November 4, 2004

Painting With Light

Print More

The wonder of film is how seamlessly it runs together. Single frames, static moments captured like photographs, blow by at a rate of 24 frames per second, just fast enough to fool the human eye and give the illusion of motion. Of course, most people are only ever exposed to the glossy, finished products of directors; the quick cuts, narrative continuity and fine trimming providing us with a slick 90 minutes of visual pleasure.

All of this belies the reality behind filmmaking. If the average moviegoer could just get past the visual flow of a film and break it down to its components, they might see the evolution of shots, compositions and storytelling. But that would only be scratching the surface. Indeed, a film is infinitely more than just the sum of its parts. A single scene is a complex relationship of lighting, sound and camera work. Even more, a single scene is often a personal investment of time, money and creative energy.

The student filmmakers in the intermediate level class are all well on their ways with filming. This past Saturday, Amir Noorani ’06 and Pam Su ’05 began another round of filming at Sheldon Court and a house at Valentine Place. Daze came along as the crew.

As we discussed in previous issues, Amir’s film, Breaking the Habit, is the story of an Asian student, Anita, played by Sonal Jagasi ’06, whose reserved life is brought to reckoning when she discovers she is pregnant. Last Saturday, Amir filmed scenes nine and twelve, in which Anita wakes up the morning after her discovery, as well as the final, decisive scene. “Our last film [Alone] was more of a personal narrative,” said Amir. “I’d even go so far as to say it’s experimental. But in some sense it was a derivation from this film since I knew I wanted to make this movie [first]. This is really my first attempt at a narrative.”

Admittedly not a cameraman, Amir brought Pam along as his Director of Photography (DP). Thus, Pam is in charge of loading, unloading and handling the camera. At the intermediate level, students can shoot in sync-sound, meaning that the cameras run on a motor quiet enough so as not to be picked up by a sound device. Sound is recorded separately on a DAT recorder, which consists of a boom mic and a side pack that holds the tape. Ever wondered why directors clap those boards and yell “Action?” When you match the DAT recording up to the film in editing, the clapstick sound tells you where to line the two up.

The camera used was an Arriflex 16SR, which takes 400 foot cores of film. Film must be loaded manually and in a changing bag, since any light could expose the entire roll. Hence, Pam had to learn to load film blindly. More importantly, Pam has to take pains to care for the camera, primarily because its price is worth a semester of tuition at Cornell, but also because any dust in the camera could disturb the quality of the image.

The anticipated length of the intermediate final projects is in or around 25 minutes. On average, about ten to twenty percent of what a filmmaker actually shoots will make it to the final edit. A 400-foot roll of color film (what Amir is using), which translates to roughly twelve minutes of film, cost $150. Of course, that doesn’t include processing costs, which is roughly another $150. So, for twelve minutes, most of which you may never use, will put you $300 in debt. That also doesn’t include basic human needs, like contact with other sentient beings and sleep.

Now you might understand the necessity for efficiency. Each of the scenes filmed on Saturday were meticulously planned ahead of time by Amir and Pam, down to stock to be used and the angles of the camera. “I try to keep as close to [my shot lists] as possible,” said Amir. “I don’t know locations ahead of time, so I don’t know blocking angles, but I try to have a sense of what I’m trying to say narratively with each shot. Because a high shot give a sense of dominance, and a low shot gives one of frailty.”

On Saturday, when most students were drunk or sleeping, the shoot lasted from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m., and all for just about three minutes of actual film. This personal sacrifice hasn’t gone unnoticed by the cast. “I think he’s an amazing director,” said Sonal. “And I think that on top of classes and things like that, he’s … very able to organize such a complicated project, and at the same time have a great attitude.”

But that’s simply the nature of filmmaking. One might ask why one shot could take so long? The answer is simple. Lighting.

Whether you are shooting in black and white or color, lighting is the most important aspect to film making. It determines mood, tone, spatial relationships, texture, genre and time. Too little renders a camera useless, but too much washes images into white. It has the power to reduce a film to b-level quality or elevate it to art. In short, how well a director, and particularly a director of photography can control light will determine the quality of a film’s appearance.

