Month: July, 2016

Quiet Revolutions in Motion Picture Lighting


Much has been written about advancements in camera technology over the past decade. What many people don’t see, however, is that a no less significant transformation has also been unfolding in the world of motion picture lighting.

I first moved to Los Angeles to train under the best DoPs in the business, and in Hollywood this means you start at the bottom of the crew and work your way up. After working for several years as a camera assistant I made the decision to move to the lighting department, eventually joining IATSE Local 728. Changing departments was a difficult move, as it meant starting over with a new skill set and a completely new contact base. But for my personality and stylistic approach to filmmaking the electric department was a much better fit. In the end it was a much better place for me to learn how to be the kind of cinematographer I wanted to be. I spent almost ten years in lighting departments on everything from no-budget music videos to studio feature films and top-rated dramatic television. I feel so fortunate that I was able to work for some of the most experienced gaffers in the business. From them I learned an incredible amount about the actual hands-on process behind creating the look you want for a project.

There have been two important changes in motion picture lighting in recent years. The first pertains mostly to work practice: about 10 years ago gaffers began using more techniques and technology from the world of concert and event lighting. It’s strange, but traditionally these worlds have been very separate in Hollywood: they had different names for equipment, different positions on set, different crews, and even separate union locals inside IATSE. Programmable moving lights, a mainstay of concert lighting, have become standard on many film sets now. My approach to lighting a scene is often to first light the space and then, if necessary, the actors. So the introduction of more spatial lighting techniques to our toolbox is very exciting for me.

For “Cowboys and Aliens” (2011), the electric department rigged programmable moving lights to cable vehicles over the set to simulate alien spacecraft. Each vehicle was rigged with its own generator. Gaffer: Mike Bauman


The second big change is largely technological: the long-awaited advent of LEDs, which are finally beginning to replace the big incandescent fixtures we’ve used on sets for 80 years. This change will have a very significant effect on how movies are shot, as tungsten lamps are notoriously inefficient from an energy standpoint. It’s not uncommon for a standing television set to use 200 kilowatts or more of lighting, which requires rivers of thick 4/0 cable to be laid out prior to photography, which in turn requires sometimes weeks of work from the lighting department rigging team. Because 80 percent of this energy is released as heat instead of light, a massive amount of cooling is needed to compensate. LEDs have the potential to change all of this.

Mole-Richardson, one of the giants of movie lighting in Los Angeles, has announced an LED version of it’s traditional 10K “Senior” fresnel lighting unit. Until now, when we wanted that much light it required using a generator and heavy cable, which made big lights impossible for many small productions on location. This 10K LED unit, by contrast, can be plugged into almost any wall socket. It’s inspiring to think about how much time and resources this will save. The move from incandescent to LED lighting sources could become the single most consequential development in the history of motion picture lighting.

New technology is exciting, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day it isn’t equipment that makes strong content. Creative, dedicated people make strong content—these are just tools to add to the tool chest.

The view from Kostava Street: hot days, and the cool sanctuary of the color suite. And a nagging voice in my head telling me to “Move!”

What’s next?



Bollywood in Tbilisi


Just finished shooting two Indian music videos for a group of filmmakers from Mumbai, led by the talented directors Ajay and Sanjukta Jain and T-Series executive producer Sumeet Mithra. This was my first experience working with Bollywood and it was very rewarding. An entirely creative and very professional group.

We shot for five days in locations around Tbilisi. Some days were smoother than others, of course, but that’s the nature of the job. The directors seem pleased with what we shot, and that always helps take the sting out of my own mistakes. There was only a minimal amount of music performance in these videos, so the shoots themselves were much more akin to stylized short films. On our first day we shot in the entry halls of the Tbilisi Opera, which we transformed to look like a night club. A fantastic location that would cost five times more to rent in any other country. Will post stills when I’m able.

The biggest challenge for me as the DoP was one I encounter on so many short-form shoots I work on: I haven’t yet learned how to convey to production managers the value of having an experienced 1st AD on set. Often this job is given to a PA or a producer to save money, though in the end not having an experienced 1st AD always ends up costing far, far more. This is the single most costly mistake I see in production. Despite all my warnings, explanations, and downright pleading during pre-production, I’m still not communicating very well about the importance of this issue.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this shoot for me was my exposure to an entirely new film industry. After so many years in Hollywood, it’s easy to forget that there is an even bigger industry in Mumbai. Work practices on set are more or less the same, though I learned about a few things I think Hollywood would really benefit from. On many projects in India, for example, there are “Associate Directors” on set who are basically apprentice directors. Unlike “assistant directors” in the US who handle scheduling and run the set, “associate director” is a creative position for those on a directing career track. The joke in Hollywood is that there are only two entry-level positions on a movie set: PA and director. There’s a lot of truth to this. It’s sometimes shocking how much authority new directors are given despite having no professional directing experience. Hollywood could learn a lot from Mumbai in this regard; the DGA should consider implementing a more institutionalized apprentice path for directors.

Shoots like this one remind me why I moved to Tbilisi: I wanted more contact with filmmakers and artists on a global level. It’s inspiring to work with people who are intensely creative but also have a completely different visual framework and cinema history. Projects like this one dramatically broaden my artistic practice, and I find this immensely rewarding. Looking forward working with more Indians!

The view from Kostava Street: Bright sun. Slow days of recovery. The mountains call with a siren song.

What’s next?