Mimic the Movie Masters
STEVEN SPIELBERG – Part TWO
Welcome back to Part TWO of my study of Mr. Spielberg; if you haven’t read Part ONE, I’d strongly recommend it if you’re interested in his signature “Push In”. The idea of this series is to give you, the filmmakers, more tools at your disposal, to further improve your work and help take it to the next level. I am going to highlight certain director’s individual cinematic signature shooting styles, so you can understand and apply these master techniques to your own independent movies. But anyway, enough of that, you’re here to read Part TWO. So let’s get on with it!
Spielberg has often said in interviews that he is very active from a cinematography point of view. Making decisions on every shot regarding the lenses and positioning of the camera, he weaves a majestic dance between subject and camera, that we’ll go on to talk about in another post, but what about lighting?
Cinematographers, Douglas Slocombe and Allen Daviau have had their fair share of collaborations with Spielberg but his collaboration with Cinematographer, Janusz Kamiński, has been a long and faithful one. Starting in 1993 on Schindler’s list, he has become a permanent collaborator on all his films since. What hasn’t changed across the various cinematographers however is Spielberg’s preferred lighting style.
Generally there are two schools of thought about film lighting:
One: it should look naturalistic and real.
The Other: that lighting should throw caution to the wind and be designed for dramatic effect.
Cinematographers across the globe have been at loggerheads about this one for years; personally I think it’s a storm in a tea cup (sorry I’m a Brit!), as it really does depend on the script.
But Spielberg is a big fan of creative, expressive lighting and in particular of hard, heavy backlight (and for what it’s worth I love it too!). There are obviously exceptions to this rule, so don’t take it as gospel.
Kiminski on Backlight:
“You get criticism for that kind of lighting and you get prizes for that kind of lighting, Some people say, ‘Enough of this, move on,’ but I like it! Light is life, and for me, the presence of light is essential…. I love backlight not just for the sake of glamorizing [the subject], but because the direction of the light can represent storytelling. I don’t do backlights and then also add key lights and all these things — if I do backlight, I want to see that backlight. That’s my style, and that’s the way we’ve done it in every single movie.” – Venture.com
Whether it’s the intense orange light of a landing, alien spacecraft, piercing through the kitchen window slats, backlighting an innocent child in Close Encounters, the fingers of afternoon sunlight piercing through the picturesque windows of a smoke filled Oval Office in Lincoln, or the contrasty, tense bloom in Minority Report, you can guarantee that you’ll find Spielberg’s signature backlight in virtually every film he’s ever made.
So, why not try it in your own movies? Use heavy backlight to increase production values and create tension or atmosphere. Tension like in Close Encounters: a blinding orange back light makes it’s pretty clear there’s something alien and unfamiliar on the other side of that kitchen door! Or mood and atmosphere like in Lincoln: backlight is used to enhance the sense of grandeur and power of the Oval Office.
How You Can Achieve It:
OK you may not have huge lamps, at your fingertips (I certainly hope not anyway, it sounds painful!). You may not be able to set them up, burning outside the windows, but you could achieve a similar effect more locally if you’re lacking the equipment.
Check out my two blogs on How To Film Without Lights Interior and Exterior, for some ideas on how to make use of practical, every day lamps and lighting fixtures inside, or outside, how to utilise the biggest lamp of them all… the Sun! Directors like Michael Bay, often shoot at Magic Hour, that special time when the sun is setting, specifically to make use of that gorgeous, strong, orange backlight. I’ve also got a few blogs on 3 Point Lighting, Lighting Basics and How to Make Your Subject Look Good.
Whatever the case avoid at all costs flat boring light that just illuminates… it’s wishy, washy, it’s weak and it’s boring. Film is a visual medium and whether you’re going for a more naturalistic look or a more creative look, make sure it’s a feast for the eyes!… Otherwise I’ll track you down and bash you over the head with my light meter… Only kidding I’d never put my light meter in such jeopardy!
As Kiminski puts it: “You work in metaphors through lights and composition, and the worst thing for me is to see a movie that doesn’t have that. You see a cinematographer’s work and there are no visual metaphors, or they are so afraid to create a style that it just becomes this nothing.”
Be aware of your equipment’s limitations: if you’re shooting video or digital, play close attention to the latitude of your camera. That is to say, how well it can handle contrast. Film and modern digital cinema cameras, have great latitude, which enables cinematographers to really push and pull the light and dark within their image. On lower budgets however, just make sure you’re not creating havoc in your grade. Remember, you can always enhance that backlight in post if it’s strong enough; but if it’s too strong, it’ll be hard to pull it back.
Add a bit of smoke/fog: Janusz Kamiński loves smoke. It gives the light a medium to “show up in”, if that makes sense. Giving you shafts, beams and a bloom that is instantly recognisable as a Spielbergian feel.
Anyway, there you have it…
That’s part two, I hope you enjoyed it! What do you think of Spielberg and lighting? Let me know in the comments.
Below I’ve pasted a great video interview with Janusz Kiminski, by Kodak. You’ll also probably be very interested in this post, by Vulture.com, called “How Steven Spielberg’s Cinematographer Got These Eleven Shots”, it’s a great read!
For now, take care, get in touch and thanks for reading!
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