Where’s the Light?
Published: October 27, 2010
by Laura Joy Perales
Lighting is a tricky creature to master for budding filmmakers, or anyone trying to produce a quality video on a limited budget. While we may be dealing with house lamps and sun reflectors, major productions do not have such limitations. However, we can mimic fantastic lighting schemas in our own way by learning from the pros to see how lighting is used and created. Moreover, we can get a handle on the ways in which the lighting employed is distinctive to a particular genre. A careful analysis of news broadcast, a sitcom, and a dramatic program serve as progressive culminating comparison.
I watched NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams. The green screen interests me. It’s advantageous because it easily separates the anchor from the background. Here, the focus is mainly on positioning the key light and fill light correctly so that Williams is lit evenly, without shadows. Since the background is actually a solid color pre-editing, it seems to lose depth, but I’m still an amateur. I see the rule of thirds everywhere, usually placing Williams to the left of images. The first segment features three reporters in different locations, which gave me the opportunity to see a variety of lighting compositions.
When we move to Washington with Todd, the shadows emerge, but they are limited to the lower-half of his body, leaving the face lit evenly. I imagine the key light to the left of the camera, paired appropriately with the reporter on the opposite side of the screen, preserving the facial lighting. Perhaps the fill light was positioned at a high angle, causing the shadows to fall only on the lower half of the frame.
When the broadcast switches to footage of Obama and later his wife, there seems to be little attention given to lighting; in this kind of action setting, the person filming has little control over the scene, unlike the scripted portions filmed in a studio. While those in the frame may not be properly lit, the focus of these on-site shoots is to capture the story as effectively as possible.
Cohen shoots a scene at a lake. You see the reflection in the water of the trees behind him, so the sun definitely plays a role in the lighting, in this case, serving as a back light. Guthrie joins Williams onset, and the two-shot reveals reflections and shadows; I think that’s going to be hard to avoid when there are two subjects on screen facing each other.
I watched The Nanny “Green Card” Episode. The kitchen is where I notice the most shadows, perhaps because it is so brightly lit, and that is how I figured out lighting placement. In the opening scene, Fran’s shadow appears in the back left of the frame, indicating a key light placed 45 degrees to the right of the camera; however, when Brighton enters the room from the opposite direction, his body casts a shadow on the back right of the screen. Clearly, the position of the lights changed along with the camera position. With each shot, the subject is well-lit.
While in the living room, the shadows disappear. In fact, the only light source you see is just for show, the light above the hallway until the scene moves that direction. There, a closer shot reveals illumination on Val’s hair. It wasn’t until Fran crossed her arms at the end of that scene that I noticed shadows on her sweater, giving me an idea of where the key light was located. The living room is lit the same way during the daytime and the nighttime.
I think with sit-coms, there are multiple cameras and therefore multiple lighting arraignments. The idea is to make the lighting as unobtrusive and unnoticeable as possible when moving from camera to camera. Unlike on-site broadcasts, sitcoms can better control their lighting arrangements, especially since they are only using two walls at a time.
I watched an episode of Alias because I remember being captivated by the filmmaking. The Episode was “Firebomb”. It began with eerie music and a dimly light bed containing Sydney and Vaughn, giving you the sense something was amiss. It immediately cuts to a POV shot of someone watching those people on a TV, and you can see the reflection of a lamp in the room on the TV screen. When Fake Francie is revealed as the peeping Tom, there is only one light used – the key light. I paused the video and went to the light simulator to check, and it matched perfectly. The majority of the review from the previous episode is laden with shadows and dim lighting. This is the nature of the show. It is scary and unpredictable. People are always in danger.
When Sydney is taken hostage by Sloane, they emerge from the building where the lighting seems normal, almost bright, but then you get a flash to Vaughn working behind the scenes, and there is only a fill light, leaving the majority of his figure in shadows, highlighting a side of the face and hand. As the car drives down the road, you can see the sunlight coming in from the top-right side of the frame, disappearing and reappearing as you imagine it is blocked by trees at some point. To sum up a long episode, all of the scenes outside during the day use sunlight as a light source, either the key light or the fill.
The major difference from a sitcom is that this show uses multiple angles in one shot. For example, the camera pivots around Marshall’s body as he works, beginning with a close-up of the manual he is using, moving up to incorporate his face, and then moving from his right side, all the way around his back to his left side. What fascinated me the most was that both sides of his face were evenly lit, even though the continuous shot would not have allowed for any lighting positions to be moved. I was most fascinated to learn that dramatic programs do not necessarily use multiple cameras. Did this?
The in-office meetings tend to be darker than a typical office, always maintaining a sense of danger and urgency. The secret meetings are dimly lit, sometimes using only the key light which makes sense as these are covert operations. Something new in this episode is that Syndey’s house is no longer a bright spot in the movie as her best friend/roommate has been killed and replaced by a double. The house is no longer safe, and any conversations with Francie may lead to Sydney’s demise. While they talk, the backlighting dominates, giving the illusion of Francie’s silhouettes from one angle, alternating to a key light on Sydney’s face from a second angle. It’s a lighting representation of good and bad.
Author: Laura Joy Perales
Published: October 27, 2010 in Perception
Volume 1: Issue 7