wet. The persistent drizzle works wonders with the artificial light that strikes it, detailing and texturing the actors and environment and adding visual depth. The layer of standing water optically scatters the surfaces and adds copious visual detail, highlights and reflections. An amazing transformation. Then there’s smoke/mist and its associated optical qualities - more tools of choice from Mr Scott’s preferred creative arsenal.

Are you aware of the advice that we shouldn’t view/buy a car on a wet evening? It’s because of all the effects listed above (hopefully minus the smoke), making everything look better than it prosaically is. The “cold light of day” (an expression formulated in those terms for good reason) is much less forgiving.

In spite of comparisons with big league cinema, the above scenario also brings home the fact that these types of stylisations (and more) are also available to those with more modest budgetary resources and a little care. Water and night hardly come at a premium. As Noam Kroll writes on TheBeat blog:

Often times we will focus on the obvious: the camera itself, lenses, post-production/color grading, etc. However the single most important element in creating a filmic image (the lighting) is also the most frequently overlooked”.