July 23, 2013

Recreating the Shot: a Lesson in Lighting Through 'Blade Runner'

You can learn a tremendous amount by simply watching great films -- paying attention to the details, breaking down a scene, concentrating on how elements come together. But if you really want to start making movies, learning a specific cinematic craft, it's not enough. You have to get hands on.  It was with this in mind that I found myself increasingly intrigued with the idea of taking a compelling shot from a movie and seeing what could be learned by attempting to recreate the lighting as a cinematography exercise. I reached out to the very talented DP Seth Iliff, and asked him if he’d be up for the challenge. Despite our lack of budget and limited time he jumped into it with gusto. I got to witness the process first hand -- here's what I learned:

 The Shot

As a fan of film noir’s heavily stylized approach to lighting, I knew I wanted us to do a shot from a film that was either classic film noir, or used the conventions of noir’s expressionistic lighting -- Blade Runner fit the latter bill beautifully. Keeping in mind our time, space and equipment constraints for the exercise, I looked for a shot that was not only beautiful, but hopefully doable with what we had on hand. With that in mind, we quickly settled on the replicant interview scene with Rachael (played by Sean Young), and specifically, the close up shot of her as can be seen from :03-:07 in the following clip:

Reverse Engineering the Lighting

So we had our shot, now what? This is where Seth Iliff took over the show.  As a DP, Seth has been challenged to create beautiful imagery for a variety of projects -- from commercials to independent films, from corporate videos to documentaries -- check out a sampling of his work on his website.

A big part of his skill set is understanding what the client/director wants and achieving it with the tools and budget at hand.  When I arrived at the shoot, Seth was already  busy setting up while directing a crew of two.  Light stands were at ready, equipment was in various states of prep, and Seth had even constructed a prop to imitate the chair back, not to mention our "Rachael" stand-in was patiently waiting in full costume, hair and make-up.  As he moved around the set/living room I asked him to walk me through the process--

E.M.: So, let's start from the top.  We found the shot we wanted to recreate, where do you start?

Printed out screenshots from scene

Seth: First plan of attack was grabbing the Blu-ray, checking out the scene, taking screenshots from the whole scene in addition to just the single shot we are trying to recreate. Right off the bat, the challenge is to create the illusion of a big space in a small space, because the set they were working on was quite large. Then I start the process of reverse engineering the lighting by looking at our actress Sean Young in the scene.

E.M.: Which light element stands out to you?
Seth: Our strongest, our brightest exposure in the scene, is the rim light that comes across the camera-left side of her face. The direction of it, we determined, was relatively eye level and a little bit low, and it was coming from kind of a quarter back, a quarter to the side of her back.

E.M.: Now, how exactly did you make that call?

Rim light — Arri 650 watt light with 250 diffusion, positioned behind our actress, camera-left

Seth: You know, as you work with light you kind of begin to understand how light strikes a face, roughly where the light is going to come from. […] You can reverse engineer the position [of the lights] by just kind of looking at subtle cues on the face -- how far it reaches under the chin, does it reach under the chin at all?

The second thing you need to take into account is the quality of the light. So what we noticed with the strongest light in the scene is that it has a diffusion to it -- it is diffuse because it does start to wrap around the face -- it also doesn't create harsh shadows within the part of the face in which it is actually striking.

So we determined that it is relatively diffuse -- once we get our actress in here we will double-check it against the still, make sure that it's roughly the same quality of light.

E.M.: Ok, what’s next?
Seth: Other units that are playing in the scene are the slight gradient in the background, a kind of horizontal patch of light which we have recreated with some Kinos and some pretty heavy diffusion, 250 I believe.

Our fill light is from a quarter off of the camera-left side of her face towards the front. It's very low luminance and the quality of the light is extremely soft.  Really the only way to create that soft quality is by creating a book light.

Book light created by bouncing light off cream-colored board and back through diffusion

E.M: How did you create the book light, and how did you decide where to put it?
Seth: We created a book light by shooting into a creamy colored bounce board and back through some 250 diffusion. We determined the position of that light, [by observing that] just as it strikes her face, you get a little bit of a triangle on the shadow side of her face -- you get a little triangle under the eye and that helps you determine which direction that light is coming from.

E.M.: Now, I see you have a light up above her, what’s that going to provide?

Seth: We have a little bit of rim light coming down on her shadow-side shoulder, we decided to create a little kicker from above to help outline her shoulder. The costume is black, the chair is roughly black, so what the cinematographer is doing there is making sure that the audience can separate her figure from the background chair. All this being noir, you are working with blacks and dark greys and very, very dark tones. So it's important for the DP to make sure that everything is separated, even though everything falls off into black.

