February 1, 2014

Why Hollywood Will Never Look the Same Again on Film: LEDs Hit the Streets of LA & NY

cleantechnica led street lighting lights lamps sodium vapor mercury clean green la los angelesAfter Michael Mann set out to direct Collateral, the story's setting moved from New York to Los Angeles. This decision was in part motivated by the unique visual presence of the city -- especially the way it looked at night. Mann shot a majority of the film in HD (this was 2004), feeling the format better captured the city's night lighting. Even the film's protagonist taxi needed a custom coat to pick up different sheens depending on the type of artificial lighting the cab passed beneath. That city, at least as it appears in Collateral and countless other films, will never be the same again. L.A. has made a vast change-over to LED street lights, with New York City not far behind. Read on for why Hollywood will never look the same again -- on film or otherwise.

Here's the trailer for Collateral if you need a visual refresher:

Mann chose to shoot HD because of how the format rendered the story's setting. Considering that Collateral takes place over the course of a single night, its portrayal of LA's nocturnal landscape is integral to the film. Due to the city's recent retrofit of over 140,000 street lights, that nocturnal landscape has changed forever.

LA Goes LED

Environmentally speaking, this is a good thing -- though it's easy to get a little nostalgic to put the implications of this retrofit into perspective. In a sense, every night exterior LA-shot film previous to this change is rendered a sort of anthropological artifact, an historical document of obsolete urban infrastructure.

Justin Gerdes has written a ton for Forbes about LED lighting and its benefits to cities big and little, including the following in September: "On June 18, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced [PDF] the completion of the first phase of the project, with LED fixtures installed on 141,089 street lights." He goes on to say (my own emphasis):

The City of Los Angeles estimates it will see at least $7 million in electricity savings and $2.5 million in avoided maintenance costs annually with the switch to LED street lights. Street lighting can account for up to 40% of a city’s electricity bill, according to Eric Woods, writing at the Navigant Research blog. The LED fixtures used in Los Angeles, which include Cree’s XSP series and LEDway series, Hadco’s RX series, and Leotek’s GC series, consume about 63% less electricity, and last much longer, than the high-pressure sodium (HPS) fixtures they replaced.

The ecological and economic benefits are rather astounding -- but the transition to LEDs has another unique effect, and one that's specific to filmmakers. Let's first take a look at what LA has 'lost' before we check out what it's gained, and why it could make a difference on camera.

What Makes Artificial Lighting 'Realistic'?

Simple_spectroscope prism cri color rendering index full spectrum white light artificial lighting source tungsten incandescent versus fluorescent

The interesting thing about non-tungsten artificial light sources is that they often produce a non-continuous or incomplete spectral output. This can affect the appearance of certain colors under that output. More simply, you can't really put colors back in that weren't there to begin with, even by gelling such a light source or color correcting in post. At left: emitted spectrum of incandescent versus compact fluorescent lamp, courtesy of Wikipedia user Timwether. Notice the non-continual spectral output emitted by the latter (bottom).

Color Rendering Index or CRI attempts to rate a lamp's ability to approximate an ideal, continuous spectrum source. 100 is the highest possible CRI score, though some types of artificial lighting -- ahem, many traditional street lights -- can actually score in the negative numbers. For filmmakers, CRI is a yardstick of limited usefulness because a simple number such as "85" can't explicitly tell you which points along the spectral output may suffer, or even how many such points that output may have. On the other hand, a spectral power distribution graph of sufficiently high-resolution will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about a lamp's spectrum, but information may not be readily available.

It isn't necessarily simple, easy, or inexpensive to get non-tungsten lighting technologies to perform at the level filmmakers want and need. This is why HMI and Kino Flo fixtures do a very good job and don't come at a low price. That being the case, it's not hard to imagine that old-school street lights may not hold up so well by comparison -- for better or worse.

