BILL TALKS SHOP In Taiwan's Leading Film & Video Magazine (ENGLISH TRANSLATION)
January 4, 2015
Can you give us an introduction of yourself?
I am a working cinematographer, lighting designer and educator. I've been lighting and shooting broadcast, corporate and documentary programming for over 30 years, for clients such as Marriott Resorts, National Geographic, ESPN, CNN, Four Seasons, Mercedes-Benz, Infinity, Conservation International, and for numerous television networks throughout the world. I recently completed work on two National Geographic documentaries, “The Fellowship of the Whales”, and “Collapse”, based on the book by Jared Diamond, and a feature film that is currently in post production.
Why did you choose to do lighting?
I worked with a very talented photographic educator, Dean Collins, in the mid-1980s and his influence on my work led me to study lighting in film & television for the rest of my career.
What do you like about teaching?
Teaching is hard work, but the times when a student really connects - and really understands the importance of lighting & mood in visual imagery - makes all of the hard work so very worthwhile for me. I feel very lucky to be sharing the information that I now have and possibly influencing a generation of image makers.
When you are teaching, what are the most common problems/questions that students had encounter?
Lighting for images can be a complex subject with so many variables. Many students and beginning professionals hope for a simple answer for their projects. A question like, "I have a studio - what lights should I buy and how should I light it?", just cannot be answered without some information. There are so many questions that need to be answered in order to design studio lighting - there are no concrete answers to anything in the lighting business.
Why is lighting important? How can it help during the production?
Lighting is probably the single factor that can increase production value instantly - without need more time or money. There is a big difference between "illumination" and "lighting". Illumination is just adding volume - more light to able to capture an image with a camera.
But lighting is the craft of adding shape, form, mood, texture, shadow and highlight. Good lighting can help to make a person look amazing or even scary on-camera, as well provide a mood to an image to help to tell a story for a production.
Whether it's for digital production or animation, the image and mood are shaped by lighting. But, it's extremely important to understand that there is no wrong in lighting ... if your client or director is happy, then your are right for that day of work!
What are the differences between lighting a film set, news broadcast, documentary and interview?
(Wow - big question!) Lighting for multi-camera news, an interview, documentary or narrative film are very different processes. For news, I believe you are creating a product for the network - an image that adds to their brand.
My first priority when lighting news is to make sure that the talent looks good in their close-ups - otherwise you will hear nothing but complaints from the talent every day. After that, the lighting of the news set and everything else is what I call "eye candy" for the viewer. But multi-camera lighting can be complex due to the different camera angles and close-ups for each talent.
Lighting for interviews in just about making the person comfortable on-camera, bringing out their best, and then setting a mood for the interview by controlling contrast and how you light the background.
Documentary work is a constant struggle between trying not to change or affect the scene that you are recording, while also using your lights to create a realistic mood on camera. You are less worried about making the person look their best and more concerned with making it feel real - for both the subject and the audience.
Lighting for narrative film is normally all about serving the storyline - for instance, lighting for a horror film and a comedy can require very different lighting tools and different approaches to the shaping an image. Often the location dictates what you need to do with your lighting. A great location can need very little additional lighting, while an enormous studio set can require hundreds of instruments. Again, it all depends on the mood and look you are going for. Budget can also greatly affect how your light a film - without a budget you need to be very crafty and work with the existing light for many of your locations.
What are the basic's of lighting?
3-point lighting is a term that is always thrown around in our business, but really that is only a rudimentary staring point for beginning to understand lighting. I was schooled on the physics of light, shadow and highlight control ... so I tend to teach in a very different style than many others.
I like to have my students understand some basic physics first, and then apply that information to lighting different scenes and moods. The physics tends to break down the "black magic" that most people fear about lighting, and it allows them to better understand just how to get their production to look the way they hope.
How do you create mood using lighting? For example morning or night time office what material or equipment do you use in order to achieve the mood?
For a mood to look realistic on film or digital media, the proper quality of light must be used in order for the audience to buy into the scene. It's important for a student to first study what the light in those situations really looks like.
