Industrial Media – Analysis and Reflection 3 – Q4 Lighting

This reading is from Steven Bernstein, Film Production, (p.211-221), Oxford: Focal Press, 1994

This article provided a really useful backup to the flipped lecture and practical lighting session that Andrea ran. My experience of lighting to this point is minimal. When I shot my documentary I used source lighting only which in some cases, especially in neon lit office situations was challenging. Understanding the basics of lighting will really help in future shoots even if I only have minimal equipment.

The basic lighting set-up of key light, fill light and back light is really well explained. Key elements I got from this include:

Key Lighting

  • should correspond to the direction of the main light source
  • is usually the first light positioned
  • when shot at the subject’s face it will flatten the face
  • when shot to the side of the subject it will increasingly throw half the subject in deep shadow
  • lighting the surface of the subject will define the surface texture accentuating for example the age of the subject
  • the ideal key light is 45 degrees up and 45 degrees off the camera axis
  • the nose shadow will ideally meet the far cheek shadow to create a single shading
  • the closer the key light to the subject the more difference there will be between light intensity of surfaces
  • when the key light is further from the subject light intensity will be more even
  • the nose shadow ideally meets the far cheek shadow
  • the area around the eye away from the light source will be lit with an inverted triangle shape created in part by the subject’s nose.

Fill Light

  • should be unobtrusive and non-directional
  • is often a soft light with diffusion across the front
  • sometimes placed on the side away from the key light
  • often placed lower down than the key light and nearer the camera axis especially if it’s being used to illuminate shadows under the subject’s brow
  • a light can also be mounted on the camera to help illuminate shadows under the subject’s brow (this is called the basher).

Back Light

  • placed behind the subject
  • will throw subject into shadow but will emphasise the subject’s depth and shape

In discussing background light Bernstein talks about a Rim light which in other discussions is what we’ve been calling the back .light.

Rim light

  • helps separate one surface from another
  • illuminates the subject from behind so that the outline or rim of the subject is lit at a higher level than the background.

This screen shot is from the Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War. The key light is placed at the right of the subject. The fill light is quite diffuse allowing quite deep shadow on the left of McNamara’s face. McNamara is both dark and light, good and bad and the lighting supports this dichotomy. Rather than a strong back light, the director has chosen a light, blurry background that creates its own light source behind McNamara, highlighting his face, and his hands as he get gestures. Interestingly Morris shot these interviews using a device he invented called the Interrotron which allows interviewer and subject to look into each other’s eyes while also staring directly into the camera lens.

Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, 2003

A different example is from the 2012 documentary Burn. Here the key light is coming from the subject’s left and the fill light is leaving the right side of his face in deep shadow. Unlike lighting of McNamara above, the back light here is creating a clear outline of the subject’s right hand side making a line of hot light down the back of his head and pushing the subject forward into frame. This is also a great use of a pretty tight shot on the subject where we really see the intensity of the subject as he talks about putting his life up as ‘collateral’ when he fights a fire.

Screen Shot Burn
Burn, 2012

This still is from Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, 2015. This shot illustrates really well Bernstein’s desription of lighting a subject’s face where the nose shadow ideally meets the far cheek shadow, to create a single shading. It is clear here how the lighting has created what is described as a triangle shape created in part by the shadow of the subject’s nose. Backlighting has been used here to illuminate the edges of the subjects right side of the head as well as the neck and shoulder really pulling the subject out of the deep, black of the shadows. Great lighting for a reporter (Bethany McLean) who was digging into the ‘blackbox’ that was Enron.

Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, 2015
Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, 2015

And finally, an external location interview, again from Burn, and it’s interesting to see that the light is not as controlled or as intense as the first example from that documentary. There is still a key light, coming from the right of the subject. If there is a fill light (and I’m not sure if there is) it is still allowing deep shadow on the subject’s left side. While there is no back fill light, the key light is helping to bring the subject’s face out from the quite bright, but out of focus background.

Screen Shot Burn 2
Burn, 2012

So key, fill and backlighting do way more than just make the subject visible, they can affect the tone and style of an interview, they can be used to heighten emotions and to help create visual metaphors (such as bringing the truth to light).


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