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With Film Dead or Dying, Can You Still Get the 80s or 90s Wide Open Low Light Look?

Film is going the way of other elegant, exotic, but evolutionarily condemned creatures such as the Tasmanian Tiger, the Dodo bird, and the Macarena. Somehow chart the decline of film use against the rise of digital and you’ll hear a lot about ‘how to make digital look like film’ in your research. It’s almost an existential crisis for shooters of our transitional generation, and the heart of digital’s identity crisis. If film is the look of cinema, what’s the key ingredient? Resolution? Latitude — or worse, light response curve? Motion transfer? Color reproduction? Or should we just let “the digital look” evolve into its own beast altogether? That’s a lot of heavy questions for a Sunday afternoon read, but ones unavoidably raised by a post from Art Adams of Pro Video Coalition about the wide open lensed and low light look of ’80′s and ’90′s films.

Art’s post at PVC is wonderful because it focuses on something any shooter can get behind — the unique look of shooting wide open in low light on 35mm film. His focus is on an age approaching the most advanced and mature one celluloid technology will ever achieve in both design and development — the 1980s and ’90s. He highlights work by master DP Robby Muller (Mystery Train; Paris, Texas). I would extend the reach all the way to ’99′s Fight Club, which may be one of the last great examples of wide open ISO 500 night street shooting we have — before the ubiquity of the DI, quite importantly.

That said, Mystery Train still epitomizes the look to which Art refers. Here’s the trailer, unfortunately far from HD quality — for a higher quality and conveniently un-embeddable version, check out the film on Criterion Collection’s website.

Art’s post is a must-read for its articulate (and extensive) breakdown of this sort of lighting, and its interaction with the environment and therefore characters. Here’s a bit of the Filet mignon:

It’s also simpler to do what I call “volumetric lighting” at low light levels. In this style of lighting the “shape” of the light comes from proximity to the light: as an actor walks through a space they are lit by light bouncing off a tabletop, and then by a practical light source, and finally they stop in a doorway where they are lit by soft light from the next room. In each case the light isn’t projecting into the scene, but instead it is radiating through space in such a way that you can feel it interact with people as they move past the source.

Hard light has a certain character to it that can be very attractive but it doesn’t necessarily define space, other than through highlight and shadow, because you don’t know where the actor is in relation to the light. If an actor is lit by bounce light off a table then we get a sense of where the actor is in space relative to the table, because as soon as they walk away from the table the bounce light fades away.

I suspect that this style of lighting is going to come back into vogue simply because modern cameras are getting to be so fast that we can light with very small and very soft sources again. At ISO 800 I can light an interior so dimly that the monitor looks brighter than the scene does by eye. That’s when some wonderful things can happen, both because I can work quickly with smaller light sources but also because practicals in the frame actually do cool things to the people and the set. At the same time I can keep my T-stop at 2.8 or so, because shooting at a wider stop than that is just cruel to a focus puller.

Given how far sensors in the digital realm have come in terms of sensitivity, the tendency or even temptation to underlight is understandable, and furthermore, viable. In fact, low light performance has become a technical measuring stick in its own right. You surely remember Nocturne:

This is a key example of how the unique things working for digital can help it find its own identity in the hands of a crew with a vision. On the other hand, if your goal is to emulate the look and feel of a medium in which black was black and ISO 500 (pushed up to two stops in the bath) was the absolute limit of acceptable stock, the first step is to play by the old rules. Joe Marine would scold me for leaving out the importance of optics in achieving ‘the look,’ but I honestly think playing by the old rules is the biggest step in working toward it. Shooting for a film look at this point in the game (and depending on your camera) isn’t necessarily fighting the nature of the imaging system — it’s a matter of choice.

It may seem counter-intuitive or counter-productive to overlight these days — and if you find the look you achieve with an acceptable exposure the most pleasing, then your decision is simple. If what you’re after is something literally more ‘filmic,’ the answer is equally simple, though it may not be as easy. Light in every sense and way you can as though you’re building an exposure for low light 35mm, and you have the look — all that’s left is adjusting transmission (likely through filters), followed by gamma curve and color reproduction in post. After that, you just have to hope the motion transfer, noise structure, and resolution are close enough to fool the cinephiles.

Link: Low Light Levels and Wide-Open Lenses: the 80s/90s Look — ProVideo Coalition


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  • Interesting article. I well remember lighting issues encountered when shooting some model sequences for Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits circa 1980. The models required several carbon arc lights plus auxillaries and even then the shadows in the polystyrene/plaster models totally soaked up the light. Now it could be lite with a fraction of the light although whether we could have got away in the detail (and by association the low budget) because of today’s HD definition is debatable.