For instance, what does the light in your kitchen look like in the early morning? Once you really "see" how the sunlight enters and room in the early morning, then you can begin to dissect which types of lights might help you to recreate that feeling on-camera.
For morning, it usually a mix of hard light coming in through windows with plenty of soft fill light in the room. For evening, practical sources (lamps, sconces, windows) become important. For the night mood, we often use pools of hard and soft light, with very little fill light in the room. But there is no "right technique" here - it's all about how the image feels.
Do the tools matter? What kind of tools do you use? Why did you choose it? And what difference does it make?
I wish I could say that tools do not make a difference, but they are important in shaping light and getting the right feel or mood for the scene. I tend to use a lot of softer light on faces, and then harder, more dramatic lighting on backgrounds and for accents.
For softer light, I like Kino Flo fluorescent lighting and their new LED lights. I use a lot of Chimera Lightbanks (soft boxes) for lighting faces, and I use Arri lights for hard tungsten lights and HMIs (daylight sources). These are manufacturers that I trust and I have great success with their gear for many years.
Everyone has their own set of tools for lighting - their own palette if you will - and I believe it's important to use the tools that you are most comfortable with and that can allow you to work quickly with great results.
The camera light sensitivity - how will it affect lighting? How do you test it out which camera is more sensitive to light?
Digital cameras today have become so incredibly light sensitive - almost too much for my taste. It can be great if you are shooting available light for a documentary on a street at night, but it can be problematic for other types of work.
The control of depth-of-field (depth of focus) is very important for me, and having a camera that is overly light sensitive can make lighting a scene a bit difficult if you are used to the older cameras of the past 30+ years.
Basically, the newer, more light sensitive cameras allow you to shoot with less light, but that does not necessarily mean that you don't have to light. It just means that you can use a 300 watt light where you used to use a 1,000 watt light.
From your past experience what was the most difficult scene you have had to light? What sort of tools were you given to work with?
Probably the most difficult lighting job I have had to do was a 12,000 seat auditorium for a live speaker and live musicians, all done for video recording with giant I-Mag screens above the stage.
I didn't have any experience with that sort of lighting at the time, and the client wanted a very different look on stage, so there was a lot of pressure to make it look great.
It worked out great, but I was a bit nervous before I hung that first light. We used mostly Source-4s and 1kw pars for the crowd, and I mixed in some Kino Flos for the on-stage talent for a different look.
What are the difference between lighting in a normal scene and lighting in Green screen? What are things you need to watch out for?
Lighting for green/blue screen is generally pretty easy, unless you the talent is walking on the green surface and you are shooting head-to-toe (full body).
For tight shots on green screen, you just need to light the key surface very evenly, and be sure to keep the talent as far from the green surface as your frame allows.
A common mistake is to have the talent touch the green wall (i.e. a news weather person). When working close to the green, the green color will bounce onto the talent's skin and create problems with the key.
Depending on the size and needs for the green screen job, I will often light the green with Kino Flos or Space Lights, and then light the talent with whatever tools I need to create whatever mood or look is appropriate.
Can you give some words of encouragement to students who wish to enter this part of industry?
Young people who want to get into this business have an amazing opportunity right now. Never before could you shoot a concept or film during the day and have it online for the world to see by the same evening.
With the internet, you can have an instant audience for your work - which was never the case when I was starting out.
I think there are a few keys to making it in this business...
Be on time. Always be on time or early.
Pay your dues. Students want to get out of school today and direct films, but there is so much to know about making a successful film or have a successful shoot - you just can't possible know enough right out of school. Expose yourself to the many different jobs on set and take the time to understand how each job is important in making it all work on set. Work for free if you have to, but get on set and watch those who know.
Never give up. There are SO many people who want to work in this business, so you have to work hard and be very resourceful to succeed. Keep trying, continue to experiment, study films, etc. This business has a way of weeding out those who don't want to work hard, so give it your all every day.
Learn to communicate effectively. This is ultimately a people business, so your communication skills are critical when working with clients, talent and other crew members. FIlmmaking is a group effort, so you must be able to communicate your ideas to other and play nice in the workplace. It's all about who you know, and who knows you.