The Light That Was

There are two very common types of artificial lighting sources used for street lighting: sodium-vapor and mercury-vapor lamps. If you've ever lived anywhere that gets lit up at night, you know sodium-vapor lamps. Aside from being the key to an absolutely fascinating old school film compositing process, sodium-vapor  is one of the most common types of street lighting. The distinctive orange glow cast by this type of light is efficient, functional, and cost-effective  -- or at least was in 1933. Interestingly, low pressure sodium-vapor lamps cast a virtually monochromatic spectrum of light. Apparently this can have several beneficial effects on night driving, but is downright hilarious to see plotted for spectral power distribution:

Light Wavelength Chart

High pressure sodium lamps look less silly when compared by chart, but still don't hold a candle (I went there) to the spectral power distribution of "full body" light sources such as tungsten lamps or sunlight. They're also common enough for filmmakers to need lighting gels which help mimic their distinctive output (see also the Collateral writeup in American Cinematographer). Mercury-vapor lamps, on the other hand, produce better color rendition than either of their more efficient sodium brethren, though their CRI is still poor. Being related to our beloved fluorescents, their cast is generally a 'cool white' with a blue-green dominance.

Understandably, none of these guys are ideal for the reproduction of natural (never mind pleasant) skin tones. As such, sodium and mercury-vapor lamps are mostly relegated to streets, parking lots, industrial locations, and the like, but in turn give such locations their starkly unique, artificially lit recognizability. At least, until now.

The Light That Will Be

To see how it all affects 'the big picture' both past and present, check out the incredibly striking before and after below (photo courtesy Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting):

cleantechnica led street lighting lights lamps sodium vapor mercury clean green la los angeles

According to the Forbes article, the same residential LED fixture going for $432 a piece in 2009 went for $245 by the end of 2012, with its output boosted from 42 to 81 lumens per watt and a life expectancy improvement from 80,000 to 150,000 hours. If I'm doing my math right, that's about 17 years of life if the lamps were running constantly.

los angeles la led street light conversion complete

How much of an upgrade these LEDs will be over their sodium or mercury-vapor ancestors in terms of performance will likely vary depending on the fixture. Whether it's an upgrade at all, I think, is a more clear-cut matter: in terms of color rendition, the above comparison speaks for itself. The answer is: yes. The LEDs should very well prove a benefit to existing-light photography -- better for the environment, and in nearly every case, better for cinematography. Whether the new look is visually preferable is a subjective matter, but you probably won't find as many proponents for the old one.

At left is a geographical representation of the program's progress, courtesy the LA Bureau of Street Lighting (click for full PDF). It's visually apparent that filmmakers exposing by the existing street lighting of Los Angeles will be picking up very different imagery, even in many of the same locations, as they might have before. It's also interesting to consider how Collateral might look if it were shot today (or tonight, I should say), advancements in digital acquisition aside.

Links:

Your Comment

85 Comments

I think it's pretty exciting! Can always make it yellow in post, but like they said, colors missing from the spectrum can't be added back in.

February 1, 2014

1
Reply

Don't forget about the dreaded flicker effect from LED lighting. If ever shooting with these LEDs I would go from 48 shutter speed to 30 because the flicker is noticeable at 48 and even more so the higher the shutter speed is.

February 1, 2014

1
Reply

The flicker is only on the cheap LED lighting. Hopefully they'll use better quality ones that don't flicker.

February 2, 2014

-3
Reply
Clark Nikolai

I tested the LED streetlights in West Seattle by scanning the lamp at a low shutter speed. There was no flicker at all. The previous sodium lamps flashed at half frequency as fluorescent, probably 60 Hz. I could see it in a 1/6 second exposure of moving cars front lit by a service station with a bit of flare from a street lamp.

It depends on the power fed to the diodes. Cheap 120V Xmas lights that cut the voltage by placing several diodes in series look like they flash at 60 Hz. (I tried to feed them DC and at 60V they were unexcited. It may be that peak to peak 170V might be what matters instead of 120V RMS.)

Lifetime on LEDs depend as much on the other components. If the LED lasts years but the power supply lasts months maintenance will be high. The household LEDs have cheap noisy switched power supplies, test with an AM radio tuned off station. Your mics or cables might pick it up.

Also the light from fluorescent varies depending on quality. Hallways and stairwells are likely to get the economy bulbs. Office space might have better and art space better yet. A cheap spectroscope will show this. It sure was disappointing to look at my fluorescent back lit workstation monitor with it. Oh well, it works as good as the others.

