Lighting is both emotional and technical: we use tools to create a feeling. Most DPs can talk about the emotional reasons behind a lighting approach, but very few can state clearly and plainly exactly what problems they were trying to solve with each light. Apparently this is something I'm good at, and I'm going to give you a chance to exploit this on March 2nd.
If my parents knew what path I was going to take in life they probably would have named me “Engineer” instead of “Art.” They really wanted me to go into a tangible career and for quite a long time they thought of me as a bit of a starving artist. What they didn't understand is that cinematographers are engineers as well as artists: engineers are basically problem solvers, and we're solving artistic problems.
When I started in the film industry lighting was a mystery to me. My dream since the age of 12 was to be a camera operator, but it became clear after a short while that (1) lots of people wanted to be camera operators, and (2) producers didn't want to pay for camera operators. When I learned that the director of photography was the person who really had control over shot composition I started paying a lot more attention to lighting, as it was clear I'd have to be good at that at some level in order to get control of the camera.
While at school I read old copies of American Cinematographer magazine and discovered that, at some point in the distant past, it was a really serious trade magazine that related valuable craft information to other professionals. It hasn't been that in a long time, which I find frustrating; but what I find especially annoying is that on the few occasions where they post lighting schematics–which should be hugely valuable!–they don't explain them. It's really cool to see how a set was lit, but that doesn't explain WHY it was lit that way. Why are the space lights hung in that configuration? Why batten strips over here but not there? Why is there a line of babies along that wall? There are reasons for all that, but for some reason most cinematographers aren't able, or willing, to articulate them.
This is not a problem I have.
I've always been fascinated by facial lighting. There are so many good ways to do it, but also a lot of really bad ways. After my time spent in Hollywood I moved back to my native Northern California where I fell into corporate and documentary filmmaking for a time, and as both of those put a lot of emphasis on the talking-head interview I had a lot of opportunities to experiment with lighting faces. The best part of shooting corporate executives is that very few of them are stunningly attractive, so I got a lot of practice figuring out how to make people look good in spite of their best efforts otherwise. (In the end I discovered a very simple and fast way to light talking-head interviews, which I'll cover in the class. I also wrote an article about this setup if you want to troll through the PVC archives.)
Personally I find badly-lit faces offensive. I cringe when I see them in films or on TV. I do my best to battle such things by trying to impart my hard-won wisdom to others.
There's a lot to cover in the class, which will be held at Sony Studios in Culver City, CA. I hope to get through all of it and still have some time afterwards to play with the Sony F55 that we'll use for the class. If you've never been to Sony's Digital Media Production Center, it's pretty cool: It's a soundstage with a set built inside that exists solely for experimentation with Sony cameras. The sets are pre-lit, and if we have some time we can walk through them and talk about why they're lit the way they are (Curtis Clark, ASC supervised their lighting) but the focus of the class will be about how to make people look good with light. We'll talk about hard light, soft light, lighting from the grid, lighting from the floor, where to fill from, backlights and edge lights… there's lots to look at. Most of all I want to show the evolution of lighting as I experienced it over the course of my career, starting with three-point lighting and moving through all the options I've tried over the years.
Last but not least, we'll talk about damage control: when time is running out and you can only move one light, which one do you move? The answer might surprise you.
You can sign up for the class here. It'll be limited to about 20 people so if you're interested please sign up sooner than later.
Also, I'll be part of the DP conference at NAB, run by Gary Adcock. I'm awaiting details as to time and place.
Director of Photography