Quiet Revolutions in Motion Picture Lighting

by Thomas

Mole_1

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?