November 12, 2013

Renowned Gaffer John Higgins Reveals Secrets Behind Lighting Some of Hollywood's Biggest Films

Just about every cinematographer will tell you the same thing: their work wouldn't be half as good without the help of their most trusted gaffer. This can be attributed to the fact that lighting successfully for film and television is one of the most challenging aspects of production, and the larger the scale of a production becomes, the more intensive the lighting needs will be. John Higgins is one of the industry's leading gaffers, and he has worked to light some of Hollywood's biggest films alongside some of today's most accomplished DP's such as Emmanuel Lubezki and Roger Deakins. Higgins recently sat down with thecallsheet to discuss the lighting philosophies behind some of the biggest films that Hollywood has to offer:

For a little bit of  background on John Higgins, his career as a gaffer has spanned over 30 years, and his impressive resume features 60+ feature films, including 15 with famed cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Two of his more recent films, Skyfall and Gravityhave been absolute technical masterpieces in terms of the scale and overall quality of the projects. In his recent interview with thecallsheet (an industry website for UK-based film professionals,) Higgins talked about some of his best work and the lighting philosophies behind these films.

One of the most difficult tasks that any DP or gaffer might face in the course of a production is how to incorporate various types of studio or practical lighting into large public spaces, such as stations or malls. On The Bourne UltimatumHiggins was tasked with figuring out how to incorporate light into London's famous Waterloo Station for this action-based scene:

Higgins' solutions for lighting the station during its peak hours are ingenious:

We considered many options of balloon lighting, 18 Kw. HMI rigs etc. So Oliver visited and revisited the station, took lots of photographs at various times of day within our shooting window and he decided that the quality of the light was such that we only required light for the coverage. We were not allowed trailing leads in any circumstances so the solution was to have shopping trolleys with batteries and invertors to run Kino-Flo Wall-O-Lights or small HMI units. These were held to the side and wheeled in as independent units as required. We also had floppy flags for negative fill. That was it at Waterloo.

Instead of trying to use vast amounts of artificial light for this complicated scene, Higgins and DP Oliver Wood were able to harness the natural light already available in the station, manipulate it with varying amounts of negative fill, and wheel in small banks of Kinos in order to light the coverage properly. Awesome stuff, and definitely something to keep in mind when faced with shooting in large public spaces.

Higgins was also the gaffer on Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, which was stunningly shot by Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki. Unlike The Bourne Ultimatum which features mind-meltingly frenetic editing, Children of Men features some of the most beautifully operated handheld long takes ever captured on film, which therefore called for a far more practical approach to lighting the sets.

Here are just a few examples of the incredible long takes in Children of Men:

Re-watching these clips makes me even more bitter that Chivo didn't take home the cinematography Oscar in 2006, but that's besides the point. Here's what Higgins had to say about the lighting philosophy behind Children of Men:

We realised early on that the best way to approach this film, especially the night exteriors, was to use practical lighting which appears in the film as the main lighting source. We modified existing practical lamps to accept higher wattages and again all were controlled from a computerised dimming desk. The day exteriors were, in the main, either large bounces (Ultra-Bounce 20 x 12) or negative fill.

Hearing someone who has been working in the industry for so long talk about the lighting philosophies behind some of the most excellent cinematography in recent memory is not only incredibly helpful for all aspiring DPs and gaffers, but it's also tremendously inspiring. Make sure you head on over to thecallsheet and read the rest of their interview with John Higgins to see how he's embraced computerized lighting into his workflows and many other topics.

What do you guys think? Have you incorporated any of these lighting philosophies into your own work? If not, how might you incorporate them into an upcoming project of yours? Let us know in the comments!

Link: Q&A with Gaffer, John Higgins -- thecallsheet

Your Comment

24 Comments

Not much secretes beeing revealed here, I was hoping for a video how it actually looks like from the set side. Are there any good set video's on lighting? I would love to see a video or documentary on the lighting side of hollywood films.

November 12, 2013 at 4:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ano Nymous

Yeah, secrets might have been the wrong word. Lighting "strategies" or "philosophies" are more apt phrases for this article. Also, I'll definitely keep my eye out for good set lighting videos, because they're certainly difficult to come by.

November 12, 2013 at 4:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom
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For very good reason - they are essentially trade secrets. Good luck on finding them! :-)
I have also noted a few times where DPs have told fibs if not outright lies in AC articles to put people off the scent. All's fair etc.
/love this - Higgins is one of the very best.
/I didn't necessarily think that Waterloo Station sequence particularly challenging, esp given the gritty tone of the film. I've worked in that station on commercials shooting with even less - it gets great natural light in summer. His work with Lubezki much more challenging.

November 12, 2013 at 5:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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marklondon

I agree, the natural light in those wider shots is really pleasing. I thought the Kino banks on shopping trolleys was a damn good idea, though. I never would have thought of something like that. I probably would have gone with some battery powered LED's or something along those lines, even though I absolutely adore the quality of light that Kino products produce. I would take their lights over LED's any day, and this was a great way to avoid compromising light quality.

