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.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6z9z1JtjWcI
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.