A color data compilation of Paris Vogue covers 1981 – 2011, by Arthur Buxton. The columns run from 1981 on the right, working across to 2011 on the left. Note the sudden change in tones in late 1987, when Colombe Pringle became the magazine’s editor-in-chief, and again in 1994 when Joan Juliet Buck was named her successor.
Last night I attended a seminar on color and LED lighting sponsored by The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. I don’t normally write about the technical side of cinematography, but I’ve grown fascinated by color theory in recent years and I want to share what I found to be some interesting conclusions.
When I first began working in lighting departments on feature films and television (about ten years ago) I was astounded by how antiquated the lighting technology seemed: even the biggest-budget shows had stages filled with forests of ancient, dusty tungsten lighting instruments that have been the workhorses of motion picture lighting for the past 80 years. Huge 5,000, 10,000, and 20,000 watt incandescent units that use massive amounts of energy, only 10% of which is emitted as visible light (the rest is heat). In an industry famous for pushing the technological envelope, these units seem absurdly inefficient.
New innovations in lighting have come along over the years, but solid state lighting technology is really the first to have the potential for such broad reach. LEDs promise exciting advances: smaller and lighter instruments, dramatically less power consumption, dramatically less heat emission, and the ability to more easily control the qualities of the light produced. These developments have the potential to radically change the way movies are photographed. But there is a problem: color. Specifically, LEDs’ inability to replicate it with any reliability.
It is difficult to overstate how much attention is paid to color in a film’s production, not just by the cinematographer, but by costumers, art directors, make-up artists, set decorators, visual effects artists—the list goes on and on. To do their jobs well these professionals must be able rely on some sort of color standard on which to base their work. It is of critical importance, for example, that a make-up artist knows how a certain shade of red lipstick will be rendered by the camera under neutral, “white” light (camera tests are generally used to establish this baseline prior to principal photography). LED fixtures that promise neutral light but render certain colors in different ways are a wild card for filmmakers, and make it nearly impossible for the crew to reliably plan the film’s palette. This uncertainty is of course unacceptable in a production environment where millions of dollars are being spent to create an incredibly nuanced visual experience.
Why hasn’t this been a problem before? For all their inefficiencies, those old, clunky tungsten incandescent lamps that we’ve been using on set since time eternal are able to reproduce a specific color spectrum with remarkable consistency, and at the mere flick of a switch. More importantly, this particular spectrum has been the accepted standard of motion picture photography since the dawn of color celluloid. Filmmakers can rely on the fact that a tungsten incandescent unit will read white on tungsten balanced film, and they can base their work on that standard. Never once have I seen one of these units produce light that had an unexplained green spike, which is something that’s very common in LED lighting. When a crimson dress is lit with a tungsten light, the costumer knows exactly how it will be rendered. LEDs cannot yet deliver this reliability, though they are getting close.
But the days of tungsten lighting days are numbered in Hollywood. California has passed legislation to phase out the use of all incandescent bulbs by 2018. Even if exemptions are made for the movie business, the cost of these globes will inevitably rise as the market shrinks. The race is on to find a reliable alternative and the color of our movies depends on it. Whatever technology we land on, what is of paramount importance is that it allows the artist to control the tools, and not the other way around.
For further reading, check out Ryan Fletcher’s informative article on color and LEDs: Digital Imaging with LEDs: More than Meets the Eye.