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 Gravity, have 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 Ultimatum, Higgins 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!