E.M: Now for the china ball -- what are you going for with that?

Overhead kicker

Seth: The last light element of the scene is the eye light. What Ridley Scott was doing there was creating an in-camera trick to cue the audience that she is a replicant, and we've recreated that by using a very low wattage china ball.

This is probably the hardest part of what we are doing because they were probably working with a really large source, a little bit farther back in the background so they could essentially achieve a big glowing mass without casting any light onto her face. We're challenged in re-creating that because we have a much smaller object to work with in terms of her eye light and we have to place it relatively close to fill her eye with the actual object, so it may cause some light. That's gonna be the hardest part of recreating the scene.

The Gear

I figure this is as good a moment as any other to pause and go over the equipment used during the shoot.  Seth shot on a Panasonic GH3.  He used a longer lens (85mm) to replicate the depth of field in the original image (although the precise lens length was difficult to determine with certainty from the stills).  Aperture was kept at a T-stop of 2, as this is close to the sweet spot for the Rokinon lens being used, and shutter speed was 1/50.  For more details as to the gear and settings, check out the list below:

Camera

  • Panasonic GH3 (1080p; All-Intra codec; custom "Vivid" setting)

Rig

BRCameraRig

Lights

  • Arri Softbank Kit (2 650's, 300, 750)
  • 2 Kinoflo Diva Units

Sound

  • Zoom H4n

Results

Once our remarkably Sean Young-like actress sat down, Seth made final adjustments to the lighting and atmosphere -- cigarette smoke was blown, lights were dimmed or moved closer as needed, a stray hair or two were fixed in place -- and the image was shot.

So how did it come out?  See for yourself!

Here's an instructive video Seth provided showing how each light element adds to the image (the color has been desaturated to emphasize the lighting):

Here's the video pre- and post- color correction:

And the final image, post color correction:

What Did I Learn?

A powerful image, a subtle image, a compelling image -- skillful lighting accomplishes all of that and more.  It's always a thrill for me to watch the process of shaping and molding the image on set, and this was no exception. I haven't had as much hands on lighting experience as I would like, so any chance I get to do it myself, or, as in this case, watch someone far more skilled and experienced do it, it's a treat!

I must say we came up with a beautiful image in its own right, and one that compares favorably to the original.  While the most important aspect of the shoot was the lighting process, I was incredibly pleased with the final result.

In terms of what I learned, I got a better grasp on how one can determine the position of a light based on shadows being cast on the face, as well as identifying the quality of a given light source based on how the light "wraps" itself around an object.  You have to really study the light, and understand how the light affects your subject along with your perception of the subject -- that's definitely something that comes with practice, as I found myself continually surprised by how slight adjustments morphed the vibe of the image.

China ball placed in front and above "Rachael" (overhead kicker and horizontal light can be seen in background)

Beyond the physical aspect of the light, seeing how a strategically placed light can help objects pop out more (i.e the overhead kicker) was equally enlightening. It was great to be able to look at the original image, and "see" how each light element is paralleled in our reproduction and how it helps build up the final image.  For me, the reverse-engineering process was a great way to understand how lighting comes together and how I can use those underlying principles to create my own original images.

Now, was it an exact reproduction?  No. Beyond more obvious limitations such as shooting on video vs film, working within a confined space vs a large one, there were technical details that if were to re-do the shoot we could probably resolve.  Could we have gotten closer?  Seth sent along some thoughts about what could have been done differently afterwards.  Key issues he identified:

Warmth of image

The reference material we used during the shoot -- the printed out screenshots -- ended up being a lot warmer than the original footage.  Seth pointed out:

I should've just had the Blu-Ray pulled up on the best monitor I could find for reference. I got too far away from the source material. This resulted in an image that was far too warm.  And because I was working with color temp that's baked in (Panasonic GH3) it proved difficult to get the image back to what it should've been.

If we'd caught this on-set, it would have been a relatively easy fix to adjust the white balance to something closer to the original footage.

Key light

Seth explained that the key light in the original was probably not quite as diffuse as ours, and it was also probably much stronger "It's nuclear when she blows out smoke in the scene. My guess would be that it's a 4k that's sitting a good ways away from the actress."

Lens length

The lens used [for the original] was longer than I initially thought. I was using an 85mm on a m4/3 sensor, and I needed something even longer. I suspect they were using over an 100mm lens (Super35mm film), but I can't say for sure.

