(This was a paper I wrote for one of my classes. I actually love to light sets, but I felt that to make this paper strong, I had to chose a strong thesis statement. Send a message @leslielello at Twitter if you care to discuss…) :-)
Sixty years ago, when black and white movies were the norm and the film industry was hitting its stride, an established idea of basic lighting techniques emerged. This came from technicians discovering that different lighting schemes gave different “feels” to the subject matter, and had a deep impact with the audience and how it perceived the movie they were watching.
Today many of the same techniques are used, but are now created after filming, in a virtual, 3D computer environment. Some may argue that the recent introduction of 3D “artificial” lighting is inferior to real-life set lighting, but in many aspects it is a tool that has greatly enhanced the capabilities of filmmakers and the quality of films that are created.
Anyone who has ever worked on a film set knows that the aspect of filmmaking that takes the longest is lighting. Even a basic, three point lighting set up, as presented in The Filmmaker’s Handbook (pgs 248 and 249) can take a long time because there are often physical limitations that have to be dealt with. For example, many times the C-stand or hanging cord will be in the shot and time-consuming adjustments of the light are required, often involving several technicians to not only move the c-stand, but to also lift the heavy sandbags stabalizing the stand. Another adjustment that is often required is when the light is to “hot” (too bright) on the subject and needs to be “knocked down” a bit. Even though this is a small adjustment, on set this often involves a technician having to climb a ladder in order to add or adjust a scrim.
In 3D lighting these changes can take place in less than a minute. And if the effect is not desirable, it is just as easy to switch back to the original effect. Additionally, more experimentation can take place in the midst of creation because the changes are so fast. This allows directors and post-production artists to fully achieve the look that is truly desired for the shot, and not have to make compromises as one often must do on set.
Additional 3D lighting superiority includes:
- not having to worry about running out of daylight during a shoot day,
- improper shadows or shadows that look bad,
- blowing fuses or having enough electrical power in a space to properly light a scene,
- working in spaces that are too small to properly light a scene,
- potential electrocution,
- specialized personnel such as gaffers who are experts in electricity, or Grips to lift the heavy lighting equipment, and
- the actors do not have to suffer under hot lights.
Those that specialize in 3D digital lighting are paid a lot of money for their expertise. For this reason, one would think that the costs are higher for this type of personnel and so it would be better to do things the traditional way, with real-life set lighting.
However, if one really breaks down the cost of traditional set lighting, one will discover that the typical costs are a lot more expensive than highering a 3D computer lighting expert.
When a producer is laying out the budget for a film, lighting equipment rental is always a major chunk of the budget. Cinematographers will put in a request for lighting and, depending on the budget, may or may not receive the desired equipment. Artistic compromises in lighting design are often made because the budget cannot accommodate all the equipment the cinematographer is requesting.
Most projects also require one or several trucks to carry all of that lighting equipment, and several technicians, including gaffers and grips, to set up and operate the heavy lighting, as well as a driver for each truck.
Even with the most basic lighting equipment, fire, electrocution and injuries from burns are always a risk, and insurance can get very expensive to protect the equipment and the personnel using it. Even walking on set poses a risk if cords are not taped down or C-stands are not sandbagged. If a key crew member, like a cinematographer or key gaffer, is injured from an improperly secured light, the cost to the production can be astronomical.
Also, Teamsters have been known to literally stand in front of equipment trucks in order to shut down non-union productions. This is a big fear of producers who go non-union, They just want make their film the best it can be for what the budget can afford, but if union Teamsters find out about the non-union production, it can shut down the entire show permanently.
Finally, when lighting mistakes are made on set, it costs a lot of money to go back and reshoot. Ideally, there is still money in the budget to make these corrections, but if there is not, sometimes the movie just has to move forward with the lighting mistakes included.
With 3D computer lighting, none of this is as important. No heavy lighting equipment is required. In fact, though this is not ideal, this work can be done on a computer as small as a laptop. Of course, the cost of a program like Maya or Soft Image can be hefty, but pales in comparison to one week of set lighting and truck rental. And most professional 3D computer artists have their own, high-powered computer and visual effects programs already installed.
While there is an film editing union, there is not much this organization can do to block a producer from using a non-union 3D lighting compositor. There are no trucks to block and the union cannot really strong-arm a producer with such tactics.
Safety is not an issue with 3D computer lighting because the risk of burns, electrocution and fire damage to equipment and/or personnel is not an issue.
Finally, costly pickup shots or not getting all of the shots required in a day because the sun went down, are not an issue with 3D lighting. Even setting up a real-life model to create an eclipse effect can get pricey, but in a program like Soft Image, this effect takes less than 10 minutes to set up and look good (not including any animation that may be involved.)
There are things that one can do with 3D computer lighting that can never be physically replicated in real life. For example, one can exclude items from being lit by a light shining directly on it, shadows can be eliminated with a few clicks and items can take on an other-worldly glow that doesn’t exist in real life.
The Genesis Effect in Wrath of Khan is one example of this, where the lighting was unique to the digital world and the movement of the camera was a physical impossibility, even in the most technologically savvy physical-world film shooting environments (such as Lucas Films).
This offers infinite visual possibilities to a director, who is only limited by her imagination and the speed at which computers currently render information.
It has been illuminated (haha) in this report that lighting digitally in 3D is vastly superior to lighting on set in real physical life.
This is because 3D digital lighting does not have the physical limitations of physical lighting, costs less than physical lighting and allows for more non-realistic possibilities than physical lighting.
Despite this, it is hard to foresee a future in which proper set lighting will not be used in productions. It seems more likely that digital lighting will allow a producer to minimize set lighting rental, and add the more expensive, dangerous and complicated effects in post-production. The only downside to digital lighting effects is that there is a population of experts that can tell when the lighting has been added in post production. But to the majority of audiences, the effect will be invisible and will look like real life to such a degree that the audience cannot tell, which is the ultimate intention of most digitally created effects, including 3D lighting.
Bibliography and References
Ascher, Steven, and Edward Pincus. The Filmmaker’s Handbook: a Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age. New York: Plume, 2007. Print.
Finance, Charles L., and Susan Zwerman. The Visual Effects Producer: Understanding the Art and Business of VFX. Amsterdam : Boston: Elsevier/Focal, 2010. Print.
Honthaner, Eve Light. The Complete Film Production Handbook. Burlington, MA: Focal, 2010. Print.
Mascelli, Joseph V. The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques Simplified. Hollywood [Calif.: Cine/Grafic Publications, 1965. Print.
Rubin, Michael. Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution. Gainesville, FL: Triad Pub., 2006. Print.
Star Trek II–the Wrath of Khan. Dir. Nicholas Meyer. 1982.