Cinematic Naturalism – Using Practical Lighting (and some thoughts about the Lumix GH4)

As a independent and guerilla filmmaker, one often has to do with what is offered at the shooting location. When it comes to shooting exterior scenes, that comes natural and is shared with most big budget productions. But the real differentiation between shoe string budget and larger production involves shooting interior scenes, where the use of studios and complex production design carpenting and construction is out of the question. As a guerilla filmmaker, one is dependent on real locations, in terms of props, interiors and lighting. One obvious advantage is affordability, and here a guerilla film soldier may go through physical and mental pains to take his or her shots, to the point of breaking laws and regulations (such as shooting without a permit, breaking and entry, etc.). However, one other big advantage is realism; there are no roundabouts to realism and naturalism than shooting reality as it is, in someones own home, or in a real office, or ware house, or work shop, or any other conceivable location. This of course includes any props that naturally belongs to a particular location. But this also includes lighting; one has to do with any lights that are present on location, both natural lighting (the sun, the moon, and starlight) coming through the windows, as well as practical lighting that sources from any tungsten lights that naturally belong to the room, such as ceiling lights, lanterns, table lights, candles, etc. But this is not always a prerogative of the independent filmmaker; some established directors of the movie industry use practical lights as well. The most known example, and a true master and artist of natural lighting, was Stanley Kubrick. We all know how he used real candles in Barry Lyndon (1975) for all of his night interior shots. However, he used practical lights for most of his movies, in the form of light bulbs, lamps, etc. The following video explains it throughly and privides some history behind this evolution from the traditional three lights system of studio lighting towards the use of practical lighting:

There are several tutorials on YouTube that explains the practicalities of practical and natural lighting. I want to share one such particular tutorial for lighting a scene solely with practicals, produced by Lewis MacGregor for the Premium Beat blog, who shares several valuable tips for prospecting cinematographers such as myself. At least, these pointers speak to me. The most valuable guidelines are the following: One shouldn’t overdo the lighting with to much practical tungsten lamps, and certainly not turning on the main lights from the ceiling, which would create a flat look resembling a cheap home video. Instead one should resort to some few side lights, such as table lamps, wall lamps, candles, etc. One should work with shadows and allow them to take prominance in the scene, a recommendation that speaks to my noir appetites. Any directional lamps, such as from IKEA, would work fine as key lights. Lamp-shades work fine as softeners, as fill lights, background lights and back lighting. Also, one should place the camera not in right angles to a wall but slightly from the side to create compositional depth and to avoid flatness to the look. I recommend the reader to watch the entire video in which MacGregor explains all of the practical details, and also how to combine dedicated film lighting with practicals.

Digressional addendum: MacGregor shot his tutorial footage with the Panasonic Lumix GH4, which is the only stills camera worth looking into today in my opinion. These images in the video impresses me considering the use of a 8-bit h.264 codec. I don’t know if MacGregor used the V-Log L feature of the camera, which overburdens the h.264 container creating compression artefacts, such as blocking and noise; V-Log L is optimised for 10-bit ProRes HQ (or DNxHR) using an external recorder, such as the Blackmagic Video Assist or Atomos Ninja. Using the CineLike-D internally is more appropriate, and probably the one used in the clips. To me it seems that it would be easy to match the GH4 with the BMPCC, especially when using an externa recorder. Both the GH4 and BMPCC share the same MFT mount, which is a great plus for me. Both cameras seems to be optimised for a native ISO rating of 800, with a recommended span between ISO 200 and 1600. For a while I considered a purchase of the Lumix GH4 as a B-cam as its price has dropped considerably after the launch of the GH5 (I can buy it for approx. $700 in Sweden), which is a lot of bang for the buck. Compared to the BMPCC, its pros are 4K for greater detail in shooting landscapes and cityscapes (even if downscaling to 1080p), fast action scenes involving violent pans or high speed shots (lesser rolling shutter artifacts), somewhat better light sensitivity in low light conditions (such as shooting with practical lighting), and slow motion up to 96 fps. The nice thing with the GH4 is that the cropped image of UHD transformes it to a slightly oversized Super 16 camera (14.42 x 8.11mm) which would make it possible for me to use the same 16mm and Super 16 lenses as with the BMPCC (12.48 x 7.02mm), with a very similar crop factor (2.616x and 2.88x respectively). When overcranking, I could even use the highly cropped image of the Extended Teleconverter feature to fit it with my BMPCC 16mm format lenses. It’s probably the best and most versatile hybrid camera on the market today, considering its price.

Practically lit scene in Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymph()maniac’

Regressing back to the main topic of practical lighting, another well known (or notorious, depending how you view the) film is Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac (2013), shot by Manuel Alberto Claro using Arri ALEXAs. In the central staging of the movie, the main character Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, have a long conversation with Stellan Skarsgård’s character Seligman about her life as a nymphomaniac, in his apartment which is sparsly lit with a few side lights. In an interview Claro stated that the “room where Joe recounts her story was lit entirely with practicals. We could move some practical lamps around but that was pretty much all we did.” In another interview he says that “Lars… was very specific about the production design and how it should be defined as a kind of monk’s cell. It’s very simple and we lit it with some practical lights on the wall and a small light. I adjusted the lights for each shot and I tried to keep the atmosphere of this room intact.” In my opinion, a very well lit scene with a somber and quite warm look. For Lars von Trier, this kind of natural lighting of course hearkens back to his Dogme 95 roots, which by the way has been reinvigoured by my own Dogma 16. And to digress further, and back to one of my favorite topics, my critique of higher resolutions and large formats, Claro laments that:

Digital is getting so hyper-real that you see too much like skin details. Everything is too perfect and it’s not really pleasing to look at. For me, I usually fight sharpness. One of the problems in the camera industry is that engineers are going for the higher numbers. We are at the point where it’s going in the wrong direction. You can always degrade it, you can always put a filter in front of it, but, as a DP, you really want a camera that gives you its own kind of poetic quality and then you can go from there instead of having to make everything afterwards in post-production. And I think mentally there’s a huge difference in the creative process when you’re right in front of the actors on the set and then afterwards when you’re sitting in a dark room with a technician manipulating the images.

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