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Motion Picture Photography

03 May

Motion Picture Photography, from a lecture in 1949 by Freddie Young OBE BSC

You have to consider the relation of the cameraman to the director. Some directors are technically wise and help the cameraman sympathetically with his difficulties by arranging action so that it was possible to light speedily, or possibly arranging for a cut in order to avoid an otherwise complicated lighting problem. Nevertheless, the director must have the final decision, since the ultimate responsibility for success or failure of the film rested with him and all the technicians – even the stars – must bow to his judgement.

An experienced lighting cameraman will have learned ways of saving time and will not be experimenting in the same way as a beginner – but he must be careful to avoid turning out stereotyped photography, without artistry or meaning.

Not every picture gives the cameraman the opportunity to show artistic ability. Often he is put on his mettle to demonstrate his speed of working and yet is still required to produce a photographically acceptable picture.

Natural Lighting

Some cameramen strive for naturalistic lighting, the light appearing always to come from a correct source. Others seem to ignore this requirement and allow the light to fall from any direction, providing only that the general effect is satisfactory. I prefer natural lighting so that, when shots are edited, there is a feeling of smoothness and correctness over the entire sequence.

However, this requirement introduces a number of problems. A star often looks better with the key light directly in front and not at all satisfactory with cross-lighting – compromises are often necessary. Front key lighting is flattering to most faces but it can be uninteresting to see an entire picture with the principal characters lit from the direct front, regardless of where the scene is located or the time of day. Some producers maintain that it is necessary only that the stars should look attractive but good lighting is noticed, even if only subconsciously, by the audience.

Questions of mood and atmosphere must not be ignored. Such factors help to make a scene convincing and to maintain a sense of reality with which no film can be considered an artistic success.

Black and White vs Colour

In lighting for black-and-white photography one seeks to obtain a stereoscopic effect by a separation of the planes of the subject, so giving an impression of depth and roundness. A frequent method of producing this illusion is by the use of back-lighting. However, it is not always correct to have light emanating from the back of the set and the use of back-lighting has, in the past, been overdone.

There is an infinite variety of methods of securing contrast in light and shade. A patch of light on a wall will throw into sharp relief a dark mass of furniture standing in front of it. A cunningly placed shadow makes the perfect background for a light object. The cooperation of the art director is valuable in the careful selection of colours and in avoiding placing dark objects one in front of another.

Colour photography is, in some respects, less exacting as colours will separate from each other naturally – one would obviously avoid having a navy-blue dress in front of navy-blue drapes. All such factors will be appreciated by a trained artist and it would be an excellent thing if every cameraman had some art training in order that he might appreciate the laws of perspective and of light and shade.

Light Sources

Just as it is necessary for an artist to have a variety of paints and brushes of all sizes, so must a cameraman have lights of all shapes and sizes. Powerful lights for the broad strokes and smaller lights for the fine detail. Every light has to be controlled and spill or leak light must be kept from illuminating the shadows. All the units must have their barndoors, diffusers or ‘goboes’

Lighting in a low key, such as moonlight or firelight, calls for great skill and judgement. It is easy to under-expose and so lose contrasts. It is desirable to have somewhere in the picture one highlighted point – moonlight, a street lamp, firelight or even a streak of light under a door. Reflectors must be used to give a soft radiance without any definite light source – but as a general rule there should be one highlight in the picture and one area of deep black.

The Light Meter

A light meter is used to obtain a consistent density throughout the film. The negative is developed by sensitometric control and only a small latitude is allowable for incorrect exposure. If the laboratory were to be able to work to a constant gamma and obtain a fixed density throughout the entire negative, the cameraman is compelled to use a light meter.

It would be foolish to try to judge by eye a quantity that could be indisputably measured by means of a light meter. On the other hand, the cameraman must never allow the meter to become his master but must use it as a servant to assist him technically to accomplish the final artistic achievement.

For interiors I prefer to work at low light levels and a wide lens aperture, which more closely approximates the characteristics of the human eye. This also lends reality to practical lights used on the set, such as candlelight, oil lamps or electric lamps of low wattage which, if a high key lighting were used, would be unnaturally dimmed.

Problems of Movement

In cinematography, an entirely different set of problems is presented from those of still photography. The motion picture cameraman has to allow for the movement of his characters. If, for instance, an actor moves towards the key light, the brilliance might increase from perhaps 100 footcandles and serious over-exposure would result. Dimmers must be provided to control the intensity of light throughout the scene. The dimmer controls must be checked by the cameraman with the aid of a light meter.

Shooting in the artificial rain on ‘So Well Remembered’ – 1947 in Denham Studios starring Sir John Mills and directed by Edward Dymytryk.

Examples of quite different looks were screened for the audience. In ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ made in 1938, there is a mellow atmosphere associated with a traditional English school. In contrast, the ’49th Parallel’ made in 1941, has an atmosphere almost documentary in style. It was photographed during the early stages of the War, most of the exteriors being taken in Canada – these exteriors set the key which had to be matched in the shots taken in a British studio.  The 1947 film ‘So Well Remembered’ was set in a town in the North of England and, to create the atmosphere of squalor, artificial rain was freely used.

 

Some of the comments from the Q&A session following the lecture:

Q: What do you think of the use of the t-scale compared with the old f-value?

A: f-calibration is not definite enough and great errors have been found between different lenses whose f value marking is the same. The new method of calibrating lenses by transmission values will, I’m sure, be welcomed by all cameramen. Difference in aperture can still be due to play in the iris of the diaphragm.

Q: Can you expound on a simple formula for high-key and low-key lighting in footcandles?

A: If the director wants great depth I might set my lens stop at f5.6 and use 300 footcandles, whereas in the low-key set I would work at f2.8 with 80 footcandles, depending on the colour of the set – that’s a most important factor. For a high key of light, the ordinary fair face with normal makeup would demand 100 footcandles at f3. If you wanted the face in a dingy light you could work down to 50 or 60 footcandles at f3. 

Freddie Young (1902-1998)

Building a set at the Shepherd’s Bush Studios. At the Debrie camera are Freddie Young (left) and St. Aubyn Brown

 

Freddie Young entered the film industry in the silent era and, in 1917 he started working at Shepherd’s Bush, gaining his first credit as assistant cameraman on ‘Rob Roy’ directed by  W.P. Kellino in 1922.  By 1928 he was chief cameraman and, in 1929 Herbert Wilcox, largely ignorant of the technical aspects of film craft, placed Freddie under contract to his company British and Dominions, leading to his first solo credit in 1930. Any visual flair in Wilcox’s films of the 1930’s was allegedly due to Young’s inventiveness and technical skill. his first use of Technicolor was in one reel of Wilcox’s ‘Victoria the Great’ in 1937.

He worked from 1922 to 1985 on more than 130 feature films and several television productions. His many awards include an OBE in 1970 and Oscars for ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – 1963, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ – 1966 and ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ – 1971, as well as the ASC International Award, a BAFTA Academy Fellowship, four BSC Best Cinematography Awards and a Golden Globe in 1963. 

He invented  the process of pre-exposing colour film (pre-fogging) to mute the colours, giving the ability to alter the look of colour photography to suit the subject. This was first used on ‘The Deadly Affair’ directed by Sydney Lumet in 1966 and was the first British cinematographer to film in Cinemascope.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on May 3, 2012 in How It All Began

 

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4 responses to “Motion Picture Photography

  1. Hal Smith

    May 4, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Nice, thank you for this brief look at Freddie Young’s career.

     
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