Atmosphere

I regretted [...] not tracking down a fogger in time for the shoot. I really needed that atmosphere to sit there during the entire shot. You can tell with the cigarette smoke that the scene has a balance of blue light and warm skin tones, but when the smoke isn't present, the blue tones are gone.

Conclusions

This was an incredibly informative and rewarding exercise.  It goes to show that lighting principles are lighting principles, and that whether you have a crew of dozens and a Hollywood budget behind you, or a skeleton crew, Arri Softbank kit and a Panasonic GH3, you can create beautiful imagery if you understand lighting.

Again, huge thanks to Seth Iliff who was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge, in addition to the good folks at Aren't We Clever who provided help and equipment, along with our lovely Sean Young stand-in, Rebecca Abraham, who also did her own hair and make-up!

Do you have a shot you'd want to try to recreate?  Have you ever tried a similar exercise?  Do you have any questions about the set up we used?  Feel free to ask and share below!

Your Comment

100 Comments

It's incredible that 30 years ago, with old technology and no color correction, the scene was so much better than this!
But it's a nice experiment. The actress is very similar with Rachel...

July 23, 2013

2
Reply
fg

Agreed!! That's what 35mm film, cinema glass and millions of dollars for production get you. And to be fair, none of those elements are "old" technology. 35mm film from the early 80s still resolves/scans at around 8k lines of resolution. Alexa, what?!? And the lenses he put in front of that celluloid? Forget about it. Quarter million dollar glass at least. I only mean to highlight that people today misunderstand what current technology gets us. It's not "better" per se... it's really just smaller, lighter, and a little less expensive. All other aspects of film production are almost exactly the same, and HAVE TO remain the same to have a high production value "look". Spend lots of money wisely, and you get a very beautiful look.
Thanks for the read fg!

July 23, 2013

0
Reply

What are you talking about? This is not a multi-million dollar shot. I feel that you can more closely simulate this shot than what is shown in this example (although it still looks great).

You don't need a ton of money to create compelling light and composition. There are many ways to achieve a look.

Money can get you proven talent and amazing sets, but you certainly don't need millions of dollars to achieve this one shot.

July 23, 2013

-1
Reply

J- agreed again! I wasn't defending myself regarding the exercise, just highlighting the fact that "old" technology isn't really relevant to why Blade Runner looks so spectacular. The camera and lenses are still only a small part of big film production (which requires money to bring all the elements together on screen). Hope that explanation is more clear.

July 23, 2013

0
Reply

Agreed, this has nothing to do with budget. The lighting in the recreation is too even, too low-ratio, compared to the original shot. All that fill is unnecessary.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply
Dan

Agreed. The original shot had very little fill compared to this. There's also a bit too much desaturation happening in post. All of the red in her lips is lost.

The pre-graded version looks very red, which to me says the shot wasn't properly white-balanced. If I were to try this, I would go with a profile other than vivid (Does the GH3 have "nostalgia"?), and make sure I used a card to white-balance. That would at least give you a good starting point for achieving a matching look.

All that said, it's still a great look at how someone might re-create a shot like this, and I'd love to see more posts on NFS where DPs walk you through their process.

July 23, 2013

-1
Reply

Agreed. take the panavision camera and crew aside, a 35mm stils camera with a few lights could get you the same effect. Even Jordan Cronenwearth, the DP for Blade Runner, was known to make some of his own gear from scratch and devised what's considered the first softbox in the film industry nicknamed the "crony crone" by his crew that was basically made by foamcore and some gell.

July 23, 2013

-2
Reply
Sunny16

Agreed. take the panavision camera and crew aside, a 35mm stils camera with a few lights could get you the same effect. Even Jordan Cronenwearth, the DP for Blade Runner, was known to make some of his own gear from scratch and devised what's considered the first softbox in the film industry nicknamed the "crony crone" by his crew.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply
Sunny16

Agreed. I just wanted to say "agreed".

July 24, 2013

0
Reply
Voltaire

> 35mm film from the early 80s still resolves/scans at around 8k lines of resolution

Hahahaha, what? 35mm with the best glass barely resolves 4K, you must be thinking about full frame vistavision or tripping balls.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply
Natt

Natt- Go to any post house (like Fotokem) in Hollywood and tell them that. See what they say.

July 23, 2013

-3
Reply

8K? I don't believe that. Not 35mm. It's probably closer to 4k. IMAX? Easily.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply
Mike

Yeah maybe MAYBE the negative has that amount resolution but that's going to get lost and degraded down the line.

