Tom Ramcigam (magicmarmot) wrote,
Tom Ramcigam

I got to ramble...

In an odd eye-of-the-storm confluence of events last night, I ended up going over to the lovely theophania_79's place and being able to watch a movie sorely missing from my vocabulary: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

My previous exposure to Wes Anderson was The Royal Tennenbaums, which I liked but wasn't excited about. To be fair, at the time I was pretty distant from the art of filmmaking amd more involved in the technical craft parts, mostly with commercials. The finer points of storytelling were kind of lost on me.

With the Zissou, the movie is like being immersed in a slightly-left-of-center world, almost like a fairy tale. It's similar to the immersion in something like Pan's Labyrinth, but the immersion comes not from special effects and CGI, but from the storytelling. The characters are rich and deep and twisted just enough to be fantastical but not lose their humanity, the art design was phenomenal, echoing the "twisted just enough" riff of the characters perfectly, which was also carried over in the camerawork and lighting.

Something I noticed right away was the almost exclusive use of wide-angle lenses with a steadycam or shoulder mount. It clued me in that a lot of what was being captured was improvisational, or "wild" in some sense, which is a completely different style of shooting and creates vastly different restrictions on lighting.

Self-contained lighting lesson #1:
When shooting a movie that's a narrative, one that has a script and a shot plan, the director has control over the exact locations of the actors and the DP (Director of Photography, A.K.A. cinematographer) can have some pretty precise control over lighting. It's why you get close-ups where the actor is standing still or seated and not moving: the DP can take a very long time to tweak the lighting to get it just right. It doesn't happen in every movie, but it's a very good thing when you get the luxury.

In a "wild" take, the DP and camera operator have no way of knowing where the action will take place, as it's the actors that drive what happens. There are often constraints like "end up in this general area", but you're pretty much guaranteed that there will be motion. This forces the lighting design to be broader and less specific, and drives a different look in what you're shooting.

When I'm setting up the lighting for a location, I break it into three pieces:

1.) Periphery
The peripheral lighting-- the "background" if you prefer-- where I establish the outline of the space for the camera. It usually involves a lot of contrast and abstract patterns and is generally darker than the foreground elements, with the idea that I want it to register subconsciously as a boundary in your mind without being distracted by something in particular. Nothing is more subconsciously uncomfortable in a movie than to have actors in an undefined space.

2.) Arena
The second piece is to establish an "arena" for the actors to move in. This depends a lot on the type of scene, but in general it's the localized area of movement of the actors within the scene being shot. Theater lighting geeks will grok the concept immediately, but for the rest of you, consider a scene being shot at a dinner table. In this instance, the "arena" would be the dinner table and the immediate area surrounding it. The goal here is to provide a basic illumination of the action of the scene as well as providing support lighting for the last category...

3.) Detail
The detail lighting that I do is almost always mobile from shot to shot, and sometimes from take to take. It's the light on the subject and immediate foreground, and is where the most time-consuming part takes place. If I've designed it correctly, the arena lighting setups will provide things like a broad back and fill lights; I might have to supplement with reflectors or diffusers, but that process becomes a lot shorter.
This is where I do things like fill in eyelight, rimlight, contoured face lighting or anything like that. In animation terms it would be the "beauty pass". Usually I never have enough time or lights to do the really cool minutia, but sometimes I get to play.

How this helps is that the lighting process is the same for both styles of shooting, up to the detail lighting. When I have to light a space where the actors will be determining the action, I will still do a version of detail lighting where I will light spaces within the arena. As it turns out, experienced actors will sort of instinctively work into the light.

On the flipside of this, if you have inexperienced actors driving your scene, my lighting will likely not help your movie. :)

Tags: filmmaking, movies

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