February 7, 2014

-2
Reply
inohuri

What does shooting in HD rather than SD have to do with color rendition?

February 1, 2014

-1
Reply
Larry Vaughn

digital HD instead of FILM

February 2, 2014

-2
Reply
palisady

Residential LED fixture going for $432 a piece in 2009 went for $245 by the end of 2012. Who pays $245 for a residential LED anything?

February 1, 2014

-2
Reply
Larry Vaughn

I think residential is meant for the (public) area of the light to be used, not in actual homes.

February 2, 2014

1
Reply
Robert

What does shooting in HD rather than SD have to do with color rendition?

Or was the author talking about HD vs film?

February 1, 2014

2
Reply
Larry Vaughn

yes I believe he talking about digital verses actual film

February 2, 2014

1
Reply

I've shot under LA's LED lighting numerous times. No flicker.

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
Paul Stephen Edwards

but if you d shoot slowmotion you would get a flicker, no? because you also have to adjust the shutterspeed and angle accordingly.

February 2, 2014

-1
Reply
Pat

I'm not a slo-mo guy. :)

February 2, 2014

-2
Reply
Paul Stephen Edwards

Shooting slow-motion with available light at night?

February 3, 2014

-1
Reply
Emiliano Ranzani

In the slow motion cinematography world LED's have actually becoming a saving grace. At full output, something like a 1x1 LitePanel does no show any flicker at variable high frame rates. Sodium vapor lights do flicker something terrible, so from the slow motion stance, this might actually be a good thing.

February 3, 2014

1
Reply
Rob

Isn't that because LED panels are designed to work with batteries, so they have to convert AC to DC? Street lights would be connected directly to AC, so it may be different.

February 3, 2014

0
Reply
Ok

LEDs themselves, are inherently flicker-free at any frame rate (speed). HOWEVER, it is the inexpensive power supplies that make them 'flicker' at high frame rates. I am certain our city used the cheapest foreign-produced power supplies they could find... ?

February 3, 2014

2
Reply
RobM

I know some people will feel nostalgic about the old light. But the new will have it's own special feel. Colors are more distinct, everything isn't just different shades of yellow-brown, and details are more visible. With higher K's in cameras also bringing out more detail in low light this opens up new possibilities. The glass is half full, and with campaign. Smile! :-)

I'm not really much of a believer that governments are changing over to these lights because of the environment. It's about the huge savings. But it is good that this particular money saving is getting mercury light bulbs permanently out of use. I always thought it was telling that the twisty straw florescent bulbs that were supposed to be saving the environment, the bulbs that came to be known as Al Gore light bulbs, had to be handled in special ways when disposing of them because they had very hazardous levels of mercury---they were saving the environment with those bulbs....? Got it.

February 2, 2014

-2
Reply
Gene

opps, champagne

February 2, 2014

-1
Reply
Gene

I lived in one of the neighborhoods that switched over. It took some getting used to. The LED's are around 5000k I think, very odd seeing cool bluish light flooded on streets. Camera wise it looked pretty great, but because the LEDs are set up in multi source arrays the shadows that tree branches and other things are pretty crazy!

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
jmg

The article is in error. You can always color correct and add the so-called sodium vapor look back in. Clean white lighting is the easiest thing to degrade in post. It's much harder to take OUT the sodium vapor look if you wanted the night scene to look clean.

I think that whole look was ugly and overrated anyway. I think there's far more interesting things cinematographers can do with night looks, and the color temperature of the city lights is the least of their worries. This is a meaningless article written by a non-technical person who didn't bother to get a pro DP to comment on the color temperature of sodium vapor lights (2700 degrees K) vs. LED lights (roughly 5500 degrees K). It ain't a big deal.

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
Vidiot

You're right. It's aesthetics and I think the new look that we will be seeing is just as good. Nice, clean light. It's usually a treat to watch a night street video lit with white light in the first place.

February 2, 2014

-1
Reply
Tyler

This new look to city streets will make it easy for them to teal and orangeify everything, the background is already cool; just light the actors with tungsten, set the white balance to about 4K and you're set - orange skin and blue/teal lights.