July 23, 2013

-1
Reply
Grant

They may say you all kinds off stuff but reality is...that 35mm is barely 4k detailwise. Offcourse you can scan it at 16k if you want to.

July 25, 2013

0
Reply

Okay, after some inquires from professionals must say that regarding the 8K comment... it's inaccurate. An 8K digital scan of 35mm film would adequately capture all the information on the negative. However, film resolution (not digital) is a a conversation that involves grain structure and density, slower stocks having better and more respectively. The image is also largely affected by the optics, with older optics more significantly lowering the optimum ability of resolution. Film "resolves" at somewhere in between 4-6K, depending on the age and speed of the stock.

July 23, 2013

0
Reply

Agreed 100%.

July 23, 2013

2
Reply
Mike

Seth, you got a great character... well done for that. [Re: 8K - 4-6K]

July 24, 2013

1
Reply
Frank

Seth, you should have given the chick a bong (for the smoke effect only!).

Oh, and to me, the original (on YouTube) looks warmer.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply
DLD

Haha! A bong might've done the trick! I think you may be right about that regarding the warmth of the image. I really just needed the Blu-Ray playing on a calibrated monitor to match it... or Cronenweth standing next to me. :)

July 23, 2013

0
Reply

He He. Great Seth! This is what happen to try emulate "Blade Runner" :-)
Sorry, I don't think think to raise this fuss... But I love your humity in all the posts. You'll make your way far!
No one noted that the Scott's version is "Teal and Orange"? :-)

July 24, 2013

0
Reply
fg

Sorry guy, but no matter how much the lens used in the original Blade Runner cut of this scene cost(-ed back then) does it hold up to even kit lenses in some areas -the chromatic aberation is insane in the shot they chose to replicate (pun intended).

Thy did a great job for modern standards.
If there is any bone to pick, it would be with the decision to change the ratios and post-process -both of which are pretty far off from the original if attempting a 100% duplicate.

October 27, 2014

0
Reply

What do you mean by "...no color correction... " There was "color correction" before the age of digital (sighs and shakes head).

July 23, 2013

1
Reply
c.d.embrey

I assume you are talking about colour filters and cross-processing? You can achieve amazing effects with those techniques, but the it is by no means the same as a modern digital colourgrading process, it it?

July 23, 2013

-1
Reply
Heiko

Color grading isn't the same thing as color correction. You're talking about secondaries.

July 23, 2013

-1
Reply
Gabe

_"I assume you are talking about colour filters and cross-processing?"_

NO I'M NOT!!! I'm talking about Printer Lights. Educate yourself on how the dinosaurs did color timing on motion picture film way back in 1,000,000 BC 8-) http://stason.org/TULARC/movies/production/6-4-What-is-timing-color-timi...

July 23, 2013

-2
Reply
c.d.embrey

Download this PDF http://motion.kodak.com/motion/uploadedFiles/US_plugins_acrobat_en_motio...

Read sections "Film Timing" and "Printing" for a good explanation color correction for movies shot on film and the printing of release prints.

July 23, 2013

-2
Reply
c.d.embrey

needs more xenon

July 23, 2013

0
Reply
eric

You should push the eye level and bring the china ball away from her or just bounce the booklight a little bit. The image needs more contrast (to fit the original).
But this is still very good !

July 23, 2013

1
Reply
jones

It looks like a single light, using two bounces, one on the left side of the camera and another double bouncing on the right side of the camera. There is a smalle kick on her right side, probably an MR16 or equivalent.

The Blue tone on the smoke could be a gel which is used for the light that hits the bounce board. A magic mistake.

The bounce board is probably what is giving you that irregular shaped eye light as well.

That's how I would have done it. ; )

July 23, 2013

1
Reply
Glenn Dicus

I realized this after it was all done, unfortunately. Even if I would've tried that, however, I wouldn't have had the physical space to do it. The dimensions of my house are very narrow and I had to fight to even get the key in roughly the right angle. It was one of the great learning points of this exercise.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply

If my mind doesn't play tricks upon me this shot was discussed in the american cinematographer a few years ago. If I'm not mistaken this shot was composed with a single light source and some bounce and of course"smoke was used". In the interview the cinematorgrapher (Cronenweth) was so fond of this setup because of its simplicity, just a single source and some bounce.

July 23, 2013

-1
Reply
gee

Yes! So,some else remembers this! Back in the '90's when I was in film school I tracked down that issue and Cronenweth talked about that shot specifically.

