Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Work against the light.

Provocative headline, huh? You’re probably wondering how I’m going to get out of this one.

Well I’m not. Because I’m not talking about emotional content. I’m talking about spacial relationships.

But before I get into that, a disclaimer: this entire blog is a generalization. If you know what you’re doing, you know that there are as many exceptions to the rule as there are episodes of ‘Star Trek’ in which Spock showed emotion.

Okay, on with the blog.

I can sum up the most important rules of cinematography in three words: Backlight, backlight, backlight.

Backlight, in case you’re not familiar with the term, means that the light is coming from behind your subject toward the camera. I’m talking about the implied source of all the light in the environment. When you’re outside, it’s the sun. Or moon. When you’re inside, it’s a window. Or a lamp. There can be more than one source of light, but generally, thinking of light in terms of a single source makes your film prettier and your life easier.

Two things you need to know about light: It travels in a straight direction and it bounces off of stuff. The reason those things are important is because light hitting an object will cause it to cast a shadow. And since one of the fundamental conceits of film is its voyeuristic nature, it’s a lot better to see the shadow of an actor than the shadow of a camera.

As for bouncing off of stuff, that’s what gives you ambience. Ambient light fills the shadows so you can see actors’ faces even if the source of the light is behind them.

One of the neat things you get with backlight is separation. Foreground objects don’t blend into the background as much as they do with front light. One of the things you lose is saturation. I like saturation, but I like separation more.

And I really hate seeing my own shadow in the shot.

When you’re inside, the direction of the light won’t change but its quality can. That’s why you’ll see DPs putting black tents over perfectly good windows, then blasting light in from under them. When you’re outside, both the quality and the direction of the light changes because Mr. Sun moves across the sky.

You need to plot out your day so that the direction you’re shooting in is generally toward the sun. Where I live, that means you turn to the right over the course of the day. After a while it becomes second nature, which can be a problem. The first time I shot in the southern hemisphere, I forgot that the sun goes the other way in the sky there. I worked out the order of the day in front of the entire crew under the presumption that we would turn to the right. And nobody said a word.

It was only after I noticed the DP gnashing his teeth that I took him aside and asked what was wrong. We’d never worked together, and he didn’t know whether I was simply being an idiot or had my own particular style that he was going to have to live with.

Turns out, to his relief, I was just being an idiot. And once I realized it, I rescheduled the day so that it made more sense.

If I’d been an asshole--as lots of directors feel the need to be--I would have reamed him for questioning my approach and stuck by the order that I’d established. But the way I see it, I lost less authority by admitting I’d made a mistake than I would have if I’d stuck to an idiotic path, pretending that I knew what I was doing.

Work against the light. Work with the DP. That’s not too hard, is it?