February 2, 2014

-4
Reply

Where did he claim you couldn't put the sodium vapour look in through colour correction ? I can only find the part where he mentions you can't put colours back in which weren't captured in the first place, which isn't the same thing. I think you're confusing his assertion that LA's streets will no longer have the sodium vapour look right out of the box (which he is saying) with the assertion that you'll no longer be able to get the sodium vapour look at all (which he doesn't actually say).

February 2, 2014

-1
Reply

Actually, you CAN put different colors back in during post. It all depends on the time available and the skill of the colorist and VFX people involved. We radically change stuff all the time during color correction, particularly when retakes and pickups are done weeks or months after principal photography has wrapped, even at different locations. It's done far more often than you think.

The original article claims that LA will lose the look because the lighting has changed. It hasn't, in that you can get almost any kind of look that the DP wants. If the original author had bothered to contact a DP and have them comment on the piece, it would've added much more authority to the content. This is what happens when non-technical people try to tackle technical areas that involve artistic judgement and taste.

February 3, 2014

-3
Reply
Vidiot

I won't weigh in on putting colours back in post because I'm not qualified but as a reader, again, I'm not sure the article's saying what you think it is, or at least seem to think it is. What I took from it, and what I meant by "out of the box", was that LA's nighttime streets are now going to look different from the previous sodium-vapour look - to the eye. So if you're trying to reproduce the "look" of LA's streets (as Mann was in Collateral), then you're not going to try for the sodium look anymore, with any technique - gels, grading or otherwise - since it no longer reflects the visual reality of the city. And that, at least, isn't something you'd need to consult a DP about, obviously. I can't speak for the author, of course, so I could be wrong - Dave, if you're reading this, feel free to jump in and clarify.

February 3, 2014

2
Reply

Hey Vidiot, here are words from David Mullen of the ASC discussing the part of my post with which you seem to be taking issue:

"Sodium Vapors have missing wavelengths so they cannot be fully corrected -- all you end up with is a muddy, desaturated image if you try. Plus if you try and white balance to a color temp much lower than 3200K, you are already pushing the blue channel quite heavily. At the most, you could try just adding a little coldness to take out some orange. But white balancing under the sodium lights isn't really going to work well, I'd try putting some 1/4 CTO on a tungsten light pointed at a white card and white balancing to that -- that would add a little blue into the sodium color but not cancel it completely.

As for gels, there are lots of combinations people try. Rosco just created two new gels for this purpose: Industrial Vapor, which is an ugly brown-green gel that supposedly matches real sodium, and Urban Vapor, which is an orangey-yellow gel that looks like most people's impression of sodium vapor without as much green. But you could also try various gel combinations, like Full CTS + 1/4 Plus Green, Apricot, etc."

Here's the source of this quote: http://www.cinematography.com/index.php?showtopic=39681

My point was not that LA could not be color corrected or lit to match a certain look, but that its natural ungraded look has changed, which it has. The aesthetic implications of this are subjective. That and incomplete-spectrum lamps behave differently than natural or full-spectrum sources.

February 3, 2014

-2
Reply
avatar
Dave Kendricken
Writer
Freelancer

You misunderstand R. David Mullen ASC's message. He's talking about the difficulty of color balancing under Sodium Vapor lights. He's 100% correct. I'm saying, if you had to, you could *easily* take today's white LED lights and make them yellow in color correction. Just pull a highlight key and add yellow. Easy and trivial to do in color correction. We could recreate the Sodium Vapor look in seconds.

The article implies that we've *lost* something by the changeover to white LEDs. My point is that the new lights are actually better and more natural. We can always degrade streetlights and make them uglier in post; what we can't do is take ugly lights and make them look *good* in post. The article implies that the change is bad; I argue that the change is good.

Mullen is a very, very good DP and was robbed when he didn't get nominated for the much-slammed SMASH last year. Extremely well-lit show. Content... not so good. Lighting was great.

February 4, 2014

0
Reply
Vidiot

Ah, but how will these new lights effect the hookers on Hollywood Boulevard?

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
DLD

More natural flesh tones should ensure higher revenue streams and save on make up to 'white balance'...

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
DUDE

You guys have won the internets today.

