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Doctor Who as Lighting U.

We have a rule in the Hobby household. If the kids can get ready for bed quickly enough, we get to watch an episode of Doctor Who together. It is one of those rare shows that is equally enjoyed by every member of our family—including two middle-aged parents, a 12-year-old boy and a 14-year-girl.

That alone is remarkable. And as good as the show is, I've lately found myself watching it for the lighting as much as the imaginative story lines. A look at perhaps the most Strobist-y show on the TV dial, below.


It's Bigger on the Inside

For the uninitiated, a couple of things. The TARDIS (which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space) is essentially a machine in which The Doctor is able to travel across space and time. The exterior of the TARDIS is seen just above; the interior is seen at top. The Doctor is a Time Lord, and various things are revealed about his history through the course of the series.

I won't waste space here duplicating previous efforts at describing the show. Hit IMDB and Wikipedia to learn more. But suffice to say that without the limits of linear space and time (and with a Doctor who can regenerate into another form) the potential plot lines for the show are essentially limitless.

We're playing catch up, watching on demand via Netflix Streaming and are presently in Season 5 (c.2010). So we are traveling in time, too, I guess.

Legions of fans throughout the world attest to the fact that the show stands on its own. But I also have grown to love it for its no-fear approach to lighting. At first, it head me in the face like a baseball bat. I had never seen anything like it, via TV or cinema. Love it or hate it (and I was not sure at first) you can't ignore the lighting in Doctor Who.

Now five years in, the lighting on almost everything else I watch seems boring by comparison. They do so much with light on this show. I suspect they accomplish many cinematic looks on a TV budget that would otherwise be impossible without having developed a language to their lighting on the show.

The storytelling is equally brilliant. And together, the two make it must-watch TV for me—and for the rest of my family, but not for all of the same reasons.

An Ernest Approach to Light

Much of the visual language of Doctor Who is down to cinematographer (AKA Director of Photography) Ernest "Ernie" Vincze. He helmed 38 episodes over the period from 2005-2009. Included among those was Blink, a screen grab from which is seen above. Blink may well be the most creative and imaginative single episode of TV that I have ever seen.

You watch in wonder as they manipulate you more with creativity than brute force (or Cameron-esque resources). I won't spoil it other than to say they use such simple devices as time and light to steamroll you with tension and suspense.

Doctor Who is a visual tour de force. And once it has grabbed you as a lighting photographer you are doubly hooked compared to the typical viewing fan.

I have learned so much about light by critically watching this show. I can't recommend it enough, both as something to study and a show to simply enjoy. I am just now realizing this as I type this post, but if Heisler lit a TV show that show would be Doctor Who.

The Doctor Who stills shown here are not necessarily all from episodes done by Vincze, but his DNA is definitely present throughout. As I was researching him (and trying, unsuccessfully, to contact him) I came across a BBC web page wherein he talked about his philosophy of light.

Selected quotes are below. For more, see the BBC page.

"Light is beautiful. Light reveals the world to us. Light permeates our reality at every scale of our existence. Light is a carrier of beauty, a giver of life."

"Light is amazing. Light sets our biological clocks. Light is craved by the body and soul. It triggers in our brain the sensation of colour. Light feeds us and it inspires us with specials like rainbows, sunsets, Northern Lights."

"Light can be gentle or violent, living or dead, clear or misty, hot or dark and sensual. Light can be straight or slanting, subdued or bright, poisonous or calming."

"Apart from technical, there are no rules. You have to trust your instinct and the knowledge accumulated over a lifetime."

"My starting concept is stark blackness. From then on I build up the lighting to complement the storyline, narrative, the actors, composition and depth. Depth is an art in itself. It complements the lighting and it helps guide the viewer's focus and attention to where the director wants it."

Cool stuff, huh?

So, anyone else out there intrigued/inspired by the lighting in Doctor Who? What are your thoughts?

And for any of you who have yet to discover the show, I am jealous. Many nights await—either alone or with the family—as you travel in time and space and attend a lighting class, all once.


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