I can't remember the details, but I remember him talking about how it's necessary to backlight smoke (& rain), and that they were pretty pleased with the way the scene turned out with the extreme backlight because the smoke just lit up when she exhaled.

I'm forgetting now, but I seem to remember the article talking about the 45° angle on the glass for the replicant eyes.

August 10, 2013

0
Reply
Daniel Mimura

You can tell in the original that they used a diffusion filter, something like the black mist. Tons of DPs to this day still use filters. The way that light glows on her face is pointing me in that direction. I'm pretty sure they lit her with one light. After being on set as a grip, I've gotten used to seeing what an HMI looks like. Either that, or they used a single 2500k tungsten with half or full blue, just to the side of her face. If you notice, there isn't a rim, or any light on the right of screen other than what is being cast on her face. They boxed that light in on her right cheek. The background is using the same color. Sometimes on these shoots, the less they use, the better. Think about it, if you could use one to two lights per shot, you're saving money on film, and can break down and move faster to the next shot. They probably shot that whole scene in half a day or faster.

July 23, 2013

-1
Reply
Mason

They used a lot of 'beehive smoke' in this scene (and in many interiors in Bladerunner) to get that diffuse light. Don't know what filters (if any) were used in front of the lens.

July 23, 2013

0
Reply
Tim McC

I could go with the single light theory if it wasn't for the edge hi-light on the chair, camera right and the smidge of light on Rachael's right shoulder seen in her first appearance in this clip.

And don't forget... Deckard is a replicant, too.

July 23, 2013

3
Reply
dixter

Its a single light. Long lens.
Nice attempt on the recreate though, and good techniques used.

July 23, 2013

2
Reply
marklondon

So I guess watching the feature length documentary "Dangerous Days" where they talk about how they created this scene, the effect in her eyes, and pretty much anything else a die-hard fan of Blade Runner would want to know would kill the fun of this guessing game.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply

Yes, I was told about Dangerous Days, but chose to attempt to figure it all out for myself. It was a challenge!

July 23, 2013

-1
Reply

Great job seth, exercises like this, breaking down shots will push your skills forward. Don't listen to the negative Nelly's. Cheers for documenting!

July 23, 2013

1
Reply
Liron

Thanks Liron!! It was fun to do. Good thing I don't worry about matching someone else's genius when I light my own sets! Reverse engineering takes WAY to much time to be efficient. Honestly, that's why I love cinematography: stepping onto a set and finding a way of creating beauty given the constraints of the space and budget.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply

Agreed - more people should put the work into this kind of exercise.

July 24, 2013

0
Reply

I feel it should be noted that in the original she is smoking an unfiltered cigarette, with have a looser draw, which is what produces those big, dense plumes of smoke; I noticed the cigarette is filtered in the recreation.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply
McCauley's Ghost

That's actually very good info! Rebecca, the talent, wasn't even a smoker so she had some trouble with (even) the filtered cig.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply

Don't mean to be unpleasant, but based on the end results here, I'm not sure that even had to be posted on the blog

July 23, 2013

2
Reply
kuban

strong backlight, low fill. Reflector discs for the eyes.

July 23, 2013

-3
Reply

Great attempt to recreate the exact same lighting for that shot. The actress has a great look to her. However, I don't think you nailed the lighting. But a great experiment none-the-less! Would love to see another attempt, perhaps with another scene and using the same actress.

July 23, 2013

0
Reply

I think I could talk her into doing another sometime! I didn't nail the lighting at all, I agree, but I have to say it's not easy. I was a little frustrated with the result being that I'm my own harshest critic. Thankfully, I'm very willing to make mistakes and learn from them.

July 23, 2013

1
Reply

The opening "Godfather" shot (I believe in America ...) with Gordon Willis' overhead lighting. Can this actress do a balding 60 year old Italian male?

July 23, 2013

-1
Reply
DLD

I believe she's already done that Brando character. Might need to be a different one.

July 23, 2013

0
Reply

atmosphere! how are you going to try and re-create anything from Blade Runner without atmosphere? Get a smoke machine dude. Also what color temp were you shooting your test with? The ungraded footage looks incredibly warm. Like you were using tungsten light but had the camera set to 5600k or higher. This shot is pretty cool in the original (at least to my eye). I'd guess shot with HMIs and xenons which are daylight balanced. I don't understand why you didn't ctb all the lights and then shoot at the appropriate color temp?

July 23, 2013

2
Reply
Jerome (also..b...

Pages