Film Light Assignment 3 Reflections

Exercise 8 Reflection

This week we spent a class working together as a crew to set up and light a very simple conversation scene between Aria and Ryan. I really enjoy these exercises as they are what I had in mind when I signed up for this studio. I also realised that when we have these practical days I actually prefer to not be one of the people involved in the crew and to instead be an observer the whole time. I feel that if I were assigned one of the crew roles it would take up too much of my mind to be able to properly concentrate on what is happening within the scene. If I am simply watching then I can observe every aspect of the crew and have a clearer understanding of why everyone is doing what they are doing and absorb the exercise that way.

I always love watching these practical exercises as there are always things pointed out or decisions made that I would have never thought about, mostly in the vain of me not being meticulous enough in analysing the light in the scene. For example in this exercise I specifically remember a moment where Robin and the Crew decided that a spot of light on Aria’s neck was too bright and hot and that it needed to be cut down because it overpowered and dominated the frame. From my memory they solved this by either cutting or diffusing where that specific spot of light was coming from and when I saw the difference I was very impressed by how such a subtle change really made the picture look better. I always have several of these moments any time we have practical exercises such as this and I think it really helps me to sharpen my sensitivity to light and to have a clearer vision and more conviction in my mind in regards to cinematography.

Presentation Summary

Our group (mainly Ryan) presented our idea to the class which I thought went reasonably well considering how unsure we were about what we finally wanted to do. We know that we want to find a good location and return to it every week to refine whatever it is we have in mind that we want to film. We all at the start wanted to have a very individualistic mindset to this project, each hoping to come out of this with something to show and claim primary ownership of, but thinking more about it we decided that this would be unnecessarily overwhelming and that it would be better to have at least some overlap between our ideas. We eventually settled on a sort of compromise where we would all visit the same location and film things that were very similar, but that each of us had a different thing that we wanted to investigate, and that that would be enough of an individualistic satisfaction to be gained out of this project.

For me, personally, I want to investigate and experiment with deep focus photography. Lately, having watched a lot of films shot by James Wong Howe and Gregg Toland I have found myself very drawn to deep focus, and I think its because I have always been naturally inclined towards aspects of filmmaking such as blocking and frame composition, and I think that deep focus allows these two aspects of filmmaking to really shine, while also allowing for achievements in cinematography to be attained.

I am thinking of writing a short 1-2 minute scene which will take advantage of the different planes (foreground, midground, background) that will be available because of deep focus and to have the characters I write and the conversation to lead them to move within these plains. Hopefully I will be able to write something good enough where I can move them around the dimensions of the frame with motivation that stems from the narrative desires of the script.

The iterative aspect of the project can be focused on the difference between achieve deep focus in black and white and in colour, and how these two approaches produce different results. Another potential iterative aspect that I am thinking of is first shooting with the EX-3 that we use in class, and then shooting with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera that I own, and seeing how I will have to adjust the lighting according to the cameras’ specifications.

Thinking about the obstacles that could come up from this project I found a few main ones. One is that I am probably going to need a large volume of light to pull off deep focus, and I will have to remember this when deciding how many external lamps I will take with me to the location and the logistics of it.

Another obstacle could be my desire to write my own scene and to block it accordingly. This is a potential obstacle as I can potentially see myself become too wrapped up with the idea of writing and staging actors that I draw too much of my focus and energy away from actually trying to light and achieve deep focus, which is the main priority of this project.

Lastly, I will be very dependent on the location. Watching the films that have contained deep focus by Toland and Howe I have noticed that pretty much every room that they used has been very large. I may have some trouble finding a location that is adequately large enough so that the deep focus that I pull off feels effective, as deep focus in a large area often feels much more impressive than in a smaller area.

Having found a specific area of film light that I want to investigate, I have become excited to start this project and to see what results are produced. It is also a challenge to me as I am experimenting with something that I have virtually zero experience with.

Presentation Reflection Response

Looking at everyone’s presentations this week I was really impressed by them, seeing how well thought out and articulated everyone else’s vision was made me realise how unfocused our own group’s idea is. I was particularly interested in the group that wanted to shoot outside a place that had red neon lights and to shoot from inside a car. I really liked how they had already storyboarded some shots as well as gone through a lot of potential shortcomings and obstacles comprehensively. In general I think that their idea has the potential to turn out really interesting, especially if they implement some of the things mentioned such as rain/water or superimpose the neon lights.

Something I really liked about the pitches was the feedback from both Paul and Juliet as it was always very practical advice that could be realistically implemented. Juliet’s advice especially I thought was really great as she came from a background in production design, and therefore got us to think a lot about what we put in front of the camera, something that maybe you can tend to forget when getting too wrapped up in lighting and camera stuff. I particularly liked the advice in regards to the Psycho recreation in which she advised them to be mindful about what walls they use and how this will absorb and reflect the light differently as well as telling another group to be mindful about the difference between using a 25mm MFT lens and a 50mm lens on a full frame sensor.

Moving forward after hearing everyone’s pitches I think that our group will try to hone in and refine whatever it is exactly we want to do with this project and to have a more define and articulated vision.

Cinematographer Research Project – James Wong Howe

Basic Research Project – James Wong Howe

I have decided to do my research project on the legendary Hollywood cinematographer James Wong Howe. My primary reason for choosing to research Howe was because I had really only developed an eye for cinematography that was modern, and more specifically, in colour. I was very ignorant towards black-and-white cinematography and what exactly made it stand out. Therefore I thought it would be a good idea to choose a cinematographer who has really encapsulated as well as pushed the boundaries of black-and-white cinematography, as well as cinematography in general, as a means of educating myself.

