Tuesday, September 17, 2013


A Cinematographer is known by his lighting.

Lighting begins with composition.

Ironical. Isn't it? The way this article starts, reminds me of Vittorio Storaro. His Light-Color-Elements, the three part episodic journey into a Cinematographer's working process.

Storaro prepares us for a glimpse into his personality.

This article, on the other hand, is an initiation into the science and art of light design for motion picture.

Lighting is unnecessarily mystified by its practitioners.

Most of these practitioners do not go beyond basics - they only combine simple steps to create a coherent whole.

Often that creation is a straight lift from another practitioner - just a copy.

One major reason why India has no big history of Cinematography style. Except for Subrata Mitra and his legacy, almost no other style at all.

Light is needed to see things. It is needed to create an image, and to show that to the world.

There are many forms of image making. Etching, drawing, painting - to name a few. All these depend on contrast making.

Contrast means difference. Contrast creation is the goal in any artwork.

The contrast between the canvas and the image. 

The contrast between the ground and the figure.

Primarily, the contrast is in darkness.

Secondarily, it is in color.

If there is no contrast at all, the image would be a Monalisa painted with black ink on a black board.

It would not be visible.

However, even a light contrast in the foreground would show the image up.

A proper contrast would lead to an interesting image.

If the contrast is mostly in color, and not darkness, the result would be similar to a wedding video.

It would be flat. Uninteresting.

An ideal difference between canvas and image, in darkness and color, creates a presentable image.

The range of darkness is known as tonal palette.

The range of colors is known as color palette.

A Cinematographer uses both.

What is a proper contrast?

The answer is subjective. It depends on how the Cinematographer feels about an emotional situation.

A Cinematographer creates mood by separating the grounds in an image.

Here, Pi is in the foreground (Near Camera), the boat carrying the tiger is in the middle ground, and the sky far away is in the background.

We have talked about this in the page on composition

However, one needs to remember, it is not a rigid fact where the Foreground ends and the Middleground begins, in an image.

Normally, the reference is a line inside the frame. A line each for the boundary between the Foreground and Midleground, and between Middleground and Background.

Those lines may be horizontal, parallel to the top and bottom of the frame.

Or they may be vertical, parallel to the left and right edges of the frame.

Or they may be diagonally separating the Fore, Middle and Backgrounds. (For which I have no image now. But, I promise to click one and add that here)

When the grounds are separated in such regular geometric manner, we tend to appreciate them. We love such images. Why we do not know.

A Cinematographer enhances the division between the grounds, not only through mental divisions in lines, but actually, with contrasts in the Size of objects, Focus, Movement, Drama and of course the Human Face (or, animal) among inanimate props.

A major enhancer for ground separation is brightness of objects, and their colors.

We notice the brightest object first. If it is the biggest discernible human face, giving maximum details from the skin, speaking dialogue or doing some action, then nothing like it.

Even if it is just a dumb lampshade, our eyes go towards it inevitably. Its high brightness plays the key role in our decision.

Different grounds stand out against one another, if different color light fall on them. Or if different color properties, and characters in different costumes bedeck them.

A good example would be this particular scene from Tamil cinema.

Contrast creation in images is directly linked to emotion.  

In Indian aesthetics, there are nine rasas which generate specific emotions.

Shringara, Hasya, Karuna, Raudra, Veera, Bhayanaka, BibhatsaAdbhuta and Shanta.

These are the fixed mental states, or sentiments, to which the human mind comes to stay.

In between, a normal mind is always in agitation. Indian aesthetics has listed thirty three transitory states. These states are the states of mind at a specific moment.

Each of the sentiments has a particular color fixed to them, as well as a particular musical movement.

The sentiments may be comprehended as goals of basic emotional states.

However, a normal individual is always in a mixed emotional state, where the sentiments are not static. They are always changing.

The thirty three transitory states may be useful in the realistic portrayal of an individual in a film.

Along with that, the eight physical states - paralysis, perspiration, horripilation, trembling, change of color, weeping and fainting are listed for actors and dancers.

A detailed discussion of cinematic storytelling and the application of rasa theory, as well as other Indian aesthetic patterns, would be in a blog to come.

For now, we can start composing with the knowledge that if the lead characters are going from the fixed emotion of rage (Raudra) to pathos or pity (Karuna), we can use a range of certain colors connected to these emotions.

We may have those colors in characters' costumes, set properties and in the color of light.

I used some of these elements in this short ad made for NFDC, to celebrate one hundred years of Indian cinema.

In the film In the Mood for Love, Christopher Doyle tried something similar. However, he used Chinese codes, and not Indian.

A Cinematographer, as a lighting designer for movies, need to control four (and at times five) basic factors.

Each of these factors are independent of one another.

You can change any of them, without altering the others. 

So, they give a plethora of emotions, in different permutations and combinations.

Learning to light up is learning the visual dynamics of the story as per the psychology of the characters and the psychological dynamics of the situation.

Connecting those elements of the story to static and dynamic compositions in the frame is the responsibility of both the Director of the film and the Cinematographer's.

But, the final embellishment of the frame by planning the lighting design is the sole responsibility of the Cinematographer.

The execution of the lighting design is his responsibility too.

And also, giving the final look, sitting with the Colorist, so that the emotions in the mind of the screen characters rush to the mind of the audience.

When that happens, the audience become those characters.

The film becomes reality. It becomes a hit.

So, lighting, along with the Production Design, creates the look.

And lighting is controlled by five factors.

What are these factors?

They are simple to state.

(1) Direction from which the light is coming

(2) Intensity of the light. You can call that brightness.

(3) Color of the light. More bluish, or yellowish?

(4) Hard or Soft. Does the light give hard, cut out shadows?

(5) Texture of the light. Is it uniform? Is it patchy?

It is easy to control each of these factors practically.

It is much more difficult to plan the controls so that a particular emotion is elicited.

We shall take up each of these, one by one.

And then we shall try to see them in different combinations, in practical situations, for each of the transitory states.

(to be continued)

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