Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, January 3, 2010


"The stuff that dreams are made of." ”The Maltese Falcon”, 1941 I’ll forgo my usual carping about the trials, tribulations, and occasional indignities of Industry life in favor of a brief meditation on light. To me, it’s beyond ironic that below-the-line work (the foundation of the business) involves so much heavy lifting to create a finished product that weighs less than air. Movies and television are nothing more than images dancing across a screen – light, color, shadow (and sound...) carefully shaped into the world's most popular form of modern entertainment. But when everything falls into place –- a smart script, good director, talented cast, and an experienced, hard-working crew -- the results can be magical. Like all true magic, what the appreciative audience never sees (the seven-eighths of the iceberg below the waterline) is just as important as what appears on the screen. But in the end, it's all just light, as ghostly, ephemeral, and mysterious as a dream... 

 The Oscars finally got around to honoring Gordon Willis, albeit thirty years late. Willis was his usual dyspeptic self: like all true New Yorkers, he seems to consider Los Angeles a moral, intellectual, and aesthetic wasteland, and isn’t the least bit reticent about sharing his crusty opinions. I got a sneak-preview of sorts while listening to NPR’s rebroadcast of an all-too-brief 2002 interview with Willis, during which he attributed his failure to win the Little Gold Man to a dislike for the game of golf and his steadfast refusal to wear white shoes. Willis, it seems, felt that anybody who was anybody in LA back then spent every non-working hour playing golf while wearing white shoes – and for all I know, maybe he was right. If the interview isn't particularly long or in-depth, it’s still worth a listen. At one point, Willis talks about how much he loves the light in New York City – the myriad ways the hard East Coast sunlight is reflected and refracted between all those enormous towers of stone, concrete, and glass, creating fleeting images of stunning urban beauty. Having wandered around Manhattan a few times, I've seen enough to know he's right. 

 “Light means a lot to me in life,” he said, “and the light is terrible in LA, except in the Fall.” Right again, Mr. Willis. 

Everywhere I’ve been in this world, the light is always better in the Fall and Winter months, but nowhere is the difference more dramatic than in Southern California. From Spring until late Summer, the thermonuclear fusion engine that is our sun blasts the holy crap out of LA like some monstrous Death Ray from space. The flat, blinding light floods everything with a bleached-out ugliness relieved only in the brief hours immediately after sunrise and just before sunset, when the sun hangs low in the sky like a big ripe orange. One reason the film industry moved from New York to LA in the first place was for the light, but this was a matter of quantity over quality. In the early days, the crude technology of artificial lighting left most filmmakers at the mercy of the sun. Given the sheer abundance of solar illumination in this desert-by-the-sea -- where real weather (clouds, rain, sleet, ice, and snow) rarely intrudes -- LA provided a perfect location for the industry to flourish. Back then, simply getting a reasonably crisp image on film was enough of a challenge -- it didn't really matter that hard overhead sunlight was ugly as sin. Still, it wasn't long before the basic techniques for controlling and modulating the unflattering natural light were developed -- and although our modern equipment is much lighter, stronger, and easier to use than what was available in the really old days, the same basic methods are still used to cut, soften, reflect, and otherwise modulate harsh sunlight to serve the needs of cinematography. 

The sun tracks ever lower across the sky as summer fades into fall. With those rays beaming through a much thicker atmosphere, the color of sunlight makes a subtle shift towards the warm end of the spectrum, offering a stark contrast to the crisp blue sky. This warm, low light banks off palm trees with a metallic sheen and skids across rough stucco walls to bring out textures that remain invisible during the harsh summer months. Everywhere you look – the natural world of landscapes or the urban cacophony of man-made structures – seems to glow in the rich buttery light, accented by shadows that grow longer, sharper, and more intense every day. It's a truly gorgeous time of the year, as the lush Autumnal light turns the whole world into a painting.  

