“Shine On You Crazy Diamond”

My good friend and colleague, Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, defines cinematography as “writing with light in movement,” and that’s a beautifully simple and concise way to describe what we do. Certainly, when we cinematographers are creating a shot, a sequence, a beat in the script, or the arc of a story, one of the most crucial elements to being successful is, of course, light. And nothing can tell a visual story better than having a cohesive structure for that light before anyone ever walks onto the set.

No doubt, we are in a period of great technological advancement (as Vittorio himself will attest, having just finished shooting his – and Woody Allen’s – first digital movie, Café Society.) Today’s digital technology allows us to do things that were so very difficult in the tungsten/arc-light era. I remember the days I lit entire factories with a trunk load of 650 Colortran units and 25 ASA film. Sometimes they ended up looking more like film noir than corporate industrials, but we used the tools we had at that time to make it all work. Today’s digital sensors are infinitely more powerful; I shot all of the night interiors and exteriors on my last film at 3200 ASA; and the new Panasonic camera has a beautiful part of its chip at 5000 ASA.

So do we contrast this new reality to Hollywood DP’s and crews back in the day who had to struggle mightily with arc lights and say, “Where is the artistry, today, in shooting under nothing but a LED streetlamp with an ultra-sensitive digital camera?”

Not necessarily.

Both eras were/are filled with artisans who employ years of skill and photographic experience to tell a visual story. The cinematographers (and I worked with several of them) who could tell the difference between 400 and 200 foot-candles simply by holding up their hands and discerning the intensity/heat of light would be hard-pressed to duplicate that feat today, given we are often reading light in one to two foot-candles. (Thankfully we have digital imaging technicians, using calibrated monitors, who can allow today’s cinematographers to see the difference between one and two foot-candles with their eyes, and not just as a unit of electronic measurement.) Lighting with today’s technology has allowed for the “democratization” (a word I really don’t like) of visual storytelling. But just because we can light anywhere and anytime, with the lightest and smallest of instruments (a blessing for IATSE crews, to be sure), doesn’t mean we are telling a story with light. That doesn’t happen without a structured approach to the quality and direction of light – a method that has been used since moviemaking began.

I had an instructor at the L.A. (now Pasadena) Art Center named Charlie Potts who taught, in the very first lecture, that there are only two kinds of light: when it’s sunny and when it’s cloudy. That’s rather profound. Charlie didn’t teach his students how to light; he taught us how to see light. And I still remember Charlie’s lecture every moment of my professional life, because it gives me a creative palette from which to light.

Obviously the number of lighting instruments available today is breathtaking. From tiny LED ribbon and mat lights (pioneered by LiteGear) to small but powerful units from companies like Digital Sputnik, there is a huge range of choices that can plug right into the wall and can be carried in the trunk of cars (not unlike my 650 Colortrans.) And there are also exciting new advances from established vendors like Kino Flo and ARRI that allow us to shape and color light instantly through electronics and wireless technology.

So it’s a very rich and wonderful landscape today that allows cinematographers to truly fulfill what Vittorio describes as “writing with light in motion.” And it’s also a much more hospitable time for union crews, vis-à-vis the many smaller, cooler, and more-efficient lighting instruments used on set and on location.

But no matter the scenario – large lamps, tiny lamps, or the combination of both within the same scene – the art of telling visual stories with light shines on like the precious, gorgeous gem it has always been. And we stellar union craftspeople continue to polish, shape and cut these beautiful stones called movies and television with that most organic of narrative elements: light.

 

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600