Q&A: to "enhance and augment", taming the sun and our inner 3D-renderer.

Today I’d like to start a new category on this blog. In the past I’ve written most of my posts based on what I think people would like to hear about. Just a couple of days ago I received an e-mail by a fellow cinematographer asking me about my process and approach to cinematography. I enjoyed answering his questions as it helped me reflect on my own thought processes and the reasons I do things. Often times when we light a scene we don’t really think about why that light goes there or why we use what we use. It comes naturally after a while.

To someone who is new to this world, many of the things we do can seem complex or even confusing and contradictory. I remember taking a really long time to figure out how to light a scene from scratch.

In this series I’d like to invite anyone to send me questions you’d like to have answered. It doesn’t need to be about a specific project, it can be about anything revolving around cinematography. I’ll try to answer them to the best of my abilities.

Without further ado let’s begin with this Q&A.

Is there a general setup that you always try to achieve for indoor scenes?

Lighting is what clicked last for me. So I can understand your effort to find that setup or that blueprint for great lighting. It took me years to get to the point where I can pull a reference image and say, “Here this is what it will look like.” and then it actually does.

What you are going to want to do is unlock your inner 3D renderer. Sometimes I just stand still on set, running my render engine, pushing the lights around in my head, getting the coverage. You need to understand light. Just how light works in general.

How it wraps around objects, different textures, specular light, diffusion etc

There is no real way to teach that, besides experiencing light. On and off set. Whenever I’m not shooting, I look the lights around me and make a mental archive of all the cool light “setups” I find in the wild.

At some point it will click. Trust me.

I struggle with determining how to setup images with a dark beautiful side lit look, as seen in your Bio Navigator commercial, when I'm pressed for time.

I don’t really like the whole key, fill, rim, three point lighting stuff; it feels forced and technical to me. I always look at a room and think: What can I augment, what can I enhance?

Sometimes it’s the practical like the overhead lights in the gym and other times it’s the sun through the window that I can shape or might have to enhance, because it’s not reaching the far side of the room.

I'm interested in when you mentioned you like to enhance what already exists in room. Is this the most reliable starting point for lighting a scene if the story doesn't call for anything specific?

“Enhance and Augment” is applicable to any scene. When you have nothing to work off of, getting inspiration from the room is ever more important.

I will always walk into a room and kind of get a vibe from it. The director will call for a certain look, like moody or romantic. I look around and see what we can use. It’s a naturalistic approach to lighting.

I’ll give you an example: When lighting the club scene from the music video “ALICE” we first set out to figure out what the natural ambient light was – well there was none. When live the club would be pitch black, however there were some dim red LED strips behind a few columns. So I ran with that. I added red practical’s and hit the club with blue ambient, as well as some intense beams to break it up and add some depth.

I often find myself reusing similar lighting setups when doing an interview. I'd like to break away from this. What can I do?

Interview lighting is tricky. Interviews, especially corporate ones, rarely have a strong story or mood behind them that we can base our decisions off of. So it can be hard to come up with a visual style on the spot. The results are often dull. If you are struggling, ask your director or yourself, what story are we trying to tell and what part does this person play in it? Figure out the mood, then enhance and augment.

Remember that unless you are shooting a beauty commercial, there is nothing blander than no contrast.

When shooting day exteriors is there any reason to not to shoot with the sun backlighting the subject, aside from the story dictating this? 

Keeping your sun at a 3/4 backlight for the most part is a good idea. It’s easier to balance the light that way. However, when two people are talking to each other I just let them take a side light, because otherwise it’s challenging to cheat a rim on both.

The important thing to note however is: Unless you’re shooting a western, you’ll need an overhead to soften the direct sunlight. That’s why 3/4 backlights are easier to work with, because all you need is a bit of poly to balance and shape the foreground.

In this shot we didn't have any overheads, but a large 8x8 ultra bounce to camera left. The sun is at an 3/4 angle.

In this shot we didn't have any overheads, but a large 8x8 ultra bounce to camera left. The sun is at an 3/4 angle.

What would you recommend in a run and gun situation where overheads outside aren't an option?

Wait for an overcast day. You are at the mercy of the sun.

I always try to position my subject so that they are fully backlit by sun. Is there a reason for using the 3/4 angle?

Shooting directly into the sun is not advisable. You get flares and your sky will blow out. Having the sun slightly off axis helps with retaining detail in the sky.

The background should be balanced to your foreground object. If your object is in the sun, that background should be lit by sunlight and vice versa.

Unless of course that’s a stylistic choice you made, e.g. a silhouette against a bright background, in which case go for it.

I struggle with following unpredictable action while manually focusing the lens myself. It seems a lot of your stuff has a nice handheld sway that seems to accurately follow the movement of action. Are there any specific techniques you use to achieve this?

Demand a rehearsal. I can't stress this enough. Without a rehearsal you are just making wild educated guesses. This applies to lighting as well. However handheld is always a little improvisation on your part.

On a side note: The editor only cuts in the scenes where I nailed it – always hug your editor.

You mentioned using your inner 3D-Renderer? Do you use software like Cine Designer by Matt Workman?

I use Cinema 4D with Cine Designer to render out some images for larger projects. Especially studio setups where having an idea of what you need to order is very important. Choosing the wrong equipment can cost you your job. Without it I probably would have been a little lost on my last studio gig.

Otherwise it’s too time expensive for most gigs. So I just resort to making shot lists and helping with working out storyboards.

Thanks a lot to Ryan Sherwood for the nice conversation we had.

Do you have any questions you are itching to get answered? Send me an email at me@axelrothe.com !