Working in set lighting introduced me to the infinite variety and qualities of light, on set and out in the real world. Eventually I learned to appreciate the light all around us – its directionality, tones, and ever-varying textures. Although the actual work of set lighting begins and ends with wrangling very heavy cable (and in between, requires setting and adjusting equally heavy lamps that are often extremely hot), the end result of all that sweating, grunting labor is the creation of something shimmering and bright up on screen. Although I’ve only met a couple of DP’s who were big enough assholes to proclaim “I paint with light” (and one of those was a spray-painter, at best), when you get down to it, that’s exactly what a gifted cinematographer does. 

 The natural light-show all around us isn't there simply to please cameramen and film crews, but for everybody to enjoy. As the seasons unfold, I urge you to get out into the world, turn off your cell phone, and take a really good look at what's all around you. Once you learn to see it, there's a lot more magic in the real world than you'll ever find up on the silver screen. And all you have to do is open your eyes.


D said...

Years ago, I had a Dp on a local commercial tell me, "It's all about having a relationship with the light", even at the young age of 20 I thought, "What a jackass" and then went back to putting tough spun on the Lowel we were lighting the Sofaworld commercial with. I've never forgotten that.

BoskoLives said...

I've worked on so many of those shows that were so proud in the planning stage that they were going to be shot with "available light", and in the end many were.

However, what that really meant was that every light that was available on the truck made its way inside. This is most often done on murder mysteries, and the results are very pleasant, as long as you enjoy the look of a sit-com set.

My favorite was an old Swedish DP with the initials M.A., (probably blowing dust farts now) who was very well known for working very fast, so he worked a lot, just not on a lot. His basic interior set up was to put a 9-light on each side of the lens and then call out "We're lit".

As the sound mixer on a few of his shows, my motto became "How do I light thee? Let me count the shadows", and we never were able to get a boom into the room without going into shadow hell.

But to his credit, he was fast.

Sadly, that was before the advent of the softer lighting style of Kino Flo units, which now are usually used on interiors when it's in the low 40's outside so they can save the sun like heat producing 10k BFL's for use on non-air conditioned interiors on those summer days when it's over 115 degree in the non-existent shade. Oh well.......

Peggy Archer said...

Best light in the world? South of France. It's heartbreakingly beautiful. Even better than LA in fall at sunset.

But not by much.

createbmx said...

I talk with my girlfriend all the time about this occurrence. She is very observant and very supportive in my career.

Sometimes she asks questions about how many/little lights we use, and how and why we use them. I tell her "we light till it's right."

When she catches me looking at stained glass windows with sun shining through them, or the way sunlight skips across a bookshelf in a coffee shop; she knows what I'm doing.

I'm day dreaming. I'm contemplating how long "god" took to light this scene. I'm wondering how I can do it.

So many people wonder about the magic of lighting, when they pass by beautiful occurrences everyday. It's a shame that they still think it's magic.

Michael Goi (president of the ASC) wrote about this a few months ago.

Sean said...

It was my first year at a summer stock theatre (up in Santa Rosa, CA) during college and we are in the middle of our loadin week of hell and the Lighting Designer and Master Electrican stopped us in the middle of everything and said "everyone up to the roof, it's time!" The crew was like "ahh what?? what are giong to do up there?" "you'll see was the response" So we file up through the attic and get up on the roof and the sun is just hanging above the horizon. "it's sunset apprication time." We took the time and watched the sunset, discussed the color and look and feel and how it could be reproduced on stage. It was nice to take the time to look and then to learn from it was great and I still remember it now.

Anonymous said...

Funny how film production moved to California for the sun and now has moved to Canada or (worse) Eastern Europe, for lower costs. Apparently the quality and quantity of light doesn't weigh in as favorably as being able to get 500 extra for free.

Eric said...

I moved to LA from the east coast three years ago, and one of the many things that I miss sunlight that does more than just inundate your eyes from one massive, spilling source.

nahiyan said...

I can safely say my "painting" with light consists of sticking up the bog standard 3 points and then prating about with as much gel, frosting, flags and polyboards I can get my hands on.
Would love to be more subtle, but I haven't even scratched the surface when it comes to learning how to use lights properly.

A.J. said...

Excellent post. It's kind of funny how our job is to make light look "natural" yet few of us rarely take the time to see what natural light really looks like.