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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a sense, every night exterior LA-shot film previous to this change is rendered a sort of anthropological artifact, an historical document of obsolete urban infrastructure.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.

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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!

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  • What’s the view on the future of plasma lights for the high end/pro level production? (I know, it’s not what this post is about entirely but I am being curious)

    • long way out. LEDs are what’s up right now. Costs are constantly going down, efficiency is going up. plasma is seriously out of control expensive… as in unaffordable for anyone.

  • Maximus Moretta on 02.3.14 @ 11:25PM

    Just put a sodium vapor filter on it. ;-) people are so afraid of change.

  • Thanks for the article. It looks according to the PDF map that the downtown area has not been converted yet. Do you think that is intentional and at least partially due to the fact that LA Studios and others want to shoot there and maintain the Sodium-vapor look?

  • At least where I live the LED retrofits aren’t living up to their advertised rated life. In just a few short years many streets here are being converted back to high Pressure Sodium and Metal Halide as the LEDs fail. Typically in mid summer and mid winter is when the most LED fixtures fail. Temperature has no bearing on the performance of HID lighting such as HPS

  • This is great for the city and of course it will prompt new studies in lighting techniques and theory. Of course I think movie makers should be more concerned with making good movies first.

  • I warned people about this years ago. You can’t make an efficient led that has broad spectrum, because even though you can, it gets its efficiency by matching peak efficiencies in the human eye and leaving the other frequencies alone. Though you might be able to get the city to swap out the light modules for such broad light, or strap on such lights temporarily). There will be shifts in colors, but what is there is authentic anyway, as seen to film authentically.

    Collateral was not authentic anyway, they shot much with the electro luminance panels of some sort that I also was looking at using for devices too at the time, in the car, that is the strange glow. They were used as backlights on some sorts of LCDs and watches. Still nice look, but not authentic.

    • “Authenticity” has nothing to do with it. As an inherently manipulative medium, film — and digital — are nothing more than another method of telling stories. The authenticity comes from the truth of the story being told, not the lighting or any other production values, which are there to serve the narrative. The lighting in “Collateral” worked very well for that particular story, but future stories will work just as well under the glow of LED lighting.

      The story itself is the cake — the lighting (and I say this as someone who has spent 35 years in set-lighting) — is just the frosting.

  • I agree with some comments that this article is misleading in a way that will make the reader believe LED is a poor alternative.

    LED has dramatically improved recently, and you can find many different types.Some of them at 5000k with a CRI <95 on all spectrums. This improves quite extensively the outcomes of any shooting.

    Should the wanted end result by washed out images, this is easily achieved in post rather than the contrary.

    Finally, any big production set will easily lit up by their own means or temporarily change individual lights of an entire street.

  • Daniel Bryant on 02.10.14 @ 7:03AM

    Sodium lights are old school? Yeah right. Take a look at “Terminator”. Notice any orange lights? How about “Blade Runner”. Any there? That’s no studio lighting— the orange lights aren’t there because they weren’t there at all. High pressure sodium lights weren’t even installed until the late 80s, and weren’t commonplace until the 90s.

    The *real* old school street lights ran on mercury vapor, and had a green-blue hue (and the color corrected bulbs were cool white). *This* is the type of lighting you see in classic movies set in LA, as they were used from the 1940s to the late 1980s (and some are still in use today); the large majority of the colour film era.

    Night having an amber hue is a recent phenomenon that’s only been around for about 15 years or so. Either the author is a 15 year-old, or he doesn’t pay attention to this sort of thing.

    Bemoan it all you want, but the modern LED streetlights are closer in colour to the original mercury-vapor lights that lit up the sky at night, and we can finally close the book on the orange sky that’s plagued us for the last 15 years.

    Induction lights are even closer to the classic mercury vapor look (and cheaper, and just as energy efficient). I wish more cities were adopting induction lamps, but LEDs have that “sexiness” that induction doesn’t seem to have for the “green scene”. A real disappointment for those of us who enjoy the night sky, because the induction lamps have lower light pollution than LEDs. Pomona, CA has installed the induction fixtures, but I don’t think much of anyone else in the Southern California region has.

  • Daniel Bryant on 02.10.14 @ 7:16AM

    Bad research defines a lot of this article.

    For a continuation of my comments above, the lights that were invented in the ’30s were low-pressure sodium lights, and are in fact, still more efficient than any other light source out there. The problem is, the hue is a monochromatic yellow that makes it impossible to differentiate colours, and much of the light produced is “scotopic”, meaning it only activates the rods in your eye, and not the cones, which are responsible for most of our vision.

    The second error in this article mentions a negative CRI. It’s impossible to have a negative CRI. CRI is on a scale of 0 to 100. Low pressure sodium lights have a CRI of 0, meaning it is not possible to differentiate colours at all.

    Despite their invention, low-pressure sodium lights remained a niche product until the 1970s when the energy crisis forced many cities to install the low-pressure sodium lights to save on energy costs. However, since the light was not very effective, most cities switched back to the mercury vapour lighting they had been using before.

    In the mid to late 80s, high pressure sodium, which was developed in the 70s, became affordable for cities to install, and by the late 90s, most fixtures has been converted to high pressure sodium. These are the amber lights that this article refers to, and they haven’t been around for anywhere near as long as this article infers. High pressure sodium is different from low pressure sodium in that it has a higher CRI, meaning that it is possible to differentiate certain colours under it.

    Really dude, if you’re going to write an article, get your stuff straight!

      • Daniel Bryant on 02.19.14 @ 8:29AM

        http://www.mikewoodconsulting.com/articles/Protocol%20Winter%202010%20-%20CRI%201.pdf

        “Although the CRI definition allows negative numbers they are often rounded up in literature to zero.”

        So, yes, you are correct. I apologize. The equation for calculating CRI can produce a negative number, but generally the scale is considered to be from 0 to 100, but since the formula used to derive CRI does not technically end at zero, it’s possible to get a negative number. I’m sorry about that; I’ve never actually read a negative CRI before since most round up to zero.

        However, I still suggest you take a look into mercury-vapour lighting and its effects on film. MV was around until the early 90s in most areas, and is responsible for some really wonderful night scenes in movies. Check out films like Taxi Driver, the Terminator, Blade Runner, etc. Those use the ambient mercury vapour lighting from streetlights.

        Mainly my dismay was that HPS is getting so much love here when it’s only been around for a very short time, while mercury vapour lights have lit some of the greatest scenes in film history. The light it provides is both sublime and a bit eerie at the same time. I think the loss of MV on our streets was really the greatest loss to cinematography, and it doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition it deserves, despite many cinematographers attempting to emulate the MV look with tungsten filters.

        I feel like those attached to tungsten filters are really missing out on what made the classic movie scenes look the way they did simply because they assume the visual effect was achieved using filters, when in fact it was all real.

        I’d love to see an article on here about mercury vapour. Maybe it would inspire more cinematographers to get that classic look in real life rather than using a color-correcting filter.

        • Daniel Bryant on 02.26.14 @ 9:21PM

          the lack of reply illustrates why i chose to go on the offensive. nobody mourns the loss of mercury vapour street lighting. what a shame, and a loss to the film industry.

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