Here at HDVideoPro, we talk a lot about the latest digital cameras. But ask any cinematographer—good lighting will always trump a good camera system. With artful lighting that serves the story, a great cinematographer can make a DSLR movie look exponentially superior to a novice filmmaker working with an ALEXA or EPIC.
Ask cinematographers about their favorite "go-to" lighting tools and, as might be expected, you get a pretty diverse range of opinions and answers. What’s more surprising is that while technical advances and the digital revolution have had a huge impact on the lighting world, spawning the increasingly popular ultra-versatile and ultra-portable LEDS, many DPs will still often rely on basics when it comes down to the aesthetics of capturing an image.
Here, some top and up-and-coming cinematographers share their secrets and discuss their go-to lighting tools.
Phedon Papamichael, ASC
(The Monuments Men, Nebraska, The Descendants, The Pursuit of Happyness)
It’s amazing that with all the new technology that is available to us today (LED, plasma, new and more efficient HMI) we seem to have lost sight of the beauty and simplicity of the lightbulb. Years ago, my gaffer, Rafael Sanchez, came across a small light that was built by Bob Fischer for Dean Cundey, ASC. They called it the "Fish Light." It’s a simple light and very handy. Its source is old-fashioned lightbulbs: three 250-watt soft-white ECA Photofloods, in a housing with a small Chimera Video PRO bag diffusing them. I immediately saw the potential for this tool because it is a great light for "final touches," quickly adding an eye light or finishing the wrap on a half light. Its lightweight construction is great for handholding and moving in synchronicity with an actor. Its compact size and softness makes it ideal for small spaces that, even on the largest film sets, we seem to find ourselves in. It has left its mark on all of the films we have shot over the last 16 years: as an edge light on Joaquin Phoenix as he sits playing the guitar on Walk the Line, to a front eye light on Cameron Diaz in Knight and Day, to a key light on George Clooney in Ides of March. Sometimes, you have to look past all the flash and hype of new gadgets, and find the beauty of something that has been working for cinematographers from the beginning: the soft, warm and beautiful light of an incandescent bulb!
Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC
(The Wolf of Wall Street, Argo, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Babel, Alexander, Brokeback Mountain)
It would have to be the OctoDome light control device. It comes in three sizes—3-foot, 5-foot, 7-foot—and it’s extremely lightweight and easy to use and maneuver, and gives you this very even, soft light source in a relatively small space, in terms of its depth. So you can put it in a tight location, and it takes up far less space than a Fresnel with diffusion, or practically any Chimera with a Fresnel. I also love the shape. The roundness works so well with a face and looks so nice in the eyes, and creates a very pleasing effect for portraits. And with a very small wattage, you get a lot of light. Usually, I’ll use 1K quartz from Dedolight, and most of the time, I’ve had to reduce the intensity with nets or a dimmer, so it’s very effective and efficient. I used it a lot on The Human Voice, this recent film I shot in Rome and Naples on the Canon C500, starring Sophia Loren with her son, Eduardo Ponti, directing. It’s a monologue based on the Jean Cocteau play, and with Sophia Loren being on-screen all the time, the OctoDome was a key element as it’s all about the lighting on her face. And it allowed me to be very close to her, in a flattering position. I found what were the best places to put the key lights for her, and it’d drop off quickly so the background was in darkness. So, I needed a big source that I could put close to the camera and to her in a relatively frontal position, which normally would flatten the shot out. But having it that close to her gave me that quick drop-off, so her face would really stand out against the dark background.