    • Dave Kendricken on 01.20.13 @ 5:51PM

      Great point Marc — I for one hope the growing ease of and access to computer graphics & animation doesn’t render modelwork totally extinct!

  • tony mallory III on 01.20.13 @ 6:13PM

    Digital will evolve into its own identity and perform as film can’t. The usual pattern during the transitional period between analog and digital is for digital to emulate analog…..initially.

    Music is a good example of that evolution. In the old days, people tried to use drum machines to replace people drummers. These days, digital drums do things the human specimen can’t do, e.g., play at 180bpm all night in perfect tempo! Conversely, those who prefer analog record to tape and press on vinyl, both which never died. Analog, however, is expensive and not very green, out of reach for many indies.

    Ultimately, I think Kodak will survive. Digital will take off into its own direction, going where film can’t. Want film? Shoot film if you can afford it, and it might be relegated to the elite crowd. Film and digital will co-exist.

  • This is how Kubrick/Alcott used to shoot. (How I tend to as well.) It’ll always be a specialty look for one simple reason: DPs like to light.

    • Kubrick still employed lots of lighting on his sets. Eyes wide shut was shot on 400asa film, the fastest stock he ever employed, and he still had lots of china balls around. Lighting is an art that won’t die because it’s not just about replicating reality, but being expressive. It’s just you might end up doing away bespoke fixtures and artfully place practicals. Here’s where the production designer and the lighting camera man get to collaborate very closely.

  • great article – thanks!!

  • Soosan Khanoom on 01.21.13 @ 2:28AM

    Shoot film you want to shoot film, shoot digital if you want to shoot digital.

    I just can not understand what the fxxk is the problem?

    • Problem is.. for the purists… that it’ll simply become too expensive to choose film for film-look instead of doing a digital emulation.

    • I very much like the look, but I hate everything else about it. I want film quality without the headaches, what the fxxk is your problem?

  • Back when I was a camera assistant I had the privilege of working with Robby Mueller. He is indeed a master. Most impressive thing I saw was a poor-man’s-process shot – the talent were on a plane and Robby set up mirrors outside the windows that were in shot so that when the camera saw outside the window you could see clouds slowly drifting by. So simple and so magical. He was also a wonderful guy and a terrific boss. One of the highlights of my time in the camera department.

    • Haha… I’ll remember that one.

      Usually when people talk about poor-mans-process-shot it’s to describe when shooting a car-scene with the car stationary and the background is just pure black while the assistant bumps the car occasionally.

      • Reminds me btw of how they would shoot helicopter-scenes by just having the rotors turn on idle and put the camera on the ground pointing up so there’s only sky in the background. (best way to gauge if they actually were flying is to look for scenes where the camera is with the helicopter with camera-angles pointing down)

        • Poor-man’s-process is awesome. It looks so frickin’ hokey when you’re doing it on set with grips bumping the vehicles, lamp ops swinging lights over the vehicle on c-stand arms and props people spritzing the windshield with fake rain etc. but add a few sound fx and voila! Movie magic! Nothing beats selling illusions like that in a totally practical manner on set with zero cgi work. :)

  • One of the problems I have with current digital sensors (and I seem to be one of only a few who cares) in lowlight situations is the way they handle red traffic and car brake lights or red LEDs. In almost every situation, film renders those things as a true red or red with a yellowish orange center. Digital, on the other hand, renders those lights as white with a pink halo. You can clearly see this in the poster frame for “Nocturne” on this page. It’s a dead giveaway that you’re watching digital, regardless of how you light the scene otherwise.

    Digital also does this with other colored light sources as well. Green and amber traffic lights are white with a green or yellow halo, respectively. Neon signs, if they’re bright enough, are white with whatever color halo the light actually is. If the narrative or an important plot point of your film relied on the red color of a traffic light (for example), you’d be screwed unless you had permission (local film office involvement) and the qualified personnel (larger crew) to gel the lights or perform replacements/enhancements in post. Both options are doable but also a pain in the arse you didn’t have to worry about with film.

    Perhaps newer sensors will be able to hold the color better in the brightest areas of a colored light source.

    • I totally agree with you Brian!

      Maybe it’s because I’ve shot tons of stills at night with 35mm film… but I can never get neon or traffic lights to expose as I see them. My longtime goal is to capture traffic lights at twilight and dusk as my eye sees them.

    • It will, it will, i saw some specs for the new Dragon sensor and it should fix that issue permanently,
      the digital is still evolving but already you can see some amazing things we could not do just a few years ago.
      I love the look and feel of Film, and all the processes involved in making this magic appear on the big screen,
      but i don’t hate digital, it’s just a different choice, if the movie does not scream for a Film approach or look, then just embrace the digital, it can give you things you would never imagine.

