Live Design December 2017 Digital Edition

The first issue of Lighting Dimensions appeared in June 1977, when the American film industry was at a crossroads. One of the articles in the inaugural issue was an interview with gaffer Ross Maehl about lighting the boxing scenes in Rocky, a little crowd-pleaser that had won the Best Picture Oscar that March. This low-budget, rather grungy-looking movie was of a very different character than the Bonnie and Clydes and Easy Riders and the works by Altman, Coppola, and Scorsese that had mirrored countercultural convulsions over the previous decade. Though produced outside the Hollywood system, Rocky helped effect a return to the safe, happy-ending world of traditional values on which the industry was founded.

But it was the release of Star Wars on Memorial Day weekend that set American movies on the technological course from which they have seldom veered since. A piece in the October 1977 issue of LD about a few of its effects did not begin to suggest the impact George Lucas' space saga would have. Not only did Star Wars practically invent the concept of an "event" movie, change distribution patterns to the extent that most studio releases now open simultaneously on thousands of screens nationwide, and take the business of merchandising tie-ins to previously unimaginable levels--it also laid the foundation for Lucas' effects company Industrial Light & Magic, and the eventual leap into the digital realm. The subsequent shockwaves have reached every corner of the filmmaking process.

A couple of years ago, DP Allen Daviau--who kickstarted his career shooting the other watershed event movie of the last two decades, Steven Spielberg's E.T.--was caught in the midst of seemingly endless timing on his latest project, with new digital effects rolling into his shots daily. What he said then was, "Every cinematographer is going to have to deal with the question of 'Do we do this photographically, or do we do it digitally? What is more advantageous in terms of quality, time schedule, and price?' And you're going to have to help answer that question on the set, just as you make a decision about lighting or composition. There may be times, for instance, when you have terrible weather, and yeah, you could say, 'We can replace the sky digitally. Is that what we should do, or should we shoot interiors for a couple of hours, and hope it gets better outside?' Because none of this is for free."

That doesn't even take into account the medium on which most people will probably view the work: video. In 1977, few homes had a VCR. Now, a DP must always worry about such matters as, "Can my images be made to fit a TV screen? Are the light levels and colors suitable? What if I'm out of town during the video transfer?" These considerations, composed of equal parts art, science, and commerce, represent probably the most significant development in the working life of a cinematographer over the past 20 years, at the high end at least. On the other hand, some technical advances, from videotapes to Steadicams, have improved the cinematographer's lot and expanded his or her repertoire immeasurably. Eastman Kodak seemingly comes up with more sensitive high-speed film stocks every week, meaning the DP and gaffer no longer have to bake their sets and actors under massive amounts of light.

Even this development, however, can be seen as having a downside. "The films are getting so good that you could practically shoot a movie without lighting it," Vilmos Zsigmond said in a 1996 interview. "The bad thing is that maybe it will make cinematographers lazy, and we are going to lose--maybe--some of the artistry of lighting. Producers are really smarting up that the films are better, you don't need that much light, so they push you harder because they know it's possible to do." For Zsigmond, another Spielberg collaborator who shot Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, it has meant a stylistic shift: "If I look at my style, in comparison with what I was doing 10 years ago, I am getting more simple every day with lighting. And not only me. We actually light with less light, using bigger units, but using less light."

That premiere issue of LD contained an article entitled "HMI: A New Name in Lights." It stated that an "excellent range of sizes has been produced"--up to 4k--and that one of the instrument's major disadvantages was flicker: an alternating current that had to be coordinated with the camera's frame rate. Since then, of course, the daylight color-rendering HMI has become a vital component of most film shoots, the size of the units has increased to 20k and up, and a flicker-free ballast has been incorporated in the mix. In terms of manufacturers, the players haven't changed that much: Mole-Richardson, LTM, and Strand are big names in lights, and Rosco, Lee Filters, and The Great American Market are the major manufacturers of accessories. Cameras come from Panavision and Arriflex, which also manufactures lights, and film is produced by Fuji as well as Kodak, though Agfa has stopped making negative stock. A relatively new name is Kino Flo, which in recent years has helped popularize the use of fluorescent systems in film.

Favored lighting styles have evolved over the years from soft to hard to various combinations of the two. The influence of MTV, seen most clearly in Don Peterman's images for Adrian Lyne's Flashdance, plus the influx of TV commercial directors into feature films, cannot be discounted. With its shafts of light selectively illuminating an overall atmosphere of smoky darkness, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, shot by the late Jordan Cronenweth, was immensely influential. French cinematographer Philippe Rousselot captured a punk aesthetic in Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva--employing a palette that matched the Day-Glo hair dyes popular at the time--that was imitated throughout the 80s. Daviau helped patent the Spielbergian soft style, and Oliver Stone's DP Robert Richardson experimented with varying formats and set a new standard for dynamic camerawork. Lately, Darius Khondji, the cinematographer of Delicatessen, Seven, and Evita, has shown what can be accomplished with creative processing techniques.

Though international cinema, at least what reaches US shores, has suffered a decline in prominence since the glory days of the 1960s and 70s, one element that can't be ignored is the number of great-looking American features with foreign-born cinematographers. The same year Rocky won the Oscar, Haskell Wexler was awarded Best Cinematography for Bound for Glory; it was not until 1991, 15 years later, that another American won that award. (It was Richardson, for his work on Stone's JFK.) In the intervening years, the cinematography Oscar went to Italians (Vittorio Storaro, who won three), Swedes (Sven Nykvist), Czechs (Zsigmond), Cubans (Nestor Almendros), Australians (Dean Semler), and Brits (Billy Williams, Chris Menges, David Watkin, Freddie Francis). John Seale, another Australian native, won the most recent award, for The English Patient. Some of the most gorgeous current films come from China, courtesy of such DPs as Lu Yue, Gu Changwei, Zhao Fei, and Chris Doyle; for the time being, at least, these artists seem to be resisting the pull to Hollywood.

Despite the revolutions in technology that have taken place, in many ways it is business as usual in the movie industry. The automated lighting and dimming technologies that have transformed the concert and theatre arenas have achieved only limited application in movies, mostly for effects purposes. And 20-year-old predictions to the contrary, film retains its primary place of honor in terms of image capture. In a conversation last year, DP Declan Quinn, who put Super 16 to such extraordinary use in Leaving Las Vegas, asked the same question that some people were asking in 1977: "Are we at the end of our craft as a photochemical process?" Another cinematographer, Steven Poster, who has made it his business to be on the cutting edge of developments through his work in features, videos, and commercials, has an answer, one which is good for now at least: "Those elusive components that give film that feeling of art and mystery have yet to be duplicated." Check back in 2017.

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