November 12, 2013 at 6:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom
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Oh yes - no comparison Kinos to say 1x1s. They're old tech now, but still worth the money :-)

November 12, 2013 at 11:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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marklondon

That's actually very good information. It never occurred to me that those techniques would be considered trade secrets, but it makes sense.

January 15, 2015 at 12:34PM

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I totally agree with ANO.

I would love to see more lighting stuff on NFS.

In this case they may have used kenos but I have been looking at battery powered LEDs for lighting as I can go many more places.

Any bluray or Behind the scenes stuff to learn more about lighting? I have read the practical lighting lessons, but more raw in the field stuff like this is AWESOME.

November 12, 2013 at 6:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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There was an intro post by a professional cinematographer a few weeks ago, with promises to deliver more juicy lighting info. Plus, there was a recreation of a famous interrogation scene from the "Bladerunner" a couple of months earlier.
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Realistically though, each shot is an invention of its own. Just because you brought in a bunch of lights on a shopping cart in one scene doesn't mean you'll ever do it in another. IMO, once you figure out what look you want - from Gordon Willis's overheads in "Godfather" to Cronenwerth's overpowering Fresnel in "Bladerunner" to Deakins's locomotive coming in from the dark in the "Assassination of Jesse James", etc. - the subsequent setup can be designed. But you got to know what you want first.

November 12, 2013 at 8:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Maybe this workshop with John Seale is what you're looking for. They recreated a set from Dead Poets Society and explained his process and showed exactly how it was lit.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmGlUc6wQ9A

January 14, 2015 at 3:51PM

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June 21, 2015 at 6:01PM

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Rick Shorrock
DP/Editor/Writer
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+1 for more posts related to lighting. Definitely one of the more difficult topics to find online, outside of Shane Hurlbut of course.

November 13, 2013 at 4:09AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ryan

Always found it puzzling how there's tons of info on cameras but very little on actual lighting. They have books like that in stills photography but none for cinematography. Just doesn't make sense to me...

November 13, 2013 at 8:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Bolex16

Lighting for TV and Film by Gerald Millerson 3rd Edition. Search it out on Amazon and you can preview the contents.

November 13, 2013 at 1:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Saied

I agree, I find it puzzling as well. I would buy a book like that in heartbeat! Although, I think a lot of lighting principles from still photography are the same for cinematography.

November 13, 2013 at 1:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Joseph

There are actually quite a few books on cinematography and lighting. Check out "Motion Picture and Video Lighting" and "Cinematography: Theory and Practice" by Blain Brown and, once you know a little more about lighting and the tech, "Reflections: Twenty-One Cinematographers At Work" by Benjamin Bergery, which features awesome lighting setups from renowned cinematographers like Jordan Cronenweth. Also, get a subscription of American Cinematographer Magazine. Doesn't get any better than that (except for shooting yourself obviously)

November 13, 2013 at 2:33PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Markus

Right on Marcus. I have Mr Browns Lighting and Cinematography books. They are one of the better investments I have made in my self education on the subject. I highly recommend them.

November 14, 2013 at 8:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gary

Found this clip about the making of Children of Men. It's not necessarily about lighting, but the camera movement in the film. Hope it's helpful.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBfsJ7K1VNk

November 13, 2013 at 11:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Matt

"the subsequent setup can be designed. But you got to know what you want first."

Thanks DLD, good simple advice to remember when I'm getting overwhelmed with what to use for which shot to do what and how... Stop an envision what I want first then take it from there.

June 25, 2014 at 1:53AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Reggie

Damn, that was supposed to be a comment to a reply. Ignore.

June 25, 2014 at 1:54AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Reggie

“the subsequent setup can be designed. But you got to know what you want first.”

Thanks DLD, good simple advice to remember when I’m getting overwhelmed with what to use for which shot to do what and how… Stop an envision what I want first then take it from there.

June 25, 2014 at 1:54AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Reggie

Also, I second the motion for more stuff on lighting! Would love to see more on set videos

June 25, 2014 at 2:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Reggie

It was on a Remote slider, mounted easily.

June 25, 2014 at 8:59AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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RenstarFilm

Highly detailed setup footage is available on the Children of Men DVD/Blu-Ray extras. Also they did some excellent coverage on the movie both in American Cinematographer as well as Cinefex magazine.

June 25, 2014 at 2:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Camera Movement - Children of Men. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBfsJ7K1VNk

January 15, 2015 at 12:35AM

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To know how they did it is enough and gives anybody with some solid knowledge and an understanding of lighting to apply it in there specific situation. None of these options are really out of an indie budget either, which usually is the case. We simply cannot afford huge HMI's and the power and diffusion and rigs to pull off what we would need. Now with all these super sensitive cameras, i believe we can use less light sources and just use tools to manipulate the existing light, add negative fill, bounce and use small fixtures to get the look we desire. Definitely interesting times for us filmmakers.

January 14, 2015 at 6:01PM

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Brad Watts
Filmmaker/Creative Director - Redd Pen Media
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