  • on 01.21.13 @ 10:27AM

    I remember my first exposure to volumetric lighting in my studies. It was the basement scene in “Peggy Sue Got Married” where the key light was supposed to be the moon and her boyfriend was wearing a white shirt. As he got closer to her in the space (and therefore closer to the “moon”), his shirt illuminated her face.

  • Volumetric lighting has to be one of the most stupid terms I’ve heard used to describe lighting with low foot candles, I’d really be talking more about pools of light and the inverse square law

  • Clark Nikolai on 01.21.13 @ 1:20PM

    The discussion on whether to make video behave like film or to let it’s natural attributes become the new look of drama has been going on since at least the 1980s. In those days there was “Video Art” and there was “Cinema” and they were different worlds but there was overlap with some people who were using (analog) video to make narrative drama. At the time some didn’t like the look of it while others didn’t even notice. Now that video technology has met film in quality we look back at those old videos and see it as a valid look in it’s own way.
    I remember in the early ’90s when video technology was getting better, some said that 24 fps is for drama and 19.97 is for live action and documentary. Others countered that saying that young people don’t have those associations and can watch any frame rate for anything.

    One of my recent experimental shorts was done in HDV. My aesthetic reference was 1960s experimental film so I was going to add a film grain filter and make it black and white in post. I was picking out which amount of grain and grain size when another filmmaker friend said “Why not just let it be what it is? It’s an experimental 21st century HDV film”. You know, he was right. I left the original look of it, complete with that bluish tint that the cheap white LED light sources I was using had and I now love it. In a way I was telling myself that I was not as valid as someone in the past. They were real and I was faking it. I now disagree. We are both real using what we can get our hands on at the time in history that we live in.

  • I don’t know about you guys. But I have shot a lot on film. And honestly nowadays when I look at digital vs. film. I think that the digital image looks better and nicer. Film looks “old” to me and I would never shoot on film again.
    Out of all Cameras nowadays I think that the Arri Alexa looks closest to the “film look” and then the “Red One MX”. With the EPIC you have to do a lot of post to get it to look filmic and not so digital….

    • Alexa looks more filmic, because of the better latitude. It’s a bit harder on Red, but not nearly as “a lot of post work” as you think.

      • Natt do you care to share roughly what that process(making red 1 mx look filmic) entails, id love to here your thoughts…

  • Not everything… not yet.

  • Great article

  • To be honest I am not impressed by Vincent in any real sense. I think that he pulls of really good work. Yet, I find his eye for lighting and the way he colors to feel plastic. As if we are watching an ad shot on a poor canon.

    This is simply a view on him.

    In terms of low light “film” look and/or feel You should look and watch the films that are digital. Watch how they utilize their digital camera. DSLR films tend to just bug me. So most films shot with a RED One were okay. Soderbergh seems to have a handle on it.

    What I don’t like are TIGHT shots. Yes be tight, but why for a dramatic effect are you fucking using a 85mm or something like that. Did you not see Leon? One of the best shots in that film is when Gary Oldman turns around. Um 25mm or 35mm. Did that shot not make squirm? I did. And why? because the feel of the shot felt claustrophobic. Today I seem the same shot, but the depth of field is lost. We have guy’s/girl’s head looking and I feel like it’s a damn romantic shot. Get back to the psychology of a shot and the importance that fucking image.

    Ignore my swearing. I just am not a fan of current cinematography these days. Rather turned off. Hell I did a shot for film and really pushed how far light can be utilized. Phew it looked classic noir. I’ll try and post it somewhere one of these days.

    Okay I’m going on. In short. Good article, but not a good example of digital.

    I’d pick this one instead. It’s a still from Fincher’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.×250.jpg

    For a film choice look at this. From The Conformist.

    Just look at how these two control their image. Today’s work lacks this.

    But then again I’m a rather opinionated person.

  • Pierre Samuel Rioux on 01.27.13 @ 2:33AM

    I never like this look in the 80′s full open and no beep of field focus and only a group of filmmaker running after this. Like today running about shooting at low light.Film user try to imitate TV and videomaker try to imitate film.
    You have no end on this.
    Stanly Kubrick in Barry Lindon he work in low light for the propose of this film period and he do not do this in all his film. In film i have a ratio of 3feet on 5 ft shot, some documentaries filmmaker around me shot 60 to 130 hrs
    to do a 45 minute documentaries ? A lot of work for a editor to trim all this…

  • It’s 2013. I don’t want anything I shoot in this HIGH-DEFINITION DIGITAL era to “look like film” or look like something that was done in the 80s and 90s.