James Wong Howe got his start as a clapper boy for Cecil B. Demille pictures before eventually, through many steps, becoming a cinematographer. He began his career at the dawn of Hollywood, making his first picture in 1917, stretching his career all the way to 1975, having shot well over 100 films. He was notable for a lot of technical innovations in cinematography, most notably his use of deep-focus photography in his 1931 film, Transatlantic, 10 years before Gregg Toland used it in Citizen Kane. Other innovations include using black velvet to make an actor’s blue eyes register as dark on screen, as auto chromatic film stocks during that time made blue eyes show up as white, as well as operating a camera while sliding around on roller skates to capture boxing scenes in the 1947 film, Body and Soul.

In watching Howe’s films and looking at interviews with him he comes across as a very pragmatic, no-nonsense cinematographer. He had a very logical approach to his lighting and problem solving, often showing a very resourceful process to many problems.

For example, for 1958’s The Old Man and the Sea, “the script called for a bird to land on Spencer Tracy’s boat, and for Tracy to talk to it. But all the birds flew up to the rafters; none would go anywhere near Tracy’s boat, which was floating in a big indoor tub representing the ocean. Finally Howe suggested weighting the birds with B.B.s, so they’d have to land on the boat or sink.”

In a documentary about James Wong Howe, he goes over much of his philosophy regarding cinematography, and there also includes an interesting segment where he demonstrates and runs through his lighting process. For interiors, he will usually start by figuring out the key light first, then working all of the other lights to match the key light when filling out the rest of the room.

Howe was known for his use of hard light, which a lot of the times resulted in very interesting and striking contrasts of light. This is evident in both Sweet Smell of Success, as well as Hud. His use of high contrast lighting on his actors faces were always linked to its use in a narrative sense, often to elicit a particular feeling regarding a character.

Here, in Sweet Smell of Success, Burt Lancaster’s face is lit with hard light, creating hard shadows stemming down from the frame of his glasses, providing a sinister and dangerous feeling to his character, while Tony Curtis is lit much more evenly in comparison to Lancaster. The hard shadows also fall on Lancaster’s suit, making the blacks in it even deeper. This shot is cut in response to this reverse angle below:

Here, we can see that these actors are lit much more conventionally, and in response to the shot of Curtis and Lancaster. The man on the left is cast into shadow, the blonde woman lit very flatteringly and the man on the right shot much more evenly in comparison to Lancaster. All of these lighting decisions come from character and narrative motivation, where Lancaster’s intimidating nature is emphasised by Howe’s light and the senator that he is talking to is lit in a way that diminishes him in respect to Lancaster.

Howe was always motivated by the script and lit his actors accordingly, he notes in an interview with Roger Ebert that he lit “every character to emphasize that character’s inner quality. For Melvin Douglas, shadows and isolation. For Paul Newman, contrast. For Brandon De Wilde, open and simple lighting to emphasize his youth”. Howe was always motivated and consistent in this sense, even saying in an interview once that he was “subservient” to the script, that the script could not be changed and that it was the cinematographer’s job to work around the script.

Here are some frames of how he lit his actors in Hud.

Here we can see an example of his signature use of low-key lighting, which is both very striking to look at while also remaining consistent with the narrative motivated decision to create contrast on Paul Newman’s face.

Here is another shot that contains dramatic low-key lighting from The Rose Tattoo, where the key light is very low in volume and what lights Marisa Pavan on the right is what would otherwise be the fill light.







Here is one of the most striking uses of light in Hud, everything from the composition to the very dramatic lighting has stuck with me. Howe has cleverly managed to show both Patricia Neal and Brandon De Wilde’s face in light while obscuring Paul Newman’s face in almost complete darkness. The constant sharp contrast between white and black throughout this shot is astonishing, not just on the actors’ faces, but also the balance in black and white regarding the props (beds, desk), to the even black and white split down Paul Newman’s left arm.

Even though Howe used hard light a lot of the time to create shadows that caused contrast in his actors face, he could also light them very flatteringly with hard light, here is an example from the same movie and of  Patricia Neal and Paul Newman as well for easy comparison.

The light on both actor’s faces is very flat, and the lack of contrast that you see reflects the scene’s warmth.

Here is another example of Howe’s style of lighting actors, only this time with soft light. The key that comes in from the left is very soft and adds a texture to the actress’ hair, while also giving off a radiant glow that seems even more prominent because of not just the hard but the coat. She is also very evenly lit, with no discernible or obvious shadows falling upon her face.

Here are some examples of when James Wong Howe used deep focus photography in Hud, as well as Sweet Smell of Success.

After studying James Wong Howe’s cinematography I feel much more comfortable understanding classic cinematography and especially black-and-white photography. Seeing a lot of Howe’s work has inspired me in two main aspects: hard light and deep focus. I have now become a lot more interested in learning how to use hard light and the discipline and precision behind it. His very malleable and adaptable style has influenced me a lot with making me think of cinematography in a more holistic sense and from a bigger perspective, as well as in a very pragmatic and logical approach. The cinematography must serve the narrative, but as James Wong Howe has shown consistently throughout a career of over 50 years, that doesn’t mean that you can’t produce beautiful and striking images.