Description image

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

BRRecreation2

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

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

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

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

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)

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!

Related Posts

  1. Basic Lighting Lesson: Understanding Hard Light and Soft Light
  2. Lighting for Mood: Another SMAPP Lighting Tutorial from Stillmotion
  3. Lighting Tutorial: Enhance Your Interview's Aesthetic by Creating the Parallax Effect

COMMENT POLICY

We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 88 COMMENTS

  • Christopher Boone on 07.25.13 @ 6:59PM

    Hey E.M. and Seth,

    Love the post and the discussion in the comments, but how about sharing the name of your actress who kindly sat in for your lighting experiment (and even did her own hair and make-up) instead of just referring to her as the actress or “Rachael” stand-in? A little credit would be nice, no?

    • E.M. Taboada on 07.26.13 @ 10:13AM

      We actually have a couple of folks who warrant a shout out by name — Zach and Becca at Aren’t We Clever, Joe who helped with set-ups, and, of course, Rebecca, whose name appears to have disappeared between drafts even though her spot in the article remained (that happens a lot when I play around too much with a sentence)! Thanks for the catch Chris, the article’s been updated!

  • Richard Jeffery on 07.25.13 @ 6:59PM

    Great excersise .. I recon that the ‘nuclear bloom’ on the exhaled smoke could be achived with a 50w Dido, barn doored down and spotted up to catch just the smoke .. unseen until the smoke hits it.
    Hey Seth .. everyones an expert in hindsight .. but they wern’t there on the day. Well done!

  • Thanks for posting! Yeah, these exercises are extremely valuable. I love Blade Runner and all the work that went into it. Anyway, nice post.

    Here is my humble attempt at trying to capture some of the Blade Runner mood. This short piece is set to the Blade Runner dialogue track. I shot it in Osaka, Japan:

    http://illectricsheep.com/2013/04/04/osaka-2019-short-film-set-to-blade-runner-dialogue-track/

  • Where have we seen this actress? SHe looked Very familiar.( No ,don’t mean Sean Young).
    Wasn’t there also some stronger light ,forward of her face through which she blew the Smoke. It looked pretty strong in the original.

  • Just a note; the “glowing eye” effect is not a reflection from a practical illuminary, it is the illumination of the retina surface and was produced by using a lightflex unit (or simple beam splitter unit) mounted on the camera, with a light at right angles to the image path, dimmed down to minimal output.

    The lightflex was a front mounted unit with a beam splitter angled in the optical path at 45 degrees, exactly on the image taking axis, with a variable light source that was used to “flash” an exposure over the incoming scene and thereby lower the overall gamma of a film scene.

    If you’ll note, Sean Young’s eyes are locked in place in the one shot that has the effect. Retinal flash is totally depenent upon exactly catching the retina at 90 degrees, so it acts as a mirror (i.e., “red eye” with flash photography). The color red is natural; the color of the blood vessels in the retina.

    You can produce this effect by building a flat-black, square box large with a hole large enough to admit the taking lens on one side (toward camera), a hole at 180 degrees large enough for field of view (directly across from lens) and an aperture at right angles from this axis for the light source , most often to the left (traditional position).

    Place a an optical beam splitter of about 80 percent transmission/ 20 percent reflectance in the box at a 45 degree angle (the lower left and upper right corners being perfectly suited to position the beam splitter) and shine a light on a dimmer into the illumination aperture. You can try simple clear glass, but it will take a large amount of light…

    With some care to avoid internal reflections in the box (flat black, remember?) you can adjust the strength of the light source to get a retinal flash as long as the actor looks at a very specific point toward the camera that catches the surface of the retina.

    Come to think of it, this was the era of front screen projection with scotch bright and rear plate elements projected live onto the set, so the eye flash was probably noticed by Ridley Scott and, although it was seen as a technical error when using front screen projection, I’ll bet he saw it and was able to creatively incorporate it into the film as a thematic device.

    • Thanks Frank! :) There is the subsequent scene in Harrison Ford’s apartment right after Sean Young had just saved his life that features this “glowing eye” effect in Ms. Young’s eyes – but it appears to be holding even with eye movement on her part. Would the set-up you describe above allow for some eye movement and still maintain the “glowing eye” effect?

      • @Jay. Yes, it varies with individuals, but straight on and at a 90 degree to straight on seem to work the best with only a small ability to move the eye. It also depends on the focal length of the taking lens and other factors as well. Try to find articles on front screen projection in SMPTE and ASC manuals/magazines from the 1980′s and you can find technical explanations of what works best.

  • What this recreation fails to do is recreate the “eye shine” / “feral highlights” (the golden light reflecting back from the irises – similar to “redeye”) that were present in Sean Young’s eyes. THAT’s what’s most eye-catching in this (and subsequent) scenes featuring Ms. Young.

    I don’t know what I wouldn’t give to be able to reproduce this “eye shine” / “feral highlights”!!!

    • You can simply place a plate of optically clear glass between you and the person you are shooting at a 45% angle between the camera lens and your subjec, and shine the light where it bounces off the glass and directly into the eyes of the actor (use all prudent caution here, no really bright lights or lasers), moving around until you catch the rential flash. The light and the lens has to be on the same optical axis. A diffused light source that can be dimmed would probably be the best. Since the retina is curved, and as long as the pupil of the eye is open enough, you should see the glow. Its tricky to balance the light intensity and angle witout causing your actor’s iris to close down, so try it in a dark room with a relatively dim light for the rential flash source. Good luck.

  • cindy meyer on 07.31.13 @ 3:00PM

    This is fascinating and very well done…look forward to more work by Seth Iliff

  • Thomas Del Ruth ASC on 10.7.13 @ 12:34PM

    I was Jordan’s Operator and 1st Assistant for years until I mover to DP in 79….Jordy used only One light to do everything except the Red Eye FX….The Backlight came from a Mole Richardson Arc burning yellow Cole mounted on a Pony Stand for a 3200 K Color Temp to match the Kodak 5254 Color Balance. You will notice a slight nose shadow on the Right side of Sean’s face that came from the stray light coming form the backlight, that was bouncing off a 4X8 Bead Board at the left side of camera…..The shadow side was filled with bounce light coming from the Arc as well, this time it was striking a 4×4 Bead Board that was scrimed down using 4X4 Matthews Doubles to suggest a hint of tone….The Eye Light was a Mole Inkey placed 90 Degrees to the right of camera projected through a 50% partial Mirror on lens Axis…..There was no Digital work used on the film…It simply had not been invented. All the effects that you see were done in Camera or Optical Printer…Those were the days ( up to 2000) that Dp’s really had to know what they were doing, as opposed to today were any fool can get a look, he cant fail, he’s guided by committee around the Monitor and again in post….

Comments pages: 1 [2]