February 2, 2014

-4
Reply
AlfonsoJ

Actually, warmer tones are better for hookers, since warmer colours helps to increase blood pressure, increase the pulse rate and increase the physical sense acuteness.

This is why the sex industry use a lot of red lights, as this helps them to excite their clientèle and thus get more business.

Put this to a test yourself: have your partner and you have an intimate encounter in a room with blue or cold light, see how off-putting that would be.

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
JR

If You want to deeg deeper into LED color lighting fidelity, You can check this paper from OSRAM:
Light and Color Methods of Achieving High CRI with LEDs
http://goo.gl/9bKNMn

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
SydneyBlue120d

Thanks for the link! Do you have more beginner explanations which don't go too deep into scientific terms (as far as not explained)?

February 2, 2014

-1
Reply
Jan

I do not have any other documents beside that, sorry.

February 3, 2014

-1
Reply
SydneyBlue120d

ok, so light is measured in 2 main areas: color temperature and Color Rendering Index (CRI). The color temperature is what the color of the light is from reddish to yellow, white, blue. The CRI is how well you can differenciate colors. HPS has low color temperature (yellow) and low CRI (can't differentiate colors well in the light). LEDs have low to high color temp (yellow to white to blue) and usually high CRI (even the yellow colors).

February 5, 2014

1
Reply
LightNerd

This is an interesting and informative read but I think it primarily deals with how human eyes and brains perceive color, not how digital sensors perceive color. As the paper points out, CRI is not a very good judge alone of the color fidelity of a light source for human vision. As it relates to sensors, it's an even poorer indicator, from what I understand of the AMPAS solid state lighting project:

http://www.oscars.org/science-technology/council/projects/ssl

More meaningful and relevant measurement tests are being devised for solid state light sources.

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
Brian

Not only do I find that the new street lighting is not as pictural as sodium, but also, filmmaking considerations put aside, 5600K daylight lighting at night is bad for our biological clocks, and it seems like nobody ever gave a thought about this issue at the Bureau of street lighting.

February 2, 2014

-2
Reply
William

nothing beats falling asleep while drunk driving under sodium vapour lights.

February 2, 2014

3
Reply
Robert

You're right. Blue light stimulates our brain and keeps us awake for longer. Maybe it's linked to the fact that ambient daylight light is blue or something.

February 3, 2014

0
Reply
Tyler

I agree with most people on this thread. Sodium is a pain in the neck and Post Productions let us choose weather we want it yellowish or not. For the gentleman talking about flicker. He may istake LED with CFL light bulbs who are actually flicking. And even some of them are flicker free now : http://oliviatech.com/flicker-free-cfl-bulbs

February 2, 2014

4
Reply
manu

LED flickers and so does CFL. Even the kinoflo CFL's are for regular frame rate only.

February 11, 2014

1
Reply
Daniel Mimura

What they need is some of those bluetooth led lights, then they can change the colour to whatever they like ;-)

February 2, 2014

-2
Reply
Jw

I've been trying to find before and after videos of the lighting but it's been impossible. I can't even find videos of the current LED lighting. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
AlfonsoJ

I miss the gas lamps. Damn that Edison!

February 2, 2014

-1
Reply
JPS

lol

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
Gene

I'm more of a candle kind of gentleman. My father keeps talking about the good ol' torch days.

February 3, 2014

3
Reply
Carl

This and the green bike lanes have vexed production in LA the last year or so. The bike lanes have been repainted slightly less flouro green but we still spend a lot of time painting them out in post. Dear LA: if you want to know why we have to shoot 90% of car ads in Vancouver, thats a BIG reason.
Have been on a couple sets where the street lighting was turned off and 'replaced' with tungsten or lower 'practicals'.
On my low budget stuff I've had no problems at 24fps with the new LEDs. Haven't noticed anything at 60 either but that may be because I will have probably lit that with a fixture.

February 2, 2014

1
Reply
marklondon

Yeah, it's funny that bike riders that pay zero in registration fees take up so much money and space on the streets.

February 2, 2014

4
Reply
Gene

Los Angeles, home of the worst traffic in the country, doesn't benefit from bicyclists?

February 2, 2014

0
Reply
Note enabler

Pages