I recently picked up a copy of 'Masters of Light' (1984), a collection of interviews with famed 70s and 80s cinematographers compiled by Larry Salvato and Dennis Schaefer. Many of these great cameramen came from documentary backgrounds, and preferred shooting with little to no artificial light. Here are the biggest tips I picked up from their conversations.
Location: choose locations that light themselves, even if you are planning on having some artificial light to complement the location. This means looking at floor space for the scene to play out and crew to move around, as well as windows (if any) and fixtures that can be switched out such as overhead lights. Colour temperature is important as well - does the space give off a cooler or warmer hue?
Practicals: (i.e. light sources that are in the frame) are very useful. These could include bedroom lamps, a fireplace, corridor lights or anything that is already in the space that you could either use as a reference for light direction, or switch out to change the hue or strength.
Reflectors: more often than not, you can get away with minimal lighting if you remember to bring along reflective surfaces that can create a fill light or eliminate a shadow. These are extremely useful to create depth in your composition, as amateur films are often spotted a mile away with very flat lighting and unwanted shadows.
Blue Hour and Magic Hour: Blue Hour is the short window of time after the sun goes down (or before it comes up) where the sky is still colorful, but the sun is not visible. And Magic Hour of course, is the hour leading up to sunset or just after sunrise. Terrence Malick’s movies, for example, are almost exclusively shot during these hours with no supplemental lighting.
Contrast: one of the most important aspects of a composition is balance. Moving objects around in the frame and adding/subtracting small elements of a set can make a huge difference in terms of adding colour to a shot, or vice versa. These can help play off elements of a frame that are too present or not present enough, such as a painted wall or an actor’s costume.
The Godfather look: contrary to popular belief, Gordon Willis did not under-light the Godfather movies in their famous ‘silhouette’ scenes. Instead, he lit subjects using practicals and his usual setup, but under-exposed his film slightly to give an illusion of darkness and silhouette. This means he retained contrast between the subject and his environment, but also made it look darker than it actually was.
In these strange times, here is a list of my favourite links and tutorials I have used over the years, making short films and editing videos. Please share if you think this could be useful, and let me know if you can recommend any more.
Ryan Connolly's Film Riot: This vlog was created by indie filmmaker Ryan Connolly precisely to teach amateurs and semi-pros how to build their skills from the ground up. Covering everything from camera reviews, to practical shooting advice and post production, it's a goldmine. What I love most about his approach is the 'trial and error' process. Connolly and his gang don't just preach at you, they try out their ideas in actual films and share the results. Connolly's enthusiasm is hard to resist, and the channel's exhaustive content is amazing.
Philip Bloom's Blog: Renowned camera operator, editor and director Philip Bloom possesses an impressive array of camera reviews, shooting tips and gear recommendations on his blog. He also offers advice on working with LUTs, grading footage from different cameras and shooting in actual locations. I like Bloom's straightforward style and in-depth videos that test out gear in real conditions.
Vashi Visuals: Hollywood film editor Vashi Nedomansky (Sharknado, Deadpool) has created a fantastic resource for editors. Focused on his Adobe workflow, he clarifies what larger projects can be like and even includes great tools such as the Premiere Pro project template he used to edit Deadpool. Nedomansky is so useful, he even includes a 'freebies' section on his website sharing exactly the kind of free downloads you might need. He is very dedicated to sharing tips and insights, and remains open in terms of showing his workflow to others.
Roger Deakins' Blog: Deakins needs no introduction. His blog adopts quite a different format to Bloom or Connolly's in the sense that it is a forum, with members asking questions about certain aspects of cinematography, in the context of shooting and production. What is great about this informal style is that you get real, practical advice from someone who has worked on some of the world's greatest movies. His writing style is frank, to the point and humble.
Celtx: We all know scriptwriting is often the most difficult part of the process. This isn't made any easier when professional software such as Final Draft often costs $99 and upwards. Celtx is a free tool that allows you to write scripts that are professionally formatted, and share your ideas and work with others. Features on the free plan are basic but they allow you to get the job done, i.e. write your script, share it with someone and export to PDF.
Studiobinder: Here is another great resource if you're looking to save time. Studiobinder contains a a vast array of resources such as Call Sheet or Script Treatment templates, all in a Google Docs format that is easy to use straight away. They are mostly industry-standard and can really help your production look more professional when working with a tiny budget or amateur crew.
Canva: This is a great, simple tool to create posters, flyers and invites on the go. Complex software such as Photoshop can often be overkill when all you need is a simple poster for your student film or a business card. The in-built templates are great and can save you a lot of time if you're left to create visual assets all by yourself.
Free Music Archive: You might not always have budget left to create a custom score for your personal video or short film. This online archive contains lots of royalty-free music you can use in your work, as long as it's non-commercial and you attribute the main artist. It's saved me more than once.
Petrucci Music Library: Similarly to the Free Music Archive, this library contains lots of public domain works performed by school bands, military orchestras or charities that don't require you to contribute financially, as long as your film is not for profit and you attribute them.