By and large, Amir has consistently used realistic, high-key lighting set ups. High key denotes even, balanced lighting that largely fills shadows and reduces contrast. For aging actresses, it smooths out wrinkles and imperfections. Because of his, it’s used mostly in comedies, commercials, and lighter films. Low-key, on the other hand, is bright and unbalanced, resulting in a sharp contrast, casting dark shadows and amplifying the textures of surfaces the human body. Largely used in noir, thrillers, and intense dramas, it sets a distinctly atmospheric mood.

As the DP, it is Pam’s responsibility to set up lighting on every shoot. But lighting set up is not a monolithic process. After conceptualizing the position of the lights and setting them up, it’s a matter of adjusting the lens. Anyone familiar with photography knows that film is a matter of controlling exposure. While overexposure (too light) and underexposure (too dark) can be used stylistically, it can also destroy a project. After positioning the camera, the DP must take a light reading that measures the amount of light falling on a subject or reflecting off of it (that’s another topic) and thus tells the DP how to set the lens. Lenses control light through apertures — metal diaphragms that widen or narrow to control just how much light hits the film. Aperture settings are measured in units called f-stops, which range from wide open (f 1.0) to almost closed shut (f 22). But this is just the beginning. Some cameras, such as the Arriflex that Pam and Amir use, have apertures that don’t open wider than f 2.8. Then there is the type of film in the camera. Color film can be broken down into two classifications — balance and speed. Speed is a measure of how receptive a stock is to light, and thus the “faster” a film stock is, the less light is necessary to film. But the tradeoff for being more receptive to light fast film stock will look grainier and not as fine as slower film. Balance basically means whether a stock is made for outdoor or indoor filming. Daylight balanced film will produce an orange tint if used indoors, while tungsten-balanced film (tungsten is the metal used in many indoor lights) will come out overly blue if used outdoors. Thus, a DP also has to account for any daylight that may stream in on a set by using an orange filter to balance it.

While this all may seem confusing, it basically means that some cameras and film stocks are limited to the type of lighting that is available and that they can absorb. Granted, this is an overly simplified explanation of a complex process, but it should afford some idea of what constitutes every single shot of a film.

That is precisely the difficulty that Pam and Amir encountered in filming the ending. Since it takes place at night, Amir wanted to establish a lighting scheme that would give the look of nighttime. Using blue gel filters, soft lighting setups (which basically diffuse otherwise focused light) and placing them outside the bedroom door, it turned out there wasn’t enough light to properly expose the film. After nearly two hours of failed problem-solving, exp
ensive lighting apparatuses were dumped in favor of a desk lamp already in the room. Since Amir’s film is based on realism, these minute details are important. Something as simple as switching on a light becomes crucially important when a soft light has to be turned on at exactly the same time to give the appearance of bedroom lights coming on.

The first shoot had its problems as well, including getting locked out of buildings, moving a bed, a broken ceramic turtle, and an actress studying for four prelims. A scene without dialogue, the goal was to record the ambient ruffles of sheets and sighs. For both shoots, Daze was given the mic and told to record. Needless to say, it was a bad idea.

Sound recording is matter of balance (not like film though). Sounds on set have to reach a minimum level of decibels just to be recorded, but if those levels are too high, the sound will be distorted. Moreover, the boom mic has to be close enough to catch small sounds, but far enough away so as not to appear in frame or interfere with the actress. Daze is proud to report that it only screwed up once, neglecting to hit the record button while the camera rolled. What would have been a costly error was redeemable, since the sound was just ambient, and could be recorded again and matched later. Fortunately, we were forgiven.

With eight scenes still needing to be filmed, this coming weekend will be Amir’s most involved shoot, occurring at the Ithaca airport. Pam already finished the live footage of her own film, so she’s managed to have time to double as Amir’s DP. After next weekend, the filming of Breaking the Habit will be closer to completion, but then comes editing. And that’s another story for another time.

Archived article by Zach Jones